Writing for the Stage: A Primer

WRITING FOR THEBeing a writer who also works in the theatre has offered me a unique perspective on both writing and creating theatre. Fundamentally, they aren’t that different: just variations on the transmission of narratives. However, the reason that so many genres exist is that certain stories belong as fiction, and others as movies, and some are made for the stage.

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College Writers: Do you need to study writing to be a writer?

As time crawls forward to graduation, I find myself wondering if I have any regrets. If I would have done anything differently if I had different information.

I have been a Creative Writing major since my acceptance at Oswego University (though I did add a Theatre minor my junior year) because I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. My original plan was to go on to get a Master’s in Library Science, but that plan has fallen by the wayside as I have slowly realized I’d rather do something active than sit behind a desk.

My passion for the written word hasn’t waned, but I do find myself wondering whether my major was worth my time. The answer I have come to is pretty complex, so buckle up.

ABOUT THE CREATIVE WRITING B.A.

My required classes have consisted of multiple tracks of practical, workshop-based classes (I took Fiction, Poetry, and Playwrighting), with some basic English courses sprinkled in. Perhaps the most interesting and unique writing course that Oswego offers is the Living Writers Series, in which faculty invites writers to talk about their work.

Other majors at other colleges have different programs. Some have more general majors, usually just branded as “Writing,” that focus more on business-oriented, professional writing, and of course a Journalism degree would be relatively similar.

YOU SHOULD NOT MAJOR IN IT IF:

I’m going to be honest. I don’t think that aspiring writers need to get a degree at all, let alone a Creative Writing one. Writing instructors cannot teach you anything that you cannot learn on your own from reading and writing extensively.

If you love to learn, and you think you would enjoy academia, by all means go to college. College is an amazing experience, and if you are a scholarly type (like me!) and it fits into your career plans, I highly recommend it. However, consider majoring in something else.

Writing is both a trade and an art, and therefore you learn much more by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience things like foreign languages and science are much harder to study just from reading and practice, and therefore might make a better major.

Secondly, majoring in a secondary interest may be worth it just to broaden your scope. Basically, writers need something to write about. My experiences in Political Science and Linguistics classrooms have permanently altered my worldview, and I think my writing has become more mature as a result. And– don’t flinch– this also serves to open up your career options. If you love science fiction, why don’t you augment it with science journalism? If you write like George R. R. Martin, get a political science degree so you can also blog about current events. You know yourself best; all I am saying here is to consider your options.

Many writers choose to major in English, and despite its reputation as a useless major, I think it’s a really good path, for fiction writers in particular. If nothing else, you will be exposed to a bunch of literature you may not have otherwise read. And if you dedicate yourself, all that reading can really do you good: after being forced to read the entire Iliad in three weeks, nothing seems too dense. Shakespeare isn’t much harder for me than an average novel (aside from his pop culture references, of course). If professional-level reading competency fits into your career plans, an English degree is pretty useful.

YOU SHOULD MAJOR IN IT IF:

There are two reasons that a Creative Writing major is indispensable.

One thing is networking, though as always this is more feasible at larger, more well-known universities. Meeting other writers, both those with established careers and those who are your peers, is valuable for a variety of reasons. Since OSU is a small school, I doubt you have heard of any of my professors, but what if you could attend a class taught by Maya Angelou? Peers are useful too: some of them are bound to be very talented, and maybe together you could set up a very successful YouTube channel, or just have someone to read your future work. All writers know how valuable a skilled and articulate beta-reader is!

The other is market research. It may sound cold, but reading what your peers are writing will help you get ahead. Learn from their mistakes (personally, I am sick of reading love poetry and fiction set in college dorms, so I don’t write it), but don’t ignore their successes. Though I think people often put too much stock in it, it is still a fact that publishing goes through trends, and you could be in the perfect position to jump on the newest one.

WHAT ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING MINORS?

On the other hand, I think that a Creative Writing minor is a great idea, even for people who don’t want to make writing their career. At my school, this is a more focused program, meaning that you only have to practice one medium. Many people choose it just to devote time to their hobby, but in our increasingly technological world, how could getting experience writing well possibly hurt you?

SUGGESTIONS FOR PROGRAMS

My Creative Writing classes have been focused around work-shopping, to the point of neglecting most kinds of instruction. I remember one lesson on publishing, another on first sentences, and maybe a few others on different kinds of poetic forms, but for the most part, the entire semester’s worth of classes was focused on the piece that became our final project. In my opinion, this is extremely short sighted. Even if work-shopping helps students publish all three of their fiction pieces, or every poem they handed in (about 15), what then? How does this help a writer go on and create a career?

