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The Drama of Story

On Valentine’s Day, I saw a world premier of a play at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. It was staged in a tiny little theater in the round – just 250 seats, with no seat more than 5 rows from the stage – and the premise of the play is that it takes place during a semi-final tennis match at the US Open.

Think about that for a minute – a tennis match, played on a tiny stage with audience members on every side. How on earth could that even work?

The Last Match by Anne Zeigler not only worked, it was riveting and moving – and it was a master-class in what stories are really about and what it takes to tell a good one.

Here are four key lessons reinforced by the play:

1. There are two levels to every story.

The first level is plot – in this case, the tennis match. This is what happens, what transpires, what we see at first glance. If someone were to ask me what The Last Match was about, I would probably say, “A tennis match.” That was the frame of the piece – the shape of it. I would, however, be missing the whole point, and if you are writing a memoir or a novel (and in many cases a self-help/how-to book) and you are only focusing on the plot you would be missing the whole point, too.

The second level is the real story – the why underneath the what of the plot. Why do the characters do what they do, why do they care about what is happening, why does it matter to them – and why, by extension, should we (the reader/viewer) care? This is where the true power of story lies. Zeigler clearly knows this in her bones – because on the stage made to look like a tennis court, she brought to life all the desire and rage and fear and yearning of two tennis stars who both want to win.

Why they each want to win is what it was all about.

2. We bring our past selves onto the stage of every story.

It’s so easy to think of any narrative as chronological – a straightforward shot from here to there – but that is, again, to only focus on the plot and to miss the heart of the thing.

Story – which as we just saw, unfolds on a different level – is often not chronological in the least. Since story is about a character’s inner struggle to  make meaning of certain events, it naturally involves their entire past, and it often loops around on itself and back again like a Mobius strip.

In The Last Match, Zeigler made this truth manifest.

One tennis star, Russian phenom Sergei Sergeyev, is a young upstart trying to fulfill the destiny of his great promise by beating the man who had been his idol as a child. He was battling the demons of insomnia and abandonment – things that had plagued him since his parents died in a car crash on the way to see him play. He was battling a demanding girlfriend who we couldn’t quite understand why anyone would bother with (why, why, why?) until we saw exactly why he would.

The other tennis star was the aging legend Tim Porter, thinking about when  to call it quits, trying to hang onto his glory, trying to quell the fear he knows he will feel if he gives up his identity as a tennis star. He was battling the demons of expectation and responsibility, now that he was (after a painful journey of infertility and loss) a new father – expectations of himself, of his son, and of his wife, and responsibility for his family’s financial and spiritual wellbeing.

So much hung in the balance for these two tennis players, and because we were let inside the consequences of the match, the audience came to care for both of them immensely.

All of this was done through some brilliant staging – the two men’s significant others marching, leaping, and slouching onto the tennis court/set to re-enact key scenes from their lives, to bring key questions and answers into the players’ minds.

This is exactly the way memory works – intruding, arriving unbidden, flashing across the stage of our lives.

Yes, the plot moves forward in time, but the story spins around it as it goes.

 3. Nothing is neutral

One of the most powerful elements of The Last Match was the way that Zeigler had the two tennis players literally playing off each other, like improvisers – where one actor starts a conversation and another picks it up and runs with it, crafting their own tale from the raw material he was given.

Tim Porter would be in the midst of a memory and Sergei Sergeyev would be sitting on a chair on the “sidelines” with his head bent and covered by a towel until that part of the story was done -- UNLESS a Tim Porter memory triggered something in Sergei, either literally, because they shared the same memory, or conceptually. If this happened, Sergei would leap up and take over, telling his own tale. It was a little like a relay race, with the baton being handed back and forth between the players, and it was dazzling as the audience was taken deeper and deeper into each man’s story.

Similarly, events in the tennis match itself triggered thoughts, ideas, opinions and emotions. These events included interactions with the crowd, the referee, and the other player, glances at the women in the stands (who sat in the theater aisles as if the players’ boxes), a wrenched back, a won point, a lost game.

So you had these two actors who on one level looked as though they were playing a simple game of tennis, but who on another level, were being plunged into darkness, lifted to heights of joy, and made to struggle with the most seminal moments of their lives.

The key concept for all of us here who are trying to write good books is triggered.

Things in a life (if you are writing memoir) or a novel (if you are writing fiction) or an argument (if you are writing non-fiction) trigger thoughts, ideas, opinions and memories. And by things, I mean events in the plot, other characters, dialogue, decisions – everything. Nothing is neutral to you or mein our real lives – so why should things be neutral in the books we write?

The answer is that they shouldn’t. Everything has the potential to trigger a deeper dive into a character’s life, into your own life, or into the argument you are trying to make to your reader.

Writers often struggle mightily with how to fold flashbacks and backstory into their work. They think of it as a separate thing – something you stop the story to drop in. Backstory and flashbacks, however, are the story. They are the heart of the story. They are how we get to the why that we (the reader) are desperately tracking as the plot unfolds.

