I don’t remember ever having been taught anything about writing when I was in school. We learned grammar in elementary and middle school in those days, of course, but composition courses weren’t part of the curriculum. In high school and college lit classes we studied writers, but not writing. If someone did, in fact, teach me to write, I certainly didn’t learn very well, and I set about (re)learning.
It wasn’t until I was in grad school the first time, for a Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Rutgers’ School of Creative and Performing Arts (the predecessor to the Mason Gross School of the Arts), that I began to look at my writing with any kind of critical eye and to take an interest in improving my prose. The process of learning to write has essentially been a matter of teaching myself. The path of this self-teaching hasn’t been direct, and there were several influences on the way I examine and reexamine what I think about writing.
My awareness of writing with a purpose began to solidify when I started to work on my master’s thesis 34 years ago. Other than personal letters, the only writing I did after college was in the army. God knows, its literary demands were not very great—except, perhaps, in a negative sense because of the formulaic style of military documents. My MFA courses demanded very little writing of any consequence; actors and directors aren’t expected to write very much, and we weren’t often asked to. For the thesis, however, I had to write about the performance of my thesis role in a way that would both document it and explain the process by which I arrived at it, and I had to do it not for myself, but for a committee of faculty members who would cross-question me on what I said. Furthermore, the thesis would be put in the university library for posterity. I would be “on record” for anyone to read. (The paper is, indeed, in the Rutgers University library. I also published an edited version of the thesis on ROT: “Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait,” 10 and 15 December 2009.)
Even though the written thesis wasn’t the important part of the thesis work—the performance itself was, and the written thesis was not intended to stand alone without it—I was constrained to write a readable document, if not by departmental or scholarly pressure, then by my own desire to do the best damn thesis the department had seen. The problem was, I didn’t have any idea how to go about doing that. I didn’t know how to write the way I thought I wanted to. I had to learn for myself how to do it.
It’s probably dumb luck that I succeeded at all. I don’t know exactly what I did while I was writing the paper, but I do remember two things. The first was that I was terribly blocked at first—I didn’t know how to start. I finally convinced myself that I had to get started somehow, and I decided I would just begin. I would just start putting words on paper (no word processors yet) as swiftly as I could and worry later about whether they made sense and were grammatical. I didn’t know it then, but what I was doing was free-writing about the role and my performance, a strategy I later learned is called focused free-writing. Very soon, it all just began to gush out. I’m sure, once the dam was broken, the flood of words was mostly due to the subject, which was necessarily very close to me emotionally, and the intensity of the work that led to the performance. But the words did come, and they were surprisingly lucid. I was actually writing a master’s thesis, and, finally having started, I found I couldn’t stop. (In fact, the finished thesis was 44 pages—not long by academic standards, but three to four times as long as the usual written acting thesis, as the department chairman remarked at my defense session.)
The second thing that I remember noticing about my writing was a concern for style: I wanted to write “trippingly on the tongue.” I’d never considered such a thing before, and I have no idea why the idea popped into my head then. My college writing, between seven and eleven years before, had always sounded pompous and pretentious. I used to describe my own writing style, when I thought about it, as “pedantic”; I had what I now call The William F. Buckley Syndrome—deliberately choosing a $50 word when a $5 one was available, just to show off. No one ever told me to write more conversationally; I just began to want to. I can only guess that I’d been subtly and insidiously influenced by whatever I’d been reading. I have no idea what that might have been: most of my reading for school at the time—and virtually all I had time for—was play scripts. I don’t think I took my cue from them because the styles were too varied to have made me so aware of conversational prose as a desirable style for my writing. The subliminal influence “to acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” might have come from such periodicals as Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine, which I did read then. Some of the writers I admired at that time were Times columnists Russell Baker and Anna Quindlen and essayists E. B. White and James Thurber, who all wrote in conversational prose. (I also liked the breeziness and surprising diction of Mark Twain and the clarity and specificity of Bernard Shaw, but their 19th-century floweriness made them unlikely models for my needs.) I certainly didn’t imitate the style of those publications or writers, but they were less formal than the kind of academic reading a student usually encounters, and they were easy to read. In any case, something put the idea in my head, and it wasn’t a teacher or any other acknowledgeable human being.
I finished the thesis and defended it and went off in pursuit of an acting career. I didn’t consider myself a writer of any kind—it wasn’t a thought that even entered my head. I don’t think I did any appreciable writing between finishing the MFA thesis in 1976 and the next stage in this attenuated process.
The next thing that happened, when I decided the acting career was unlikely to be successful, was returning to school about seven years later, ending up in NYU's Department of Performance Studies. One of the main emphases at DPS when I was there was a clear, readable writing style. All the faculty specifically stressed it in their classes—my instructors Michael Kirby, Brooks McNamara, and Richard Schechner in particular. These men all were editors or former editors of The Drama Review and presumably the staffs of both TDR and Women in Performance, journals published by the department, focused on it, too. All our written work was expected to be of publishable quality whether or not we intended to submit it to a journal and though I never received written remarks on my papers concerning this, I saw it clearly criticized on classmates' work from time to time. A required course at DPS, Resources and Methods for the Study of Performance, was essentially a graduate-level writing course and our Qualifying Exams (the DPS equivalent of “comps”) were three ten-page essays of publishable quality which we had to write in ten days. (I have, in fact, had two of them published: "Dramaturgy: The Conscience of the Theatre," TheatreInsight 1.2 [Spring 1989]: 34-37 and "Konstantin Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov: Realism and Un-Realism," The Players’ Journal 2.1 : 15-22.) The constant emphasis on our writing by the faculty couldn’t help but make us conscious of our prose.
