Assumptions Abound: Dialogue with Jose Rivera
Our dear friend Jose Rivera is well known in the theatre community and he’s earned that honor. Over the years he’s guided budding playwrights in their craft. After a decade or so he finally imparted to a wider audience some of his insights in “36 Assumptions About Writing.” Here in this little piece, I’ll pull Mr. Rivera into the realm of fiction, showing how some of his sagacity might be a little more universal than first perceived. First I will begin by presenting the assumption and then I’ll analyze it. Let’s take a look.
“Good playwrighting is a collaboration between your many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, and deeper, you might be able to go.”
Who hasn’t heard an author talk about their characters like real people or mention how they were thrown off the chair when such and such character surprised them as if their dreamy little hero walked right out of the page? Humor aside, there’s merit to the insane. If you can see life when wearing multiple hats and employ a little of the crazy, as writers of fiction writers our adventures into fictional truth are bound to be more fruitful.
“There’s no time limit to writing plays. Think of playwriting as a lile-long apprenticeship. Imagine you may have your best ideas on your deathbed.”
Now this one is a bit obvious, but well worth mentioning for the simple fact of how hasty artists can get. You don’t need to publish your New York Times Bestseller yesterday. Allow your craft to cultivate is the lesson I take from this.
Abbreviated version: “Write…to play God.”
Who doesn’t want to be God as in with a capital G? I do and I’m a professing Christian (with a pagan twist, but we’ll not get into that). Think of it this way, you’re omniscent, omnipotent, you’re the Creator of your world. Play with it, see it fall, cry out loud, live in your realm, and through the delights of your mind may all your readers see their world as it truly is.
“Embrace your writer’s block. It’s nature’s way of preserving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often writer’s block happens because somewhere in your work you’ve lied to yourself and your subconscious won’t let you go any further until you’ve gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over.”
How beautiful this is. I might take Mr. Rivera’s advice directly, choosing to plow through and deal with the wreckage later, but he sums up the dreaded impasse most writers are faced with at one point or another. I tend to jot down a little note in the margins of the offending section with “fix this crap later” or “why the hell did I write this,” and then I move on. Of course my method leaves an ever growing pile of trash to clean up later, but it keeps me going, which I find to be half the battle.
“Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the play in the form of the play.”
I love this one. It is probably the most useful and difficult of Mr. Rivera’s advice. I translate form into tense, point of view, sequencing, theme, word choice, and sentence variance. Now take all that and cater it to the specifics of a single work to help reveal its particular truths. Take for example the story of a fast-pace western about a gay love affair between a gunslinger’s unrequited love of his childhood best friend now turned arch rival and mayor of a prominent southern town leading a team to hunt him down for a strings of murders. To me, this piece demands brevity, tight POV, and maybe a bit of crude language for spice. Sure this might be outside your stylistic comfort zone, but if truth demands this form then at least consider it, for the sake of your characters. By the way, don’t steal the gunslinger story. I think I’m going to write it.
This fake dialogue with Mr. Rivera has a lot more wind, but to save you the feeling of a lecture I suggest taking extra time with assumptions number 23, 28, 31 (Faulkner demanded a shoutout), 32, etc. You get the point. Last suggestion and then I’ll shut up, do this excercise with every idea Rivera makes that causes you to pause. Explore the conecpt to see how it connects to your art. You might just get a bit of insight of your own and in the least the original point will stick in your head better.