I Wrote One Short Play a Day for Thirty Days. Here’s What I Learned.

You can find the rules for the challenge and the plays that were created as a result here.

Some of the hurdles I faced during the past month could have been predicted. I knew I was going on vacation—a trip that spanned two weeks while traveling along the coast of California—but that was the point. It wouldn’t be much of a challenge if I started when there wasn’t much going on. But there was no way to predict just how much of a toll this self-inflicted burden would take.

The unforeseen hurdles of the past month include:

  • My backpack full of electronics (including laptop) getting stolen.
  • My step-grandmother passing away without warning.
  • My childhood dog passing away, also without warning.

But I kept my word of writing one short play for the past thirty days to appease my—ahem—substantial hordes of loyal, screaming fans. I mean, it was technically “One Play a Day for Thirty-One Days,” on account of the laptop thieves. But I’m willing to ignore that inconvenient truth for the sake of blog content, aren’t you?

“But Graham,” you ask, “what was the point? What were you trying to achieve?” Well, nothing, I suppose. It was an experiment, an exercise in “what if?” An act of trying. And having come out the other side of this challenge, like Magellan venturing into uncharted seas, what morsels of wisdom can I bestow upon you?

I Don’t Like Writing Every Day

This sentiment has been well-documented, and “The Suzan-Lori Parks Challenge” resulted in me digging my heels further into the dirt of my convictions. I’m proud of about fifty percent of the plays I wrote over the past month. A few plays in that mix were written as last-ditch efforts just to have something uploaded to the site. Those lower-quality plays are apparent when looking for them.

Instead of granting myself permission to slow down and enjoy my vacation time, I felt rushed to upload embarrassing drivel. Given more time, I could have set my intention for writing in more concrete terms, which would have allowed me to write with higher quality and quantity. Instead, I often felt rushed and pulled into living outside the present. After the loss of my grandma and dog, I wasn’t able to just take the day to mourn. I had to write a play. When my belongings got stolen, despite the stress, I had to upload to the site from my phone.

And this lack of goal-oriented creation was key. I posit that writing without intention is a cardinal sin against itself.

Don’t mistake me for being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. I admit that for newer writers and those intimidated by the blank page, writing every day could open up new doors and habits necessary to improve your skill. But I think making reasonable deadlines for oneself is a superior method to achieve the same ends, and will result in more intentional work. A “per-day” deadline feels arbitrary, but again, everyone is different.

So, yes, for myself, writing every day proved to be an unproductive grind. But that doesn’t mean the experiment was devoid of discovery and benefit.

Going Deeper

When attending a talkback event in celebration of a novelist, someone will likely raise their hand to ask, “Where did you get your ideas?” or “What were your biggest inspirations?” What these question-askers are looking for is a deus ex machina. A magic bullet or insight that can be bestowed upon them, so that they might take part in the talents that are gifted upon master-writers.

I don’t have to tell you this magic bullet doesn’t exist.

Ideas come and go as nothing more than a fleeting by-product of day-to-day experience. As such, there will be days where ideas won’t “flow.” You must instead dig deeper and follow your intuition to write from your subconscious.

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Rainer Maria Wile, Letters to a Young Poet

The Suzan-Lori Parks Challenge forced me to dig deeper. I lost track of the days where I would sit in front of my computer and directly confront what I wanted to write about. Some days I knew the shape of my play from a bolt of inspiration prior to sitting at my desk. But that wasn’t always the case. And I feel the days where I had to work to discover my intentions were perhaps the most rewarding… granted that those same days allowed me the time to write intentionally. But I digress.

Here’s what people don’t tell you about playwriting: some days the work involves sitting in silence, with your head in your hands, thinking, thinking, thinking. This is a vital and oft-undiscussed part of the creative process. And the Suzan-Lori Parks Challenge forces this practice upon you near-daily, which results in an exercise designed to stretch the imagination.

Discovering Yourself

I found the biggest benefit of the Suzan-Lori Parks Challenge was in uncovering my habits as a writer. It bore questions like rapidly ripening fruit on a vine. Sometimes they would bloom and die in an instant, too quick to grab.

What time of day do you work best? Are there words, phrases, or rhythms that pop up in your dialogue more than you intended? What types of topics or characters do you find yourself drawn to? Do your plays tend to lean towards a specific style or aesthetic?

I felt granted space to play because the daily plays were so low-pressure, and the challenge’s repetitive nature highlighted my patterns and habits. It gave me a gift—the freedom to experiment without fear.

The Suzan-Lori Parks Challenge and You!

Should you try this experiment for yourself? Ultimately, it’s hard for me to say “yes” when weighing its stated benefits against its flaws. By the end of the month, I would sit down at my laptop with an attitude that said, “let’s get this over with already.” The joy of the act was stripped from me. I began the challenge like a gardener planting a handful of seeds, not knowing what would grow, but excited to see. As the fruits of my labor became apparent, tending the garden felt more like an act of obligation. I got what I wanted out of the challenge, but I’d committed to continuing on for the full thirty—thirty-one—days.

I still believe in the core of what the challenge was about—experimentation. Fundamentally, the process of writing should always be an act of play. When I attended acting school, we were taught that everything, even performance, is practice. The joy is in the discovery. The learning, the growth.

You should do this challenge if it’s where your curiosity leads. Hell, modify it to fit your tastes and avenues of your process that you’ve been aching to explore. Do a play every other day. Set a ten-page limit or a six-page minimum. Conduct a challenge for a week instead of a month. Make up a challenge from scratch. It doesn’t matter. For me, what matters is the impulse to try.

1 comments On I Wrote One Short Play a Day for Thirty Days. Here’s What I Learned.

  • Excellent read, Graham. Lot’s of interesting lessons in here; thank you. Interesting that right before I read this I was sharing a story about Annie Leibowitz describing one of her favorite photographs. She went to do a portrait of a famous painter. This woman took her to her studio where there was a small bed against the wall. Annie asked her what she did there and the woman told her that she goes to her studio and just sits on the bed waiting for inspiration. Then I read your post, “Here’s what people don’t tell you about playwriting: some days the work involves sitting in silence, with your head in your hands, thinking, thinking, thinking.” Keep up the great work!

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