I was talking to an ambitious young playwright the other day and it started me thinking about what are the hallmarks of a truly exceptional writer? What do I look for when I’m i the audience? What is the experience that I’m hoping that the playwright will provide? I was thinking about some of my favorites – Young Jean Lee, Kristen Kosmas, Richard Maxwell, Jenny Schwartz – and trying to identify what qualities make them distinctive and noteworthy.
First and foremost, I think, is an intense relationship with language; a deep love of language, coupled with what I would call distrust. Distrust because they look at language as something to be tamed, something to be reckoned with and carefully subdued to their ends. They find unique rhythms and unexpected meanings, they see the places where language succeeds and where it fails and somehow craft experiences that bring us into their worlds. Really great writers have a sense of rhythm when it comes to language, a desire to make it work hard, to wring the meaningful out of what can often be just a string of meaningless sounds. We’ve all had the experience of listening to a bunch of words come spewing out of someone’s mouth, sound and fury signifying nothing. Great writers have a way of making each word count, of revealing the unseen in the every day. It seems obvious, I guess, but I see a lot of work where the language is merely serviceable, not transcendent.
Secondly, and this may be more controversial, is what I call a sense of vengeance. Great writers usually have some kind of desire to wreak vengeance on reality, their drama – and the language they use – burns with urgency. Sometimes it is literal vengeance on a specific situation, scenario or person. But more often it is a sense that reality must be bent to one’s will, that our daily, mundane perceptions are somehow lacking and that there is so much MORE there, so much more TRUTH there that it must be wrestled into submission and forced to reveal itself. It is this wrestling, this desire to wring meaning and poignancy out of the everyday that drives great writers.
Third, and related to the second point, is truth. Not THE truth, necessarily, but a truth. Great writers have a singular perspective on what their experience of the true world is, of what truth is, and they are committed to paring away at our fictions – often using fictions and lies – to create a glimmering vision of truth. Or, to create the experience of truth. We live in a culture filled with untruth of all shapes and sizes, from the small deceptions of text messages, (“I’m right around the corner!”) to big lies (“There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”) to more big lies (almost all advertising and the deceptive universe of Mass Media) that we become inured to untruth. Great writers find a way to reactivate our desire for truth, for meaning, for insight, vision and perspective.
And while great writers are often great storytellers, great storytellers are not always great writers. I think that’s important to note. There are plenty of adequate playwrights who tell great stories. But what makes a playwright really is not just the ability to tell a good story but to dig even deeper, to almost probe directly into the center of the audience’s being and pull something out, to tap into a yearning we may not have known we had and make it real.
These are just a few random thoughts – would love to know what you think! Comment away.