When I was in college, I began to hear voices in my head. Actually, it was entire conversations, with one voice saying something and then another one answering or changing the subject or making a joke or pointedly ignoring the first speaker. In psychiatry, this is known as szhizophrenia. In literature, it is called playwriting.
It could also be called fiction writing, but I wasn’t interested in the stuff that goes on between the conversations. While a fiction writer takes great pleasure in writing, for instance, this:
“Zooey turned full toward his mother and looked at her carefully, the flat of one hand on the enamel, as if for support. ‘You listening to me?’ Mrs. Glass finished lighting a fresh cigarette before she committed herself. Then, exhaling smoke and brushing off imaginary tobacco flakes from her lap, she said grimly, ‘I’m listening to you.’”
But a playwright? She probably wouldn’t mess around with too much stage business. She would be satisfied with the dialogue alone, writing something more like this:
Zooey: You listening to me?
Mrs. Glass: I’m listening to you.
Voices like these (which are, I should state, from my all-time-favorite novel, J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey.”) started talking to each other in my head long ago, while I was riding my bike on a break from college, but I could not bring myself to write them down. I was afraid. Of what, I’m not quite sure, but I felt somehow embarrassed to do it, even though the only person who would read it would be me. Raise your hand if you, too, have been stopped from doing something in the privacy of your own room, from doing something that no one else need ever witness, because you are too self-conscious. Let me know I’m not alone.
Years after that first frustrated hankering to write dialogue, I met a student who was studying playwriting. He had, in fact, convinced the powers that be at his college to let him create his own major in the subject. When I met this student, who worked in the library where I was a librarian, our friendship somehow gave me permission to try it myself. If he could do it, I figured, so could I.
There was another force pushing me at that same time, an opportunity that compelled me to overcome yet another Big Fear. This other thing I was afraid of was public speaking, and the force that helped me overcome my fear was a class that was offered at that same college. The class? Domestic Violence. I didn’t want to enroll in it, though. I’d already lived it. What I wanted to do was to convince the professor to let me speak to the class.
My offer was more than welcomed by him, and I went there, and I got up and spoke, and it went pretty well. Not long after, I sat down at a computer and started to write my first play. I called it “Just Leave,” because that was the question I heard and read all too often. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” As I continued what turned into years of public speaking and teaching about violence in the home, I answered that question over and over. But by writing plays, I was able to demonstrate it.
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know what the instructor most often tells you to do: Show, don’t tell. I can’t think of a better way to show how domestic violence works than in a play. So my first play, “Just Leave,” was, in some ways, easy to write. All I had to do was put down on paper what had happened so many nights in my own home, during my own first marriage, back in Colorado.