Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I don’t know what is going on in the world right now. Every time I look at the news it seems like something horrible has happened. I feel like I should use this as inspiration to write, but I just feel really depressed. What’s the point when there are people dying?” – Too Sad To Write
The stereotypical writer everyone likes to joke about is riddled with angst, furious at the world, unlucky in love, poverty-stricken and struggling with addiction to gambling, drugs and/or sex. Writers are manic-depressive shutaways who can’t bear to look a fellow human being in the eye for fear of witnessing more of humanity’s deepest, darkest and dirtiest depths.
By nature, we are observant people; whatever we’re writing about, we are indefinitely providing commentary on the world around us and its troubles. I’ve heard some writers describe their vocation not as an art form but as a coping mechanism which gives them the mental fortitude to keep on living in this crazy world.
It’s fascinating stuff. But how do these singular auteurs find the motivation (or the time) to write about any of this?
I have to say you’re not alone, we all get a little down sometimes. The world just seems too fucked up to bother with; you switch on the news only to discover there’s still a war in Syria, half of Italy’s been flattened by an earthquake, every celebrity from the 80’s is a paedophile, and Chelsea have signed David Luiz again.
Can it get any worse?
Yes it can. And it invariably does. Disaster is replaced by new disaster, the lowest act of humanity you can imagine is soon driven from memory by some shit that’s even more depraved. Nature gets angrier, politicians get more contemptible, train tickets get more expensive. Depression seems like a perfectly rational response.
You try to pick an abominable story from the endless stream of shit floating past your window, only to find it’s surpassed by something even more hideous the next day. And who wants to hear about all this heart-wrenchingly depressing crap anyway? Not me.
People are dying. They die all the time. They’ve always done it, since the dawn of the human race. When you think about it, what does anything we do mean against the backdrop of death and despair that is everyday life?
And what does a play about death and despair matter if people can just turn on the news and see genuine death and despair in their living rooms? Why do we need theatre to remind us how shitty everything is? Just look out the window.
The bad shit that’s happening in the world doesn’t inspire me, not by itself. What’s inspiring, and what makes for great theatre, is finding the little moments of dignity, the small triumphs and the moral victories that grow in the midst of all that death and despair.
If you’re feeling depressed watching people on the news who’ve lost everything, imagine how those people feel.
From your position of relative happiness, you owe it to them and to yourself to write something. It doesn’t have to be uplifting, it doesn’t have to move mountains or reshape the political landscape, it just has to acknowledge the fact we’re all human. We’re in this together.
An earthquake in Italy isn’t inspiring in the least, it’s horrific. The inspiring thing about that earthquake is a rescue team finding a ten year old girl alive in the rubble after 17 hours. In order to make a play out of tragedy you need to find the part of that story that gives you hope. Even if that hope is like a single strand of a spider’s web, with the weight of humanity hanging from it.
Remember, people want to ascribe a meaning to everything in life, especially to the tragedies which touch us.
James Cameron chose to focus on two people meeting and falling in love on the Titanic; even though one of them dies at the end, their human connection makes it worth watching the deaths of hundreds of unwitting passengers. The love story may seem like a cliche, but it’s been used successfully to bring a glimmer of hope to tragic stories throughout human history, even if the love is lost as in Titanic.
It’s about finding the moments of humanity that exist within every tragedy. No matter how horrifying an event is, we like to believe someone involved has acted with dignity, someone has helped their fellow man, someone has managed to pick themselves up and keep going, someone has put themselves at risk for a belief.
In reality this isn’t the case; there are plenty of incidents out there which feature nothing but deplorable behaviour by inexcusable people who feel no remorse. If we accept that, we’ll probably go insane with grief at the sorry state of humanity.
We need stories to have meaning; we need them to be resolved and for that resolution to lead to some kind of positive outcome, however small.
This is why we tell each other stories, it’s a way of making sense of the world. A way of preventing ourselves from giving up, sitting down in the middle of the living room and refusing to move until we crumble into dust.
Depression isn’t a reason to write, despair isn’t motivation, death isn’t inspiring.
Dignity is a reason to write. Hope is motivating. Perseverance in the face of tragedy is inspiring.
If all else fails, deluding ourselves into seeing imaginary good in every fucked-up situation is a surefire way to wake up with a smile. Whether writing or not.
Joking. Sort of.
Not every story has to have a happy ending. Or a happy beginning or middle for that matter. Stories just have to show us there’s a point to life. Because a lot of us aren’t convinced there is, and we could use a little help.
People are struggling everywhere all the time. This is life. When we go to the theatre or cinema or a bookstore, we’re not looking for someone to solve our problems, we just want to hear about someone else who’s gone through something; good or bad. They don’t have to have a happy ending, they don’t even have to survive, they just have to learn. They have to change, or they have to change their surroundings.
Even though most of these people whose struggles we witness aren’t even real or based on reality, knowing they’ve taken a journey makes us feel better. We’re inspired by their efforts to improve their lives. That’s why we sit in dark auditoriums, in front of TV screens and in quiet corners with ragged paperbacks.
Writing doesn’t have to be the solution to anything, but we’ve all read something which made us feel better about the world. We’ve all read something that gave us a kick up the arse or helped us see a situation in a new light. We’ve all learnt something valuable from a play or a film or a novel. At least I hope we have, or there really is no point.
The talent behind every great writer is an ability to ascribe meaning to life. Contrary to the popular stereotype of the angry writer I outlined at the beginning of this post, I think this makes writers admirable optimists. Writers see death, hatred and destruction everywhere they look but manage to find something worthwhile in every tragedy.
I don’t think the ability to find meaning comes automatically to all of us. I think maybe some of us get pissed off before we get reflective, some of us get depressed before we get hopeful. The difficult part is pulling yourself out of that mindset and forcing your brain to go looking for the point. With some stories you won’t find it right away, with some you’ll never find it.
The only tip I really feel qualified to give is you shouldn’t start writing until you’ve found the meaning of your story. Writing blind and hoping you’ll find something worth writing about along the way is setting yourself up for failure. Remember, the tragedy isn’t the part we need; we need the meaning. Finding the meaning is not only cathartic for the audience but for the writer as well, without it you’re just getting everyone down.
Start looking for a meaning in every story you see on the news. It doesn’t have to be a meaning that justifies the story or makes what happened worthwhile for everyone concerned, it just has to give a single person a reason to keep moving forward. That Italian rescue worker may have been losing hope, or even considering quitting, moments before finding that ten year old girl in the rubble.
Force yourself to look for the point in each story you think might be worth writing about. Sometimes you won’t find it, but when you do it will give you a reason to move forward.
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