If you think about flashbacks and backstory exactly the way I am describing the playwright did – as opportunities to add meaning and power to your story – you will find that they have a place on every page, in small and large ways.

4. Lessons about story are everywhere.

I learn so much about story every day – by reading the newspaper (okay, three of them), reading books, reading blogs, going to the movies, going to plays. It's all a chance to understand story better – to feel how it works, to know how to wield its power. And every once and awhile, you come away absolutely dazzled – which is what happened to me with this play.

Make sure you are consuming stories while you are trying to write them. It makes you a good literary citizen, for one thing, and it will teach you so much of what you need to know.





A Writer's Guide to Thanksgiving

Events of the past few weeks have thrown into high relief the fact that we live in complex and frightening times. It makes me glad that we have a holiday set aside for nothing more than giving thanks.  I am going to be with almost my entire family this Thanksgiving, and I am glad for the plane that will take me to them, glad for a warm coat to wear in the chilly East, glad for the food we will share, and even glad for the nasty fights that I know will erupt over the games we will play into the wee hours of the night. As I began to pack my bags for my trip, I thought about the particular delights and perils of being a writer on this holiday, and decided to share my thoughts for how to enjoy – and survive – the season.

1.)  Don’t share your work with anyone dangerous. Your work is fragile and sometimes the people who love you the best are often the last people who you should show your work. You know the people I mean – the people who belittle you no matter what you write, the people who make you feel horrible about your progress with one snotty comment (“Are you still working on that book?”), the people who tell you that what you should really write about is this thing that happened to them once…  If you have never done my Universe of Support exercise, you might want to do that now to make sure you know whom to avoid. And if there is not one person in your inner circle? That’s okay.  Perhaps in the New Year, you can make it a goal to find someone who earns the right to that position.

Just so you know that I practice what I preach, here is a photo of my hairdresser, Lynn. She is my all-time favorite fiction beta reader because she is enthusiastic, engaged, critical, kind, and well-read. She’s the best! This is a photo I took on Tuesday when I had my hair cut. I didn’t have time to print out the brand-new never-been-read pages I wanted her to read, so I shoved my laptop at her, instead. She then spent half an hour – while she cut – talking about how I needed to amp up the sex in the scene she’d read.  I think we were very entertaining to the other ladies in the salon!

I will not be sharing these fragile pages with my sister or my mother or my dad. Sorry, family!




2.) Be aware that you have an unfair advantage at word games. In my family, we play a lot of Scrabble -- a game that rewards a large vocabulary and the ability to pay close attention to a finite number of words, which is exactly what writers do all day. Our all-time favorite game is Catchphrase -- a fast-paced game that’s sort of like electronic word-based hot potato.  It’s basically a game of storytelling. It rewards the ability to paint a vivid picture and call up critical moments from the past, which are skills that all writers, and memoir writers in particular, excel at. My advice is not to lord it over your friends and relatives who don’t happen to be wordsmiths. Gloating never turns out well because you might find yourself playing Hearts, where the ability to count cards matters, or Blokus, where special relations rule, and, well, if you’re anything like me, you don’t often win those games.

3.)  Pay attention. When drama erupts – and you know it will – keep your antennae out. All the best and worst of human interaction is on display during the holidays and you have a front row seat. Sit back, take it all in, and odds are good you will find a time to use what you have observed in some capacity in your work.   

If you happen to have an encounter that inspires you to capture someone’s story, check out the incredible new Story Corps app that helps you record, interview and upload it to the Story Corps archive, all on your phone. Jeffrey Fowler wrote a beautiful piece about his experience with this app in the Wall Street Journal this week.

4.)  Take the time to read a good book.  National Book Award Winners were just announced on Wednesday night.  Grab an audio version for the car or the real deal for a plane, and be part of the national conversation about good books. After all, every good writer is also a good reader. In this fast-paced world, that’s easy to forget – or to let slide. Don’t do that. Pick a great book you’ve been meaning to read and lean into it during the holidays. My plan is to buy a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me at an independent bookstores somewhere on my travels. I have heard so much about it and am dying to read it for myself -- not just hear people talk about it.

5.)  If you feel big emotion in the presence of your family, put that emotion on the page. All writing is about emotion. Emotion is the tool writers use to convey what we want to convey. This is true of all genres. So if you are feeling big emotion, practice putting it on the page. See what it looks like in its raw and unfiltered form – and compare that to how you normally write. Try to see where you tend to be stingy, and to feel what it is like to be generous with your emotion. Even if no one ever sees the words you wrote during this exercise, you will know what the experience of writing that way was like – and that's worth its weight in gold.

 And if the big emotion threatens to make you upset, I can offer up my client Tracey Cleantis’ guide to Holiday Survival. Tracey is a psychotherapist andher suggestions are so wise and comforting.

Oh hey and while we’re talking about Tracey – a huge congratulations to her!   Her book The Next Happy was just announced as a finalist for The Better Life    Awards – a VERY BIG deal! How big? Tracey’s publisher is taking out ads in   Publisher’s Weekly in celebration.

There are so very many things to give thanks for.

Enjoy the holiday!