Sometimes—or if you’re like me, every day—you find yourself stuck, working on your essay or solo show.
It isn’t working but you don’t know why. You can call a friend who does the same kind of work and to ask him or her what to do to get your story out of its jam. The whole conversation becomes about their writer’s block and suddenly that bottle of Goldschlager you’ve been sipping on all morning is gone, and you’ve accomplished nothing.
So what then? Over the years, I’ve found a few essential books that have really helped me. The books on this list are the ones I have returned to many times for inspiration, not just a once-through and then onto the bookshelf to be forgotten.
This magnificent little book is a game-changer. We all procrastinate. We all throw stumbling blocks in our own way. Pressfield provides an astonishing amount of insight into why we do this to ourselves, and how to get over it with remarkable brevity. Before you even finish it I’m certain you’ll be back at work. Sometimes just randomly turning to a page and reading a few paragraphs is enough to lift me out of my writer’s funk and get typing again. Keep it close and read it often.
2. Aristotle’s Poetics or Aristotle: Poetics: Rearranged Abridged and Translated for Better Understanding by the General Reader, translated by NGL Hammond
Listen, you have to read this before you can start writing any kind of play, so just get over it and start reading it. In Aristotle-speak, “poetics” are dramas. It isn’t even really Aristotle’s book. It’s just his lecture notes that have survived, so reading a literal translation can be frustrating. Fortunately, plenty of scholars have dissected it and reinterpreted it for our modern minds.
I like this one because, well, it’s easy to read. You can get through it quickly and come away with a solid understanding of what Aristotle believed was the formula for a good play. It’s a damn fine formula and if you decide to deviate from it (and by all means do so if you want to) you should know what you’re moving away from and why. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to build a solid one. Ari’s ancient instruction manual lays it all out for you.
3. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler and/or The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)
You know what’s super-annoying? When you ask someone for advice on why your new work isn’t lifting off the ground and they say, “I think it’s the structure.” Um, okay, but it’s a true story and it happened to me and I’m telling it like it happened so how can the structure be wrong? I hear you. It’s confusing. But you can’t make a dress without a pattern and you can’t write the story of a journey without first being able to draw up a map.
Campbell’s book is scholarly and beautifully written and if you can spend a lot of time with it you’ll be richly rewarded. But if you need to get a move on it, Vogler takes Campbell’s work and breaks it down. This book has long been a guidebook for screenwriters but its lessons are equally applicable to plays, and I think particularly so for solo shows where clear motivations, distinct characters, and cohesive plot are so essential for a solo show to work.
4. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Hey, don’t jump down my throat. I have a good reason for including this. When you’re crafting a story you can easily get stuck in an overly simplistic emotional space. Say it’s a story about the time you “allegedly” burned down your boyfriend’s house after you caught him cheating on you. It’s about anger and you’re angry and you’re rehearsing your angry face with your angry voice and typing with very angry fingers. Flip to “Anger” in the Emotion Thesaurus. Here you find lists of physical signals related to anger, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of acute of long-term anger, and cues of suppressed anger.
Read through it. I guarantee something that interests you is going to jump out, and you’re going to find something new in your work. This is the step that’s the most fun. Don’t skip it. No one needs to know. It’s especially useful if you are working out some basic stage-blocking for yourself and your imagination feels like it’s running dry. Make little lists in the margins of your rehearsal script. Your creative switch will be flipped.
Ball breaks down a method for dissecting plays for play readers (is that a real thing?) but it’s equally valuable for playwrights and essayists. His examples from Hamlet show you how not a single word of Shakespeare’s most famous play is extraneous. Honestly, don’t we all kind of secretly and smugly believe we could whack about 90 minutes out of any Shakespeare play, and it’d still be fine? Oh, it’s just me? Fine. Whatever.
Meanwhile, Ball shows you in concise examples how every word moves the plot forward. You’ll see your own work differently immediately. But the true gift of this tiny miracle of a book is his method for reverse-engineering a play to prove whether it makes real sense. Extraneous scenes, dialogue, characters, and subplots will fall away and leave you with a play wherein every piece is perfectly connected.
Photo by Eric Alvarez.