From Stage to Screen to Page… A Few Notes on Writing Across Media

Jen Silverman on Taking Risks and Following Your Artistic Vision

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time telling people who’ve hired me that I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. Sometimes I just say it outright—“I’ve never done this before, what’s the format?” Sometimes I ask them to explain industry-specific jargon. Most often, I ask about etiquette or expectations. I have a novel coming out with Random House in February, and on the first phone call with one of my book publicists, I asked her how much involvement she wanted me to have. When she asked me what I meant, I tried to explain: “I come from the theatre—sometimes the director wants the playwright in the room, and sometimes she doesn’t.” When she started to laugh, I realized the question was probably ridiculous.

Admitting all of the ways in which I’m a beginner comes as a surprising relief. It turns out that pretending you understand what you don’t is exhausting and time-consuming, and at the end of it, you still don’t know what you didn’t know. If I’ve learned anything across the past few years of writing in theatre, TV, film, and prose, it is that there is a wild and liberating joy in not-knowing.

*

I was a playwright and a purist for many years. I believed that not only was theatre the craft to which I would dedicate my life, but also that it would save that life. This kind of headlong desperation might not resonate with you, and if it doesn’t, then count yourself lucky—some people move through the world in such a way that they don’t believe their lives need saving. Others of us plunge and plunge and plunge.

When my agents first approached me about writing for TV and film, I was dubious. I had grown up without a television—when I was a kid, this reveal used to shock and horrify my friends—and I had naively imagined my life as a downtown playwright, making exactly what I wanted to make: art without compromise. Wasn’t Hollywood all about compromise?

What I was too inexperienced to factor in, at the time, was that as a playwright you don’t get to make exactly what you want. You are, at every turn, engaged in a series of artistic conversations that cannot help but center the economic reality of theatre—namely, that there is no money. America is not a culture that values the arts; therefore there is limited-to-no government funding of artistic institutions; therefore artistic leaders exist in a state of anxiety that nobody will buy tickets and the theatre will close.

Admitting all of the ways in which I’m a beginner comes as a surprising relief. It turns out that pretending you understand what you don’t is exhausting and time-consuming.

And that is how you find yourself in a series of notes sessions with well-meaning and intelligent people who have the power to produce you—or not produce you—in which you’re casually asked if you could tone things down, if you really need eight actors or could the play happen with four, if you really need to use the word “pussy” so often, if you could rewrite the protagonist’s arc so that she’s a bit more, you know, likable in the end. You need to make a play, they need to sell a play, and the object you need to make is so rarely the object they think they can sell.

All that, and you’re still broke.

*

I am in love with theatre in a way that is singular, possessed and unhealthy. All of us are, who have committed ourselves to this craft. There is an obsession that takes hold of you, and it shakes you between its teeth, and it doesn’t let go. The highs are better than anything I’ve ever felt, and the lows are lower.

Sometimes a play is in rehearsal and there is that golden moment of synchronicity—the absolute right actor meeting the material at the absolute right moment, and magic occurs, unpredictable and raw, magic that unlocks something in your core, that shows you something vital that you hadn’t known. Or sometimes you find yourself watching a play on a night where it is transcendent, where you can feel your spirit leave your body. This has happened to me from time to time in a handful of productions: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon; Young Jean Lee’s Lear; Peeping Tom Dance Company’s 31 Rue Vandenbranden; Jānis Balodis’s 3 Musketeers—East of Vienna. In those moments, theatre becomes a portal to another dimension entirely, one in which I have the clarity to perceive a truth that I couldn’t see before, and the safety—the generous space of theatrical illusion—not to be harmed by what I perceive.

And also the bad times, the heartbreaks. Theatre is the first love who keeps having the power to smash your heart. And you know you’ve given it that power. Sometimes when I’m sitting around with a group of theatre people, listening to us all talk, it’s so clear to me that we are all the wives and husbands of this thing, we love it and long for it and need it and resent it when it wounds us and struggle to heal the wound and then we keep coming back again and again and again.

*

When asked what I do, I used to say I was a playwright. Now I just say that I write, and I mean it in an active and present-tense way. I’m less interested than I ever was in making this verb a noun—saying that I’m a playwright or a novelist or a screenwriter. I’m also not interested in telling you that I feel equally confident in all of these forms all of the time, or that the things that I write all find homes.

America is not a culture that values the arts; therefore there is limited-to-no government funding of artistic institutions; therefore artistic leaders exist in a state of anxiety that nobody will buy tickets and the theatre will close.

