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by Hedgebrook Guest

In New York City where I lived until last summer, some playwright friends and I figured out that the way to see each other, and get our work done, was to write together. Not collaborate, just set laptops side by side, set a timer (usually 45 minutes) and go. Take a timed chat break, then repeat as necessary.

I’ve used this method in my generative writing workshops too, offering students more structured prompts. Something changes when you work in the presence of a writer you know and admire. You risk a little more, turn towards the scene or sentence instead of away, hold your pee. It’s partly the shame – deliberately externalizing the inadequate internal pressure to sit still and stay offline. It’s a good tool when the writing is not so focused, or when time constraints seem impossible. It works long distance, too.

These days I live in Seattle, with a good academic job, one eight-year-old who conveniently attends school, and a husband who goes six-cylinder SuperDad when I am away. In other words it’s a highly manageable situation.

Yet I’ve missed those writers, “my” playwrights. In the right company, one can do a day’s work in an hour. And with too much solitude, one (this one) sometimes can’t do a day’s work in a month. That’s the strange balance of isolation and community, the rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick of time management and social fulfillment. The writer needs to be alone, and yet not all alone, not too alone.

I cry most days that I write. The crying is okay. I was an easy weeper as a child, and I’m glad for a field in which a few tears shed (or even some minutes of sobbing) matches the task at hand. I’ve bitten off some heavy subjects in the last few years: a prostitution court, letters from the Krakow Ghetto, racism in the New Haven Fire Department, and Gaza. Roz and Ray, my primary work at Hedgebrook, is a love story about hemophiliacs and AIDS. Who wouldn’t weep?

I don’t, however, necessarily write every day that I cry. And that’s the dangerous zone, the overwhelmed-by-the-subject zone where self sits as self, not maker, not artist, just person overwhelmed by the subject at hand. This sad civilian mode is natural, but relatively useless.

To paraphrase the eminently wise playwright Ellen McLaughlin in her Hedgebrook journal comparing fire building to writing: When it’s going strong, it can burn you.

Dinners at Hedgebrook serve the same function as a writing partner’s keyboard clicks (again borrowing Ellen’s metaphor), to stoke the fire or salve the burn. We showed up, accepted exquisite nourishment, remembered that others too try and make form of the rough ride of loss, love, disappointment, illness, exhilaration, weakness, and mortality. And how was your day?

We at the Playwrights Festival rarely talked about our writing. What did we talk about? One night it was abortion.

I wrote an op-ed several months ago in honor for the anniversary of Roe vs Wade, calling for pro-choice women to talk about abortion more, especially so that we in blue states don’t get complacent. In particular, I suggested that women who already know each other gather salon-style for the purpose of talking about abortion personally, politically, or both.

Yet the first time I actually convened such a salon, months after the piece ran, was at Hedgebrook. I’m new to my current town, and I didn’t feel ready to host a discussion; I didn’t have “my people” in place. Then about ten dinners into Hedgebrook, I realized “my people” were right there (even though one was my early idol Suzanne Vega, whose songs played in my head for the entire residency). I asked in advance if people wanted to talk, and all nine of us playwrights and dramaturgs gathered after dinner to talk about abortion. Then someone wanted to talk about other bodily issues women keep overly private, so we talked about those too.

I woke up the next morning with a word in my head, “Intimism.” A call for greater intimacy as a means of social change.

I have a hard time being an activist because I dislike logistics. Planning makes me numb, especially something large and freeform like change. But I do believe that culture writes itself, and that those of us who have a little bit of a perch, a little bit of a voice, the privilege of deep nourishment for decades – or for a couple weeks on Whidbey – do more than amplify one another when we get together. We stoke the fire, we salve the burn. We perpetuate seeing and saying. We become intimists.

Roz and Ray will have free public readings on June 14th at Seattle Repertory Theater, and on June 30th at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis.

 

About the Author:

HWPF_KarenHartman_200x250

Karen Hartman holds the Playwright Center’s 2014-15 McKnight Residency and Commission for a nationally recognized playwright.  Her Goldie, Max, and Milk premiered at Florida Stage and was nominated for the Steinberg/ American Critics Award (Best New American Regional Play) and the Carbonell Award (Best New Play in Florida). Gum, which had its world premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage, has seen dozens of productions at theaters and universities across the country and in Europe. Wild Kate opened at ACT in San Francisco (Conservatory), and was published by Playscripts in 2012.  Her many other works include Goliath (Dorothy Silver New Play Prize); Leah’s Train (Weissberger Award Finalist); Going Gone (N.E.A. New Play Grant); Girl Under Grain (Best Drama in NY Fringe); and her Euripides adaptation Troy Women, which has become a staple of college theatersHer short play, Hang Ten, was part of the Antigone Project in New York. Her essays have been published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. 


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

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