Chaos Agents and Meditations: Techniques I've Picked Up from Maria Irene Fornés and Her Maestras
It’s hard to encapsulate the techniques of maestra playwright Maria Irene Fornés without being guided in a room through her meditations. And I don’t claim to be an expert on every method she utilized to encourage her playwrights to explore and dig deep. But the best I can offer is detailing what works for me as a playwright after taking several workshops – some through special coursework led by Anne Garcia-Romero and Lisa Schlesinger, others through the Fornés Workshop led by Migdalia Cruz - where playwrights are challenged to write as a means of battle.
Find a space that allows for proper meditation. This is crucial. You don’t want a lot of noise or distraction. You want a space that feels safe for you to roam with your memories. It may be a bedroom. It may be a desk. A library, even. But give yourself a proper space for meditation.
Stretch and be ready for battle. Writing isn’t just a mental task; it’s an act that engages your entire body, from the movement of your hand on a page up and down to the shifting of your body with the memory-punches. Treat your body right. Do some neck rolls, front-bends, arm-circles – circling one arm in one direction and the other in the opposite direction is a must, to prepare your brain for tracking conflicting data – and air-punches. Give yourself at least five minutes for this section.
Write on paper. Writing is an extension of energy and it should not be an act that requires instant editing. Computers make it very easy to edit without much energy involved – it makes writing convenient. On paper, your words have weight, as do your strike-outs. On paper, you’re able to write in more ways than left-to-right – you can write with arrows, with columns, with pockets of text in spots you never expected. With paper, you are allowed to roam as your mind does, minus programming.
Meditate on a memory. Recall a specific moment in time. Examples include: A moment where someone you loved very much didn’t love you back. A moment that broke your childhood forever. A moment where you finally snapped back at someone. A moment where you arrived at true happiness. Recall the pieces of that memory: When? Where? Who was there? Recall all the sensory details, and don’t hold back on exploring – What was the temperature? What did it smell like? What did someone sound like? Feel like, if they touched you? Don’t be afraid to dig deep (and safely) with every detail until that moment becomes tangible. And whatever you do, don’t write it down. Journey with it in your mind.
Now, alter the memory. Introduce a character in that meditation, or focus on another character in it. Perhaps there’s an animal – what it looks like, how it moves. Focus on that animal until it transforms into another human before you. Or perhaps, the characters you have travel to another space – from a beach to a boiler room, or a bedroom to a garden. How do they change as you guide them through your memory? Or an action suddenly befalls the person. Maybe they die in front of you. Or they suddenly sprout wings. What changes in the relationship? Again, don’t write it down. Journey with these changes in your mind.
Begin with a line of text. When your memory feels full, start with a “random” line of text. I say “random” because it shouldn’t be casual – it should be suffused with tension and viscera. I usually keep a few “random” lines on note cards to help with that. Sometimes they’re questions like, “Why did you leave me?” Or they’re discoveries of state, like, “I’ve been bleeding for you.” Or direct confrontations like, “Wipe that smirk off your face.” Don’t overthink this line – in fact, have it be a line you pull from some place.
Have an arsenal of chaos agents. Aforementioned lines I keep on note cards just in case. But you should have an arsenal of what I like to call “chaos agents” – tools used throughout your writing session that change the scene and must be utilized. I keep them in an envelope on different colored cards. These agents are lines, places, objects, animals, actions, and sounds. Importantly, they are pulled at random. When you pull these agents, introduce them however you see fit in this world. Don’t judge the agent. Let it move through your writing however it chooses. A tip on these agents: Pull a random agent whenever you feel the tension dissipate in a scene. Pull one if you feel stuck. Pull one after five minutes of writing, or maybe ten. Whatever your reasoning, pull when the writing tells you to pull. Don’t overdo it; otherwise it’s a wasted concept. I liken it to “The Heart of the Cards” in Yu-Gi-Oh. Trust that you’ll pull when necessary. And no matter the card, it will find its wonderful way into your scene somehow. It’s not a thought. It’s an act.
And Whatever You Do: Don’t. Stop. Writing. Don’t judge your writing. Don’t edit. Your hand might hurt – that’s a good thing. Keep bleeding on your pages. Pull agents if you have to. Until you feel satisfied with everything the scene has offered you, don’t stop until the characters have told you that you must. And then step away from it for a while. However long that while is up to you. But you’ve given your memory space to exist. Now give your scene space to exist on its own.