Some of that writing gets thrown out. Some gets repurposed. Some gets so far and then no farther. Some gets published. Some gets optioned. Some gets produced. Some is about to be produced, and then there’s a pandemic. (That was a whole new plot-twist.)

*

I began writing my first novel, We Play Ourselves, the same week that I began my first TV writers’ room, for the Netflix show Tales of the City. Left to my own devices, I’m a night-owl, but given the new schedule, I got up early every morning and headed to the offices. I’d write for an hour or two before we started the day, then on our lunchbreak, and then after the room ended.

LA felt much farther from New York than it actually was, but what amplified the feeling of distance was that I didn’t know anything about where I was, and I hadn’t yet figured out how to do the job for which I’d moved. My not-knowing was immense, and liberating. It started with the small things: where to buy coffee; where to get groceries; where to live (I moved AirBnBs four times); how long it will take to get from Silver Lake to Hollywood at various times of the day; how anybody in LA does laundry if they don’t have a washer-dryer. (Are laundromats more of a New York thing??) But it immediately expanded into much larger categories: how to be a good collaborator in a TV room; what is a novel; who am I if not solely a playwright.

By not knowing what I was doing, I was also ignorant of the limits. I didn’t have an internalized voice telling me that whatever I wanted to do wasn’t possible or producible. Questions aren’t the same as stop-signs. Of course there was a time in which I was learning how to write plays as well, but I had somehow forgotten the visceral punch of ignorance—how unknowing takes up all the space in your body, how it rearranges the way you see the world.

*

I’m on the phone with my playwright friend Rachel Bonds, and she tells me that she’s started a screenplay. She called in part because she finally bought Final Draft, and is trying to figure out how to use it. “I feel like such an amateur all over again,” she says. “And I hate it! It reminds me of when I was twenty-six, sitting in my kitchen writing all these plays that nobody cared to see—and now I’m back there. I’m back there.  Didn’t I do all this work to not be back there?”

Hearing her articulate a monologue that has played at various times in various ways inside my own head, I burst out laughing. Yes, I want to say, and Bravo, and Welcome.

*

My first writers’ room was not like anything I imagined.

Theatre is inherently collaborative, but the playwright is still the one who—if our hands are not always on the wheel—has a foot on the brakes. A healthy writers’ room is an exercise in collective thinking more on par with a shared hallucination. We built on each other’s ideas—on fleshed out pitches but also on bits and scraps of intuition—in ways that were eventually so interwoven and layered that it became harder and harder to know whose thought was whose, or where an impulse had originated. And, at the same time, we were all there to further the vision of the showrunner—to learn how to write in a unified voice that was not quite our distinct individual voice; to shift and shape-change so that we could be a single creature on the page.

I am in love with theatre in a way that is singular, possessed and unhealthy. All of us are, who have committed ourselves to this craft.

When I was first shown my own small office, with its tiny bookshelf and couch, my jaw dropped. I looked out the single large window and saw the painted pastel colors of the lot, the palm trees in the distance, people gathering around the food truck. A writer’s room assistant—also a writer, and eventually a friend—brought us coffee in the mornings and lunch in the afternoons. The first time he showed up with my coffee order, I almost burst into tears. I had prided myself for years on not needing anything, on uncomplainingly staying in any out-of-town artist housing no matter how dodgy (the fist-sized cockroaches at one theatre compound were rivaled only by the bedbug outbreak at another). I had been careful to never ask for anything that could be construed as frivolous, so as never to be labelled difficult. But TV seemed to be a magical land where writers asked for things large and small and then got them.

Like coffee. Like lunch. Like a union. Like health insurance. Like a paycheck that could handle your rent, your taxes, and your credit card bills.

Like an office.

*

This is where I have to say that, yes, TV is a complicated industry in its own right. As is theatre, as is publishing. Each field has its astonishing gifts and its half-buried landmines. I’m no authority on any of it; I’m still learning about the gifts, and I’m still stepping on the landmines.

This essay is not to celebrate one over another, nor is this the story of an escape from theatre into television. (I’m still writing plays, and—as did many playwrights—had the heartbreak of watching several planned productions melt away when the pandemic levelled the theatre industry.)

What I celebrate is the pursuit of an artistic practice in which freedom and flexibility are ours for the taking. I celebrate the sudden pivot, the mad dash. I celebrate the late-night flight from a manuscript to a play, the shift from collective collaboration to painstaking solo work.

I celebrate the moment in which we hit a wall, and then take a left and walk in a different direction.

I celebrate artistic mobility—the courage that can take, the willingness to fail, the willingness to start over.

