I have a confession. In the past three years, I’ve devoted only a handful of hours to playwriting, or any sort of creative writing, for that matter. My list of reasons is long (and valid!) but there’s still a part of me that feels guilty, lazy, and anxious. I feel like a fraud. How can I even call myself a playwright if I can’t motivate myself to write a play?
Of course, it’s more than just a matter of being motivated or unmotivated. The past year-and-a-half has been stressful, traumatic, anxiety-inducing, and a million other things. But, despite all that, there’s still a tiny, petulant pessimist living in my brain. I know that factually it’s okay to focus on other work, take time to unwind and relax, and pursue my other hobbies. I know it’s important and necessary to do all those things and to take care of myself in any way I need, but what if I never write another play?
Well, so what if I don’t?
Well… that’s not what I want. Truthfully. I don’t want to give up on the part of me that is a playwright. Even if that part of me has been dormant for a few years.
I guess the only other option is to do something about it, and what better time than now, when I have the Motivation Issue to do just that?
To start, I thought I’d conduct a little research, find out what motivates other dramatists, and try their techniques for myself. Guild members on Twitter had plenty of advice. “Motivation? The state of the world and our field,” wrote Caridad Svich. “Urgent times. Hard listening. Seeing beautiful work being made against many odds by peers. Deadlines help impose order. Big dreaming. Letting things go. Not being afraid. Burn it down to start over. Stay strange.”
“Letting things go!!!!!!!!!!” Brooke Berman emphasized, while Jennifer Maisel provided a shrewd list: “1. Arbitrary deadlines, 2. Denial of reality, 3. Hope against hope, [and] 4. There’s really nothing else I do well, and I killed my sourdough starter.”
Many stressed the importance of deadlines. Eric Pfeffinger tweeted, “Honestly? I’ve been lucky to have existing ongoing projects with external deadlines I’ve had to (sometimes grudgingly) meet. In their absence, for my writing, the past year-and-a-half would probably have been an amorphous free-floating dead zone.”
Gina Young credited weekly meetings with her writers’ group: “[we] moved to zoom once we realized shelter in place wasn’t going anywhere. At first, we just showed up to talk. Then it seemed wrong not to bring new writing.” Others, including Rosemary McLaughlin, Greg Vovos, Andy Monroe, and Emily Brauer Rogers, also expressed gratitude to their peers. “The community that I found online through digital theatre and online writing groups kept me motivated. It made opportunities more accessible to me as a working parent and allowed me to keep developing my work as well as meet theatre makers across the world,” Rogers wrote.
With advice from almost 50 dramatists in my pocket, I next sat down with Deborah Zoe Laufer, who, in addition to being a playwright, director, and Dramatists Guild Council member, is also an enthusiastic endorser of the Pomodoro Technique (A Pomodorian, if you will.) I was surprised to find that, like me, Deb has historically found it difficult to get motivated. “I’ve never been able to be accountable to myself, even for the thing I really want more than anything, which is to write,” she confessed. “Unless there’s somebody who’s commissioned [me], it’s such a long shot that things are going to actually happen.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Deb explained, both of her writers’ groups went online, and a friend suggested they meet virtually each morning and try the Pomodoro Technique. Devised in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the method gets its name from the tomato-shaped timers found in many Italian households. Deb gave me a quick rundown on our Zoom call: “The theory is that you can do anything with great focus for 25 minutes if you know it will end in 25 minutes.” Seems simple enough. So, Deb went out and got everyone in her writers group a tomato timer. They would meet for two hours each morning, writing for 25 minutes, debriefing for five, and repeating. Eventually, Deb and her other group members found that “after a few months of [Pomodoro]… we were frustrated having such a short time to write.” The group decided to increase their writing sessions to 55 minutes with a five-minute discussion interval.
Deb found that the practice of writing each day felt akin to strengthening a muscle. “I was one of those people who never wrote every day. I always wished I were that person, but I only wrote when my hair was on fire.” Once she started Pomodoro, however, that all changed. “After a while I started doing five hours a day [or more]… It is a muscle. Once you use it, it feels good to keep using it.”
I believed that the Pomodoro Technique worked for Deb, but for some reason I was still doubtful that it could work for me. I don’t have a career in playwriting. Even though I’ve had my work produced in the past, that was a few years ago. I’ve been dormant since 2018. Could getting back into writing be so simple as setting a timer?
