Playwright Winter Miller, who is teaching an intensive called “The Cure for Writer’s Block” at Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA), discusses her writing process, the community of writers at ESPA and what she has learned from her students.Primary Stages: What technique or techniques do you use to get your creative juices flowing when you’re suffering from writer’s block? Where do you get your inspiration?
Winter Miller: This is a tricky one, and I’ll confess I’m far more skilled at getting other people’s creative juices flowing than my own. What I’ve learned to recognize is that sometimes, I need to step back because the well feels dry–it’s not–or it is–but in any case, it needs to be filled. When that happens I go look at visual art, I spend time in and looking at nature, and I try to nurture myself by being in community with other people and not isolating. Another thing I do is I make visual art. Sometimes I paint, sometimes I collage. One of the challenges of writing plays is going the distance from impulse to first draft to the sometimes long waiting period before you get to see the play on its feet. So sometimes I need something more immediate to reflect that I’m creating. I may switch forms and write song lyrics, or bad poetry, or short stories about my childhood.
PS: How long have you been teaching at ESPA?
WM: Three years? More? I can’t recall. But I have to say, I really, really like the students who come through this program. I’ve watched them go onto graduate school or onto making their own work on their own terms and it’s exciting to see writers grow from tentative to curious to bold. And then there are some writers who are already experienced and it’s great to see them getting out of their habits and trying new things. It sounds almost corny, but it’s a nice energy to be around the students here. Everyone wants to be in class, wants to grow and I think having a community of writers is really important.
PS: Which have been your favorite classes to teach? Are there any teaching moments or successes that come to mind?
WM: I confess to loving the vibe of the Advanced Playwriting class. Some groups are more cohesive than others, but it’s always a great ride. People form relationships and get to trust the other writers with their work and to trust their opinions. Knowing that my students are getting together and organizing each other’s readings and suggesting directors and actors is a nice feeling.
One student once made placemats for the entire class based on symbols and motifs from each of the plays they were writing. It was marvelously hilarious and wonderful. That same student also mapped out a new technique of writing group dialogue for herself that was thrilling to watch. She went from big poster board pieces of paper around the room, to smaller charts on an excel sheet, to a color-coded document that her classmates could read easily, resulting in a symphonic and chaotic piece that could one day reach Tony Kushner’s IHO [The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…] operatic scene.
PS: Have you learned anything about yourself or your own writing from your students?
WM: I am always amazed how much I disregard my own advice to others. Shhhhh! The thing is, the advice works, so I’m the goofball. I see how tender people can be about hearing their work for the first time and getting feedback from people they don’t yet know and I’m reminded of what that bundle of nerves felt like and to be tender and protective of people, because the work and the writer deserve to feel that the water’s warm before being challenged on things that are hard to face. I’m inspired by writers who take feedback and just get it instantly and say, “Right, totally, I’ll look at that.”
PS: What are you looking forward to most in “The Cure for Writer’s Block” class?
WM: The unknown. I love getting a group together and going on a journey that is a discovery for the individual writer but is also a chance to build community among people who are unfamiliar. Speaking of unfamiliar, I’m also going to try to defamiliarize writers from what they’re used to, how they write, when they write, all sorts of things to open up their channeling skills to enter the worlds of their play. Lately, I’ve been working on a technique that uses the group to explore and inform the writer’s play and I’ve seen the wildest and most wondrous results and so I’m excited to continue that thread. Some of the stuff we do in class is different from anything people have done before but it’s so deep and so logical that it’s really rich.
I shy away a little from the title “The Cure for Writer’s Block” because I think that sets up wild expectations–what’s the illness that needs curing and by whose definition is there a cure? It’s different for everyone. I had a teenager tell me the other day that for the last month she’s had writer’s block, that it’s never happened before and she worries she’s all dried up. I said, just give yourself some time to breathe, you don’t always have to write every day and, it may be time to look into genres outside science fiction, what about writing about you? We block ourselves in our own lives, so a creativity block is a lifeforce block–so it’s not just about the writing, it’s also about what do we not want to face in our lives, what are we blockading ourselves against discovering or feeling? These things are all connected.
I’ve completed a four-year training as a Core Energetics Practitioner and I’ve begun to incorporate some of the principles of that work with clients into work with writers. It’s pretty magical and inspiring to watch people open themselves and open up to their work. It’s terrifying, it brings up so much pain and joy–I mean, this is YOUR LIFE, so it’s really rewarding to engage in this work with artists. People get so sure about what they’re not, or what they can’t do, I just want to unburden that a bit and say, how do you know until you get in there, get your hands dirty and see what emerges? You’ll be surprised. And amazed.
PS: Why theater?
Winter Miller’s “The Cure for Writer’s Block” intensive will run Tuesday, June 3 to Thursday, June 5 from 6:30pm-10:00pm. Click here for more details about the class or to enroll.