In a March 3rd HowlRound article, Polly Carl discusses the issues of normative structures in our jobs, schools, art based on Foucault’s notion of docile bodies. (You had me at Foucault.) I am reminded of an undergraduate professor who explained education as colonialism of the mind. Though I’m currently a student in a really awesome playwriting MFA, I have also lived with very serious questions about the functions of education since my teens that seem to compound with age (thanks undergrad professor). I’ve chosen the MFA path—because it provides a supportive environment for writing, because it provides a sort of legitimation, professional connections, and a route to a number of career paths, because I’m lucky. It’s as legitimate to opt out of the MFA route. It’s as legitimate to opt out of the college path. Schools are not the only warehouses for knowledge. They do, however, give you nice pieces of paper that certify a knowledge-transfer has taken place and make it difficult to prove such knowledge-transfer elsewhere. So I chose school.
Like Carl, I have varied and educationally incompatible interests. I would like an educational course in which I could study: playwriting, fiction, poetry, screenwriting, gender theories, postcolonial theories, history, linguistics, French, Latin—I’ll stop there, but you can word-associate further. Despite the rise in interdisciplinary programs, I could not find a program that would satisfy these requirements. So I chose playwriting.
I have recently (recently?) been struggling to conceptualize my writing process. Before I entered my current program, writing was very organic for me. I used a lot of words like “snowballing” and I wrote my plays inside out. I used structure because the play told me to and without always knowing why. I wasn’t afraid of not knowing why.
As a grad student in playwriting, I have found that most of my workshops lean towards an Aristotelian model. I’ll be the first to admit it’s the easiest to teach. The first thing I assigned to my undergraduates to read was Aristotle. We talk a lot about conflict, beginning/middle/end, resolution and denouement. These are essential terms, yes, but the way we talk about plays affects the way we write them. As the language available to us circumscribes the emotions we are able to express, it can shape the plays we write. I’m not sure we’re not too tightly bound by these words.
As I reflected on my work after my first semester of grad school I realized that I did not feel any of it represented my voice. A friend suggested perhaps my voice was changing. I interrogated this possibility. If my voice were changing, I thought, I would be more satisfied with my output. The problem is not that the work I produced was not “good.” In fact, these were well-er made plays than I’ve ever created, certainly more structurally sound than any of the first drafts I have previously produced (written inside out). But somewhere inside all of those important words I lost my plays. My real plays.
Recently, John Kuntz spoke to one of my workshops about his writing process, admitting that in dealing with structure he sometimes can’t explain why one thing comes after the next except to say that it makes some sort of psychic sense. A few weeks ago, I was a part of a conversation with The Debate Society, who also work in a less than conventional manner: from images, songs, phrases, from seed ideas and research. I am grateful to the professors who have brought these different perspectives into the classroom. I am grateful in particular to those who do so against their own bias.
As I have begun to conceptualize these issues in my current educational experience, I have also begun to question how I can find my way to a new (or old) writing process while functioning within the structure of the MFA.
I’m still working on this.
What I do know is the only way to increase our vocabulary for (and therefore our understanding of) structures, writing, and processes is to talk about them as best we can. Then make new words. Because structures—beginning/middle/end, grad school, disciplines, professions—are, as Carl points out, efficient and useful and also limiting. But we can make new words.