Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Be Regular and Orderly in Your Inbox

Marissa Skudlarek: quoting Flaubert because she can.

What attributes make a person a successful theatrical producer? Do you need to have a keen eye for new talent? The ability to raise buckets of money from wealthy investors? The larger-than-life showbiz flair of a Florenz Ziegfeld or a David Merrick?

All of those things may indeed be useful to an aspiring producer, but I propose that the real answer is far more humble. What you really need, if you’re going to produce a play in the 21st century, is a compulsion to read and respond to your emails as quickly as possible. Oh, and a fanatical love for Excel spreadsheets doesn’t hurt, either.

Auditions for my play Pleiades are happening next Monday and Tuesday, and already I’m fielding six or seven Pleiades-related emails a day, a number that I can only expect to increase as the production process goes on. I’m having actors email me to schedule an audition slot, and I vowed to myself that I’d do my best to respond to all of their emails within 24 hours of receipt. The people that I will potentially be working with deserve my respect and my prompt response — they don’t deserve to be left hanging. But I also instituted this 24-hour rule as a way of ensuring my own sanity. Because you know what’s the only thing worse than having seven un-answered emails in your inbox at the end of a day? Having fifty un-answered emails in your inbox at the end of a week.

I derive satisfaction from my obsessive email-management habits: responding promptly and professionally, categorizing and then archiving every email I send. Still, while I say that I do these things in order to reduce my stress level, I sometimes wonder if instead, it’s only causing me more stress. When I’m working on a big, email-heavy project like this, I become preoccupied and easily distracted. My thoughts race and I always have a vague, nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something important and will suffer the consequences. I also become irrationally annoyed with people who are more lackadaisical when it comes to email and online communications. If you’re no longer using a certain email address, shut it down entirely. If you’re an actor and you have a Facebook account, check your messages regularly, and don’t forget that elusive “Other” inbox, because someone could be using Facebook to offer you a part or to gauge your interest in a project. If you need a few days to think about something, a brief “I got your message; let me respond more fully in a few days” email is never unwelcome or amiss.

Sometimes I feel like my relationship with email is healthier than it’s ever been before, because I’m always getting better at managing my inbox and quickly responding to messages. And sometimes I wonder if I’m developing some kind of disordered, addictive relationship to my inbox. Just as an anorexic feels that no matter how skinny she gets, she’s never thin enough; so I feel that no matter how promptly I send and respond to emails, it can never be quick enough.

In thinking about my email management habits, I feel most keenly the divide between me-as-playwright and me-as-producer. The way I write when I compose plays is so different from the way I write and respond to emails, it’s like they’re coming from two different people. Playwright-Marissa takes her time, lets her mind wander, sets aside lengthy chunks of time to work on a specific scene or problem. Producer-Marissa is all business, a machine almost, copying and pasting and categorizing and making entries on spreadsheets and trying not to let the effort get to me.

Maybe that’s the right way to handle things. Maybe it’s good to create a divide between the dreamy, messy artist part of me and the methodical, efficient producer part of me. (I am a Cancer with Capricorn rising: outwardly businesslike, inwardly sensitive.) Other artists have done the same; as Flaubert put it, “Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres” — that is, “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.”

That aphorism comes from a letter Flaubert wrote to Gertrude Tennant. If only my emails were that wise and elegant.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and compulsive emailer. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or follow @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

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