Thursday, July 19, 2012

It's What You Do not Where You Live

While cavorting around various Playwright websites and Twitter accounts, I noticed a particular trend among some writers and that is to attach a location to their vocation such as:
New York City Playwright!
OK. And? So?
Yes, I know, living in NYC affords you certain opportunities as a playwright such as...umm.. Ok yea, access to a plethora of independent theatre works, artists and other trendy inspirational fuel that setting up camp in Des Moines would not afford you.
All right, I get that, but still - does that make you a better writer?
I've known several people who declared their calling to be a writer. They immediately deem it necessary to decorate their writing desk with a bottle of bourbon and a pack of filterless cigarettes and dream of moving to NY or Paris. Because, you know, that's what writers do. That's how they roll.
Also, writers wear second-hand tweed sports coat with leather patches, chinos or a long black overcoat with a well-worn copy of a Kafka or Camus paperback in the pocket. Grow a beard and top it off with a beret. And then you need to hang out in coffee shops or better yet, outdoor cafes talking to other writers, exchanging witty literary jokes and criticisms about John Dos Passos and Henry Miller. Of course, however esoteric it gets, you pretend to understand. What's important at this point is to "look" like a writer and do and say "writer" things.

Yes, OK, I am profiling just a tad here, but the truth is - I have known (and still know) these people, these "writers". And what have they written you may ask? Go ahead, ask! Well, nothing yet, but believe you me, they do have the lifestyle down! Oh yes indeed! They are in love with the "look" and "lifestyle" of a self-declared artist, but do they love the actual art itself? Well, the truth is they're just "friends" right now.
Most have a play or a book they are working on and yes, they have been working on it for years. It's sitting in a shallow pile of papers on their desk. It's under the bourbon bottle right next to the ashtray.

And yes I admit it! I was one of those pretentious tchotchkes sitting around with my head full of Kerouac, Vonnegut, Herman Hesse, and Dostoevsky, sipping on Seagrams listening to Coltrane and Charlie Parker at an outdoor bistro in the West End of St. Louis, (which was only a few blocks from the apartment where Tennessee Williams had lived and based the location for "The Glass Menagerie" -how cool was that right? Because you know, proximity breeds talent.)
I could talk for hours about literature and even pretend I fully understood Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. Back in those days, I believed that's what writers did! (Which was everything but writing.) But hey, I had the lifestyle thing down. And sure, I dreamed of moving to New York, just so I could add that "brand" to my psyche.

I'm not sure when I woke up from that dream, but one day, I sat down and just started writing. No bourbon or smokes. No tweed and Chinos. No cafes and Coltrane. I just wrote.
And I discovered what I really loved was the actual process of writing. I enjoyed creativity and imagination. It didn't matter what I was wearing, drinking or really even really where I lived. After all, my creativity lived inside my mind, it didn't live in a particular city or have a specific lifestyle. Being a writer was being alone in a room putting thoughts down on paper, it really didn't matter what skyline loomed outside my window.
One of my old "artsy" friends from college named Jason Wells has done very well for himself as a screen actor and a playwright. No, he doesn't live in LA or New York, he lives in Chicago.

I know playwrights who live in Louisiana, Montana and yes even Des Moines. They all do very well because the bottom line is their talent and inspiration lives in their thoughts, not their city.

Of course I realize that generations of playwrights will still dream of living in New York and hanging out at Elaine's discussing Bergman with Woody, a small part of me is still in love with that fantasy, but really, I've moved on to being more than just "friends" with the art of writing than I am with the style of living.


  1. As a "New York playwright," I don't live in New York for the atmosphere or excitement or to sit around in coffee shops all day. I don't even like Woody Allen. I live there because that is where my valued collaborators live, without whom I could not do my work. Yes, you can write anywhere, but we're not writing novels. We're writing plays, which aren't finished until they are performed. Actors complete the gesture of my work, so I literally cannot work without them. My mentors, fellow writers, directors, and actors keep me honest, give me intelligent feedback, and keep me from getting lazy. I actually can't do it alone, which is what I LOVE about it. Development opportunities and writers' groups are more than fancy-sounding names to put on a resume; they are where I do my best work, not alone in my room, but seeing my plays move through time and space as they are written to do. I'm sure if I had chosen to build my home in Chicago or New Orleans or Austin, I'd feel the same way about the community of peers I found there. But I didn't. I live in the city with the highest concentration of working theatre artists in the world, and the main reason I stay year after year is because it is easier for me to find like-minded collaborators than it would be in say, Tucson. So please don't say that New York writers are just in love with the "style of living." The style of living sucks - most of us work 3-4 jobs all day, write into the wee hours, wake up and do it all again for the privilege to pay more than what you pay for your mortgage to in a rat-infested shoebox. We move here and live here and stay here for each other, and because we love the doing. We love the work.

  2. Removing my tendency for somewhat sarcastic generalization, I realize I should have been a tad more specific about the prompting of this post: this was based on actual people I knew at a specific time in my life. A group who wallowed in pretension - and eventually, I realized these people were more in love with the idea and aura than the reality and substance. Also there were some people I encountered who subscribed to the notion that geography is crucial to your vocation. Ergo seeing "New York" and "playwright" in posts triggered this memory and lead to this frustration (with those people I knew) and prompted this post.

    While you (anon) illustrate some specific benefits of being a playwright in New York - which is fine there are many benefits- the underlying point I was trying to make is in reality you can be a playwright anywhere. My other assertion is that what you wear, think, drink, smoke or talk about is just paraphernalia. It does not provide talent. (I did not mean to infer that all New York writers are only in love with the lifestyle.) I was trying to say that there are "some" people who are drawn to the fashion of 'being' an artist than actually producing anything artistic. Again - I have known quite a few.

    Yes I know, living in New York affords one access to many more events, theatre, mentors, actors and workshops relative to the craft than a playwright living in Tucson (or my case St. Louis) - but having said that - I can say I am fortunate enough to have a group of actors/writers/mentors who will read my work as well as a theatre group that produces my plays in front of an audience. I can see what works and what doesn't and I am allowed to make changes and rewrites along the way. I realize not every playwright living in my region has that luxury.

    The point beneath my hyperbole was simply as you said "love the work" - be sure that is what you are in love with - whether you want to be a writer, musician, mime, painter, pianist, playwright.. love the art first and foremost. If you are just in love with the lifestyle or a particular city that looks better associated with your name, you are doing it for the wrong reason. So to clarify, if a particular metropolis benefits your art and work - by all means, go forth and prosper. Just be sure your motives are fitting and not fashion.