I knew it.
I always knew it, but I kept telling myself it wasn’t true. I have been in denial for years, until Mead Hunter brought home to me the horrible truth:
I’m too polite.
Being my mother’s daughter, and thus brought up as a proper, tea-drinking, Catholic-school-attending, antique collecting young lady like all the women in my mother’s family, that’s just how I’ve always been. It never occurred to me until this afternoon, during my second session with Mead – my genius editor/playwriting guru extraordinaire – that it had an effect on my writing. (Or really any effect on my life except that I can never say no when someone asks me to help with something and it made it very difficult to shake off that creepy guy who stalked me freshman year of college.)
“Everyone in this play talks the way real people talk in polite conversation,” Mead said. “Nobody interrupts each other or ignores each other. If someone asks someone a question, that person answers the question. It’s too polite.”
Hmmmm. This got the wheels turning. See, the main character, Molly, is kind of a brat. Or at any rate she’s SUPPOSED to be. She drinks, she smokes, she swears, she’s covered in tattoos, she’s purposefully antagonistic . . . so the idea is that throwing a person like that right smack into the middle of a Benedictine monastery, where she’s surrounded by monks and priests, creates a reasonable amount of conflict and drama. Right? Except not so much. Or, I mean, it DOES, but I think Mead’s point was it could do even MORE. He pointed out, quite reasonably, that there are times when she’s having a conversation with someone where, realistically, she has no reason to sit there and listen nicely and then respond – even when her response is bitchy. So I’m having to go back through and think really carefully about where she is mentally and emotionally . . . in every scene, what’s keeping her from just getting up and walking away?
Here’s a good example. There’s a scene Mead and I talked about where Molly’s jerk ex-boyfriend calls. The scene’s way too long, which we both knew. But it’s also not totally realistic. The guy is a jerk. He needs to be introduced so the audience knows who he is when he reappears later, but we know he’s a jerk, and SHE knows he’s a jerk, so why does she talk to him for a page and a half? Why? Because Claire’s too polite. But first of all, and this is the thing that hit me today – why would she even pick up the phone? She ran away to the monastery to get away from this guy. Why does she answer her cell when she knows it’s him? Okay. Think, Claire, think! The only plausible reason Mead and I came up with is this – he’s been calling her nonstop and she finally picks up the phone to tell him to stop calling. So maybe she picks up the phone, says “Stop calling me,” and he only gets a few lines of whining and wheedling and begging her to come back before she hangs up – although he does have to get her mad enough to throw her phone out the window, which is important in setting up what happens next.
So here’s the politeness problem. I, Claire Willett, would never ever hang up on someone, even if I hated them. I would just feel icky doing it. But in all of my (brief) writing career, Molly is the first character I’ve ever written who is like 100% not me. I can’t use any of my own experiences to guide how she would behave or react. In fact, maybe what I should do is think, “What would my mother tell me to do in this situation?” and then do totally the opposite thing. That could devolve into a mad anarchic world where everyone goes around wearing dresses over pants and making their beds without hospital corners, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take.
Mead’s other concern about the politeness thing is what it does to the rhythm of the play. When you get the tennis-match thing going – people bouncing dialogue back and forth – it can become too smooth . . . or “lulling,” as he succinctly put it. And I think Molly needs to be more rough around the edges, a little more jagged. I think the monks can talk that way to each other sometimes, but Molly is in all but two scenes so the play needs to feel a little more like her. So I’m trying to go through and think, what keeps her listening? What’s going on in her head while people talk to her? Is she pissed? Is she totally checked out or ignoring them? At what point does each individual character earn her attention? I think I just need to put myself inside her head a little bit, and go through with the red pen line-by-line and think about everything that is said to her, and what a realistic response would be. Hopefully this may lead to some more cuts too.
P.S. Mead was appropriately pleased with me that the final count was THIRTY-THREE PAGES shorter than the previous draft. I cut a whole character (goodbye, Haley, we hardly knew ye) and am discerning whether to give the axe to another one. It’s always good news when you’re fairly sure that this time your play will not go over 2.5 hours. (Sorry, everyone who came to Upon Waking, my play in Fertile Ground last year, and had to leave early to make it to the late-nights. I swear to God you’re out of the woods this time. If I’m really good, I’ll give you time to go get a cocktail first!)
We’re at a place now where there’s lots of nitpicky specific cuts, which I like. It gives me lots of concrete things to think about. We’re also really trying to look at transitions . . . one of my MAJOR weaknesses as a writer is summed up by this comment from my father, who saw Upon Waking in January: “It feels like it ends like ten different times.” Well-said, Ken Willett. Basically what he meant – and what Mead has been telling me and I have been trying SO SO HARD YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU GUYS to fix – is that scenes in Claire Willett plays tend to come to what could be a nice logical end . . . and then continue for like one billion years. Or, well, okay, maybe more like a page. Or even a couple lines. But things could end a great deal sooner than they actually do, almost every single time. So I’m trying to go through each scene, and the act breaks too, and look at where it stops, and see if there’s a natural point BEFORE that where it can stop without everything having to be, like, wrapped up all pretty and tied with a bow. Can someone ask a question and then BOOM next scene before the question is tidily answered? Does that make it more dramatic, in a “Gunshot! Immediate blackout!” kind of way and then you rely on the beginning of the next scene to give you the rest of the information? So many questions.
Anyway, so those are the big things. As always, Mead is brilliant at pointing out things I totally don’t notice until he mentions them and then I’m like, “Oh yeah. Duh.” So right now I think everything boils down to creating tension – in the rhythm of the dialogue, in the behavior of the characters, in where each scene begins and ends . . . which means I’m going to have to think more in terms of drama and conflict than polite conversation.