Higher Education: Drop And Give Me Twenty

Barbara Jwanouskos is back in grad school and telling it like it is…

It’s been a hard week… and I still have one more full day.

This week our advisor arranged something special for us since he was taking an out of town workshop for librettists, which he had been commissioned for. It was a week of writing assignments that ranged from long and arduous to short, but still intense. He called it “bootcamp week”.

Ugh… It feels like boot camp.

On the first day, we walked into our 9:30 class and were given a piece of paper with instructions and a poem. We were told that this week, the class period would be a “silent” workshop and that we should disconnect our computers from the internet. I believe everyone had a slightly different assignment, but mine was to think of the most intense scene in my thesis play and then to write a monologue for my main character where she says exactly what she’s thinking and feeling – and she does all this for at least two pages straight. Oh, and I had 15 minutes to do so. Go.

I think I got about two pages in, but didn’t finish. Then, came the next sheet of paper. This time I was to think about my thesis play and have each character tell the story in their own unique voice. I was given til the end of class to complete it. That was about two and a half hours of straight writing. I didn’t finish that one either – I guess my characters had a lot to say about the events of my thesis play because I got about three characters in (of my five character play) and then the class was done.

Oh, believe me, I was writing the whole time. It was pretty intense, but somehow a lot of what came out helped me access parts of my play that I had no idea about. It helped me understand the nuances of the characters and what they saw as important and how they felt about it. My fingers were flying and afterwards, my hands were certainly aching.

That was Day One.

On Day Two, we were all dreading what was going to happen. We were told that even though we didn’t have class, we still would have emails giving us assignments for those days. We speculated that it was another three hour block of writing our thesis play. What we got was an email saying to not write at all – to not even think about our plays, just draw a picture of the play. “Or, better yet, set your alarm for 4 AM and then draw a picture of your play.”

What?! Ugh…

Well, I really wanted to see what this would bring up – if anything. So, I tried the 4 AM version. I went to bed late that night trying to work on other assignments and chatting with my long-distance boyfriend, since late at night is the only time that aligns with both our schedules and our time zones. I set my alarm – it was probably around 1:45 AM already when I did so, and put a notebook and a pencil next to my bed. I was going to make this as easy as possible for myself. There was no way I was going to get out of bed looking for all these materials at 4 AM.

My picture involved lots of squiggly lines and stick figures. It’s the last scene of my play. All of the characters are in shock. There were lots of unhappy faces on the stick figures. I used a dim, little nightlight in order to vaguely see what I was doing, but after I felt like it was complete. I fell back asleep, only to be woken up at 7 AM again to get to playwriting class on time.


Day Three. We get our poem of the day and our next assignment in silent workshop. It’s to re-write our thesis play in a completely different style. Go.

Well, I wrote the whole time, but I had to laugh. About a page into this super stylized new thesis play, I realized that “Actually, all this would be better if it was sung…” So, I added a note to the top of the play, “All this should be sung.” And so, now my kung fu play about aggression is an opera?? Out of nowhere? How did that happen?!

I mean, it’s not like I’m going to keep everything I write or discovered this week, but writing in a different style freed me up to again see things that I hadn’t noticed before. It was the same story, but just told different. Told from a different angle. Told with a different aesthetic.

In song, I felt like my characters could say exactly how they were feeling. They could say exactly what wasn’t fair or right about the situation they were in. They could become nostalgic and relate to each other with just a simple word. I heard the repetition of their phrases, almost like a musical riff coming back and looping itself. It sounded very important at times, and not so much at others.

I ended up finishing that play – though we were given til midnight to finish the new version. I felt like maybe it should have been longer – it was only about 28 pages, but it felt hefty and complete. I figured I’d just go with that feeling and not worry about what I thought it should be. Just let it rest.

Day Four, our assignment was to cut our new version down to one page. I found it not too difficult to get it down to eight pages, and then it became an intense battle of wits. Do I need this line or this line more? What about this stage direction? Can’t I just change the margins??

I finished up only to realize I had to go back into it because two characters had no lines. Man! What does that say! But, now everyone has at least one line. I have to say, though, I’m now identifying a problem I have with this thesis play – and that’s that I have a character that doesn’t really have a purpose except that he’s new and that’s how I get exposition out. I’m sorry, MAC! I will give you a better role! I’ll figure out a way to make you count! Don’t worry!


I still have one more email waiting for me. I’m not so much dreading it, but I’m exhausted. Sure, there were other projects that came up this week that made it particularly difficult what with the sleep deprivation and jam-packed schedules, etc. All I can say is at least I tried.

What is that Buddhist saying? “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Hard work feels good. And it’s essential really.

I certainly feel accomplished with what I’ve pushed myself to achieve in my writing practice this week. It was inspiring to see that I could go deep and just like that write a new play (or opera). I have to remember that. Because sometimes even a sentence feels like a chore. I guess my lesson was: who cares how it feels? Just do it. You’ll get something out of it.

So, now Day Five is here. I’m curious what the email brings…