I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Iowa with my wife (and son, too). She was presenting a paper at a dance conference because she's a badass dance scholar, and I was tagging along because we still have a couple of friends left in Iowa. I spent a whole day with my friend, the author and book reviewer Laura Farmer. That's her in the photo above at a little coffee house called Wit's End in Marion, IA. Small and great. Our conversations moved through a vast range of topics, personal and professional. She and I have deadlines that we've had in place for the past 10 years (at least). Every May 15th and December 15th, we vow (and have always followed through) to send each other a new piece of work. My new work will be Persephone. I enjoy her notes. It's nice getting thoughts and ideas from a writer who is not a playwright. Do you have writer friends who are novelists or poets? They get to focus on character and scene and don't think about what we theatre artists think about most times: "Is this produceable?" If you don't have a non-playwright writer friend, I suggest you find one. But you can't have mine.
One thing that we discussed is the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that my friend Greg Machlin turned me onto. The big idea is that there are two kinds of Mindsets: Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. A fixed mindset believes that if I have to work hard at something it means that I'm obviously not good, smart, or talented enough. The growth mindset believes that hard work does not make you unworthy. You can fail because you are learning, you are inexperienced, or you are attempting something new. A friend then asked, "So it's saying that with handwork, you can do anything?" That's not the idea. Hard work does not guarantee success, but if you are a success, it's because of your hard work. The author does leave room for natural talent, but natural talent isn't the end. It is the beginning.
This made me think about myself and what mindset I am, and what I learned was that in my work with others, I have and encourage a growth mindset. But when it comes to the way I view myself, my talent, my writing, and my future as a playwright, I have an amazingly fixed mindset. "I'm as good as I'm going to be." "I'm never going to write an important play." "I don't have the skills to write an important play." As I've been wrestling with this for the past few weeks, I checked up on fellow Ohio playwright Jeremy Sony's blog and found a new post he'd written about the idea of writing "importantly:"
When I was in school, I was always trying to write heavy family dramas, plays that I thought would stand up against Death of a Salesman or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (No, I wasn't aiming big or anything.) I wrote about the collapse of journalistic ethics, the destruction of mom & pop businesses, and the state of hydraulic fracking in the Heartland. And I love those plays, but in looking back, I think I might have let the auspices of grad school fill me with some notion that I had to write about world-changing issues; I had to make a statement; I had to write importantly. Yeah, importantly.
The full post is well worth the read.
As part of recovering from my fixed mindset, I decided that I need to find ways to grow and one of the best ways to grow as a playwright is to read more plays. While in Iowa, I read 'Night Mother for the first time. Yes, I know, bad, BAD theatre major. How could I have made it through speech and debate in high school and not seen any bits of that play? While reading the play, I noticed just how small it was in terms of action and focus. It's the epitome of intimacy as a play. That's not to say that it's not complex and large in scope, but there's no mistaking how focused it is. The big takeaway from Jeremy and from 'Night Mother is that you don't have to change the world with the play, you just have to change their world. Make a defining change to the world of the characters and there's a play there.
So, my fellow theatre-makers, have any of you read Mindset? Do you have a fixed mindset about your work? What new discoveries have you made about yourself or your work this month?
Enjoy the work, always be growing, and, as always, be excellent to each other.