WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: redefining a writer’s rule for myself
Whatever name I’ve made in performance so far, I’ve made it performing my self, writing and presenting plays that are deeply and unmistakably reflective of me and my own lived experiences in sex and relationships. If you bring the Smut Slam and storytelling into it, then that’s even more sloppy, raw, real-life stuff that I just fling out into the audience. I get awards for it, and good reviews, but it’s just me and stuff that I wanted to share, and that’s what I’m known for.
I did not go into theatre for therapeutic reasons, honest to god I didn’t.
I can see why it might look like it, though, because I always thought I had to adhere to the writer’s edict to “write what you know.” For a long time, when I considered writing characters that were quite different from me, performing characters that were NOT me, that had only the remotest connection to me, I just flinched away. I can’t write that, I thought, I don’t know what’s true about that person. I can’t pretend to be this person, that’s just faking it. Not being a formally trained performer, I was terrified at the prospect of not being able to fall back on my own personality on stage, if I forgot my lines, if I lost touch with the mood. And if I wrote about myself, and stayed true to my own memories and feelings, then no one could argue with me about my own interpretation of those things. No one could critique that. I would be on unassailable ground. At least, that’s what I thought, which turned about to be not true on a couple of different levels.
First of all, turns out my experiences and feelings and beliefs are definitely assailable! For Phone Whore, certainly, I have gotten lots of flack from people who think that my personal beliefs are problematic, or enabling, or disgusting. And across my performances, putting my life out there is a magnet for those who just … can’t approve of my life. I have the cold comfort of knowing that they can’t actually call me a liar about my own feelings, but ad hominem attacks are totally fair game, apparently.
And then … well, I had worried about writing other characters, that they wouldn’t be “true”, that they couldn’t be “real,” or real enough. I forced myself to face up to that in writing and performing The Pretty One (which is being performed this year in Houston and Nashville). Turns out that’s just the nature of fictional characters: THEY AREN’T ACTUALLY PEOPLE. They are MADE UP. They aren’t real. There is no one person that characters necessarily have to be true to. This is not journalism; there is no fact-checking to follow. Good characters, characters that audiences feel are “real” or honest or true, only need to be written in a way that is internally consistent, and externally identifiable with the way the world works, the way that people work. They need to be true in the broader definition of true: not factually accurate, but simply believable in their own created universe.
Yes, that means I have to have generated that universe, through creating backstory and spending a lot of daydream time in their heads. Performing those characters, I need to soak them in and then bring them back out through body and voice, but I can do that, with the help of directors and watching what other performers do. In the end it’s just more work, and I can do that.
I’m entering a new era now, see. I’ve been wrestling with something deeper than work flow or fictional journaling as a character or movement blocking, and I think I’ve finally pinned it down: “writing what I know” doesn’t mean I have to write only about factual things from my own life. Please, spare me the “no shit, Sherlock”s. You can know things intellectually and still not really understand, until suddenly you do. I really don’t know why it took me so long. I got stuck in my own narrow definitions, perhaps owing to my work writing for newspapers. I was scared. Whatever the reason(s), I’m just glad that I finally got here, to the place where I really trust that, yes, I know more than my own self-centered history.
I know feelings, for example. I know lots of those. I know what it feels like to not know what I am going to say until I say it and then be horrified as the truth spills out in my own voice. I know what it feels like to believe that someone would hate me forever if they knew. I know what it feels like to bask in someone’s loving gaze, to writhe in the middle of the night because I can’t undo it, to step bravely forward into I-know-not-what, to be faced with a decision that feels like too much but must be made.
These are moments of emotional truth that bloom or pierce many people’s lives. And while I may not want to bring my own specific experience of those moments to the writing and/or performance of a particular theatrical work, I know them. They inform what I do. I can explore them to say something important and, hopefully, beautiful. And that really is all that’s required to “write what I know.”
New era, indeed! If you want to support all the powerful ways that I am bringing truth into the light, patronize me over on Patreon! (Just click the link below.)