This could be fixed by limiting work-shopping to only one round (most of my classes have done two) and doing more short assignments, which students can apply to future projects. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re in-class or for homework, but finding effective ways to practice dialogue, exposition, stage directions, line breaks, imagistic language, etc. could really help student writers in the long run.

My other suggestion would be a wider variety of classes that majors could take as electives. For example, we got little-to-no instruction on publishing, blogging, genre fiction, journaling, or reading for audiences. I’m sure there’s many more useful skills that I could list that I haven’t even been exposed to. I think my career would really benefit from practicing skills that don’t apply to sitting in front of the keyboard.

OTHER OPINIONS

Of course, every program is different, and every person’s experience is different. I invite you to comment (or write your own post!) about your thoughts and feelings. If my advice is missing something, I won’t hesitate to rethink!

Shen Yun Performing Arts

Recently, my mother and I had the good fortune to see the Chinese dance troupe, Shen Yun, perform at the Rochester Auditorium Theatre. If you get the chance to see it at any point in the future, please do– we were gasping and clapping the entire way through. Filled with acrobatic dance numbers and interspersed with opera and instrumental exhibitions, and featuring a particularly interesting use of a projection screen, audiences of every age and temperament can enjoy this

It was this show that inspired my post on tonal languages, but I couldn’t neglect the main focus of the show: the dance. According to the hosts, many of the world’s flips and tumbles were invented by ancient Chinese dancers, and that piqued my curiosity.

Here is a video that will give you a taste of what I saw, including a history lesson about why they perform around the world but not in China.

The Long History of Pancakes

Jan Steen’s ‘The Pancake Woman.’ Memorial Art Gallery.

Recently, I went to Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery and came across a painting depicting someone making pancakes. The plaque beside it read:

Pancake vendors, much like outdoor food vendors today, were a common sight on Dutch streets during the 1600s. Originally a delicacy prepared on the festival day of Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival and the day before the beginning of Lent, pancakes were associated with feasting and wild behavior. Images of pancake makers were initially moralistic in nature, symbolizing gluttony and lust. By the 17th century, pancakes were eaten every day and the theme lost some of its allegorical significance. The scene retained its popularity among painters and printmakers of “low-life” genre scenes, or scenes of everyday peasant and street life.

Being me, and loving both food and research, I was then inspired to look up the history of pancakes, and found that someone else had already done the bulk of my work for me. There is an entire site dedicated to the history of food! Here is their article on pancakes, but I invite you to explore because it’s a really interesting, quality resource.

Give Hamlet another chance!

Part of the reason that Shakespeare wrote such long explanatory soliloquies had to do with the fact that the most important members of his audience couldn’t see him. The Globe theatre was constructed in a sort of extreme horseshoe. The lowest-paying patrons, the Groundlings, stood in the circular center in front of the stage, whereas wealthier patrons sat in the three stories of boxes surrounding them. The most expensive boxes were above and next to the stage, meaning that the highest born audience members could be seen out and about, but also that they couldn’t see the actors’ faces and gestures. This was the Elizabethan equivalent of People magazine, displaying fashion and scandal of the upper classes to the lower classes.

The Legend & History of Hereward the Wake

A 19th century interpretation of Hereward in battle. Click through for citation.

Hereward the Wake (which was understood as the Watchful) was an English folk hero that served as early inspiration for the Robin Hood legend. Pretty good records exist verifying his existence, but some stories connected with him seem obviously exaggerated.

In the 11th century, natives of northern France known as Normans and led by William the Conqueror were trying to conquer Britain. Already occupying Britain were the Anglo-Saxons, who were Germanic. Evidence of both these heritages can be seen in the modern English language, which blends Germanic grammar with French vocabulary and sprinklings of Latin.

Hereward was from South Lincolnshire which, due to its location in northern England, was one of the later areas to feel the grip of the Norman rule. He is purported to have been a very wild young man, with eyes of two different colors, who constantly got into arguments with his father.

Hereward is renowned for his stand against William the Conqueror. A group of Danes (also known as Vikings) picked him up, sacked the abbey at Peterborough, and then escaped to the Ilse of Ely. Here we can see parallels to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Eventually, William the Conqueror won, but not before Hereward had made quite a name for himself as the epitome of Anglo-Saxon chivalry.

For further reading:

Selection from Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales

Selection from Bulfinch’s Age of Chivalry

Specific stories about Hereward’s legendary life