Sarah Lawrence Grad for me was a hotbed of fantastic writers. I didn’t know back then that it was rare to have such great writers around at all times. I took it for granted. I’ve been a HUGE fan of Jenn’s plays for so long. I remember her play “Just Resting” VIVIDLY (not just because I was one of the producers of the student run space, Downstage, that produced it) because it was a genius mother/daughter growth spurt happeng right in front of us with a dad that had NO lines at all because he couldn’t move. Jenn’s soared since then writingwise and doing a really fantastic blog about motherhood (www.breedemandweep.com). Official bio below.
Jenn Mattern is a playwright, freelance writer and author of the blog Breed ‘Em and Weep. She lives with her two moxie-tastic daughters in western Massachusetts
When you begin a story, what comes first to you (dialogue, imagery, etc)?
Dialogue comes first. I always feel like I’m just taking dictation, transcribing from ghosts in my head and just behind my shoulder. Um, of course, that could just mean I’m batshit loco. Which I am. But I think that’s a prerequisite for being a writer. So.
What is the process like getting something from your head to the page?
Head to page. Hmm. I am a miserable sodden failure when it comes to creating a plot out of magical Plot Legos in my head and then carefully moving it to something comprehensible on the page. So I generally give plot a hall pass and concentrate on getting the characters (who are always quite vivid) and what they want to say (they are usually quite loud and persistent) on paper. Then I go back and fill in the pieces. The process is messy. I find I don’t often know where a play should begin, but I know damn well how it ends, sometimes as specifically as the last line of the play. One of my favorite plays came out of the last line, “You can take her now.” I saw a teenage girl saying it, and offering up a child. I didn’t know who she was, or how we’d get to that point, but I knew I owed it to her to make that line really matter, really count, not be some sort of afterschool special. I worked that whole play for that character, to make that moment organic. That was a pretty fascinating and exhilarating process.
Other times, my process looks like me tapping listlessly, deleting, and getting up to find a clean bra because my boobs in my lap are getting in the way of my creative process.
What is the biggest difficulty in achieving that goal of having something on the page?
Biggest difficulty, having something on the page. You know, this one has never been my problem. I can spew like a mofo. And I take responsibility for the mess afterward, and clean that shiz right up. But getting stuff onto a blank screen, yeah, I like that part. Possibility, promise, hope. It’s like the beginning of any relationship. Before he tells you he’s too busy to call you in the ER because it’s Bowling Night and, oh, by the way, he just won at Settlers of Cataan. ::fist pump:: Yeah. I love blank slates, when you and the page gaze dreamily at each other by candlelight and talk about the future. I rock that part.
After you’ve started, when do you edit?
I edit as I go. I am a fierce whippet. I don’t know why I said whippet. But that’s the image I get, pointy-nosed me tearing pages into shreds, shaking my manuscript like a rat. I HATE having other people tell me what’s wrong with a piece. T. Tara, if you remember from Ed’s class, I used to actually have to pull my chair out of the circle and hunch over my notebook, chewing a pen to bits when the class would offer (usually totally spot-on and wonderful) critique. I was smart enough to listen and learn, but still such a raging perfectionist that I was determined, NEXT TIME, every next time, that there would be nothing bad left to point out. Which is about as likely as Jesus and Mohammed co-writing my next play with me.
I edit until it’s bone. Clean white Georgia O’Keefe bone. And then, because we are all creatures of vanity, I stitch unnecessary meat back onto the carcass. And then I tear it off again. I think with playwriting in particular, you get to know the characters’ voices so damn well, that after a while they sit on the side of your desk, roll their eyes, and say, “Seriously? Like I would seriously f*cking say that? Who gave you that MFA?” And then I hang my head and go back to saying what they need to say, not what my superprissysmartypants brain wants someone else hearing me say through them. It’s a disservice to characters, to not edit fiercely and passionately. Editing is about distilling, finding pure essence. We all screw it up, but we can all get better at it, every day, too.
If you right fictional things, do you do research? If so, what kind and how hard to rely on facts?
Facts. Oh, Jesus, I’m a maniac for esoteric facts. Like, I can spend all day researching the exact kind of leather boot a dairy farmer from 1863 (not 1864, when they introduced that other tanning process) would be wearing in Bradfield, Yorkshire, England. I get off on that stuff. I LOVE having four billion facts at my disposal so I can create a realistic PLACE…and then go all Gabriel Garcia Marquez on that place. I love mixing facts with insane mystical dreamlike elements. It’s like wearing stilettos with jeans and a flannel shirt and feather boa and a cowboy hat but EVEN COOLER, YO. GET IN MY OWN PURSE, is what I’m saying. Diggity.
Do you expose your “in progress” writing to other people? Why or why not?
I am a wimp-ass when it comes to sharing my work in progress. I used to only with David. (Outside of classroom settings.) I think I have to be able to climax simultaneously with someone before I can trust them to look at my overprecious work. Oh. Did I type that out loud? Goodness. It really is just too intimate, and I am too stubborn about wanting to get it “right” on my own. I would rather go to the gynecologist for five pap smears in a week than show my early drafts to anyone.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
Best writing advice? So much! Edward Allan Baker, my mentor, my demi-god, oh, I am fangirl, hear me exult. You want to write? Open a vein. I think he passed that along. Also Fan Scheier told us in Improv class something that applies to writing as well: DIRTY IT UP. Too predictable, too clean? DIRTY IT UP, AND FAST. Ed also said something that is huge: “There are no new stories, only new relationships.” I tell myself that so I can get the hell out of my own way, you know? Stop pretending that I’ve got The Last Great New Tale. Get humble, get to work, and find out what makes the relationships unique. THAT’s the story.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
Worst piece of writing advice? I think, “You can’t have a character talk directly to the audience. That never works.” I think the Greeks and Shakespeare, for starter, might have also found that “advice” amusing.
What kind of mediums do you use to get your writing out there the public?
I suck at self-marketing. I try to tweet. I have a blog, and that’s very real, very honest, very consistent work, but it doesn’t tie into the playwriting. More people know about my blog than the plays. I don’t know. This question makes me hyperventilate. Shoo. Shoo.
How often do you edit a piece once it’s “done”?
My pieces never feel done. So anytime I might have a chance to send it off again, or get it produced again, I will quietly tinker with it. Shh. Don’t tell. Almost everything has room for improvement. I think after you see your play done is when you finally begin to understand how the hell to lasso the puppy, rein it in, make it shine.
What do you think is the biggest misconception of writing or being a writer?
That it’s a lazy profession. That writers aren’t working when they are staring into space or walking the dog. That everyone can write. That writing is ultimately a vain activity. Someone told me THAT on a date in Union Square in 1997. I dumped a mustardy pretzel on his pants and walked away. If no one dares bear witness to this fucking mess of humanity, the fucking beauty of it, all the lost love and found love and kicked-to-the-curb love, all the lost children and lost adults and broken everythings, then what is the point? Someone’s got to speak for those who don’t know how to, those who don’t dare speak up, those who are invisible. Call me a humanist, call me whatever the hell you want, but if you’re not interested in that, then I’m not interested in you — or explaining what I do, or try to.
How do you feel about offering other writers feedback on their writing if asked?
I am uncomfortable with it, sometimes. Sometimes because I think it will hurt them, what I know I will say. Sometimes because I think they just want an ego stroke, and that pisses me off. Sometimes because if I do it, it means I’m not doing my own work. There are exceptions, of course, people I am really invested in. But energy is finite, and most of my writing feedback these days goes to my girls’ homework. And I love that.Tweet
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