National Writing Project

Alan Brody: Why I Write

Date: February 1, 2014

Summary: Alan Brody is a playwright, Professor of Theater at MIT, and member of the NWP Writers Council.


Alan Brody

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I've just started writing a new play. I've been working on it for three months now and I look forward to finding out what it's about. That's the way it works for me. I'm struck by the magic "what if." What if two men meet and they're both 48 years old and they're father and son and now they can talk to each other as men? (Invention for Fathers and Sons) What if a woman teaching a college course in a maximum security prison falls in love with one of her students? (Five Scenes From Life) Or I'm struck by the memory of someone whose unique energy I've always wanted to capture and share with an audience (The Housewives of Mannheim). Or someone tells a personal story that grabs me and I know instinctively there's a play in it (The Dog With the Head of a Dragon). Or someone's laugh on the subway reminds me of someone I was in love with years before (the piece I'm working on now that has no name because I still don't know what it's about).

I can spend weeks—as I've been doing—writing in my journal about the possibilities of my starting point. It's all free association. But it's always in full sentences because a striking phrase or a clause is still only a notion until it becomes a sentence; then it becomes an idea. So I throw out sentences in my journal and stumble toward characters, possible scenes, thoughts about staging. I'm a spelunker groping my way through unexplored passageways, only the dimmest light on my head helping me move at all. After a while I realize I'm circling back on myself, not moving forward. I know I cannot find my structure or even the central meaning of the thing by spinning out more generalized ideas as if I were a critic examining all the ideas inherent in a piece that hasn't even been written yet.

That's when I know it's time to start writing.

I've done enough groundwork to forget about generalities and get to the moment-to-moment life of a scene, to hear the voices of my people and, as Bernard Shaw once said, "Let `em rip." And that's when the discoveries start. My characters start telling me what I'm writing about. If I try to work my will on them, make them do or say something out of my needs and not theirs, they take their revenge by going silent on me. If I let them have their autonomy they tell me more and more about who they are and what they want and, ultimately, what they're about.

The old, tiresome advice to young writers is "Write about what you know." What we neglect to tell them is that they know more than they think they do and that the way to find out what they really, deeply know is to write and to leave themselves open to surprise.

That's why I write. I write from the clues of what I already know in order to find out what I didn't know I knew. I write from the emotions I have felt to experience the deeper ones I didn't know I was capable of feeling—or that frightened me. I write for the nourishing, self-expanding thrill of that surprise. One idea leads to another. One scene demands I follow its trail to the next. The faith that sustains me is that ultimately the work will yield up its secrets and tell me what it and I and all of us are about.

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