Lessons I Have Learned (and Teach), by Gary Garrison

January 13, 2012

I was in D.C. last summer, working with dramatists, young and old, at the Kennedy Center. The youngest playwright was eighteen; the oldest, in advance of sixty. Living threads in this glorious human tapestry of creative energy and talent forgot their differences–in age, gender, ethnicity, and education–long enough to sit at the table, open their hearts and souls, stretch their imaginations and . . . dream. If I heard nothing else over those two weeks, I heard gorgeous visions of how life could be, should be, if artistic effort—and those who could advance that effort—would meet on common, supportive ground.

Dreams: sometimes that’s all we have against the storm of rejection that comes flying at us; it’s often our only defense when the nagging nay-sayers batter us with their own bitter interpretation of how we should live our lives or pursue our art. A dream can keep us glued to the prospect of our future in ways nothing else will; dreams shine the light on the path forward. Some folks use them as motivators, others as liberators. And all stem from the very same dramatic imagination that helps us create our art and are therefore subjected to the same fissures of vulnerability.

At the Kennedy Center, when I looked out at the room full of these expectant artists, who were looking for sound advice in their careers, I had a choice: I could do the, “It’s tough to get ahead. It’s hard to break through. It’s often frustrating” act–all that toughen-up-the-muscle stuff that mentors, educators, and advisors routinely fall into. Or, I could give them hope, sincere hope by exploring with them the same dream I’ve clung to myself for years.

The truth is, everyone knows how hard it is to be a writer: that’s the given. That’s the truth we live every day of our lives. But how many of us know how rewarding it can be? How many writers know what a noble profession it is to entertain a live audience and compel them to think the bigger thoughts? How many writers understand how necessary we are to the culture, how vital we are to politics and science? How many writers understand that our voices truly need to be heard because there is so much going on in the world that we truly don’t understand as a world populace? How many dramatists know that beyond all the rejection letters and rude phone calls and awkward meetings with artistic directors and producers, there really are people who still love the process of creating theatre and have an undying respect for the writer as the originator of the dramatic idea?

Lesson #2: Protect your dreams. Don’t let the calloused and uncaring in this business chip away at your hope for a future. The joy of writing and of being a writer is knowing your place and importance in this world and in our community, and you belong here.


Photograph of Playwright Gary Garrison

GARY GARRISON is Co-Executive Director of the Dramatist Guild of America, the national organization of playwrights, lyricists and composers headed by our nation’s most honored dramatists. Garrison has also filled the posts of Artistic Director, Producer, and full-time faculty member in the Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he produced over forty-five festivals of new work, collaborating with hundreds of playwrights, directors, and actors. He is on the Tony Administration Committee for the Tony Awards; he is program director for the Summer Playwriting Intensive for the Kennedy Center and the founder of The Loop, an on-line community of playwrights.

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