Killing My Darlings
The photo above is deceiving.
It’s a stock photo, of course. I like the idea of it: throwing out the old to make literal room for what works. In my reality, my cuts are digital. I tuck old drafts away in a different file, a different folder, a hidden section of my playwriting software. When I cut something that’s in a notebook, I keep that page in tact. I revisit my notebooks once a decade, it seems, so there’s no danger that the cut idea will bury it’s way into my line of vision and go from being a bad idea to a bad idea that just doesn’t work.
But I do throw things out. All the time.
The first three years of Dust don’t exist anymore. Well, they exist as a feeling, a concept. But they don’t exist as a script, characters, setting — none of it. I wrote and wrote from 2012 to 2015 before finally putting this play — this play that everyone loved except for me — in a metaphorical drawer. It wasn’t until I’d completely uprooted my life and driven across the country that I started working on it again. I had literally nothing to lose. So I started with a blank document.
I threw out the first two major drafts of Voyagers, a fact that I had to recently defend to an investor. Why should he give me money for this project if I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and throw the play out again? Because it’s so much stronger this time. Because this time I actually got it right. And now I need to spend a few weeks with actors fine tuning it.
But it didn’t feel like I was losing anything with those cuts.
It didn’t feel like I was in agony about the decision to start over. I made my own choices about this material, regardless of what others thought. But I’m not here to talk about how brave I am. I’m here to be vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty high and mighty about where I was in the Voyagers process. I was finally writing a draft that felt great, I was in the zone. I was even able to talk to my director each week to go over the new pages and talk to her about what I had planned next.
“I’m going to write the labor scene,” I said. “It’s going to be pretty close to the labor scene from the last draft.”
You know, the last draft that I had completely scrapped? That last draft. That should have been my first red flag. The play was completely different now. Shoving an old scene into a completely new script just for the sake of faux productivity isn’t going to work. It just isn’t.
Try telling that to a playwright who’s feeling just a little overwhelmed about writing a three-hour epic.
(That playwright is me. And, yeah, I’m talking to and about myself.)
But anyway, I got my director’s blessing, went off and wrote the scene — which felt just so so familiar — and sent it off to her. When we sat down to read those new pages, she stopped me. She couldn’t deal with the triple trauma that I was subjecting my characters to. First, I was putting the Challenger disaster on stage, a trauma to my secondary character’s career. Second, I was putting this secondary character through a difficult birth. Third, I was killing the secondary character’s love interest, who was supposedly on board the Challenger. It wasn’t working. Even if I was inflicting all this trauma on the protagonist — the emotional and moral center of this play — it wouldn’t work.
And I didn’t know what to say. All of those events needed to happen. We signal very early on that Helen has a daughter, a daughter who shows up in another timeline of the play. We spend a lot of time talking about the fact that this absent father was an astronaut, that he’d died. And we knew that Helen worked on the engine team for Challenger, that her daughter had been born on the same day of the disaster, that this was some sort of poetic wonder — that a child could replace a spacecraft. That a child could eclipse a major career setback.
I was devastated. But I knew my director was right. She’d been with me for every step of this play’s process. She read the first pages of my notebook, before there were even scenes or characters or anything. She lived with me through both thrown out drafts, she watched me write music for the first time. If she could watch me write, she probably would. This play belonged to her just as much as it belonged to me.
And this wasn’t like my other plays. It’s not a play built on trauma or disaster. It’s not an exploration of horror. It’s an examination of hope. So I took 24 hours to sit in the bad news and then I got to work, fueled by the nurturing elements of having a baby, setting the birth in the wee hours of the morning, well before the Challenger disaster. I made the absent father a dirtbag rather than a tragic figure, having him leave town before the launch and the birth, having him become anonymous.
And then I wrote.
You’ll have to come see Voyagers and judge for yourself whether or not my tactic was successful. But I’m proud of the route I took. It feels tonally much more in line with the rest of the play. It centers our protagonist, it gives us an option to learn more from Bobbie and Helen’s friendship.
But hey, I’m glad I listened to my director. I’m glad I listened to the only other person whose lived with this play as long as I have. I’m glad I stayed open to the possibility of cutting something I loved — in favor of something that worked.