At the same time that I started at Performance Studies, I also began teaching writing to undergrads. NYU required all undergraduates who hadn’t had an equivalent course in a previous school to take a two-semester Writing Workshop and pass a proficiency exam at the end. One of the country’s largest private universities, NYU had far too few regular faculty to teach a required, university-wide course to all the students mandated to take it, so grad students were hired to teach most of the WW classes. Shortly after I matriculated, I was offered a position as a preceptor (what the program called its TA’s) in the Expository Writing Program, teaching two sections of the twice-weekly course. (I learned later that Performance Studies grad students were considered a prime pool for prospective EWP preceptors because of the department’s emphasis on writing.) Having the responsibility to guide and train students in a field in which I never before considered myself even a practitioner, much less an expert, made me examine and question my own writing even more critically.
(As an adjunct to teaching in the EWP, preceptors were required to take a class in the ed school [SEHNAP] on teaching writing. Because of scheduling, I didn’t take the course until my third semester. One assignment in the course was to write about our “writing process.” For this class, in the Resources and Methods course, and from my awakened interest in the craft of composition, I began to read “words on words”—writers who wrote about writing: William Zinsser, Peter Elbow, and William Safire—who wrote not so much about writing as language—and the old standbys Fowler and Strunk and White. That was the first time I had actually analyzed how I wrote and how I learned—or was learning—to write.)
In my first semester at Performance Studies, I took the late Michael Kirby’s class in Theatrical Structure, my first course with Michael. After I turned in my final paper for the course, the structural analysis of a play (I used Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a favorite of mine), Michael said something to me that I remember to this day as having been a huge compliment at the time. He singled my paper out as unique in the class—which is pretty great in itself—because I had been the only student who didn’t hand in a list of structural devices but an actual essay discussing and describing the appearances and uses of the devices which had been the subject of the course. What really got me, though, is that it had never occurred to me to do the paper any other way—or even that there was any other way it could be done. I mean, I hadn't struggled with the idea of taking a tack that I suspected was clever or unusual—in my mind, I just did the assignment. As well as I could, of course—given the department’s insistence that our writing should be of publishable quality all the time. I had spent some effort polishing the prose as I always did (or was learning to do—this was still new to me), but I never stopped to think, ‘I've got to come up with a way to do this that's different and special.’ That Michael thought it was anyway was an immense ego-boost.
In the spring term, I took Michael’s 20th-Century Mise-en-Scène, an examination of the staging techniques of modern Western theater. At the start of the term, Michael, then the editor of TDR, announced in all his classes (I began auditing his other classes, so I was in two each term sometimes—though I didn't do the assignments for both) that he was planning an issue on the Group Theatre. If any student wished to do the course paper on a Group Theatre topic, it could be considered for publication in TDR. I simply dismissed the offer because I figured I'd have enough work just to make my paper acceptable for classwork, let alone publication; I didn't want to take on the extra burden—real or psychological. There was a meeting for anyone who was considering submitting a Group Theatre paper, but I hadn't planned to attend. That's when I got a surprise phone call. It was Michael and he asked if I was thinking of doing my paper for TDR; I said I wasn't. He asked me why not, and I explained that I thought it would be more work than I was able to handle. He tried to persuade me that it wouldn't be more work and asked me to think it over and come to the meeting on spec, just in case I changed my mind. I asked Michael why he’d called me and why he wanted me to consider this. I figured he must either be desperate or was trying to round up as many prospects as he could in order to have a larger selection in the end. His answer, which I will never forget, has in a way affected the rest of my life. "I think you can write," he said. I was flabbergasted at the compliment, and the fact that he had reached out to me specifically that way! Believe me, no one had ever said anything like that to me in my life. It wasn't even anything I had ever thought about myself.
I actually hadn't even chosen a topic yet, so I didn't know if I would do a Group Theatre paper or not. In fact, I didn't know much about the Group except in very general terms. On the other hand, I had nothing else in mind so I went to that meeting and Michael had some suggestions for those of us who hadn't selected a topic—things he would like to have as part of the issue. My term paper for the mise-en-scène course ended up being a reconstruction of the Group Theatre's Johnny Johnson. I didn't know anything about the play before I started the research—I'd never even heard of it—but JJ was the Group's only musical, so it was on Michael’s list; that uniqueness was what attracted me to it. The reconstruction part was the focus of the course—this was still a term paper for class, after all. I think, though, that I did it more because Michael had said what he said to me, and because he’d sought me out to say it, than for any other reason. "The Group Theatre's Johnny Johnson” did, in the end, appear in TDR (28.4 [T104: Winter 1984]: 49-60)—my first published essay.
The whole process was a revelation to me—from the actual research I did on JJ (I even turned up a little historical coup and got to interview a few surviving Group members and associates) through the writing and editing of the paper (a great deal of what I learned from that class and that paper has turned up in later work) to publication (it's a narcotic—as addictive as heroin).
From then on, I’ve thought of myself as a writer. (Well, that’s what I put on my tax returns and other forms where there’s a space for “occupation.” Sometimes it’s “writer-teacher,” sometimes “writer-researcher,” and sometimes “freelance writer,” but writer’s always in there now.) I make no claim regarding quality or significance, but words are what I pay attention to—both when I craft them and when I read some crafted by others. All because Michael Kirby called me at home one evening.
[I admired and respected Michael Kirby a great deal. Aside from what he did for me with that phone call, he had a unique and unpredictable view of performance and theater which always revealed something new and surprising to me. Michael was a sculptor and I always figured that his distinctive view of theater was the result of this background in a three-dimensional visual art. Michael died of leukemia on 24 February 1997 at the age of 66.]