Higher Education: Grappling for Writers

Barbara Jwanouskos, working on keeping up.

So, last week I talked about the benefits of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. And I guess I’m still having feelings about that, so I thought I’d wrestle with them a bit more in this article.

This is the second week of New Works rehearsals where a couple of my fellow Dramatic Writing candidates and I are now seeing these thesis plays launch off the page. It’s been such an interesting process so far. My thesis play is called “The Imaginary Opponent” and deals with how a kung fu school’s community responds when violence breaks out between its students. So, obviously, there’s a lot of martial arts in it and also stage combat/violence.

I’m working with MFA Directing candidate, Quin Gordon, who has stressed from the beginning that because the physicality of the play, it’s important that the we engage in physical activities like running, kung fu and tai chi. Folks who read the Theater Pub blog frequently probably already know that I train in these martial arts disciplines, so that aspect of it, is not a problem. Running, however, is a whole different mental battle.

I’m an active person, but I’ve never been a great runner. When we go out as a group, I am huffing and puffing away, while the others zoom up ahead.

Wait for me, guys!

Wait for me, guys!

My stress over running doesn’t come from a physical standpoint, I get out of breath, but other than that, it doesn’t hurt me to run. In fact, it feels surprisingly great! And it’s not over being competitive. I mean come on, these guys are in their early 20s and are active from sun up to beyond sun down. There’s no need to compete. I’m just happy that I can even DO the route we do.

I think it comes from a place of feeling as if I should be able to do more. AHHH! But there, you see? It’s this whole ego perception thing because I know I’m working hard. I am trying my best. Maybe it’s easily bested by others, but it really is no big deal in the long run because probably the only thing I should be doing is what I already am minus the mental self-flagellation.

I could swim faster if we weren't on land!

I could swim faster if we weren’t on land!

I thought of the mental battle I’m having with running today while in a playwriting workshop with guest artist, Madeleine George. We were doing a lot of intellectual and creative writing/story generation exercises that gave me the same uncomfortable feeling at points that running does. I’d think, “Oh, I can’t write that down, that doesn’t make sense!” And yet, one of the things Madeleine wanted us to work with is not censoring ourselves.

I even feel fairly good at this when it comes to writing. It’s part of how I understand my process. I’ve built it into the way I teach playwriting to undergraduates. My first drafts are messy and don’t really make sense and have way too much stuff in them. But I can let the writing just pour out of me. I’ve been struggling with this a bit more this week however. I spent so long trying to write something new to bring to workshop on Monday, and that really came out was a bunch of non-plays and non-scenes and then about 16 pages of something new.

So, Madeleine’s exercise took a bit of mental grappling for me to stick to task. I found myself asking questions that I would know the answer to had I been leading others in writing. In the moment, I started to feel self-doubt creeping up on me. All the questions really centered around self-consciousness.

Am I doing it right?

Yep. There’s no wrong way.

The more that I pushed myself to keep going with the writing exercises, you could feel things changing and growing. That’s what I’m starting to really dig about running. For me, there are a lot of moments where I feel physically uncomfortable, but ultimately, I get into a groove while I’m doing it, and things just start to flow. It’s the same with writing by working with ideas and strategies beyond my comfort level. I come across pieces of my brain I never knew about.

And that can sometimes be really beautiful.

Where will this path lead?

Where will this path lead?

One comment on “Higher Education: Grappling for Writers

  1. Running I love – it’s when I do my most and best thinking. It’s finding a regular writing habit that’s a challenge.

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