The play’s the thing

Listening to someone else is challenging. Listening to myself required a new skill set of awareness and belief.

curtainIt happened in summer. Some neighbors were getting together to plan a party, and I was the odd person out because I am not a big partygoer. But this one was in celebration of a relative, so I wanted to be there. And the party had distantly been my idea, an idea that passed through my thoughts and out of my mouth before I realized anyone was listening. At least two people were, and it grew from there.

When I arrived at the home of the host for the obligatory planning session, coffee and tea were served, chocolates were on the table and everyone took a seat. I was distracted, my mind was elsewhere, but because I was out of my comfort zone, my attentiveness to detail kicked in. We sat around a large square coffee table covered by a scenic jigsaw puzzle well on its way to completion. The host had a notebook in hand, and the work started.

Everyone in the room was a professional, so the meeting was a comprehensive and meticulous discussion about the guest list, refreshments, location, format. By the end of an hour, the party had taken shape. I walked home alone, thinking about the way plots get organized: as if there’s a committee in a writer’s imagination. That day, I spent more than an hour writing a story that had been flapping around in my head throughout the meeting. Oddly, the meeting’s theme – a party – was not what helped organize my story. It was the meeting’s procedural format that tutored me in organizing plot. I heard the story, but I hadn’t been disciplined enough to catalogue the guest list, refreshments, location, format – so to speak.

For many writers, an MFA program provides the tools and techniques for developing the discipline required to craft a meaningful story. It’s the safest, most dangerous, most luxurious breeding ground for writers who are serious about development. While I do have degrees in literature, for me, learning about storytelling has been more circuitous – through reading, through analysis and through deep listening to the world around me.

Often when I am at events – dinner parties, art openings, business meetings – I slip into a game I developed to get me through dramatic and difficult family situations many years ago. I pretend I am in a play and that everyone in the room is part of a live reality show taking place onstage just for me. With my family, I would capture the material and record it in my journal. The effect was cathartic and revelatory. After all, I knew the characters, had a keen sense of their voices and a memory about their dossiers that spanned decades. I had no idea how perfectly I was practicing my craft.

Developing deliberateness with that technique was a less natural process. Because I had not been encouraged or trained to do so, I had to learn to hear my own voice, recognize what was taking place in real time and honor it enough to follow through with attentiveness – and eventually with a pen moving across a piece of paper. I had to apply a figurative flick to my head, a mental snap to pop me into focus. Listening to someone else is challenging, but as a reporter, I have the training and experience to do this. Listening to myself required a new skill set of awareness and belief.

Now when I’m listening deeply, the play still goes on, but I’m no longer seeking only catharsis. I’m recording the story. It’s called work.

Alicia Anstead is the editor-in-chief of The Writer and the Harvard Arts Blog.