Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rita: The Script

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.

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