The idea that won’t be quiet

Everything I write is a nuisance, a buzz in the brain, an idea that won’t be quiet. Finally I write it down, because it’s time for it to leave my imagination and go bother someone else.

Here’s an example: Something about mothers and daughters kept bugging me. The fear women express, the fear that they will become their mothers, even if they love their mothers. The fear of not being a good mother, of not being anyone, of losing identity and not being sure who they are. This is a feeling I heard friends talk about, and it struck a chord with me. I started paying more attention to the cycles of behavior between generations of women, and I started writing. That idea is now a novel.

Here is another example: I lived in Seattle for twenty years. Something about the place has been nagging me for a long time. It has been worrying other people, too. I know because my friends have talked about it over lunch, over coffee, during rehearsals, and via email and Facebook. It has to do with the rate of change, and being lost in the momentum of that. It has to do with simultaneous desires for motion and a sense of permanence. It’s about love and longing, disappointment and rage.

This minor irritation became a full-blown, annoying idea thanks to a conversation with Meghan Arnette. Meghan is the artistic director at Live Girls! Theater. We first met when we worked together at 14/48.

Meghan and I had coffee while I was in Seattle preparing to launch another project. We talked about living in Seattle. We talked about change. We talked about the restless energy of the city. Then Meghan mentioned the spite mounds, and I heard a sound like a storm approaching.

As our conversation continued, the thing that had been darting here and there at the fringes of my consciousness settled for a moment so that I could see it clearly: Things have always been this way.

That’s what I thought. Then:

Despite its egalitarian Do It Yourself tradition, this place has broken the hearts of many people. Not only the garage bands that didn’t become Nirvana. Not only the couples that worked multiple jobs yet couldn’t afford a down payment on a real house. Not only Doc Maynard.

This place must have broken the hearts of the Native people who watched its rivers and hills change drastically under the will of invaders whose time had come. These entrepreneurs launched massive landscape re-grades. They solved the problem of property owners who would not go along by plowing around them, leaving stark mounds of useless, insurmountable earth sticking up out of the ground: Spite mounds.

The image of the spite mounds reminded me of news photos of Edith Macefield’s home in Ballard, surrounded on three sides by massive construction. The dwarfed residence looked like a toy, or (as playwright Darian Lindle later pointed out) an inversion of the spite mounds.

I started writing “Emerald City” in November of 2008. I wrote the first draft as part of National Playwriting Month (NaPlWriMo), an annual project shepherded by Dorothy Lemoult. The pace of writing an 85-page script in a month requires tricky thinking. Almost immediately I knew who the four main characters would be, and I knew what drove them:

Dot was a woman who was raised by her aunt, inherited her aunt’s house, and now had to decide whether to maintain it in an neighborhood where everything else had changed, or let it go and move on. Her conflict was about home, and what home means.

Scarlett was a woman trying to write a story (originally a dissertation, but this evolved into a magazine article). She was following an intellectual desire and a need to complete an assignment.

Tina was a college friend who provided a place for Scarlett to stay while she was in town. Tina had followed a love interest to Seattle, and stayed on despite her inability to make the object of her affection return her love.

Lillian was in love with Scarlett, and terrified of staying home and being on her own. She needed to find herself again, and overcome her paralyzing fear of solitude.

Why did the characters have names and motivations that echoed those of The Wizard of Oz? My mind works this way, making story out of themes and images, juxtaposing and pulling from everything I’ve read and experienced. The Emerald City I was building required this flight of fancy, this fairy tale element from childhood when wishes could come true.

Once the first draft was hammered out, I set it aside and started researching. I read recent memoirs by well-known authors who had lived in Seattle. I dabbled in history books and studies of the Native bands that occupied the area for thousands of years before Seattle’s founding fathers stumbled onto the beach at Alki.

In May of 2009 Live Girls! Theater offered a public reading of the play directed by Meghan. I went to the Museum of History and Industry, where I was allowed to peruse materials that were rare or hard to find in libraries. Meghan and I went on Mercedes Yeager’s ghost tour of the Pike Place Market, to hear more folk tales and history about the downtown area.

Before and after the reading we discussed the themes embedded in the play’s contemporary story. The audience seemed excited to share personal views of the city. I took notes.

I am far from being an expert on Seattle, its history, its people, or its geography. Like many writers, I read and re-read books and articles that inspire or motivate me, and I sample whatever else I need to get to the heart of my story. The research is like an archeological dig. I sift and sort, find a treasure, find dirt, find things that seem to serve no purpose until I put them in context and the larger picture begins to emerge.

Last spring Live Girls! Theater presented another public reading of a revised draft. I took the notes from that reading and began to work again: More books, more stories, more ideas. With each keystroke “Emerald City” continues to grow.

Tonight, as every night this month, I am at work revising the script. I’m building my own “Emerald City” with help from Live Girls! Theater. So, not all hearts are broken in Seattle. Some dreams come true.

For now the buzz, the trouble, the idea that won’t be quiet is still mine. Soon it will be yours.

– S.P. Miskowski September 2010