Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Amy O'Neill Houck: Product and Process

This week I’m taking a playwriting workshop at Perseverance Theatre here in Juneau. I’ve been someone who loves and appreciates the theatre as long as I can remember. Even so, except for some early adaptations of Annie, when I was eight or nine, I don’t think I’ve ever written a play. So I approach this new discipline as a complete beginner. The words we use to discuss craft: plasticity, broken language, syllogistic plot, synthetic fragment—this new jargon is mysterious and feels, well, playful, because it’s not “what I do.” I’m not here with an expectation of writing a powerful essay or a moving memoir. I’m learning. I’m ready to fail in the process and enjoy doing it.

When I’m not hanging with writers, you’ll often find me in the company of knitters, and when we’re talking about our craft we often divide ourselves into “product” people and “process” people. There are knitters who produce sweater after sweater, or they crank out enough pairs of socks to keep the feet of eleven families warm—they get immense satisfaction out of finishing a project. Completion. Something tangible to show for their time. These knitters jump right in to projects following directions to the letter. They might not care if the end product fits the intended recipient; it will fit someone. On the other hand, process knitters are playful and un-rushed. They explore their options—they might like to make changes along the way, and they’re not afraid to rip things out and start over, maybe many times. They like to learn new techniques—they might adapt a sweater meant for a child and knit it for their best friend. Process knitters sometimes talk about the relative bargain of a huge project because of the hours and hours of knitting enjoyment they get out of it.

Tonight’s exercise in our playwriting workshop embodied the idea of the beginner’s mind and the joy of failure. Dan LeFranc, our instructor, asked us to write a “boring scene.” Immediately, we were all off the hook. Nothing was precious. Writing something good was not an option. The air in the room felt suddenly lighter. He gave us a few parameters—a setting (office, restaurant, living room), number of characters, a few thematic elements, and “a spatula.” Ready, set, go. We all wrote for about 20 minutes fitting in as many of the parameters as possible without worrying one bit about the writing. When we were done we divvied up the parts and read all the scenes aloud. They were funny, tense, “crackling,” as Dan likes to say, lively, surprising. There wasn’t a boring scene in the bunch.

As a knitter, I fall squarely into the “process” camp. I’m not afraid to explore a stitch pattern for hours or days without ever producing a finished hat or mittens. When I write, I often find that process side of my brain gets crowded out by either the necessity or the urge to “produce something.” Maybe I have a blog post or an article to write, or maybe an assignment for school. There’s enough going on that I don’t always make time to play, and if I do I find the fear of failure trying to creep in. So as much as I can, I trick myself back into that beginner’s mind. I take workshops in playwriting, or, when I’m at a writing conference, I go to the poetry classes and try things I wouldn’t normally do. Back at home, it’s harder. Ironically, alone in my room, I feel more self-conscious than I do in classes and workshops. So here’s one of my goals for the summer: bring that playful feeling home as much as I can. Write to fail. Write the crazy big ideas or the tiny mundane ones. Write without consequence. Write to write.

Amy O'Neill Houck is beginning her final year of UAA's low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. She's the author of three books of knitting and crochet patterns and she maintains a blog about food, fiber and life in Alaska .


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Amy. I heard an interview with Yo Yo Ma this morning. He talked about how he was unselfconscious when he was a child prodigy, and it took years of adult performing before he returned to just playing instead of thinking about how others might judge him. Now he really enjoys performing again. Maybe your sense of play is the same kind of thing.

Amy O'Neill Houck said...

Thanks, Lynn! Perhaps that is true. I'm always amazed when I teach classes to children and they are ready to fail--they expect that it is part of learning. I admire that.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I love that "boring scene" idea. I've heard of other instructors doing that, too, and finding that when people slow down and try to be boring they actually generate more vivid detail and more interesting and eclectic voices. Great lesson that I keep forgetting!