John Cariani’s first lesson came in the very first seconds of his workshop: “I don’t like writing, but I love creating content for actors.” As liberal arts students, many of us can already relate to Cariani, the famous actor and playwright. Not all students love writing, but most of us acknowledge the importance writing has in our daily lives as college students. Writing is more than a way to unwind – words change people! The workshop, held September 27, was created to help those students who want to write but struggle with the so called “writer’s block,” especially in creative endeavors and playwriting.
Cariani told us he is very lazy and that he simply hates writing most of the time. This is why he forces himself to write for only two minutes each day. Sometimes two minutes turns into eight hours of hard work, but sometimes two minutes is enough time to realize it is not a good day for writing. But, how do you get started effectively in your daily two minutes of writing?
He taught many exercises. The first one is to collect stories as you walk by. Listen to others speak and steal interesting pieces of conversation that you hear on the streets or on the bus. Write the conversations down and put them in a shoebox. If by the end of the week you still think those ideas are interesting, you have a topic for writing.
His second set of techniques, of which we spent most of the time developing, involved free association and limitations in writing. Writing with certain limitations can help creativity. For one of his assignments, Cariani gave us a name, place, time, color and action. Then he gave us 10 minutes to create a story that would include all of the elements he mentioned. Working with these limitations helps creativity to develop. Another example was to create a dialogue in which every passing sentence has exactly one word less than the previous one. So, for example, let’s say your first sentence has 10 words; the subsequent sentence must have nine words, and so on. With all those limitations, it seems simple to draw a path that connects all the facts, maybe even easier than starting with a blank page.
Perhaps the most important thing Cariani emphasized is that writing can be goal directed. If you know your ending you can build your story around it, but if you don’t have an objective your writing may seem aimless and hard to write. For example if you are writing a story in which John and Sara are characters that fight and never see each other again, you can base your story around that outcome. You can construct their personalities and develop the way they will interact. This can be a great technique: your whole text will culminate in a wonderful ending! Cariani gave the perfect example: the end is always the memorable part; you never say, “that was a great movie, did you see that beginning?” The ending is what will remain of the plot, so it has to be well written.
Just as important as the workshop itself, Cariani taught patience and humility at the dinner that followed. It is not easy to act on Broadway or to be a well-established writer. He told us of how long it took for him to realize how to guide his life. It is not easy to find the path through college and even Cariani had a hard time. He took math courses because he felt it was right and the only took a theater class in his senior year. It was even more recently that he discovered the great challenge of comedy: one of the hardest, if not the hardest, genre of writing.
“Evil seems more complex than goodness!” Even though it is sometimes easy to forget, Cariani reminded the workshop attendees that words and acting can change people – it has a political dimension to it. It can make you think and feel in many different ways. Beyond great techniques in to improve our writing, he shared with us intense enthusiasm and passion for theater.