Vasanti and I first met during our Van Lier Fellowship at New York Theatre Workshop. As friends and aunts to each other’s plays, I’ve come to admire Vasanti’s use of language that’s both natural and as lyrical as river. I’m proud to have Vasanti as my first She Writes feature!
Vasanti Saxena is a playwright whose work has been produced/developed in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, She strives to give voice to those who are typically unheard—or not heard enough—in theater. Plays include Sun Sisters (winner of the East West Players Pacific Century Playwriting Competition), currently running at Company of Angels in Los Angeles, as well as Gloria in Translation, Even the Stone and Shift. Her short play Closing Time was selected one of the Best 10-Minute Plays of 2011 and will be published by Smith & Kraus later this year. Vasanti has been a Van Lier Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop and a semi-finalist for both the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and the Princess Grace Award. She is also the recipient of an ARC grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation as well as an Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan commission. Vasanti received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was fortunate enough to study with Romulus Linney.
When you begin a story, what comes first to you (dialogue, imagery, etc.)?
It really depends. Sometimes it’s a place. Sometimes it’s a character. Sometimes it’s a story in the newspaper or online that inspires a play. In those cases, I begin with a character and the question “How did she or he get in this situation?” Also, because I’m a great admirer of Maria Irene Fornes, I often begin with some of her writing exercises, which require starting from a physical feeling—and writing from that feeling.
What is the process like getting something from your head to the page?
Once I sit down and commit myself to writing, it feels very natural. With an idea in my head, I usually begin with the main character who talks and talks until a second character enters the scene with her own agenda. The first character resists so there’s guaranteed conflict, and I see what happens from there. It probably goes without saying that most of these early pages end up being scrapped. But they help me understand what’s important to my characters and what they’re willing to fight for.
What is the biggest difficulty in achieving that goal of having something on the page?
The biggest difficulty is myself and my own fear. In order to get anything done, I have to bypass both and tell myself that nothing I write ever has to see the light of day. That’s the only way to get past the anxiety of writing. I have a quote (I’m not sure of the source) taped to the wall above my desk: “I will take care of the quantity, and God will take care of the quality.” As long as I keep my fingers moving, something good will happen. Eventually.
Explain your editing process.
If the writing is flowing, there’s no need to stop and edit. Usually, however, the writing isn’t flowing so the temptation to edit is high. In those cases, I’ll force myself to wait until I get to a natural marker in the play—usually the end of the first act—then go over it to check the arc of the act and whether there’s anything that needs clarification or if there are any false notes.
Do you expose your “in progress” writing to other people? Why or why not?
I’m lucky enough to have a small group of friends who are astute and generous in their criticism. Out of respect for their time and willingness to look at my writing, I don’t share work that feels too raw. I don’t share work where my characters “rant” (go on long monologues that are really character exploration and research as opposed to something that’s meant to stay in the play) or the structure feels sloppy. When writing, I don’t trust myself to be objective so anything that’s shared has to feel somewhat presentable to my subjective mind…or else it could just be embarrassing. Sometimes exposing “in progress” writing can hinder my process. I’m a little superstitious and even talking about what I’m working on can feel like I’m draining power from it. So I prefer to keep my work to myself until I get to “Blackout. End of play.” Then I can share a reasonable draft of the whole thing.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
Don’t trim before you shape. (re. rewriting)
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten bad writing advice. Everything has been useful in one situation or another.
How often do you edit a piece once it’s “done”?
Because I write plays, nothing is ever “done.” A play changes in rehearsal, with each reading and each production. The director, actors, and entire creative team bring so much to the table so there’s a constant influx of influences up to and beyond opening night. My play “Sun Sisters,” which is now on stage, felt “done” when we were midway through rehearsals, but now that it’s on its feet I keep seeing ways to make it stronger.
What do you think is the biggest misconception of writing or being a writer?
That writing is fun. It isn’t. At least not for me. It’s hard, hard work and takes more mental energy than I sometimes feel I have. Writing is mostly agonizing, but it’s so worth it when the words are flowing and the characters are speaking though you and all you’re doing is writing or typing and they’ve taken over. I’m afraid this sounds very airy-faery, but it’s true. The agony is worth it when the characters take over and let you fly alongside them.
How do you feel about offering other writers feedback on their writing if asked?
I’m happy to offer other writers feedback if I feel that my feedback would benefit them. Mostly, it’s other playwrights who ask for my feedback. If their aesthetic is one that speaks to me, my feedback could be helpful. Their aesthetic doesn’t have to be the same as mine, but it should be something I’m familiar with and enjoy. If it isn’t, then I don’t want to waste their time or mine.
How has your writing evolved from the beginning? 10 years ago? Last year?
One thing will never change. I love language. I revel in it. I wallow in it. The evolution is that now I know the difference between reveling and wallowing. And I’m willing to kill my too-talkative babies.
Vasanti Saxena’s play SUN SISTERS runs through September 3, 2011, at Company of Angels in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.companyofangels.org.
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