As some of you know, I’m a theatre geek from way back. I’ve spent better than half my life either hanging out in dark theatres, or auditioning for the opportunity to hang out in dark theatres. You can see plenty of evidence of that on my Facebook photos page.
Well, the reason this post is going up a little late is that I’ve been in a theatre every night this week ’til midnight working on a show. I’m designing the lights for a local production of the Pulitzer-winning musical Next to Normal. It’s a funny, touching, gut-wrenching, hilarious show about a family dealing with mental illness in today’s world, and how mental illness impacts not just the person suffering, but everyone suffering along with them. The director is an old friend of mine, I’ve worked with the company before and love them all, and the cast is amazing. If you’re in Charlotte at any point in the next three weekends, you should go see it, it’s awesome.
It’s also full of triggers for me, which made the first night of rehearsal really tough. I’ve been pretty open about my battles with depression over the years, and I’ve written extensively over on my blog about my uncle’s suicide, which certainly made watching pieces of Next to Normal pretty difficult. There’s no visible self-harm in the play, but it is referenced, and that brought up all sorts of issues. So in a way, this was a play that I didn’t want to do, no matter how awesome the script or how talented the creative team. It was too close on a few levels. Of course, I’ve been doing theatre for a couple decades now, so I dealt with all those feelings, then put them in a box until after it opens (tonight!) when I can drag them out and drink them into submission.
But that’s not really relevant to today’s topic, except as a slightly rambling jumping-off point. We all have things in life that scare us. There are things in everyone’s life that you don’t want to deal with, or don’t want to dredge up, or don’t want to confront, and sometimes you just need to do the show you don’t want to do. Or in this case, sometimes you need to write the book that you’re afraid of. There may be an opus hidden in your personal tragedy, but more often than not you just need to write the story, get it out of you, and stash it away for the historians to analyze.
You see, stories that we don’t write can become insidious, infiltrating other stories with their issues. If you’ve had a bad breakup that you haven’t dealt with, suddenly none of your characters can relate to the opposite sex. If you’ve had a tragic death in the family, suddenly no one in your stories has any living relatives. That’s what happens when you bottle stuff up – it builds pressure until it finds a way to leak into other things, sometimes spoiling them, or it explodes, sometimes spoiling you. I’ve seen this in authors before, particularly in politics. Some writers can’t keep their opinions on the government out of their writing, even if they’re not writing about the government!
So you might have to stop working on a project and have a cathartic writing session. Just sit down and write the story that’s boiling up inside. It doesn’t have to be good, it might never see the light of day. But those feelings need to come out, and writing the story is one way. Therapy’s another, but I’m not a therapist, I’m just a writer. So the next time you see a character doing something strange, take a look at YOUR motivations and see if there’s something on this side of the keyboard that is affecting your character’s behavior.
This also gives you an opportunity to take a look at your characters motivations and tactics, as we say in the theatre. Or “what do you want, and how are you going to get it?” If those motivations don’t come from something grounded in the story, then they’re coming from you. And that’s not great storytelling. The characters don’t live in your head anymore – they live in the world of the story, so everything that motivates them or affects them must live in the world of the story, too. So sometimes you just need the cathartic story to let yourself get out of your own way and let the characters go back to doing their own thing in their own world, without bleed from your world influencing them.
Writing the story you’re afraid, or doing the show you’re afraid of, can have another unexpected benefit – it might just help you see that stuff isn’t so scary after all. Next to Normal deals with mental illness, attempted suicide, depression and death, but at its heart it’s a hopeful play, with the characters coming out the other side stronger for their pain. Maybe your story will make you stronger for the writing of it. Or maybe it’ll just show you that sometimes you need to let your subconscious come to the front and drive the bus for a little while. At least then the little bugger will stop screaming at you.
I’m off to another rehearsal. Yes, it’s 10:37 in the morning. I won’t be around the comments much today, since I’m working on two shows, but I’ll be checking in whenever I can. Let me know if there’s a story you’re afraid of that you’ve seen bleed into your own work, because I’ve certainly seen it in mine.