When you write a story or script that is your own idea, your feeling of ownership is clear and strong. After all, the idea came from you, inside you, deep inside, right?
What about when you get an assignment? When an editor, theater or film company commissions you to write about a story they want to develop?
How can you get that same sense of ownership, that same primal urge to tell the story, when it was someone else’s idea?
Getting paid? Will that do it? No. Being motivated to get paid is not what I mean, even though getting paid for assignments is certainly something that keeps us on our toes.
What I mean is: how do we make a story our own?
We have to find a core connection and write from that core. We have to find a hook into it from our own life or heart.
Maybe for something short, like an article, you don’t have to ‘belong’ to the idea with all your heart and soul. You can probably pound it out with a healthy dose of professionalism. But for something longer, especially something full-length (two-hour film or play, 250-page novel, etc.) it’s best if you figured out how the material resonates with you in some way personally — especially if you want to hit the ball out of the park.
Some questions we can ask are:
- Does this remind me of something/someone in my life?
- What if this happened to me?
- If I were buying a ticket to see this play/film, or buying a book to read this story, what would I want to see in it?
- Would my writing make sense to someone like the characters depicted in this story?
- Am I proud to have my name on this?
A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a play about the foster care system for the fantastic theater organization, Playwrights Project (www.playwrightsproject.org), which uses drama-based activities to teach literacy and communication skills to youth, elderly and other groups. They work extensively with foster kids, families and social workers, conduct writing workshops for foster youth and then have professional actors present their stories — a program titled “Telling Stories – Giving Voice to Foster Youth.”
I had written a ‘multifaceted’ play for them before – called Soul Fire, about post-9/11 immigrants to San Diego coming from various countries and faiths, based on interviews. This new play would take a similar approach — looking at an issue through multiple points of view — but with different subject matter.
With the immigrant play, I related immediately because I’m Armenian-American — my grandparents were immigrants, my mother as well, and my heritage and Christian faith are very important to me as it was for my ancestors, who were persecuted for their beliefs for centuries.
But a play on foster care? I’m not a foster child, nor a foster parent. No one in my family is, either. I’ve never adopted a child, though I have friends who have, and I have several friends who are social workers. Of course, I know it is an important issue overall, but that was head knowledge for me, not heart knowledge. I didn’t have the primal connection I felt I needed to write a compelling script.
Then I started researching and reading the stories of these foster kids — being placed in multiple homes and rarely feeling rooted anywhere, changing schools over and over, the loneliness, the urge to find their real parents — I didn’t realize the scope of the suffering.
Of course, many of them end up living well-adjusted lives in healthy foster families. But others face abuse (from birth parents or foster parents); some of them are not trusted or accepted because of past or recent bad behavior; some are able to face the challenges of living in group homes, others cannot. The social workers working extra hours trying to create a life and place for the kids, dealing with hurdle after hurdle, paperwork for miles, and after-hours emergencies, experience a level of pressure and burnout few professions face. There is so much that was so difficult to read about, and at times so heartbreaking. But even then, something was still missing for me.
Then it happened. Finally, my mind went to our two young daughters, who were toddlers at the time.
Soon the onslaught came, one night:
1. What if my girls were taken from me?
2. What if I was a birth parent who had loused up my life and lost my kids through my own behavior or circumstances and could never get them back?
3. What if all of sudden the girls were living on the other side of town with strangers, wishing they could have their family back, but having nothing but their old blanket or teddy to remind them of home, if that?
4. What if someone was abusing them or getting them in involved in drugs?
5. What if years passed, they aged out of the system, and they couldn’t find me or Dad?
6. What if they ended up out of the system and out on the street, fending for themselves?
7. What if I was a foster parent and loved my foster child as my own, only to have them betray me or leave again?
Those questions did it. They grabbed my core and ripped my heart out. Oh, my girls! My babies. The tears came soon enough; the imagined horror kept me up at night. And yet I could still walk into my girls’ room and see them in their bed and kiss them and thank God for them.
But for some kids and families, this was not possible. For them, the trauma was not imagination. They wanted their mommy or daddy back; they were scared out of their souls being in a new place, a new school, with no friends, and few clothes besides what they could take in a garbage bag with them. There were birth parents rife with regret and shame, whose short-term mistakes or lapses caused a lifetime of pain; foster parents doing all they could to break through to connect with their new child without success; teenagers aging out of the system, not sure what to do next.
And on the flip side, there were tremendous joys and victories — children finding a home, a loving family and a sense of belonging; kids thriving in school with new-found support; youth overcoming addictions and unhealthy patterns; teens getting into college and grad school; young adults becoming spokespeople for local or national foster care reform or training as court-appointed special advocates for foster kids; hearts, souls and minds blossoming.
The ups and downs of this all-consuming topic, and seeing the issue through the lens of my own daughters, helped me break through and say, “I have to write this, and I have to give it everything I’ve got.”
When the play, Switch, premiered a few years ago, what struck me is that it affected audiences from all walks of life: foster kids and families, who felt that it was real, that it reminded them of their own life; patrons who knew nothing about foster care and were ‘facing’ it for the first time; social workers and health care professionals; parents who were considering fostering; and everyone in between. It also showed me I still have a lot to learn about the topic of foster care — so many people had so many stories to share with me during intermissions and post-performance talks.
I was so humbled and honored to go on this journey and help audiences be affirmed, encouraged or informed. The play has gone on to be produced again and also presented at foster care conferences. Hearing the knowing laughter or groans, seeing the heads nod, sensing the audience’s engagement firsthand, taught me so much.
We have to LET a story idea take hold of us, and we have to dive in and give ourselves completely to it, even if it will be uncomfortable, raw, or excruciating. When we find that angle that connects us to the material, that thing from our own life that makes it all ‘click’ for us, watch out for the result. The story will find its audience, and none of you will ever be the same.