Just two days after a week-long workshop and first public reading of my new play “Devilfish Sleeps,” this article from The Guardian came across my feed: “What Writers Really Do When They Write.”
It was a relieving thing to read, in some respects. Last year, I debuted my play “Our Voices Will Be Heard.” Whenever an interviewer for the media, or an audience member, or someone at a theatre fundraiser asked the question, “So how do you come up with these stories?” – panic. To answer it with, “Oh god I have no idea” feels most correct in the moment. To say “They just come to me” can be sort of true, but ignores the copious amount of work that goes into it. It also sounds a little too “flaky artist.”
And, especially for Devilfish Sleeps, the answer would be remarkably long. When did I start writing this story? When I was four or five years old. My parents would tell us stories at night, and my favorites are when they would “tell me a story with your mouth.” I meant not from a book. Some of these would be made up out of thin air (my dad) and some would be Tlingit stories from long ago (my mom.)
And the Devilfish story was always intriguing. An entire village dies at the hands of a terrible sea monster, like a giant octopus, and there is only one survivor, a little girl. But in true Tlingit fashion, that is the whole story. Horrible death and destruction – the end. My child mind wondered for years what happened to this girl. How did she live to become our ancestor? How did she survive?
As I grew, so did my story, though I’d yet to put it to paper. As survival in the world, including surviving my own trauma of childhood sexual abuse, was best done through the lens of fiction for me, this girl became heroic. She was not just a survivor, but a thriver. She used her trauma for heroic deeds. But she was always a bit guilty about doing it.
When I was a teenager, another Tlingit story changed the course of how I thought about this girl. This time it was a story I read in a book of Tlingit legends, a short story about a girl who went into seclusion when she became a woman (hit puberty.) She was so lonely in that hut, she found a little woodworm and started raising it as her child. For me, it was not hard to imagine this girl’s loneliness. But how lonely would a girl have to be to raise a worm as a child?
When I reached adulthood, I tried various iterations of trying to put the growing story of the Devilfish to paper. A short story, then a novelette. But my world continued to grow, and so did this story. The girl grew to be a woman, a young woman trying to figure out this chaotic world of legend and humanity. Finally, in 2010, I got a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award with funding for a project. I was going to finish this book, and do as much research as I could on this world she lived in as my project.
I traveled back to the area of my birth and heritage, Southeast Alaska, to discover more about what kind of world Aanteinatu – the name I finally gave this girl – would have lived in. This included traveling to Devilfish Bay. It was the legendary home of my ancestors, and you can only get there with a boat. I chartered a boat and my auntie and I traveled to the bay, as well as the more recently abandoned (as in a hundred and some odd years ago) village site of my ancestors, Tuxecan.
To see the bare remains of a traditional Tlingit village taken over by the forest gave the sadness to the loss of this village in my story so much more meaning. And visiting Devilfish Bay was unexpectedly as spiritual as it was informative. The geography of the bay – an incredibly difficult to enter mouth, steep mountains sloping into a deep bay – changed the novel as it was, and entered into the twists of the story itself. But the feel of it, the history of the enclosure – it will be a place I visit in my head and my heart for the rest of my life.
When I finally finished the book, it was a moment of giving in. I realized I would never finish the end of this story. Aanteinatu was as real to me as Anne Shirley in her Green Gables, or Jo March figuring out life with her sisters. I gave up on finishing the book by realizing it was only the first book, the first story, in telling this girl’s tale. So it has an open ending, and an ever-growing “to be continued.”
After my debut play, I was chosen as Writer-in-Residence at Perseverance Theatre through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Playwright Residency Program. It was both a thrilling moment and intimidating. In three years of residency, I would be writing three plays for Perseverance, and they would be producing at least one. While I have about 50 ideas for what to do, I knew right away Devilfish Sleeps would be one of the ones I tackled. In choosing Devilfish Sleeps as my “sophomore play,” it has been both more difficult and more rewarding than I first imagined. The process of writing has never been more on the forefront of my mind.
In The Guardian article, George Saunders hooked me with this:
“We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”
The process of pulling this character and her story onto a script could be described this way – too mysterious and too much a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
Much of this process has been about truly writing for the stage. Having written this into a book, the challenge comes mostly in thinking about an entirely different audience. I always have someone in mind when I write this, but the person I am writing this play to has been elusive, an always moving goal post. My mentor, playwright Larissa FastHorse, has been teaching me (and teaching me, and teaching me…) about a theatre audience’s perspective, and for whatever reason, I find it difficult to grasp.
And yet, there was a light bulb moment when the publisher of the magazine I edit saw an early draft. Specifically, the first half of a four-hour over-explanation of a draft. As I discussed my struggles, she said simply, “This is funny – the roles are reversed. What are you always telling me when something is too long in the magazine?”
I find editing down a magazine simple and easy – and am pretty cutthroat when I, well. Cut it. I have a very clear idea of who the audience is and what they will accept and what will bore them and what will intrigue them. So I cut somewhat mercilessly to achieve that.
Yet with this play, I found it very difficult to cut down this poor girl’s life. She had already been through so much. How could I possibly encapsulate what she had been through in a two hour play?
This explanation strikes me as what I realized what I needed to do:
“You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: ‘No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.’
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”
I had not been giving my audience enough credit. I don’t know that I achieved the goal of really picturing my audience and writing to them, but that night, I went home and immediately cut 30 pages off the play. All night I cut and rearranged, and got it down to about 90 minutes. Fortunately, just in time for the reading.
Is it done? Ha. It’s got a few more years, and a few more workshops, before it’s ready for the audience I still have yet to discover. But it’s closer. So far, the process of writing this play has spanned about 30 years. So it can wait a few more.