Whose Right? Who's Right?

2:24 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I know this blog often tends to discuss fiction, and my opinions on fiction, while still maintaining some sort of personal distance. Even though my name and my Twitter handle are on every page, I think I still often keep some degree of the impersonal in many of my articles.

This is not one of those articles. This is my story.

As many of you know, I started an MFA program in dramatic writing this fall. If I had to pick out a single word to describe the beginning of my grad school experience, I think I would have to choose overwhelming. Walking into a program in which I was demographically unique- the sole woman and approximately a decade younger than my nearest colleagues- was intimidating enough, but it wasn’t just the demographics that challenged me, or even the content of the coursework. It was the realization, from the moment I set foot in that basement room, that everyone else there had significantly more experience, both in life and in our shared profession. As an English literature student in my undergraduate years, I had no difficulty feeling confident in my voice in the room. But entering into this room where I was figuratively and literally the junior member by far caused a new and troubling question to arise: what do I have the right to say?

This idea of having the “right” was not exclusive to reading my new colleagues’ writing, but perhaps even more so when it came to the published plays we read. How on earth was I, a twenty-two-year-old barely out of undergrad with only a single table reading to my name, supposed to do anything with this award-winning plays except learn from them? Despite living most of my life surrounded by theatre, and having no qualms at all about expressing my opinions, I suddenly found myself questioning my right to have opinions if they were negative. These plays we were reading were award winners, produced and published, written by people who have been certified Good Playwrights Who Write Good Plays You Should ReadTM. If I disliked a play, it must be because I haven’t learned to appreciate them, because my tastes are too mainstream, too uncultured. And somehow, even when I heard my fellow writers criticize these plays (certain discussions about Annie Baker's The Flick will remain in my memory forever), I had the instinctive reaction that, well, they know so much more than me so they can criticize. I just have instincts and feeling reactions; I’d better just listen.

This turned out to be both a negative and a positive. On the one hand, by listening closely to the discussions around me, I began to feel more comfortable with the language and the level of discourse of the class. I began to recognize the parallels between these critical discussions and those familiar literary discussions, and I learned a lot from listening to and absorbing the discussion around me. The skills of picking apart a text to find out what it is that bothered me weren’t so different after all. On the other hand, however, it did not become any easier to feel I had the right to say anything, especially since everyone else always seemed to have so much more to say. Because of my literature background and a long-held fascination with language, I’m always thinking about words and phrases that have multiple meanings; my questioning of what right I have to say anything about these high-level works gave rise to another question: what is the right thing to say?

These misgivings might give the impression that I’m a stranger to the workshop setting, but I’m not. A few years of creative writing workshops have made me quite familiar with the ins and outs of reading and critiquing works in progress by my peers. The different feeling for me here was the thought that there was a true gap in knowledge and experience between my peers and me. Again, what right could I have, young and inexperienced and new to the program, to critique something written by someone senior to me? The earliest days of workshop solidified this position, as the discussion tended to move faster than I expected and, by the time there was the space of a human breath for me to chime in, the point I was going to make had long passed. It did teach me to think more quickly, although I am the sort of reader and writer who prefers to mull over something for a moment before speaking. As time passed, I began thinking less about whether or not I was saying the right thing and became less shy about not backing away from speaking. I learned to listen to my colleagues’ critiques, both in content and in delivery, and find my own distinctive manner of communicating.

For me, dialogue is one of my favorite elements to work with, and each of the four plays we read taught me something different about how to use speech and language. The style of dialogue in The Flick is probably the furthest from my personal style. It’s sparse, with a very specific, clipped cadence and a degree of realism that is almost excruciating. Much of the dialogue seems to take forever to get to a dramatically relevant point or emotion, which is frustrating on the one hand but also very realistic on the other; it forced me to consider how, in real life, people often skirt around a subject for a long time or just say something to fill the air. In contrast, Water by the Spoonful felt a bit like coming home: quippy dialogue that had something dry to say about even the most mundane-seeming topics. Even All The Way had a bit of that style, something about it that, even on the page, reads as quick and has a specific, nearly musical cadence to it. These thoughts served another purpose for me as a learning writer: one of the things that interests me most is communication form and style.

From this perspective, All The Way was a bit of an ironic read for me: a play full of characters who have absolutely no doubts that they have the right to speak- and quite loudly, more often than not. I think the crux of this play is its ability to make something that is ostensibly dull and technical into something that draws us in dramatically. This is the same type of structure as TV medical dramas or musicals set in fantasy worlds; we obediently follow along for the ride, learn the jargon, and feel smarter and better about ourselves for doing so.

By the time we got to this play in class, I had begun to feel a little more strongly that I have a right to be heard, just as every character in this play has no doubt that they should have a voice. The right thing to say, perhaps, remained still a bit elusive, just as these politicians struggled over nuance of words and actions to achieve a desired end, but what mattered was a voice being heard.

To be honest, Water by the Spoonful couldn’t have come at a better time for me on my experience of the semester. Not only was it a voice I was already familiar with- Quiara Alegr├Ča Hudes wrote the book for In the Heights- but the style felt like something I could hear in my head as I read the words on the page. I felt ever so slightly more at ease with this discussion, and perhaps because I liked it more, I didn’t worry so much about whether or not I had the right to comment on a Pulitzer Prize winner; I felt more at ease figuring out what I could learn from it. In some ways, I also latched onto this play more closely because, to me, it felt like the truest female depictions out of the plays we read; that is to say, these felt like women I might know, more so than in any of the others.

For obvious reasons, this particular concern has been at the forefront of my mind for much of the semester. One of the reasons I have struggled with the question of rights is because of questions of authenticity: as a person and as a writer, I am constantly seeking the happy medium between artistic freedom and authentic-feeling depictions. It’s an intangible that I’m striving to quantify in discussion and in craft. I would never dream to represent all women, or even all young, white, middle class, academic, female writers. And yet, as the lone female voice in a room, these concerns cannot help but occur to me. Do I have a right to speak as representative of anyone but myself? Do I have a right to give “a woman’s perspective,” especially when the discussion at hand is directly related to, for instance, how a woman would think about a certain topic? Or should I try to separate my perspective as an artist from my perspective as a woman? Is that even possible to do?

If you were expecting this to end with some big, powerful, defiant revelation, I'm sorry, but I'm probably going to disappoint you. I can't say with any certainty how much of any of my experiences have to do with my gender or my age or just my personality and speaking style, so I won't make broad, sweeping statements. Even now, I still struggle with questions of what is “right” for me to do with regards to these ideas. It’s an ongoing question and not one I expect to answer anytime soon; all I can do is my best at any given moment and be true to who I am- and that includes all facets of my identity.

Learning that I have as much as right as anyone came slowly but surely, along with more experience so that I could be more confident and quick in discussion. To be sure, there were days in August, September, even October when the only thing getting me through was the thought of eating dinner after class on my favorite bench and saying hello to my newfound acquaintances as they passed by. But there were other days, too, much better days. The day that someone started to talk over me in discussion and I just kept going instead of backing down was a glorious achievement. I rediscovered the confidence in my abilities that carried me through my undergraduate years and, really, most of my life before that. The writing development process is by turns exciting and frustrating, just like anything in the world of theatre, but with enough experience, time, and dedication, it turns out all right.