Leaving the Comfort Zone

One of the most appealing aspects of being a writer is stretching yourself, taking your writing to the next level or trying something you never thought you’d try. For instance, I thought I could never write science fiction, but my first published short story was a sci-fi tale. I never thought I could write a poem, but I have. I could never imagine standing up in front of strangers and reading my work, but my writing group, SWAG Writers, provided a comfortable atmosphere for that.

In high school and when I studied literature in college, I loved plays. I’ve read each of Shakespeare’s plays, at least those in the canon, though that was a long time ago. Before I ever saw the movie “The Lion in Winter,” I had read James Goldman’s play over and over. Living in the boonies meant the visits to theaters to see a play performed were rare, but I had a great high school English teacher who would loan me plays to read. The writers of those plays took me to places beyond my imagination, but though I’d already begun to write fledgling stories, I never thought I could ever write a play.

Let’s face it, as writers we sometimes get a bit comfortable in whatever genre in which we do most of our writing. Particularly if you’ve had a bit (or a lot) of success writing, say, young adult paranormal romance novels, you might be hesitant to try something new. That would involve a new start, and after a hard-scrabble climb in one aspect of writing, why would you subject yourself to something that might not be successful? We can’t all be J.K. Rowling, after all. I know, even with my very limited success, I certainly feel more comfortable working on full-length novels and the occasional short story or piece of flash.

Then along came Chris Gavaler, Assistant Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, just down the road from me in Lexington, VA. Gavaler’s page on the W&L web site is a litany of awards and accolades, but his list of one-act and ten-minutes plays made him the perfect instructor for the first, I hope of many, workshop given by SWAG Writers.

This past Saturday, nine writers–ranging from genre and literary fiction writers, poets, children’s book writers, and an aspiring writer in the form of a local high school student–sat down with Galaver for a four-hour Playwriting Workshop. Galaver dispensed with the trivia–“You can find out how to format a play on-line”–and got down to the details with practical exercises.

To begin with, we had to jot down a character, an obstacle, and a location, then Galaver picked and chose from them. He divided us into groups, and we had to develop a few minutes of dialogue based on those scant details. Daunting, but once we finished and read our effort aloud, we were amazed at how something coherent had emerged. The key, though, was how we first discussed the unseen back story, and once we had that, the dialogue just flowed. “See,” Galaver said, “you just wrote a play!”

Galaver covered the aspects of external and internal conflict and how to create them, and establishing obstacles, reversals, and resolution, but, again, with practical application, not lecture. His classes at W&L must be amazing to attend. He concluded the class with a brief Q&A session which boiled down to, “Okay, I’ve Written a Play; Now What?” Even that was practical, and who knew how many local organizations were looking for ten-minute or one-act plays?

All in all, SWAG’s very first workshop was a resounding success, and, at $40, a bargain for all that we learned. The time flew by, but, as my Irish grandmother would say, “Learnin’ got done.” So, I’ll step from my comfort zone, stretch a little more, and try playwriting, thanks to Chris Galaver and SWAG.

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