Quan Barry on the Benefits of Writing Across Genre.
“Try it all on for size. Take risks in your writing, and reinvent yourself constantly.”
The following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
As a poet-novelist-playwright, my mantra is: Try it all on for size. Take risks in your writing, and reinvent yourself constantly. (And if your husband asks, What if we fail? tell him: “We fail! That’s why we’re holding onto our day jobs, bruh.”)
I know there are some folks out there who think in terms of “branding,” of becoming known to the world as the writer who does X. But if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then forget it. Instead, maybe try becoming the writer who’s unpredictable, who has fun wearing all kinds of hats. Don’t be afraid to make your hat collection your brand (though if you’re a one-hat writer, that’s cool too).
In addition to making my soul more compassionate, playwriting has made my dialogue smarter and sharper. As a playwright, you’re asking actors to sell what you’re cooking up, so you better make sure you’re giving them your absolute best cuts of meat. There’s no room for flab.
At the end of the day, actors are the face of your writing. I am in awe of them and the ways they make themselves vulnerable on my behalf. Being in this theater world has given me a newfound appreciation for the folks who star in real clunkers like Battlefield Earth. As a playwright, I feel much more compassion towards, shall we say, aesthetically challenged art. Everyone’s doing their best, so maybe let’s cut folks some slack.
Now that we’ve checked the “playwriting’s made me a better person” box: in my fiction, when I create a character who’s a person of color or a member of an underrepresented community, the impact that character has on the flesh and blood world feels mostly conceptual in nature. It’s hard to gauge how much that character’s existence moves the real-world needle toward justice.Maybe try becoming the writer who’s unpredictable, who has fun wearing all kinds of hats. Don’t be afraid to make your hat collection your brand.
But when it comes to theater, creating characters who are people of color is meaningful in a very tangible manner because it creates work for real flesh and blood folks. Creating Black and Brown characters is literally foundational to the work of expanding the theater. Please know that I’m not suggesting that it’s incumbent on creatives of color to singlehandedly carry the burden of expanding representation, but wowzer! I feel beyond fortunate to have done my small part in helping to make space for folks this world needs to see more of.
And for me, writing these POC characters for the stage is an exercise in freedom. My play, The Mytilenean Debate, features three Black characters. For once in my writing life I don’t have to pull up the menu at Starbucks to establish who these folks are—I don’t have to use words like “caramel” or “cinnamon” or “espresso” or mocha Frappuccino.” I can just let them be them. I don’t have to push back against the pre-established mode that all characters, unless otherwise stated, are white. Yass! Hold that S. That’s the sound of me effervescing, luxuriating in the fact that I don’t have to constantly remind the audience that Latimer, Nina, and Mary are Black.
Finally, having one’s play produced is a tremendous lesson in trust and in giving up control. With both my poetry and fiction, in the months before publication, I’m generally hunkered down in the trenches, hitting SEND on a million emails about fonts and cover art and blurbs. Here in the rehearsal room I need to sit back, watch, be patient, give the folks in this room the freedom to try all kinds of things with my words. I need to trust that my intentions are there on the page, and I need to trust that the artistic team who believed in me enough to put up the real-world scratch to bring my words to life know what they’re doing.
It makes me happy to see so many young writers trying new things and not getting bogged down in labels—this fluidity is something writers of all ages can embrace, especially folks who’ve been in this game for a while and might be ready to change things up. I wish you writing that interests and empowers you. Multi-hyphenateness for all!
When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry is available now via Vintage.