Writing-By-Numbers

First, let me point you to Gwydion Suilebhan’s blog post about numerology and bad theatre.

It’s okay. I can wait.

After reading his post, I would beg to differ on the potential significance of dates and numbers. Last month, my son’s sixth birthday was 10/10/10, which was the coolest thing ever in his eyes. I don’t need statistics to grasp pure joy. No, I don’t lend such dates greater significance or express shock at their occurrence. But there is worth in the wonder at patterns.

Of course, what makes coincidences amazing is precisely because of the vast number of non-coincidences that happen (or don’t happen) all the time. Why let the deafening roar of chaos drown out a moment of chance, of beauty, of joy? Is it a true pattern or a random turn of the Rubik’s Cube? Does it matter? Enjoy the rainbow while it’s there, even if you know how it works and why you’ll never reach the end of it. Knowing the science behind it shouldn’t occlude or preclude enjoyment of it.

Beauty and joy don’t need meaning in order to be beautiful or joyful. It’s fun when there is meaning behind it, sure, and (to me) a good writer will include meaning in their work. It’s why I love Stoppard. But I can enjoy a show like Shear Madness, whose only meaning seems to be the inclusion of as many stock characters, cliches and deus ex machina endings as possible. Its sole purpose is entertaining and engaging its audience, and the exuberance of the cast and the joy they bring to the show is infectious. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a play in that it can have any combination of character, motive and ending, it depends on chance and the audience to finish the story. Is it a good script? Eh. Does it challenge me? Not in the slightest. With all those numbers and combinations, is it bad theatre? It’s not high art. But I’ve seen it entirely too many times and still enjoy it every time.

Beyond that, if we weren’t looking for patterns in the everyday randomness, would we know anything of gravity, relativity, strings or space-time? Arguably, every great scientific discovery was born out of noticing seemingly insignificant patterns in the quotidian, wondering why all the iron filings lined up or why apples fell down and not up. Noticing those patterns has given our lives–our very existence–more meaning than if we had continued to plod forward, ignoring them.

Let’s bring it back to playwriting. Old playwrights are just as prone to cliche and writing-by-numbers. Young playwrights are just as likely to break rules whether they know them or not. Those that do write-by-numbers aren’t fixated on patterns so much as they are fixated on the lessons they learned in “how to write gooder.” It’s the reason why so much of television is bland and boring, because you have to have an A-story and a B-story and there has to be conflict here and resolution there, and why would you want the stories to be thematic, that’s crazy talk. But that’s another post entirely…

Dates that line up, or waiting for the clock to read “12:34:56,” no, these patterns don’t mean anything. But don’t you smile when you see that on the clock? It’s the temporal equivalent of a rainbow, nothing more. We know it’ll happen, we know how and why it works. A broken clock is correct twice a day, after all. If you look at the clock a second too late, it’s gone. A second or two early, you feel the anticipation. And if you look at exactly that second? Double rainbow.

Does any of this lead to discovering the unified field theory? No. But at some level, it does give most people a moment of discovery, inspiration, a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and why take that away? Maybe their wonder at such patterns will lead to other, more complex patterns that do unlock something new. Maybe my six-year-old will formulate a version of string theory that works with ten dimensions. Maybe writing stock cliched deus ex machina plots can lead to writers blasting through them and creating something exciting and different.

We needed to see the numbers before we could discover the imaginary numbers.

(Speaking of which, there is also the joy of the Stone Brewing “Vertical Epic,” twelve beers released slowly over the past ten years, on dates that line up. There are two more to go. And you can store all of them until the twelfth appears–on 12/12/12–and taste them all. It’s a wondrous thing, full of portent, hops and joy, inspiration in bottled form. It is no coincidence. This has been an unpaid endorsement.)

Posted: November 11th, 2010
Categories: the process
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