About ten years ago, I was on a plane to study in Morelia, Mexico, to satisfy my cross-cultural experience degree requirement at Antioch College.
There was another problem.
I needed to write the second draft of my senior thesis play by the end of my time in Mexico. I had to do this without a computer since we’d been advised not to bring them along. Internet cafes were going to be too expensive.
What did I do?
A manual cut and paste.
I have just as much technology lust and yearning as the next, I am reminded, now more than ever, of my revision process in Mexico. I’ve realized that, yes, a computer would have made things easier, but it would not have written the play for me.
There are screenwriting and playwriting computer programs that are supposed to format everything correctly and stimulate the creative juices. These tools are marketed as the solutions—it’s as if you don’t have to do any work, just buy the program and you’re nearly done. Not so.
In May 1999, I knew I needed a script for this play. I spent the next thirty days writing a play. Much like my experience ten years later, this was done late at night while listening to music (Greg Brown’s Further In and Bob Dylan’s Street Legal) or having the television on in the background. For some reason the Lethal Weapon series of movies seemed to be on quite often that month. Violence didn’t enter my mindset, but friendship and relationships did.
What the play is or was about doesn’t matter. What stands out is the process. Instead of typing out my first draft, I knew myself too well. I knew that if I started typing and then saw something I wanted to change, I would go back and change it never really moving forward. Carlyle Brown, my playwriting professor at Antioch College, had given me the advice to write, not to look back, and to finish. In retrospect he had figured me out, and it is good I trusted his advice. Instead of typing out the draft, I wrote it out longhand in a spiral notebook. After I got to “The End” I would go back and type it up. That was successful. I ended up with an 80 page first draft.
I was quite proud to have written something and also petrified that it would completely suck. I printed out copies and gave them to my parents, my advisor Louise Smith, and my good friend Miguel Santiago.
By the end of the summer, I had gotten feedback from everybody. To my great appreciation, Miguel had carefully gone through the entire script with a non-threatening blue pen and meticulously written comments and questions to me in the margins.
Now, I had to take all of that feedback and write a second draft.
I also knew I would have to do that from September through November in colonial city of Morelia, Mexico, without access to a computer. Remember, we had been told not to bring our laptops. All of our classroom assignments would be written in longhand.
In order to solve my revision problem, I brought the following to Mexico so I could work:
- A clean copy of the script.
- A blank spiral notebook.
- Louise Smith’s comments.
- Miguel Santiago’s comments.
- My parents’ comments.
- Scotch tape.
- A box of my favorite pens.
This was what I would need for a manual cut and paste.
Over the next ninety days, I went through the entire script. When I had something I wanted to keep, I used the scissors and cut it out of the fresh copy and taped it into the notebook. I added dialogue, stage directions, and scenes. I left parts of the script on the floor. I worked an hour or two a night in the sunroom of my host family’s house. I’m quite sure the script changed because of the environment in which I was revising it—a character drank tequila and had a bit more machismo in him than before.
At the end of the ninety days, I had a spiral notebook bursting with scotch tape pages covered with handwritten dialogue and parts of the former script–a huge storytelling scrapbook. I had run completely out of scotch tape. No way was I sending this via international mail. No way was I going to put this in my checked luggage. It went in my backpack on the plane. When I arrived back in New Hampshire, I spent the better part of December typing up the second draft.
The script had increased from eighty to 120 pages.
It may sound quite primitive to have done a manual cut and paste. Still, I’m reminded that Tony Dallas, a director and playwright I worked with at Antioch, once explained that the reason “playwright” is spelled “wright” rather than “write” is because it is a craft. I remember clearly his gesticulations comparing it to blacksmithing or woodworking.
I learned the craft of playwriting during those three months in Mexico. Instead of a forge, I had my favorite pens, scotch tape, and a pair of scissors. A primitive Microsoft Word
And, it was all I needed.
And, unlike Microsoft Word, it never crashed.
It’s essential to remember that tools aren’t the solution.