I started writing Rita November first of last year. And here’s it’s non-compelling
log line: It’s a play about people. I don’t need a compelling log line for this
project because it’s only for me. It feels kind of creepy to be honest.
I feel like the man in Room. However, instead of keeping a woman captive in a shed for my
sexual purposes destined never to see the light of day, I have a script in a
file that will never be seen and which provides me with an obsessional outlet
for my needs.
I began writing Rita with an idea for its arc but I never got past its first scene.
Every time I opened the file, I re-wrote the first scene and during all my
walks I would think about how I would change the subsequent re-write.
I never changed the basic premise of scene
one: A man and his friend, pregnant with his child, come home from a day at
work to eat take-out together and when they arrive, there is a phone message
from the man’s step mother, Rita, that shapes the content of the scene. It’s a
set-up scene, slightly humorous, with an expository purpose.
But yesterday I opened a new file and started fresh. I had a date with my friend Tim to see Anomalisa at one thirty. That meant I
had seven hours to write.
Although the scene still involves eating
take-out food and the same two characters, I added another character and
removed the phone message that shaped the entire scene. I did not do a
re-write, I wrote an entirely new scene and I am so happy with it I am writing about it here. (Don’t
forget: This is a project being written by a forthright blogger who posts
almost daily but has not written about this project since its inception.)
What thrills me is this: I have read
interviews with several great writers
in which the writer has said that their work often goes in directions that they
do not anticipate. I have lived for decades believing some very good writers
have produced masterpieces by developing characters, not plot. They let their characters determine the plot, and that is what is
happening with me and Rita.
I could never afford this approach before
retirement. It’s too risky and I needed a guaranteed income. I wrote formulaically
to exploit niche markets. I do not
aspire to greatness; that is not the point of telling you about how great
writers have said of their writing.
What I have always wanted to do and been afraid to do is write fiction. But magic happened — well not magic, Warren Kimmel. Warren
spent a year convincing me that my autobiographical play, Knock Knock, should become a movie and once convinced to try, I
found myself having to write dialogue and I had never written dialogue before. Knock Knock was a series of monologues interspersed with songs.
Fictional literature and dialogue were things I was afraid of. But the screenplay passed every test on its route to being successfully sold to Convergent. Its sale gave me confidence and ignited a passion in me for writing dialogue. That passion is the
impetus for Rita
— the kind of writing that has the potential to fulfill me more than
anything I have ever done.
I love this project because its not about me or for me to perform. It has
absolutely nothing to do with me. Yes, it’s inspired by my experience with
Rita Ferguson, my late father’s fairly recently deceased partner but its not about Rita Ferguson
or me; and for me, that is its greatest value. Dave, Karen and Ross are entirely fictitious.
When I took creative writing at UBC I had a
zillion assignments, each one addressing a different writing or
challenge. One of the hardest ones was to write a set of instructions for a
blind person about what a screw is, what a screwdriver is and how to use one. But the hardest one
of all for everyone was the last one. It had the most weight in marks, too.
It was one we had to make up
ourselves. Every aspect of it was up to us. It was hell.
First we had to submit our idea. It had to
be compelling. Once accepted by our prof, we had to write it. Then a surprise: We had to decide who,
of all the faculty at UBC, should grade it. We had to write an essay
for our prof explaining our choice of evaluator (deductive explanatory copy) and then we had to write to our chosen appraiser to earn
his or her agreement to adjudicate our work (persuasive copywriting).
All our assignments were like my career:
purposeful writing tasks designed to earn an essential reward. The last assignment
gave us an exquisitely accurate experience with speculative writing — hard and a huge risk but with the potential for big reward.
I aced my last assignment. (It was about personal hygiene.) I aced everything
really — my courses, my marks and I had a very economically and emotionally
satisfying career. But I never reached
for the top. I never tried writing pure fiction until now and boy it feels
great because this first scene is good and I don’t need anyone else’s validation
to know it.