Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I got my first rejection letter of 2010 yesterday. I kind of had a feeling it would be coming, but, nonetheless, there it was. Slim, little business envelope. It's like college application time all over again, though even worse.

With all the conversation about the fortunes of playwrights and whether we whine too much about said fortunes and everything, it's easy to forget how it feels to be a playwright, how it feels to work on a script (or, actually, in this case, two scripts) for months, years, do readings, do rewrites, get notes, take it to writers' groups, get more notes, give it to your colleagues, keep getting notes and ideas, do more rewrites and then, finally, send it out into the ether, wait six months (if you're lucky) and get back...a slim envelope with a form letter in it. Despite all the conversations about barriers to the gates of opportunity, the need for MFAs, the narrow tastes of the decision-makers being driven by market factors, all of that talk of the institutional issues facing our theatres and the roadblocks thrown up in the path of our writers, you know what the first thing I think is?

My plays weren't good enough.

And it's probably true.

Actually, in this particular case, I know it to be true. I got the letter from New Dramatists and when I worked there, I was involved in the admissions process. And I can attest that is exceedingly fair and well-structured and built to get as many playwrights as good a shot as possible. But, at the end of the day, if your work doesn't resonate with the committee, that's it. And my work didn't resonate.

Knowing how fair it is softens the blow...a little. But it's still a blow. And, for me, it makes me think, not of the unfairness of my lot in life, but of the work itself. Maybe if I'd done that rewrite I was thinking about, maybe if I'd submitted that other play, the slightly more polished one. Maybe, maybe, maybe...I don't wish that I had some different personal background, or went to a different school. I honestly just wished I'd written better.

I doubt that I' m alone among writers in keeping a fairly thick file of rejection letters (I don't keep copies of bad reviews; I have those etched in my heart). I don't look at it often, just file them away. This will go in the file and I won't look at it for a long while. When I do, probably the next time I'm moving and thinking about cleaning out my files, I'll look at it and think, Well, this isn't so bad. Why was I so upset by it? The pain part will fade, burn out, and leave behind this: Write better.

Write better.


Scott Walters said...

I'm sorry. There is so much rejection in theatre, and the human pain it causes is enormous. There is a book I read, called "Art and Fear," that made a point that 90% of what an artist creates is not meant for anyone else to see -- it is the 90% that must be created in order to get to the 10% that people do need to see. You're one play closer to that.

99 said...

Thanks, Scott.

Sean said...

My God, what a great post. And I fully agree with what Scott said. We should all have this mantra, with our own art inserted, and maybe with the instruction before, "Don't complain, write better." Thanks for this.

Tony Adams said...

I know it's not easy on the other side either. Looking at our next season there are ten plays I love. A lot of them I like but 10 I love. I can do two, maybe three if I can raise the money.

Sometimes, I almost want to say in a rejection letter: I love this play, but I don't have the budget to do it. Can you help me figure out how we can mount it, together?

99 said...

I think you'd find more takers for that than you think. Maybe more than you'd want.

Tony Adams said...

Maybe there's something there. Note necessarily writers backing their own productions at other places or packaging in the Hollywood sense; but, writers who are able to link aligned orgs/resources that may not know each other might be able to get more in the drivers seat than is the current norm of send it out and cross your fingers.

or it may be a dumb idea. . .

99 said...

And now this post and the one on other models have joined in the back end.

Anonymous said...

99, do you really think it's about "write better"??

I mean, of course, go, write better! Grow! (and I'm sure you have and you will).

But come on, a lot of these selection processes are about taste and luck! You know that.

That is not to discount a genuine understanding of craft, etc.

Keep buying lottery tickets, they're cheap!*

*unless you're talking about the o'neill or sundance

Malachy Walsh said...

Hey, I'm expecting my rejection from ND any day now. It's part of the winter season, like rain and cold.

But while you should always try to write better, don't be so sure that your plays are being rejected because they need to be better.

You simply don't know.

And it's definitely more constructive to talk about resonating. That's meaningful. It's a notion that's about craft, to be sure, but so much more.

It's why, as you know, at ND, so many apply who get quite far in the process one year and nowhere the next with the exact same application - for one committee, the plays resonated. For the other, they did not.