Deb disclosed to me that at first Pomodoro “seemed like one of these fads” and that she “[felt] foolish to be doing [it],” but there was a crucial aspect to Deb’s practice that made it work for her: accountability. “There were days where I was like, ‘Ugh, I just don’t feel like it,’” she admitted, “but I knew that people were going to be waiting for me. If somebody is waiting for me, I will show up. And once you show up, they’re [on your] screen [and] you can see everybody else is writing, so it’s very hard to just be like, ‘maybe I’ll go have a snack.’ You really just sit and write.” Maybe I could do this if I wasn’t doing it alone.
In an attempt to be open-minded, and because it would be hypocritical to write an article about motivation without actually trying any motivational tactics, I enlisted the help of a friend from graduate school who was also struggling to get back into creative writing. We set a date, then time got away from me and I had to cancel moments after she sent me the Zoom link. Undeterred, we rescheduled to the following day, I made sure my schedule was clear, and sure enough, I started writing a play. Well, more specifically, I continued with a play idea I’d found buried on my computer, a page-and-a-half scene I’d written in April of 2019 that was obliquely titled script idea.
I decided to blindly lean into the odd little scene I’d completely forgotten about and ended up writing 30 pages in a notebook over the course of three Zoom sessions. Like Deb, I felt as though each Pomodoro session flew by, although I don’t know if that would have been the case if I’d been writing alone. Now that I think about it, it does make sense. During undergrad, I rarely wrote alone, and I was always working with deadlines. Without those two things, it’s no wonder my writing came to a standstill. Even after only a few brief meetings, I no longer feel sheer terror when I think of writing. The pages I’ve written aren't even close to being a cohesive play, but I’m getting there, and before all this, I was getting nowhere.
“I don’t know why people have to trick themselves into writing,” Deb confessed to me. “Maybe it’s just so terrifyingly painful to think of not knowing what to do.” So many thoughts, most of them stemming from anxious terror, filled my brain each time I contemplated my return to playwriting. What if no one likes my ideas? Maybe that chapter of my life has ended. Maybe I’m not meant to be a playwright. But the thing is, whether or not I’m a playwright can’t be decided by anyone but me. Even if I never submit my work to another competition or festival, even if I never get produced again, that doesn’t diminish the work I do if it’s bringing me joy or a sense of accomplishment. I do, however, feel that getting my work out into the world would embolden me to continue writing, so the next thing I began to consider was finding a concrete deadline. This is when the Dramatists Guild Submissions Calendar came in handy.
When searching for a submission opportunity, I knew I needed to find a deadline that was neither too soon nor too far in the future. A deadline before December 2021 would be far too much pressure, something I’d surely panic over and balk at. And a deadline past April 2022 wouldn’t be enough pressure; I’d forget about it, either purposefully or accidentally. Luckily, the Submissions Calendar has a slew of submission opportunities for which I’m eligible with deadlines that fall between December 2021 and March 2022. My goal is not to win a contest or be selected for a production, although that frame of mind is my first instinct. Rather, I am trying to consider the mere act of submitting to be a victory in itself. I want to prove to myself that I can create and revise work to a point where I once again feel proud enough to send my script out for people to judge, just as I did as an undergrad. I want to get to a place where I'm comfortable with that kind of vulnerability.
The submission opportunity that caught my eye the most was the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights. I happen to live a block away from Portland Stage, and in high school my short play was shown as part of their Little Festival of the Unexpected, so in a way my anxiety is eased a bit knowing that I’d be sending my play to my neighbor. Despite staying close to home for this submission opportunity, I still feel my usual insecurities gnawing away at me. But I have to remind myself that it’s not a question of whether or not I’m good enough. Instead, it’s whether I am brave enough to put myself and my work out there. That is the way I want to start measuring my success.
I’m still stunned at how much anguish I had been feeling for so long—not that it has completely dissipated. Was all the stress worth it? No. Do I feel more motivated? Yes! But did I really overcome a three-year-long creative block so easily? We'll see.
I don’t think it’s about overcoming, because I don’t think this process has a finite solution, or even a solution at all. As Deb explained, it’s about accountability and momentum. Getting yourself to start the work is only half the battle. Now it’s time to see if I keep it up.
Over the course of writing this article, lots of things have prevented me from writing every day: a visit from my partner’s grandmother, a cold, errands, and chores. But now I have a recipe for success. I know that I can do it, and that’s reason enough for me to keep trying.