I celebrate how much possibility lies in a new set of perceptions that—over time—turns into a new way of perceiving.

*

I sometimes encounter—and sometimes fall prey to—the idea that to engage in multiple artistic practices is to be a dilettante. That one can only be Serious in a single medium, and all departures from that medium are shallow engagements. We are in some ways still a culture of specialization—or perhaps one could argue that our economy is fueled by specialization, and in America, culture develops from economy instead of the reverse.

The antidote to this idea lies in the artists whose lives show it to be untrue—the rigorous and curious wearers of many hats. Anne Carson is one of my favorite poets, and is also a classics scholar, an essayist, a playwright, and probably a whole series of other things I don’t know about. Sarah Ruhl writes plays, essays and poems, and I devour them all. David Adjmi, whose plays have had a huge impact on me, just wrote a memoir that broke my heart. I encountered Raven Leilani’s striking paintings before I read her equally striking first novel. Kaye Blegvad is a talented jeweler and illustrator and writer. Yayoi Kusama, best known for her large-scale art installations, also writes novels. Lenelle Moïse is a poet, playwright, and performer, and we just spent six months in a TV room together; watching her repurpose the tools of TV through a poet’s lens was an entire education in what’s possible.

I have been looking for many-hat-wearers for years now. I have a deep longing to know how everybody else is doing it, in which directions are they channeling their passionate instincts, in which media are they asking the questions they most need answered. Every time the voice gets into my head that tells me I don’t know what I’m doing and I have no right to do it, I look for the other people pursuing fluency in multiple forms, and I feel braver.

Maybe I’m less interested than I once was in the idea of Seriousness. Or maybe I just keep asking: why put yourself in a box, when so many others are willing to do it for you?

*

Writing for television made me think differently about what a novel was or could be, even as I encountered the act of creating both for the first time. Words or phrases stayed with me from the Tales room and found their way into the novel, as did modes of thinking. Whenever someone was pitching an idea that would blow up the episode we’d just built (and anxiety was thickening the air), showrunner Lauren Morelli would tell us that we should “go up the mountain” of the new idea—get to the top, see the view, assess from there. “We can always go back down the mountain,” she’d reassure us, and this became something I said to myself again and again as I wrote chapters and threw them out, as I cut entire characters. As I attempted to write a novel at all. I can always go back down the mountain. I could go all the way down, if needed, and start over.

Writing for theatre has also had an indelible impact on the way I write prose. I struggled to find my footing in the early days of We Play Ourselves, probably in part because I kept late-night panic-Googling things like “what is a novel” and “why is a novel a novel.” But once I realized that the narrator, Cass, was speaking in first-person present-tense, something clicked into place. I began to treat the book as a long monologue. The intricacies and nuances of Cass’s voice emerged once there was no barrier of “novelness” between the two of us; as with theatre, I had created a character, now I was listening to her speak.

Theatre is inherently collaborative, but the playwright is still the one who—if our hands are not always on the wheel—has a foot on the brakes.

As months passed, the ability to move between genres began to feel like the ability to fly or move through walls. When we were stuck on an episode outline, banging our heads against the wall, I knew that the novel was waiting for me—private, quiet, wholly my own. When I reached the point in the novel where I had to throw out sixty pages of writing and try again, at least there was the clamor and camaraderie of the TV room. And in the endless downtime between plays, which is theatre’s great specialty (you would be amazed to know how long it takes between the writing and the production of most plays), I wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone to give me permission to write. I was writing.

*

It is the waiting for permission that kills our spirits. Or mine, anyway. The endless limbo in which you could be given a production—or not; you could be given a commission—or not; you could be published or not; somebody could say Yes to you in a way that would change your life. Or they could just as easily say No.

If you’re waiting for a Yes, day after day, you start to climb the walls.

The economic aspect of this can’t be ignored either. More often than not we are waiting for a Yes not just because we want to write, but because something hangs in the balance that could pay our rent, pay off our debt, buy our groceries. And although this is not an essay on class in America, I can’t write about the arts in a vacuum; one’s class background has a huge impact on how desperately you need a Yes, and how much debt you may be juggling to just get to the point where a Yes might come your way.

If writing across multiple media has done anything for me, it has un-weighted this Yes. Not because I no longer need to be hired in order to work, but because there are more kinds of work that are an option. There are more people—across different media—who might be the right partner for what I’m writing. There are more ways in which I can advocate directly and deliberately for the work I want to make, instead of just accepting the work that’s offered.

