Shifting the Goal Posts for my Writing (redefining success, or giving up?)

Daniel Berger Jones and Dale Place in Blood on the Snow

My first one-act play, The Elevator, was produced in 1987, when I was still in college. I wrote my first novel, Tornado Siren, while my daughter was a pre-schooler. She’s in graduate school now. So I guess we can say that I’ve been at this for while. I’ve written about 20 full-length plays, another 60+ short plays and one-acts, plus screenplays, radio plays, and four novels.

And they have reached audiences. The plays have been performed for well over 120,000 people (more than 10,000 this year alone), in more than 14 countries, while the books have had a much smaller impact–slightly more than 1,500 readers.
I earn a very modest amount of money from my writing (mostly from plays). Prior to 2016, I’d never made more than $10,000 in a year. The past three years saw a jump to over $20K annually, but this year I’ll just break $17K (that’s all gross, not net). 
So in many ways, my writing career feels like a mix of success and failure. I’ve written some high quality work and engaged thousands of audience members with the characters and stories I’ve created. But I’m a 52-year-old man who’s been writing for 30 years and am still struggling to have my writing contribute $1,000 a month to my family. I’m a long way from “making a living” as a writer, if making a living means financially helping feed and house my family.
In terms of major theatrical benchmarks, my career is seriously lacking. I’ve never had a play on Broadway or Off Broadway. (My work isn’t well-suited to big Broadway spaces, so that’s probably a stupid marker anyway). I’ve never had a play produced by a large regional theatre (LORT), despite having that on my target list for many years. I’ve had the good fortune to have my work developed by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, which is certainly an impressive LORT company, but I haven’t made it into their season yet. That’s the closest I’ve gotten. 
Even at the mid-size Equity level in Boston and beyond, my work remains unproduced. Nearly all of my productions have come from small, scrappy theatres, across the U.S., and especially in Boston. But not at companies large enough to introduce me and my work to the higher levels of the theatrical ecosystem. There are other playwrights in Boston whose work has reached that level (and they’re all friends of mine)–Kirsten Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, David Valdes, Lila Rose Kaplan, Ronan Noone–mine has not.
A few obvious questions arise:
  • After trying to reach this level of success for 30 years, is it time to give up? 
  • Have I failed to achieve a meaningful career as a playwright? (Certainly this is true of my career as a novelist.) 
  • Am I not a good enough writer? 
  • Is my work just not interesting to larger venues?
  • Is the market not interested in my voice right now? Will it ever be?
Do I need to redefine what constitutes success for me and my writing?
(and if I do, is that just giving up and calling it by another name?)
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Cerulean Blue at Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2019
Here’s the thing: I think I’ve already been doing it.
In 2013, I was hired to write and help produce a site-specific play called Blood on the Snow for the Old State House Museum. After a few years of raising money, it was produced in 2016 to critical acclaim and a month of sold-out houses. We brought it back in 2017 for a sold-out 12-week run. It reached thousands of people, in a deep way. The museum still gets calls every week asking when the show will return.
This was my first full-length full Equity production, ever. And it was kind of self-produced. I was intensely embarrassed by never having had one before this. That lack of a full Equity production, after so many years, made me feel like a fraud.
I started writing site-specific plays in Denver in the ’90s, and now that it was happening again, I rediscovered how much I LOVE writing this kind of work. Enough to start my own theatre company, Plays in Place, to make it easier for historic sites and museums to commission me to create the work.
This past year, I produced two more Equity productions at Mount Auburn Cemetery, The Nature Plays and The America Plays, as part of my two-year stint as artist-in-residence. Audiences were completely engaged and enthralled. I loved the entire experience of it. 
This was the first time I’d ever served as producer for a full-length Equity production. I did it twice this year. I’ll keep on doing it.
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Stephen Sampson and Marge Dunn in Cato & Dolly
Another commissioned Plays in Place production, Cato & Dolly, returned  this summer for a second run at Boston’s Old State House, for an 8-week run (7 days a week, 3 shows a day) that reached more than 4,000 audience members over 160 performances.
What surprises me is how completely satisfying the experience has been. The writing challenge of each site and project is completely different. I’m working with top-notch actors, who have been enthusiastic partners in the process. I’ve formed a strong artistic relationship with director Courtney O’Connor, who has directed Blood on the Snow, Cato & Dolly, and the Mount Auburn Plays. I’m learning intense amounts about history, nature, and theatre. I’m getting paid. I’m creating theatrical experiences where we bring in all kinds of new audiences, not just traditional theatre-goers, and we’re really getting to know them. I’ve developed writing and producing skills for this kind of work that feel meaningful. I’m providing paid employment for dozens of Boston-area theatre artists.
I want to do as much of this work as I possibly can. Blood on the Snow will return in 2020, and I have a new project coming for Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’m currently in talks with a dozen different museums and historic sites. 
It feels awfully good.
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Mathew Ryan and Ken Baltin in Man of Vision at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Which, if you’re a writer, you know also feels suspicious. Because so much of our existence is trying to reach these goalposts and never quite getting there, or else trying for the next marker. We are taught, through our culture, that feeling satisfaction is deadly–we need to be working ourselves to death, and we need to keep shooting for something higher up the theatrical food chain.
I’m not sure I care about that stuff anymore. Sure, I’d like my other plays to be produced at larger venues. And it’d be nice for my work to impact the national theatrical zeitgeist. I’ve spent a LOT of years chasing those things, and helping other people chase those goals, too–through my work publishing Market InSight for Playwrights and then creating and managing The Playwright Submission Binge (an online community of more than 1,000 playwrights that focuses on marketing and submitting scripts).
But instead of submitting scripts to more and more theatres week after week, I craft proposals to museums, trying to convince them to commission me for a new project. My theatre company is an odd entity that only works in partnership with other institutions–museums and historic sites, not other theatres. Instead of going to theatre confabs, I’m more likely to attend a museum conference.
This drifting away from goals I’ve set for so many years feels unsettling. I’m not even sure they ever made sense for me to have as goals, but they seemed like the highest, most important targets out there. And it felt like what playwrights were supposed to want.
I will keep sending scripts to calls for submissions, because stopping feels like I’d be abandoning those plays, and I do still believe in them. But I won’t submit as often. I’m not sure I believe in the hamster wheel of submission/play development/sparse productions that I’ve been on for so long. Getting off makes me feel a little dizzy.
Perhaps reaching middle age has allowed me to take a step back and realize that satisfaction isn’t as deadly as I feared. Creating strong plays that fully engage audiences, in collaboration with other talented artists might be what I’ve been after this whole time. Now that I’m here, I’d better pay attention and make the most out of the opportunity I’ve been given. And savor it.
That might not be giving up after all.
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Amanda Collins and Robert Najarian in The America Plays
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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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