Athol Fugard On Playwriting IV

November 21, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

I think every writer has a special relationship with his most recent work. In my case that would be The Road to Mecca. Firstly, the process of writing it, creating it, the traumas or difficulties that you live through in order to get it written—those are close to you still. Also the most recent play says something about where you are in your life. It still needs a certain protection; it is very young. Its life has just been started, and you feel very paternal about it.

My most important tool is my notebook . . . . I jot down random images, thoughts, ideas, speculations, and a little bit of personal misery. It’s a five-finger exercise. Every one of my plays started off a long time before the actual writing took place as an image in those notebooks. There comes a point when one of these images from the past . . . . If it is the right moment, and if . . . there is a coincidence between the external and the internal, the things start happening. First I just free associate. It’s almost as if the seminal image has a certain magnetic power of its own that helps me focus on the things of daily living that relate to it. This is the first step. It usually results in an accumulation of ideas, scraps of dialogue, rough structures for scenes and a mass of paper. I can lift up that paper and feel its weight metaphorically and think, Yeah, there’s enough here now. Next it’s got to be ordered and organized. I never actually start to write a play . . . until I have completely structured the play. I have never started to write a play without knowing with total certainty what my final image is. Other writers work differently, I know. They say, Oh, the material did this to me, I got surprised, it sent me off in a different direction. That has never happened to me. While it may be a flaw, I am absolutely brutal about my disciplining of the material before I write the words page one and get to work.

It’s a very slow and painful process. I’m very conscious of how faltering the first few steps are, how much stalling and drowning in the blankness of paper there is. Nothing flows in my head. There have been occasions when I’ve found my head working away quite energetically with my hand a foot behind, watching in amazement. But there have never been sustained outpourings. If I’ve got three full pages done, longhand, that’s a good day. That’s a damn good day in fact. Sometimes there is nothing, or what I have written goes into the wastepaper basket. I tear up and throw away furiously when I write. I don’t accumulate a lot of paper. For something to stay on paper longer than two days it has to pass some very critical tests. I usually work through three drafts, longhand, in the course of writing a play; it takes about nine months.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates — and many more —  have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part V of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.


Marginalia

August 27, 2008

This Doodling Life

If you’re at all like me you love to write in the margins of books, or doodle there, or both. (And what’s the difference?) And if you are really, really like me, the marginal writing and/or doodling may or may not have anything to do with the text printed on that particular page, or in the book generally. Our mad jottings may be provoked by what the author has written, but in many cases—especially when it comes to the visual doodles—the connection, if any, will be all but undetectable. While reading the fascinating essays in The Writing Life, pictured here (click for a larger view), in addition to the usual underlinings and asterisk-starring, I found myself in some sort of creative zone and doing an instant doodle on five different pages. These quick images, thematically connected, will lead off the series in which I’ll present full pages of text on which I’ve sketched and/or written something, plus I’ll add speculative comments about what I think the image may or may not mean. I’ll also include comments on, and quotes from, the essay I was reading; a sort of short essay about the essay. And of course, as always, you’ll be encouraged to comment and make of it all what you will. The first Marginalia begins below.

The Dance Story

The ecstatic cartoon guy above may visually represent the feeling a man has while he’s in the “dance zone” at a wedding reception, fully in that happy moment and in sync with his partner and the music—or it may simply show him home alone and transported by rock and roll on the radio. If either situation is true, though, you may ask what it has to do with Jonathan Raban’s essay “Notes From The Road,” on the final page of which we find the image? Why did the essay reader (me) choose to doodle that particular figure in that particular spot? Or was it a conscious choice at all?

The Raban essay, collected in The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think and Work, has not one word to say about dance, dancers or dancing. The essay is, for the most part, simply about making notes. Specifically, it’s about the obsessive note-taking done by many “serious” writers. For example, here is Raban on the writer as he dines alone: “So it’s scribble, scribble, scribble all through dinner. Into the notebook go long descriptions of landscape and character; some fuzzy intellection; scraps of conversation; diagrammatic drawings; paras from the local paper; weather notes; shopping lists; inventories of interiors (the sad cafe gets grimly itemized); skeletal anecdotes; names of birds, trees and plants, culled from the wonderfully useful Peterson guides; phone numbers of people whom I’ll never call; the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.”

That last bit is so good it deserves repeating: ” . . . the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.” Any of us who write know how true that is, how we struggle to find just the right word or phrase, and how it just comes to us sometimes from we know not where. So of course the essay is also very much about the act of writing, which often feeds off, if not directly from, those random notes. Later in his text Raban ties the note-taking habit in with writing a particular book, but comes at that issue from an interesting angle. He says: ” . . . the act of writing itself unlocks the memory-bank, and discovers things that are neither in the notebooks nor to be found in the writer’s conscious memory.” Then he goes on, quoting the painter Jean Francois Millet: “‘One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.'”

In his essay Jonathan Raban appears to be saying that the best writing, or at least the best parts of a writer’s output—especially its most creative aspect—is free-form, intuitive and impressionistic. If that is what he means, I agree. And with my small impressionistic doodle above, I claim that it’s exactly the same for a guy (or gal) on a dance floor.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.