General 12-5-2006

Letters from a Writer: Anatomy of a Thought Train

Jean Sramek takes a process to pieces so we can see what it's made of: the increasingly popular Out-of-the-Hat play competition is closer to Warren Pease than "War and Peace," but its invitation to fabulation has liberating possibilities.

Jean Sramek

These are the two questions that always kill me:

  1. Where do you come up with all those funny ideas?

  2. How long did it take you to write that?

They kill me because there are impossible to answer. How long did it take me to write that? Christ, how should I know? It’s not like I punch a timeclock when I start writing something. Half the time I get ideas when I’m at the grocery store or the gym, and when I claim to be “working” I’m actually emailing my friends or Googling old boyfriends instead of doing any actual writing. Did I say that out loud? And who cares how long it took? If I say, “Ten years” will I get your admiration for my endless struggle, or will you wonder why I lack time management skills? If I say, “Ten minutes” will you think I’m a speedy genius, or will you think I’m overpaid, hourly-wage-wise? In this modern world, everything is measured. Neither exercise nor work nor artistic endeavor has merit, unless it can be entered into a spreadsheet.

“Where did you come up with those funny ideas” is usually answered with an aw-shucks mysterious smile, which hides the please don’t ask me because I have no idea and precedes the “Well, would you look at that. My drink is empty. Excuse me, won’t you?” The truth is, coming up with the funny ideas is easy because other people come up with them for you. Basically, you just get up in the morning, go out into the world, pay attention, and write down what happened. Then you spend the next ten years (or ten minutes) making the material presentable.

Piece of cake. Unless you get involved in a 24-hour theatre project like “Out of the Hat,” in which writers draw a Who slip, a What slip, and a Where slip, plus ones for opening line and number of characters . . . ah . . . out of a hat, and have to write a play overnight using these prompts, which will then be performed by a bunch of actors after a few hours of rehearsal. (Read about it here). Then, boy howdy, everyone in the audience wants—nay, demands—to know how long it took you to write that. At least you can tell them: two hours, four hours, six hours, all night. They’re not as interested in how you came up with those funny ideas, because when you draw “a master gardener, a slide rule, and the French Quarter” or “Aunt Jemima, a wooden leg, and Paris” as prompts, the play practically writes itself.

Writing a play for “Out of the Hat” requires that you stop paying attention to the world around you and pay attention to only three things: Jerry Lewis, a salt shaker, and under a bridge (or whatever your assigned Who/What/Where are. During OOTH #8 last month, at Renegade Comedy Theater in Duluth, I also decided to pay attention to myself, and my own process of turning three random prompts into a ten-minute play. How did I come up with those funny ideas, anyway? Adding that level of attention-paying was a little like writing down your dreams—translating an untranslatable language. But here’s how it went. “Charlie Manson” is what I drew from the “Who” hat for the second night of Hat #8. Charlie got a laugh, but then again every writer’s draw gets a laugh from the audience; they are laughing at us, not with us. My “What” was “inflatable girlfriend.” Bigger laugh. Where? “Under the bleachers.” Guffaws now. I put my thumb into the “Opening Line” hat and pulled out a plum: “Would you please put your clothes back on?” Even I started to laugh, as the prompts were indeed pointing in a certain direction. Then I drew my cast: one man, three women. Now everyone was laughing. I put the magic slips of paper into my pocket and drove home to let this play write itself.

Once in front of my computer, I quickly realized that Charlie Manson is not funny, under any circumstances. Neither, in my opinion, are inflatable girlfriends. “Under the bleachers” had possibilities. I played around with a couple of different obvious scenarios, all featuring soft-core danger zones. I remembered that Charles Manson, besides being a mass murderer, had been a songwriter and a friend of Dennis Wilson’s; this just made things worse. Then I started self-brainstorming, which is like regular brainstorming, with the flip charts and the fluorescent lights and the bad coffee and the team building, only much, much weirder—since there is only one brain. What would make an inflatable girlfriend more in keeping with my feminist sensibilities? Could I empower her in some way? Make her the hero? Ine? Maybe she’s better than a regular girlfriend. Bigger, faster. Stronger. Like the Bionic Woman. Heh. Or Charlie’s Angels. Heh. Charlie. CHARLIE! Saaaaaayyyy … maybe it’s a different Charlie Manson. Not the obvious one. The other one. Okay, now what to do with the other two women in my cast? Well, I’ve got three women. Why not have three inflatable girlfriends? Each with special skills. Three empowered, crime-fighting, bigger-stronger-foxier inflatable girlfriends. Yeah. Now about “under the bleachers.” Eh, I’ll figure it out.

And with that, my script took a sharp left turn into the land of the hokey but G-rated 1970’s police drama. The opening line about putting clothes back on was a throwaway reference to the skimpy costume worn by one of the crime-fighting females (Flicka, the martial arts and linguistics expert). Freed from the fate of a tasteless script about mass murder and the Adam & Eve catalog, I was free to write a tasteless script about Flicka, her crime-fighting cohorts Raven and Portaluca, and the mysterious bartender Hector. “Under the bleachers” ended up being used, not once, but three times: as the site of the fateful explosion which turned three teenaged girls into three inflatable police-bots, as The Bleachers (the swankiest discotheque in town), and as the location of the hidden microfilm (under Portaluca’s Crest White-Strips, also known as “the bleachers.”) After the plays were over, one of my fellow Hatters labeled my triple interpretation of the “Where” prompt as a show-offy flourish. It wasn’t. I simply couldn’t decide which one to use, so I put them all in. Laziness and indecision win again!

It’s not as funny when you have to explain the joke. It’s also not as interesting to hear me actually answer the question, “How did you come up with all those funny ideas?” So next time don’t ask. I will, however, tell you how long it took me to write this one: 3 hours, 22 minutes, if you don’t count the time I spent surfing the ‘net for .wav files of the theme from “The Six Million Dollar Man.”