Photo series by Devlin Shand @itsdevlinbitch
Hmmm. This is a great thing for me to unpack, I think. Willpower, for me, is this kinda tired, cliche, overused idea. I don’t want to entirely shit on it, however. Especially since, as I look back from this -let’s say -“midpoint” in my life, I can see how I have had to use a lot of it at times - willpower that is. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of luck and a lot of help. I’m not sure I was ever a complete “gonna make it happen” kinda kid; I’ve certainly been riddled with self-loathing and insecurity all my life. From the outside, however, it probably appears that I’ve approached a lot of life with a certain amount of stubbornness.
I guess that’s what it means most of all for me these days - stubbornness - ideas like “powering through” or “willing something into existence” get tied up with it. Overall, I think those are pretty negative things.
From a physiological view, it’s just straight up dangerous. If there’s pain or if something feels “wrong” or “risky” to your organism, it most likely is. Don’t power-through it. Be present. Listen to what is, not to what you want it to be. Re-assess and re-goal. Likewise, when it comes to the artistic life, the idea that we can just work hard at something we want and it will happen is also dangerous. There are so many things out of our control. I’ve learned, for me at least, that type of work can lead to tremendous burn out if it’s not tempered - generously so - with a lot of acceptance. A lot of willingness to rethink what I want.
Julia Sweeney, the actor / comedienne / writer, said this great thing once that I love:
“If you look over my life, every step of maturing for me, every single one, had the same common denominator. It was accepting what was true over what I wished were true.”
I guess that’s what comes up when I think of “willpower” these days: acceptance.
You are a writer. Tell us about your work ethic and habits. Are you a procrastinator, do you spend manic hours or do have some kind of regimented schedule? What else can you share about how you work
I’m absolutely a procrastinator when it comes to writing - I say that procrastination is my method. What I mean is that waiting until I know I have just enough time to eek out that first draft ensures that 1.) It will be done on time 2.) I will have avoided it enough that my subconscious will really be chewing on it and 3.) Because I must get it done, I will be less precious about my choices - they’ll come more from my gut.
All that said, I have gone through periods with my writing where I really do approach it in a regimented fashion. I’ve set aside time everyday, or 5 days a week, in which I forced myself to write. No matter what. That has also been pretty fruitful, but as I mentioned above, it has also led to burnout.
I think the goal for me in creating lately has become "just find a way to do it". If I feel like I wanna say something, I don’t worry about the quality or about how I want it to be or even about what needs to be said. I just go, create, open the laptop, pull out the pen and paper, or sit down at the piano. If I’ve got the urge, I just try to make sure I follow it. The shaping and fashioning - the editing - that can come later. That’s when deadlines, regimens and procrastination can really help.
When I was younger, I had a lot of goals that I’d call moralistic. I wanted to communicate about what I thought was right. I wanted to express ideals, expose hypocrisy, extol love…
As I got older, I think I got more existential with my goals. I wanted to dig into complex themes and ambivalence. Find unexpected beauty and contradictions.
Then, I focused a lot on what I might call a deconstructive approach. Organic structures became the thing. My friend and fellow playwright, Molly Rice, once talked about it saying, “ there’s the container and the thing contained” - there’s a relationship, an intense one, between the structure of a play ( any piece of art) and its content. In and of itself, that relationship is dramatic enough, and this idea still really excites me.
Maybe, I write more simply now because I have to. It’s more therapeutic, almost. It’s feedback for me. I do it because it brings me joy or because it comforts me.
This sounds lonely and kinda selfish maybe.
Then again, I’m almost always writing as a theatre-maker - even when it’s not strictly theater. The essentiality of audience and collaboration to theatre might redeem me from some of the solipsism in my creating…maybe.
Have you accomplished your goals?
God. I don’t know. Ha. I hope so. I also like the idea that my goals are always changing.
Do you feel like you need to be in NYC to be a professional writer?
Not at all. It might be easier, or more effective, though for a playwright specifically to be in NYC (or another city with a large theatre industry.) Theater is so collaborative and having a community to create in is kinda essential. That said, I fell in love with making theater as a 12 year old in a teeny, post-mining town in Northern Minnesota. Later, in my late teens, my family moved to Utah, and the theatre community there gave me a lot of opportunities. I didn’t move to NYC until I was nearly 30 to start graduate school, and, of course, that opened up an enormous world of possibilities - incredible collaborators most of all. It’s interesting to reflect on how much of my life as a writer was already formed before I came to New York.
What is the biggest road block you recently hit in your life? What are you going to do to make a change?
Speaking of cliches, I’ve been in genuine mid-life crisis mode for a while now. I turn 45 in August, so numbers-wise, it kinda makes sense.
This shakes out for me in various ways - in rough ways and in less rough ways.
I’ve felt forced to re-examine a lot.
I’ve been dealing with several injuries this year, and that’s forced me to balance what I want to achieve as a triathlete against what might be possible.
Also, I finally began seeing a psychotherapist this year. Primarily to deal with the trauma I experienced as a teenager when I was put into conversion therapy administered by the Mormon Church. This has been deeply challenging. It’s forced me to re-examine many of the relationships I’ve invested in all my life. I feel like I should write a great deal about this, but I doubt that I can do so effectively. I’m still trying to learn how I can speak about it authentically and constructively.
As much as I’m talking about this time in my life as a challenge, I find aging thrilling in many ways. Things I thought I really cared about just fall away, and things I never really considered become essential.
So far, there’s always still someone older who will tell me I’m still young, but everyday there are more and more younger people reminding me that I’m not as young as I once was.
Which writers inspire you?
Naturally, I read a lot of plays. The ironic thing about reading plays, of course, is that they are not meant to be read. To me, the fundamental thing about a play is that a play is not something that is meant to exist on the page or in your mind, but it is something that must live in time and space. In my opinion, the best plays are the ones that can only fully function when plugged into this equation : time + space. A lot of plays work well on the page, but it isn’t until you experience and see them that you really get what makes them great.
One of my favorite examples of this is “Indecent” by Paula Vogel - the production which ran on Broadway in 2017 was one of the most beautiful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.
Last summer in Edinburgh, I saw an incredible one-woman show that also embodied this idea. “Deer Woman” by the indigenous Canadian playwright, Tara Beagan
I’ve recently been re-reading the plays of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov absolutely requires the time + space equation to be understood.
I’m also exploring the work of Tomson Highway, the incredible Canadian -Cree playwright and musician.
( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomson_Highway ) I just finished his semi-autobiographical novel, “Kiss of the Fur Queen” - it’s magical.
I love the poetry of Walt Whitman and Anna Akhmatova.
I read a lot of non-fiction too. Recent fav authors and titles are the late Carl Sagan ( Pale Blue Dot), George Monbiot ( Feral), and Charles C. Mann ( 1491 & 1493 )