Dancing at Lughnasa

Last month I traveled to Canada for a Shaw conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a beautiful little town that hosts  the Shaw Festival every year. Our group saw two Shaw plays (of course!), and many of us used our free time to see additional plays by other playwrights.

My sister and I decided to see Dancing at Lughnasa, a play about five sisters who lived in a small Irish town in the 1930s. It’s based on playwright Brian Friel’s actual family and their lives in Ireland almost 100 years ago. True to its title, Dancing at Lughnasa features some marvelous Irish dancing. Four of the five sisters want to attend a local dance festival, and they twirl wildly around their kitchen in anticipation. Even the fifth sister, who serves as a kind of mother figure for the family, is eventually drawn in.

But then the music ends, and the five women decide not to go to the festival after all. Where did all that ecstatic energy (one of my Shaw friends described it as “Dionysian”) go?

Nowhere. It’s forgotten as life returns to normal, which – in pre-WWII Ireland –  means a depressing and increasingly desperate quest for survival. Michael, the son of one of the sisters, grows up to be the play’s narrator. He recounts how he “selfishly” left the town as soon as he was old enough. “Selfishly”? There was nothing for him there – no hope for a career and a decent life.

After my sister and I left the Royal George Theatre that night, my thoughts kept returning to the idea of energy. I was disappointed that the dancing of those five women filled that theater with energy – and then, in a flash, it was gone. I wanted the women to hold on to that energy – struggle with it – and go wherever it wanted to take them.

Dancing at Lughnasa won both Tony and Olivier “best play” awards and was subsequently made into a movie that starred Meryl Streep – so clearly mine is a minority view. But I think that feeling I had in the Royal George Theatre – like watching the air fizzle out of a balloon – is worth thinking about.

It seems to me that life is all about energy. If you’ve ever been depressed (and that’s just about everyone), you know the force of will that’s needed just to get through your daily routine – and you may also remember how wonderful you felt when your energy started to trickle back into your life.

I’m thinking that energy is just as essential to writing. If I were writing a composition textbook now (and I’ve published two of them), I think I’d make energy my central focus. Find a topic that energizes you, and then explore ways to transfer that energy to your audience. (It ain’t easy, folks!)

This is clearly a new direction for me, and I’m not yet sure where it’s going. But here’s a list of suggestions for creating and sustaining energy in a writing task. (I hope there will be more to come!)

  • build momentum into the structure of your piece – by working towards a climax, for example
  • tell stories
  • search for fresh ideas and unfamiliar examples

And here’s the most important thing: you need monitor your own energy while you’re writing. If you’re starting to get bored, your readers are going to pick up that feeling.

I ran into that problem while I was putting together a presentation for this year’s Shaw conference. The solution (luckily I was doing a PowerPoint) was to make create some illustrations of my own – Playbills and Actors Equity cards to emphasize my point that Major Barbara is all about theatricality. (You can watch my presentation here.) Having fun is a great way to energize a writing task!

So much writing instruction plods along with advice about outlines, topic sentences, and the like. Of course those concepts are important. (I constantly think about topic sentences when I’m writing. I know how dull that sounds, but it’s a big help!)

Here’s the thing, though: before you even think about making an outline or writing a thesis statement, you should be gathering energy into a big ball that will explode into something lively and engaging for your audience to read.

What ideas and experiences are energizing you right now? Can you write about them?

Dancing at Lughnasa

                              Dancing at Lughnasa

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