Writing Advice from Edward Albee
When One of the Great Playwrights of the 20th Century Visits Your High School
“Dear Neil –
I get around to things eventually. I’ve been teaching at the U of H (Houston) this spring…
When I was 17, I took part in California’s Young Playwright’s Project. One of the highlights of the Project, was a visit by award-winning author Edward Albee to various high schools to discuss writing and critique the works of one or two students. When I heard about that opportunity, I was determined to have my work critiqued. Even then, I knew this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I knew of Edward Albee because my Mom had the LP of the Broadway performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In advance of Albee’s visit, I read Woolf, although I did not fully understand the innuendoes and the ironies in the work.
I wrote a play about a family that watched too much television. The family was literally sucked into the TV through all the commercials. The play was titled The Philco Phamily. Philco was one of the early US companies to make home televisions. After a week or ten days, the first scene was complete, and I prepared an outline of the rest of the play. It was exciting to hear the dialogue in my head and then read it out loud to listen if it sounded like real speech or if was staid.
My play was chosen to be presented for Albee’s visit. I directed classmates on how to read my script. We worked hard to put together this staged reading. It had to be perfect because a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner would be seeing my work. I did not want to face embarrassment in front of my peers, my teachers and least of all, Edward Albee.
I remember that Albee entered our school auditorium with a representative of the Playwright’s Project. He had feathered, flowing, salt and pepper flecked hair and a mustache that resembled the facial hair of the gay “clones” of the 1970s and 1980s. He was of medium build, and had a slight paunch. His look was casual in jeans and a plaid button up shirt.
Albee was introduced, and then we presented my scene. Albee gave it his full attention and proceeded to give it an amazing critique. He mentioned it reminded him of a dramatic play he saw at Yale or Princeton, and mine was a comedy. When I heard that, I felt my work could not be as good as an Ivy League college student’s work and gave a dejected moan. Albee quickly brushed that feeling aside. He encouraged me as a writer and to continue on that path.
Many years later, I learned how Albee was always working to cultivate young talent all over the United States. It’s amazing to think that such an accomplished man wanted to give back and encourage people to write. Since that time, writing has played an important role in documenting my life, experiences and feelings.
The presented scenes would be a springboard for Albee to discuss writing and give us tools to help with the art.
Some lessons from that day remain with me. I have to paraphrase what he said about when to write down a story. “Do not write something too soon. If you do, and it’s not ready, it will never be finished. Only begin when it is bursting out of you and about to explode. That is when you will know when to write—when it cannot be held inside anymore and has to come out.” In all of my writing, I only begin when it is about to erupt like a volcano. Doing this makes my writing, I feel, vibrant, alive and strong. Then I go back and edit after it’s all out on the screen or paper. I do this for my personal writing and even when I need to get something off my chest to a friend or family member (the key is editing before hitting send!)
Albee also shared a way to understand your characters better: put them in a situation that would never occur in the play or story you’re writing. I remember him saying this exercise was ideal for long car drives. For example, what would George and Martha from Woolf talk about on the first night of their honeymoon, after dinner? Doing this allows the writer to better understand the character and can give the characters more depth. It really is a useful technique for character development.
During the question and answer, I asked where he got the title for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “I saw it written in soap on the mirror behind a bar in the Village around 1953 and it stuck with me.” He used that to segue into explaining how everyone you meet and every experience you have—even for a moment—can be of use in future writing. And that’s why I always have a notepad nearby, in case I hear an interesting turn of phrase or just to make little notes to remind myself of things.
At the age of 17, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century reviewed my work. He did not speak to me as a teenager. He spoke to me as a writer. It was liberating to have someone of his stature treat me with seriousness. He saw and understood that I put my heart and energy into the play and nurtured that little seed in me.
After I completed writing The Philco Phamily, we produced it at my school for one or two showings. There was excitement in seeing my work brought to life. Best of all, the audience enjoyed it.
In 2010, on a lark, I wrote to Albee to thank him for that moment in my life 23 years before. Several weeks later, I received a handwritten letter back from him. Edward Albee never lost that spirit of giving and encouraging others. Charity comes in many forms. For Edward Albee, it meant giving his valuable time to subsequent generations and making everyone feel special and deserving.
Thank you, Edward. I am forever grateful for that time you gave me.