In the current May/June issue of American Theatre, I sit down with Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts to talk about playwriting, with the pretext being that they've both recently done "versions" of Chekhov's Three Sisters (Tracy's goes up at Steppenwolf soon). They both had lots of pithy and quotable things to say, but one of my favorite exchanges was left on the cutting room floor.
Tracy referred at one point to sitting at a typewriter, and I later asked if he meant that literally:
Q: You said “typewriter.” You don’t actually write on a typewriter, do you?
Tracy: I do.
Q: An electric?
Tracy: No, a manual. That’s a change, just in the last couple of years. I started to become aware of what the screens are doing to me—just me, I’m not talking about other people. They were affecting my attention span. There was one year, I got to the end of the year, and I thought, What books did I read this year? I thought back over it, and I was like, Holy cow! My reading is down, I can’t have that. So I started making a conscious decision to get more and more of that stuff out of my life. I put my Kindle in a drawer and started reading hard copy books. I started getting the newspaper in solid newspaper form, and I’ve switched to the typewriter. I do have an iPhone, and I’m addicted to it, but I’m trying to get more and more of that stuff out of my life. Get more analog or something. Because what was happening to me, I would start to work on the computer—check my email and do all that crap. Before I knew it, an hour and a half had gone by before I’d even started to work. So I started not turning on the computer in the morning but sitting down at the typewriter and just trying to write straightaway. I’m liking it.
Q: Have you had a similar experience, Sarah?
Sarah: Yes. I remember the moment when the Internet started, and I found it disgusting, the idea that the Net would be mixed in with my text, my manuscripts—I found it horrible. And then you get used to it, and you’re like, "Of course there are images of, whatever, J. Lo, on my computer, and that’s mixed with my poetry and checking my email and looking somebody up on Wikipedia." I don’t think it’s good but it is the situation.
Tracy: I don’t even like—it’s become so easy to email a script in PDF form, but I don’t like it. The act of reading it on hard copy…most people read it on the screen, and it’s much different. You know, playwright is spelled w-r-i-g-h-t, and there’s that idea of seeing that page come out the typewriter, the act of creating that three-dimensional page.
Sarah: Do you then have an assistant who retypes it for you?
Tracy: No, because what I had been doing with the computer was writing the thing on the computer, printing it out, then deleting it completely off the computer. Because the actual physical act—I would rewrite stuff that I would not have rewritten if it were just on the screen. So I was doing that already; now I’m retyping them from scratch.
Sarah: That’s terrifying to me, like what if you lost it?
Tracy: I suppose that’s always possible. It hasn’t happened yet.
Q: Are you the kind of writer who conceives everything you're going to say, then just spills it on the page?
Tracy: No, because there’s too much original writing that’s happening right there in the moment. But I think about [my plays] for years before I put anything down on paper. I should be better about taking notes. I have a lot of great ideas that never see the light of day because I don’t. I always sort of tell myself, "Well, if it’s a good enough idea, it’ll be there whenever, anyway." I don’t know that that’s true.
Sarah: I think it is. If it doesn’t hang around for two years, it doesn’t have staying power.