I am currently working on a commission for Theater J, but for some reason it has started to feel a whole lot more like the commission is working on me.
For as long as I’ve been writing this play, I’ve been having the worst stretch of nightmares of my life. Almost every night I wake up in a panic, somewhere between 2:30 and 4 am. While most of my dreams typically fade from memory within seconds after I’m up, these have been staying with me (and staying very vivid) for hours. These are some powerful visions.
It isn’t the same dream every night; they’re all quite different. Last night’s, which is still vivid in my head as I write this, involved my wife and I, as well as various strangers and family members, trying to prevent the police from hauling me away for a crime I hadn’t committed. On other nights, there have been earthquakes, murders, chases, torture. If it can scare a person, it has scared me.
Here’s the kicker: I actually know with some certainty why this is happening to me. It makes a great deal of sense, given the personal and painful material I’m working through to produce this play. And I don’t want it to stop, either; I’m trying, in fact, to figure out how to use it in the writing.
But I don’t want to say more about the “why” yet. The root causes of the nightmares, like the play, are very personal, and I need to wrap my mind around them a great deal more before I know how to share them. Once I do share them — a process that I hope will be both therapeutic and (somehow) useful for others — I have great hope that the nightmares will go away.
In the meantime, this play is just plain hard as hell to write. There’s always, for me, a balance between my emotional and intellectual engagement with my work; in this case, I’m more emotionally involved than I have been with any other play I’ve written. Oddly enough, or perhaps embarrassingly, this began as a play of ideas, in a way. So much so that I now find myself wondering whether I was trying very hard to distance myself, emotionally, from the subject matter. More fool me: that distance is now utterly gone.
I wonder whether other playwrights ever find themselves so surprised by their work. For this play, I feel as if I was fully and completely deceiving myself at first; I told myself I was writing one story, but as it happens I was really writing another story entirely. (Same characters, same basic premise, but an entirely different focus.) I have often said that writing is about discovery: I don’t know what I’m going to do until I do it. But in this case, the discovery is bigger and deeper than it has ever been before. I’m learning not only about my work, but about myself. Which is, I suppose, a great part of why I write in the first place.