Guest Lecture


Thanks for asking me to be your guest. I cannot promise a singing candelabra, but hopefully it will be entertaining. The reference is backward but I trust you understand.

First, a confirmation of the date and time. Wednesday, January 28th from 1:10 PM to 2:20 PM CST (Collegiate Standard Time; because in college, time is an illusion – how much you have, how few demands are on it. But that is my privileged recollection. Many students work and study, which sounds horrible, like vegetables wrapped in lettuce. It’s a low carb, low fun diet. How do they do it? They have to. I had a tortilla and mayonnaise to hold my vegetables. They had healthy independence.* My sympathy is often presumptuous.)

Anyway, I’m suspicious of my ability to teach anyone anything, but the benefit of lecturing is that no one expects to learn, just to be talked at.**

If I were practical, the lecture would be a list of how-to’s; but I’m not practical – not even with jokes. I don’t want anyone to feel deceived and not be my friend, Lori. And my how-to’s would be too specific. Like how to respond when an actor says your characters don’t have “the light of the living Lord” in them. Or when an actor says their character “doesn’t matter.” Or when the actor playing the character you hoped to play is not you. Actually, a lot of play writing is responding to actors, real or hypothetical. The hypothetical ones are easier to work with.

Lori, if you will suffer an oxymoron gladly, I want this to be an interactive lecture. I want to enter singing “Writers on the Form”, my Weird Al version of the Doors classic. I want to shoot T-shirts at the class. I want to ask one of the students to hold my notes and then shout “Where are my notes!” All of that is supposed to be interactive and yet every sentence started with I. But interactive starts with an I, and it contains a ve, which is German for we. So somehow I and we both have to get in there.

Perhaps I should just revisit the writing and production of Work in Progress from my perspective, with frequent pauses for nonexistent questions and some exercises in which the students eventually but dispiritedly participate as I overcompensate with enthusiasm until we’re all embarrassed but too proud to surrender. If things go really badly we can play 20 questions, because no one plays it anymore,*** and how must that game feel? Also it’s fun to say “animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Here is the tentadon’tgive-too-much-thought-to-this-woops-too-late outline:

I. Introduction (Hi, my name is Ben, which I will write on the board. See? I’m a writer.)

II. Why do I write? (Because when you finish, it feels good, like taking out the recycling. You’re not just throwing your life away, it could be lived by someone else. If you don’t recycle, I don’t know what to say to you.)

III. Why did I write Work in Progress? (“So no one else would have to.” That’s how Gus Van Sant responded when someone asked why he was remaking Psycho. There is no connection here, other than Gus and I have first names with three letters. And we are both gay, which also has three letters.)

  1. Reading of scene
  2. Discussion of scene
  3. Watching of scene

And – scene. Lori, I really don’t like outlines. Would it be alright if I didn’t do one right now? I’m sure there’s an outline in my future. Hopefully not a chalk one. Oh! Will there be a chalkboard I can use? For writing my name. I just assumed there would be. But all the chalkboards are gone, aren’t they. Gone to the past, where they will be useful. I will bring a chalkboard. And an outline. And it. I will bring it. Unless it’s already been broughten. Tell me what to bring, Lori. A guest should never come empty-handed.


*”One of the most pernicious symptoms of the epidemic of social fear is our obsession with being independent,” writes David Truman at a website called Soul Progress, although that quote is out of context and may also be complete crap; I just wanted to feel better about my dependency on my parents during the college years.

**Does this count as a practical joke, since I didn’t immediately say it was a joke, or follow it with a smiley face, but waited until the footnote? That’s kind of committing to it, right?

***They all play it in Design for Living (1933), a progressive/transgressive little picture which showcases Gary Cooper’s silly run. He could have led the Ministry of Silly Runs.


Before you can be a writer you must be a drag queen. Or king. Or prince. Or princess. Some member of the royal drag family. The point is impersonation. I truly believe the way to find yourself is by trying to be someone else. Find a writer who strikes your fancy and then feast on them. Have a fancy feast. I mean, don’t eat cat food. But devour whatever that writer does and try to digest it and pass it as your own. Do an Ed Gein – rip off their skin and try it on. These are really graphic metaphors, but maybe you’ll remember them better.

I’ve had a Talented Mr. Ripley relationship with a lot of writers, only just imitating them, not killing them. In purposely imitating style, I’ve accidentally internalized a lot about structure, theme and character development. I tried to be funny like Woody Allen and realized the sadness of it. I tried to do beats like Harold Pinter and discovered that people say more with pauses than with words. I tried to be sophisticated like Phillip Barry and recognized the classism he was criticizing. I tried to speak the truth like G.K. Chesterton and understood love. Each of these writer relationships has taught me more of what I really want and who I really am. Maybe someday I will be myself, and be worthy of their love. In the meantime Jesus loves me.

Since we’re on the subject of Jesus: follow him. Until I started to do that I had no material. And my life had little meaning. Not that following Him was my doing. I had a breakdown. Maybe you’ll have a break up. However you’re broken, you’ll want to put it together, you’ll want control, and so you will write, because, to quote Hilton Als, “the root function of language is to control the world through describing it,” but more than that, to quote St. Paul, “our God is not a God of disorder” and we are made in His image.

“Life is…chaos…until Picasso looks at it. Then something happens. Order and design. A cathedral has it, sometimes. Great music, always. And storytelling, when it’s pure, but not when we start moralizing. We’re not supposed to steer the human race. Don’t police the party, just describe it. That book – I kept trying to Say Something. I forgot it’s all been said. The passion to be original. Good God, it’s like looking for a new way to screw. What’s wrong with the old way? Nothing, if it’s got love in it. And everything if it ain’t.”

-Gordon Kanin, Gift of Time

I agree, except the world was perfect and we fouled it up. But God’s desire for order is still in us, so we want it to be whole, even if it’s pretend. Love is everything in its place. Love is discipline. And with that, let’s turn to my first play, Work in Progress. It’s based on experiences I had while working at a nonprofit temp agency for ex-offenders in Milwaukee…

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