Playwriting

Wolves, Vultures, Worms?

Time for another entry. After all, this is publication of a sort, and Lord knows I crave it! All I ask is, if you’re reading, drop a line in the comment section, even if you want to say you entirely disagree with everything I have to say and furthermore you find my very existence deplorable and you wish I wouldn’t aid to the depletion of air in the atmosphere. That’s the point I’ve come to, when even hate mail is better than no mail at all. That sounds pretty pitiful, I suppose, but it’s true nonetheless, and probably a window into why I’m a playwright in the first place. Whether it’s my middle child syndrome or the fact that I am – what’s the term? Vertically challenged? – short and therefore easily overlooked, I’ve always wanted to be noticed. I suppose that’s probably true for everyone, but to what degree? For me, the urge has been strong. Throughout my life, I’ve tried various methods for getting that attention fix – walking on my hands, taking acting classes, telling jokes, making outrageous statements – and they’ve all worked, at least for the short term. The playwriting, though – this has probably been my most successful ploy so far.

Of course, I exaggerate. I don’t write plays merely for attention. I write to express myself artistically, to contribute to society, to amuse myself, to make a little money…and that list of reasons still isn’t exhaustive. But the initial impetus, that first spark, that could well have come from no desire more noble than the old “Hey, look at me!” impulse. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s just a thing thing. So be it.

Quick change of subject:

What do I call them? How to I characterize them? Are they wolves? Worms? Demons? Termites? In one of my plays, “The Unfinished,” they are these slinking creatures called Hecklers. I am talking, of course, about doubts. To capture the reality of them most closely, I would have to say they are voices that only I hear. Oh, at times they have been external, as well. People have told me that my ideas weren’t all that hot. If I cared to do a little mental digging, I know I could dredge up a specific example or two, or many. Just skimming my memory, I can remember my brother telling me that a play of mine was “cute,” but not very noteworthy. I can remember giving a sketch to a friend and having him say it didn’t really catch his attention very much.

Lately, though, have to admit that the actual voices of people commenting on my plays have been highly complimentary and encouraging. Usually through e-mail, sometimes in person, I get people telling me they love my work and hope that I write more.

So how is it that these thoughts, these voices, these doubts, can still howl and wiggle and cackle and bite at me with such insistence? How can my personal Hecklers still win at times? Look, I’ve written over 60 plays now, not counting monologues and duets. I’ve been published. I’ve been praised. My words have traveled and played across the United States and Canada, all the way to Japan and Australia and Holland and the Middle East. I don’t say this to brag (Can we believe him? After all, he is a self-professed attention-monger. I bet he is bragging, at least a little bit.), but rather to wonder: How, after such a good dose of success, can I still be plagued by doubts about myself as a playwright?

The very act of writing this entry of my blog is an attempt to win against my inner doubting hordes. Writing will lead to more writing. This I have to believe.

I remember, in college, a professor of mine named Leslie Norris. He was a practicing poet and prose writer from, I think, Wales. He had a lilting brogue that used to put me to sleep on a regular basis. I do remember him saying one time in class, before I nodded off, that the poets he hung out with (and he mentioned some impressive names!) would meet in a pub after finishing a new work, but they wouldn’t want to talk about the writing. Not because it wasn’t interesting, but because of this fear: that maybe it was the last thing they were going to be able to finish. Maybe that last book of poetry was it – the end. So there they were, these highly accomplished and lauded poets, silently hiding from their doubts.

Weigh in, my fellow playwrights, professional and not-so. Is this phenomenon just one of the curses of the writer? Obviously, the doubts don’t always prevail. I write. I get plays done. But I often wonder – how many shows lie bloody and dead, picked apart by the vultures whose black wings are composed of my thoughts of inadequacy? And boy, was that last sentence overdone!

I don’t need advice, really. I have a snoot full of that. In fact, as an English teacher, I do my fair of distributing it. I have even, in my ignorance and arrogance, been known to say things like, “There is no such thing as Writer’s Block!” And then I have gone on to dispense my formulas for idea generation, time management and general life success with the air of one who has never suffered. I am here to tell you, though: I suffer. I’m suffering now. The doubts have me surrounded and whimpering.

So, in my misery, I ask for your company. Does any of this ring a bell for you? Let us gripe together and know we are not alone.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Haehnel

About the author

Alan Haehnel

4 Comments

  • Hey Alan

    I know EXACTLY what you mean about the ‘Hecklers.’ No one can criticize me as much as I can – and I’ve had some doozies.

    My favourite rejection came as a feedback form letter from a contest. The letter had various questions where the person had to circle a number from one to five – one being they hated the play, five being they loved it. My feedback person had circled one for every question. The last question was “What did you like about this play?” My feedback person responded in rather angry black slashes: “I did not like this play.” I’ve also had an AD tell me that no amount of work could save a play of mine. Ahhh, good times.

    Thankfully, I’m currently in a headspace where I temper outside criticism fairly well. I know that it’s subjective and I know some people have no interest in being helpful. When I hold workshops/readings I have a very precise system for getting an honest critique of my work wthout feeling the need to throw myself to the ground in a fit of tears, wailing over the attack of my ‘baby.’ I’m holding a reading this weekend for a new play and I’m actually looking forward to it!

    But my own demons? Those are so hard to control. In general, I believe I write well and have something to say. But it’s just as easy to turn the coin over and believe everything I do is crap.

    What’s especially hard is that I know I don’t write, or work or publish like other writers do. Certainly I can’t be a ‘good’ writer if I don’t sit down in front of my computer for 8 hours a day. How do those writers do that???? I’ve got two good hours at a time at the most and then things start to go to mush. And certainly I can’t be a ‘good’ writer because I primarly work in schools and my amateur productions far out weigh my professional ones.

    Ah well. I guess the thing to do is to keep writing, keep moving forward. It’s only when we stop working that the demons win, right?

  • Hello! well, i am actually using a play of yours in my drama class, and I had to create a biography on you as part of the assignment. I must admit, there’s not much out there! All I gathered was that you live in Vermont, with your wife and three children.. along with a dog and three cats ofcourse. However.. my assignment is on Canadian Playwrights, and I picked your play (Stressed, by the way) out of the massive pile. Yet, as I am researching for information on you, there is no indication whatsoever that you are FROM Canada! I’m so confused.. but, I will just assume that my teacher knows what she’s talking about, and that you are in fact in some way shape or form, Canadian. I’m basically just making up my own biography about you from these blogs anyhow, they are quite interesting! I promise you, I don’t resent the fact that you assist in the depletion of the Earths oxygen supply. really. anyway, thats about all! Thank you– Sarah.

  • I hope you are still writing. I came to this discussion because you were questioning whether to call these demons wolves or worms. I am writing a story that has a plotline involving tapeworms in wolves. The Welsh poets you mention are worrying about whether they will live tomorrow. Anyone who lives can write a poem. Staying alive is the hard part.