Subsequently, this has also helped take pressure off my need to say Yes back. Artists are hungry, and opportunities are scarce, and often we find ourselves agreeing to almost anything, especially in that dangerous career patch when you don’t yet have an agent (or the right agent) to advise and defend you. If this were a night of drinks and not an essay, I would list for you a myriad of dissatisfying, arduous, occasionally humiliating things that I said Yes to, as a younger writer, and then proceeded to do nearly (and sometimes entirely) for free. When we can choose our Yeses carefully, our work is better for it.

When I was a student, it was in vogue for playwriting instructors to give us a whole series of dire warnings, among them: If you can do anything other than this, go do it. I get it, of course—the arts are brutally underfunded and therefore brutal on their practitioners, why not give kids a heads-up. But by the point at which we’re in school for theatre, how many of us are going to heed the warning and head to law school? Now when I teach playwriting, I say to students the thing I wish someone had said to me. Yes, write plays. Plays are vital and intimate and urgent. There are times in which theatre will make your life worth living. But also write books and poems, write films and TV shows, write operas and write cartoons. Write what you are moved to write, always always write from a place of conviction, curiosity, and personal risk – but give yourself the gift of multiple forms.

Writing for television made me think differently about what a novel was or could be, even as I encountered the act of creating both for the first time.

*

So now there’s a pandemic.

Jobs are scarce, certainty is impossible, and trauma is rampant.

When I have the space to think about smaller losses instead of larger ones, then I miss seeing plays, readings, movies, museums. I miss things I didn’t think I’d ever miss, like waiting for a delayed plane while I mainline bad coffee. I miss travel, I miss starting a job in a city I don’t know, and gathering the details of both city and job in rich new handfuls.

My instinct for movement hasn’t gone away, but in its place, in a day-to-day way, I am trying to develop an instinct for slowness, for steadiness, for standing still. It’s not a thing I’ve had to learn before; I was raised moving from place to place and my childhood gave me tools relating to sudden change, immediate shifts of language and place. The adult life I subsequently chose improved on those tools instead of offering different ones.

Writing during this time has provided a measure of slowness and stillness: time in which my fears don’t race ahead of my hope; time in which the project of selecting words turns anguished murk into some semblance of clarity. I want to be clear that when I talk about writing in this context, I’m not talking about the rah-rah American capitalist exhortation to “be productive during this period.” If I’m going into any encounter with the page telling myself that I’ll be “productive,” I might as well give up and crawl back into bed. Fuck productivity. I’m talking about—oh, here we are again—writing that saves your life.

Or at least steadies it.

At least tethers you to that life, and lets you see it, word-by-word, choice by choice.

Some days, I can’t write. Some days all I can do is stare at CNN and refresh the Times; some days the chasm feels bottomless. (I told you, this wasn’t a piece in praise of productivity.)

Some days, I read. Poems by Rebecca Lindenberg, A.H. Jerriod Avant, and Kaveh Akbar; essays by Joan Didion, Alexander Chee and Maggie Nelson; novels by Hari Kunzru, Rebecca Makkai and Tayari Jones; plays by Dipika Guha, Basil Kreimendahl, and Antoinette Nwandu. I just finished all five seasons of the French spy show Le Bureau des Legendes and honestly, all I want to do is start over and watch it again.

In a world where I have never felt more isolated, the act of writing, reading and listening across media is a choice to participate in a larger community. The choice to carry a multitude of writers’ ideas with me across the entirety of my day; the choice to let the way they see the world influence my own lens. This is the access to community I get right now; this is my feeling of being in motion. It has never felt more like a blessing.

To the writers who may read this, who may feel the same way about why you write, who may be feeling trapped, who may be feeling the urge to shift forms, who may have a voice in your heads telling you that you have no business taking on a form you haven’t already practiced: I say, don’t hold back. You already have all the tools you need. Namely, your curiosity, your restlessness, your willingness to risk and your instinct to plunge. The right terrain for your next journey is the place that calls to you, not always the place in which you’ve been living.

__________________________________

Jen Silverman, We Play Ourselves

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman is available now via Random House.

Jen Silverman
Jen Silverman
Jen Silverman is the author of We Play Ourselves, her debut novel recently published by Random House (US) and forthcoming from Atlantic Books (UK). Her first book, The Island Dwellers, is a collection of interlinked stories long-listed for the 2019 PEN America Literary Award. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, LitHub, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Vogue, and other magazines. Her plays include Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, The Moors, and Witch, which have been performed off Broadway, regionally, and internationally. Her plays are published by Samuel French (US), Oberon Books (UK), and S. Fischer Verlag (Germany). She also writes for TV and film.





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