This happens more than I would like to admit: I will pick up a play or screenplay after some time away from it, read it through and immediately think to myself- what the hell?? What was I even thinking? I want to tear it all apart and build it all back up again – which I usually do.
Of course there’s an easy explanation for this: I’m not very good. And then there’s a more complicated explanation: this is a natural part of the process. You make a mess. Get some ideas down first and then give it a shape. And then repeat and repeat, logging hours and letting momentum build until you have something called a play.
But this takes time. Valuable, precious time spent running around naked in the wilderness of your own thoughts. And running around naked in the wilderness of your thoughts does not pay the bills – for most of us (click here and of course here for exceptions).
I can’t wait for the day when I can retire to my cabin on a mountaintop and pound out the next Proof. You hear these stories all the time. Arthur Miller wrote Act One of Death of a Salesman in less than a day. Martin McDonagh wrote his acclaimed Leenane Trilogy (Beauty Queen, Skull in Connemara, The Lonesome West) and FOUR MORE plays in the space of nine months.
I’m wary of stories like these – from established writers or from my friends. It’s mythmaking. For most of us, a good play or screenplay takes time. You cannot skip steps. You cannot rush the process. Right? At best, for the gifted and experienced, it just goes faster: less drafts, less time.
I can only imagine what I’ll feel looking back five years, ten years at the work I’m writing today. Despite my very best intentions to make it active and alive, it probably won’t seem that way.
Martin McDonagh seems to agree:
I’m constantly bored with what I’ve done before. I always think it’s too weak. Everything I’ve done so far, even Beauty Queen, which I respect as a good play, and The Cripple, I could do it 20 times better. For me, and for people like me who like great, visceral, strange, tough films, I could do so much more from this position. I could tell a hundred better stories in the same kind of style with the same motivations as I have been doing up to this point. I guess I might as well hang on for a while and do it.
The only time I’m really happy is re-reading what I’ve handwritten the day before. Re-reading it and being surprised that I actually wrote that. That’s sounds pretty arrogant, but there’s a joy in that, flipping back the last two hand-written pages and being surprised. I think it probably gives me more joy than anything else I’ve done up to this point.
Small victories. Long war.