Let me start by saying that I have nothing against National Playwriting Month. I think it’s a fine endeavor, and if it inspires people to be more creative, that’s fantastic.
For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, this is the deal: over the course of the month of November, you draft a new play, start to finish, in the virtual company of other playwrights who are ostensibly doing the same thing. Sounds nice, no? I’d almost be willing to join in myself, except for one little thing:
I’ve never in my entire life written an entire draft in just one month, and I probably never will.
The closest I’ve come, in fact, was the first draft of LET X, which I wrote in six weeks. It came out of me lightning-quick, which is probably the only way I could have scripted such a tightly-woven narrative; if I’d stopped to think about what I was doing, I’d probably have suffered from analysis paralysis and never written the thing at all. Still: six weeks. Not a month, but a month and a half, and it came at a point in my life during which I was looking for reasons to avoid being at home and sequester myself at the coffee shop I wrote in. I could never do the same thing now: not with a wife and family who capture my attention so readily and happily.
Let’s break down the challenge, shall we? 30 days of writing. At three pages a day, you’d end up with a solid 90-page script in a month. But no veteran playwright works every day, right? I know I don’t; I take weekends off. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I take two days off a week, and sometimes those days are Saturday and Sunday.) That leaves me with (realistically) 20 or so days in the month during which to write. To get to a 90-page script during the month of November, then, I would need to produce 4.5 pages a day.
4.5 pages a day? In any given month, I might get one or two days that productive, period—if I’m lucky. There are also dry stretches during which I never get more than a page or two at most in any given day. And I’m somebody who’s incredibly disciplined. I write all the time, almost every day. I’m at 26 pages in the play I’m currently working on. I could start on page 27 tomorrow and I still wouldn’t finish by the end of November.
So… the task seems impossible to me. I must also admit that it seems unlikely to produce good work as well.
I once knew a playwright who told me she wrote an entire full-length play in a single weekend. My immediate response, which I did not share, is that it had to be crap: nothing good gets written that quickly. While my position on this matter might be a bit more nuanced now—I’m certain there are playwrights of quality who draft more quickly than I do—I remain certain that hyper-speed is not the right pace at which to create a well-honed script.
My former non-fiction professor Joseph Epstein once told me that if I wrote 250 words a day, by the end of a year I’d have a draft of a book. 250 words is approximately two paragraphs, maybe three; it’s one page of writing. That’s the most, he suggested—and I completely concur—that anyone can expect to produce and still be adhering to standards of quality. He was speaking about non-fiction, of course, but I believe the same principle applies to drama. For my mind, I’d set the goal at two pages of dialogue per day… one of which is likely, in the fullness of time, to be cut. At that pace, three months for a first draft makes a great deal more sense.
So it’s a bit misleading to think that at the end of November, one might have a polished piece, and I don’t want young playwrights to assume it’s possible. To be fair, that’s not what the folks holding the event are claiming. They tweeted as much to me the day the event started. They understand the need to refine the first draft for some time after the month is over…
… which makes me wonder why they don’t just plan, say, a six-month event instead? Or better yet, a yearlong event! A month to research, three months to draft, three months to revise, a month to let it go and forget it, a week to hold a reading, two more months to revise, a week-long workshop and reading, a few weeks of vacation here and there, and three weeks to recover at the end of the year. That would be an event that would make sense to me—an event that would resemble the pace I typically keep, and that I think young writers should be encouraged to keep as well.
Having said all that, I don’t want to just be the grumpy Gus I almost certainly sound like. I really am happy for anyone with the focus and stamina to knock out a draft of a play in a month. Go get ’em, folks. The world absolutely needs more stories, not fewer—so go make ’em!