By Any Means Necessary

Suzan-Lori Parks works it – and helps you work it, too

Writer in the zone: Suzan-Lori Parks works at Zach Theatre.
Writer in the zone: Suzan-Lori Parks works at Zach Theatre. (Photo by Seabrook Jones)

So how does Suzan-Lori Parks work?

She sits at a table, sunglasses perched atop her head, one foot serving as a literal footrest for the other, plugs in her ears, eyes on the page, fingers rapping out a little percussion jazz solo with the keys of a cherry-red Olivetti typewriter. Occasionally, the rhythmic clickety-clack drops out while she lifts a pencil to make a change or addition in a notebook. But there are no long stretches of pacing or staring into space – in fact, there's little in the way of pauses of any kind, save for her to take a sip of tea or unwrap a peppermint or check the amount of time left on the kitchen timer on the table. She's constantly plugging away.

At least, that's how she was working on Saturday, Dec. 11, during the third and final session of Suzan-Lori Parks: Watch Me Work in Austin. The playwright (Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood, The America Play) conceived the performance piece for the upcoming Under the Radar Festival in New York City, but she's been holding sessions/performances of it at the Public Theater there since mid-October. While she was in town to cast The Book of Grace, her new play that she's directing for Zach Theatre later this season, Parks invited Austinites to watch her work, too. Actually, it was more like she asked them to work with her: Parks encourages participants to spend the timed hour of each session doing something themselves. It may be writing, or it may be knitting, drawing, or woodworking, too.

Still, Parks developed this as a theatrical piece – she refers to it as a play – and the setting at Zach certainly plays on that idea. In the Nowlin Rehearsal Studio (east of the Whisenhunt Stage on Toomey Road), Zach created a small stage for Parks, inspired by her workspace at the Public. Before a tall, red curtain was a raised platform maybe 8-feet square on which stood two stanchions linked by a red velvet rope. Behind them were a small end table and a larger cherrywood table on which sat things to drink (at the session I saw, these included a bottle of water and a tall, white ceramic mug of tea), a small tray full of peppermints, the red kitchen timer, and the all-important typewriter.

Parks was welcoming and engaged with the participants as she introduced the session, but once she started the timer and sat down at the table, it was as if she'd slipped behind theatre's fabled fourth wall. She acknowledged neither the camera trained on her (all Watch Me Work sessions are streamed live on the Web) nor any of the almost 50 people who joined her on the sunny, balmy weekend morning in December. They sat at a hodgepodge of tables and desks – long worktables, some old, some new; tables from living rooms and kitchens; round cabaret two-tops and four-tops; wooden and metal office desks; school desks – arranged in a semicircle facing Parks' stage.

But few of the participants actually devoted much attention to Parks. Most had taken the invitation to work seriously and spent the hour doing so with considerable industriousness. Contrary to expectation, fewer than half wrote on laptops. Most used pens or pencils in journals, small notebooks, or whatever paper was at hand. Their gazes were down, at the screen, at the once-blank sheets rapidly filling with marks, letters, words, thoughts. Each would occasionally look up like a swimmer taking a gulp of air, the necessary and stimulating oxygen, then dive back into the work. Deep thought filled the room like water in a tank. That's a quality we don't always appreciate when we encounter a similar hive of writers in a coffee shop; the commercial enterprise colors our sense of the environment and what's happening in it. But here, there was an awareness of communal purpose and focus to the event and the time – like some mix of a library and a yoga session.

Then the bell rang. It was noon; the work session was over. Heads looked up. Parks stopped, smiled, and pulled the paper out of the typewriter and the plugs out of her ears. She moved out from behind the table, again the amiable host, and told the crowd that in this part of the play they would be helping to write the dialog by asking questions about their process. For the next 45 minutes, she responded to about 15 queries, many of them rooted in breaking through the assorted obstacles that plague writers: lack of time, lack of discipline, lack of inspiration, lack of focus. Parks provided very practical – and forgiving – advice. "First, you need to make the time. Then everything else will follow from that," she offered. The amount of time isn't as important as the sense of accomplishment you feel once the timer goes off. (A timer and earplugs are the most helpful aids in writing, she finds.) "If an hour feels too long, try 30 minutes. If that's too long, try 15. If that's too long, try five. Try one minute," she said. "Sit down and focus for one minute. And use your timer, 'cause then you know you're done." The important thing is to "keep lowering the bar until it's low enough for you to step over it with ease." She likened the process to training for a marathon in which you build the amount of time that you work in increments.

"Like the man said, 'By any means necessary,'" Parks told the group, invoking a key slogan of the Civil Rights movement. Actually, she added, those slogans "can all be applied to the writing process: By any means necessary. Each one teach one. Eyes on the prize. Keep on keepin' on. Ain't nobody gonna turn me round. If you're an artist and you're like, 'What am I gonna do?' 'Ain't nobody gonna turn me round.' That's amazing."

And don't sweat inspiration, Parks advised. "Sit down even if you don't feel you have something to write. Just show up." To a later question about generating stories, she described how one can pull material from the day's events: "[Stories] are happening all the time. You have to believe that they're always there. If I were still doing 365 Days/365 Plays, a play a day, the play for yesterday would be called A Play for Elizabeth Edwards. It would be a tribute play, and it would be about Elizabeth Edwards, who passed away recently. It would be a little short play about something I wanted to say to her, for her, or wanted to involve her in. The day before that would involve a man who came up to the counter [at the hotel where Parks was staying], talking to the waiter, and said, 'I want a cup of coffee!' And the waiter said, 'What's the magic word?' And the man said, 'Abracadabra?' So that's a play, you know what I mean? They're short – little snapshots. You have to really believe that the stories are out there. You have to tune in."

And when whatever story you end up working on is a struggle – you hate what you wrote, you're blocked, you can't finish it – don't beat yourself up over it. "It's all good," she said, going back to those slogans of the movement. "You have to practice patience, which is a great skill," she told one questioner and advised another to have "more compassion" for her writing process. "Writing is 99.99 percent personality management, and the rest is just moving your hand."

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'Suzan-Lori Parks: Watch Me Work'
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Suzan-Lori Parks, Zach Theatre, Suzan-Lori Parks: Watch Me Work, 365 Days/365 Plays, Topdog/Underdog, The America Play

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