Notes from a Teaching Artist

Notes from a Teaching Artist: The Writer’s Voice

 

IMG_3239Once a month, expect a blog entry for Notes from a Teaching Artist, a new Brelby Buzz series from my noisy brain that casts a wide net, covering topics related to educational theatre and theatre artistry.

I hope you’ll participate in this monthly series by posting comments on Facebook, by catching me in person at Brelby, or by contacting me. I can be reached at john.perovich@asu.edu.

Let’s jump in!

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Welcome to “The Writer’s Voice,” the next installment of Notes from a Teaching Artist. This month’s entry will focus on some of my concerns related to teaching playwriting and facilitating writer’s groups. I recently lead the first meeting for playwrights in Brelby’s production intensive and facilitated Write Club’s first meeting—a new group for playwrights that meets monthly. There are a myriad of thoughts on my mind whenever I work with writers at any stage of their craft. The largest concern that’s been on my mind lately is how do you cultivate a writer’s voice while teaching a craft that—at times—can be prescriptive? I’ll offer two examples that cover these areas from recent work at Brelby.

What is a “writer’s voice”? That term gets thrown around a lot. It may also be called a “writer’s style” or the “original voice” of the author. I define the “writer’s voice” as a playwright’s particular approach to writing for the stage. To take that further, I believe a “writer’s voice” is the most unedited, rawest, and most natural writing from a playwright. If a playwright weren’t thinking about how clever she needed to be or if she allowed herself to continue to write without deleting dialogue along the way, what would she be left with?

It is too easy for writers to get in their own way. Often times, I find that writers place limits on themselves. Writers try to have scenes “do” a certain thing or “accomplish” something that is perceived to be important. What becomes of the writing when it is constantly being edited and censored along the way? Another way to think about it…remember coloring as a child? Remember choosing whatever color you wanted, no matter if it made any sense? Something called out to you—or you didn’t think too much about it—and you just went with it? I think writers give up their voice in favor of things that “make sense”—they use the “right” crayon.

When working with playwrights, particularly new writers, I do my best to focus on exercises that allow them to get out of their own way. Many of the exercises and activities we do involve tapping into the subconscious. I believe that the subconscious allows writers to get closer to their original voice. None of us see and experience the world in quite the same way. We do not share the same thoughts or emotions. We might share similar experiences, but we process them in ways that are distinct. Therefore, I try to use activities that allow writers to turn their brains off and react on instinct. Once that material has been generated, it’s fascinating to reflect on what it might mean to the individual writer. What possibilities now exist because of this unique writing that seemingly appeared out of nowhere?

One incredible playwright that I worked with encouraged me to tell the editor in my brain to shut up. “It’s not his turn,” my friend urged. “You have to let the subconscious do its work—tell the part of your brain that censors you to shut up. Seriously—shut up!” It sounds childish, but it’s been so important to me as a writer to stifle the impulse to edit while writing. I believe this lesson has also become important to those writers I work with.

During the Write Club meeting, I caught myself offering feedback that seemed fairly prescriptive. Sometimes I catch myself doing this, but there is usually another writer in the room that will call me out on it. What does prescriptive feedback sound like? Essentially, it’s feedback along the lines of “you might want to consider how x, y, and z could strengthen your play.” Does reading that make you a little nauseous? How could anyone tell another person how to write his play? Yes, I know the argument. Even so…in the moment, I was definitely saying it.

Prescriptive feedback goes well against the grain of cultivating a writer’s voice, but when I’m with a group of more experienced writers, I’m more inclined to offer this kind of feedback. It is up to the writer to determine whether or not they will incorporate or even value what I say, but I do believe it is important to offer this feedback. Why? Writers join groups to form a community to help hold them accountable for their work. It’s difficult to write in a bubble. I believe groups are at their best when they are honest—and that goes both ways. If someone is offering an opinion and someone challenges that opinion…that’s great! I think that makes for a healthy group. Multiple views are a good thing for a writer to hear!

If a playwright is serious about their craft, they are going to get feedback of all kinds from all people during the course of developing their work. Listening to feedback and evaluating its worth is an essential skill for playwrights to develop—it is a critical skill.

Some questions for your consideration…

  • How do you define a “writer’s voice”?
  • Do you believe in prescriptive feedback? Helpful? Not helpful?
  • What is the best way to offer feedback? Receive feedback?
  • Do you ever find that you censor yourself while writing? How do you work with that?

Please consider posting a response to any of these questions or about anything from the blog that sparked your interests.

The production intensive is in full swing and will have a performance in April of 3 new ten-minute plays! Write Club meets monthly—our next meeting is Saturday, February 27, from 12PM to 3PM at Shot of Java in Downtown Glendale.

As always, let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to write about by posting a comment or emailing me at john.perovich@asu.edu.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

– j

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