A writer puts a word on a page and it becomes something else. The words – snow, blood, hair, for example – once typed, begin to quicken with possibility. Should the writer decide to delete this word, they are stamping on the seed. For a novelist and short story writer, the decision to kill or keep is taken in the privacy of whatever little corner or cave they happen to call their writing home. For a playwright it’s a much more public affair.
A novel or short story belongs to its writer – there is a connection that is almost physical. That connection begins with the conception of the novel and remains to the end of the writer’s life. There will be some minor changes of course, usually on the suggestion of an editor, but the essence of the novel remains intact and the decision to make such changes will ultimately be left in the hands of the writer.
A play is a different animal as I soon discovered when I set about writing Snow Angels. A play can’t wait to get away from its writer; it loves to be handled, punched, reshaped, fondled and cut by complete strangers. The moment your play goes into the first round-table read through, it is out of your hands. And there is nothing to be done except loosen your grip, then slowly let go. From then on out, you follow it like a parent at the edge of the playground, trying not to show your concern (but ready to jump in at the first hint of danger) because you know these strangers are necessary if your play is to have any chance of thriving.
So let’s take a look at some of these strangers and what can be expected from them
The most important is probably the dramaturg. A dramaturg (in case you don’t know, and I certainly didn’t) is a sort of uber-editor with a very big and very sharp pair of scissors. The person who tells you how long your play would take to stage (over five hours in my case). The person who shows you how to get from A to H without having to drag both actors and plot through B, C, D and E.
Next is the stage designer – the magician who seduces the audience into believing that the space they are looking at is not a square hole at one end of an auditorium but a real and unique world containing a story that is actually happening before their eyes – and in real time.
Then there’s the director; the director will have his or her own ideas about how the play should work, not all of which will tally with those of the writer. And of course, there are the actors. Flesh and blood people saying your words out loud, as if they’d gone and made them up themselves! Actors who will steal your characters and make them their own. It’s a daunting and terrifying experience. And yet…you accept it all; you cut when you are sent home to cut; you snip and trim and change and chop and chop and chop until the play has dissolved to a third of its original size. You do all that it takes, because you know that without this input and without all the opinions and the talent of others, your play couldn’t exist.
I am often asked to offer advice to new writers and my gold standard is this:
Stop reading like a reader; start reading like a writer.
Reading like a writer enables one to see how a novel is built; to look at the foundations, find the doors that open out onto the narrative. Notice when there’s been a change in tempo; consider the use of dialogue. It won’t turn you into a writer – God only knows how that particular warp comes about – but it will help you to learn by example and in that sense anyhow, is worth a dozen workshops or creative writing classes. When it comes to writing a play the same advice doesn’t seem to apply, although I certainly did try it. I read the text of plays I had seen and admired over the years and was dismayed to find how many of them seemed to lie flat and lifeless on the page. I went to the theatre – not as I usually do, as an audience member ready to be wooed, but as a would-be playwright searching for clues. But I found that each play was a living, shimmering thing that moved too quickly for my analytical eye.
In the end I decided that in order to get started, I would just have to rely on what I have always relied on: my ability to sit at a blank screen, take a deep breath and just….start typing words.
And so, I made Snow Angels – as I’ve made my novels and short stories – with bits taken from the bag of scraps I carry around in my mind: fragments of memory and light; glimpses of life I’ve noticed in passing. The occasional tightening of the gut. Whatever I’ve seen when I kicked over the rock. And of course, the first small stirrings…a sudden heavy snowfall in December 2011; the sound of the piano playing in the next room. An attempt to contact friends who were due to come to dinner – a voice telling me over and over – ‘the customer you are calling is out of range’. The snow now beginning to swell over the garden and crawl up the glass back door. Beautiful and lethal all at once.
Shadows began to take shape and shift in my mind. But I was working on something else then and wasn’t able take it on. I made a few notes and put them in a drawer. More than a year later, I pulled the notes out and read these words:
Snow. Three men. Trapped. One outsider. No food. No water. No phones. Ireland. Alcohol. Violence. Rabbit.
Rabbit! What rabbit? I don’t remember anything about a rabbit?
But there it was, in my own hand-writing – Rabbit. One word, and now the rabbit existed.
(c) Christine Dwyer Hickey
Snow Angels went on to play to full houses at The Project Arts Theatre in March 2014. It will be published by New Island in March 2015 – pick up your copy online here.