Janet Ehrlich Colson
Author of "Snails" in ISSUE 02 and her thoughts on finding/resisting structure, shifting obsessions, and writing in a post-pandemic world.
What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
I just read a hefty book by Yuval Noah Harari called Homo Deus, which is a sort of historian’s guide to the future. I liked it well enough, but it’s a slog and it took me so long to read, I wasn’t sure what I would retain. A couple weeks later, I can’t shake the part about the mistreatment of animals under the auspices of humanism. It also inspired me to mediate (along with a meditation journal I picked up for 50% off at Barnes and Noble). I’m now reading a book about writing that was recommended in my playwriting group. The book is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, a master class on a selection of short stories from Russian masters like Chekhov and Turgenev. It’s not exactly a how-to book but it’s full of mind-openers that have already made me a better writer. The stories are so good I’d recommend it even if you weren’t into dishing on craft (although you’re following an independent lit journal so I imagine this book would be just your cup of proverbial tea). What I’ve gotten the most help with so far is the secret (not really a secret) to writing satisfying endings.
Here’s Saunders on the ending of Chekhov’s story, "In the Cart,"
We’ve said that a story frames a moment of change, saying, implicitly:
“This is the day on which things changed forever.” A variant of that says, “This is the day on which things almost changed forever, but didn’t.”
Saunders, G., Gogolʹ, N. V., Chekhov, A. P., Turgenev, I. S., & Tolstoy, L. (2021). A swim in a pond in the rain: in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life. First edition. New York: Random House.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
Here’s a passage from the novel Push by Sapphire that rocked my world (I have yet to see the film, Precious, although I heard Gabby Sidibe was amazing in it). It’s hard to recommend a book that’s so brutal and unflinching, but it’s gorgeous, transformative, heartbreaking, and timely as fuck. Essential reading.
Dear Mis Ms Rain,
All yr I sit cls I nevr lrn
(all years I sit in class I never learn)
Bt I gt babe agn Babe bi my favr
(but I got baby again Babe by my father)
I wis I had boy____but I don
(I wish I had a boyfriend but I don’t)
Ws I had su me fucks a boy lke
(wish I had excuse me, fucks a boy like)
Or girl den I fel rite dat I have to qk skool
(other girls then I feel right that I have to quit school)
I lv baby abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz
(I love baby)
Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage Contemporaries/Vintage Books, 1997.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
It depends on the piece. I find inspiration all over the place - daily encounters, reading, NPR, dreams, rabbit holes. At any given moment I have a lot of words going around in my head; listening to music helps me relax and get more into my right brain.
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
Moving from the anecdotal to the meaningful.
Finding the poetic balance between being overly anorexic, cryptic, and small vs. being too messy, raw, and untethered.
Finding structure (which relates to time-management and adulting).
Playing with genre, juxtapositions, and form.
Exploring what makes a story a story and what makes a play a play.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
Besides my family and bulimia?
Plays about animals and inanimate objects (opening doors to creative casting).
Finding humor in despair (it’s my coping mechanism).
Detroit (because I live here).
Writing about relationships (it’s all relative).
Writing about survival in the post-pandemic world (I’m trying to figure out how to do it).
Writing about writing (another coping mechanism and because I want to keep growing and connecting with other writers and artists).
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
Okay, I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of my time management issues vis-à-vis writing with my therapist so I don’t know why I would be able to do it here but I’m going to try with or without the co-pay. I can’t write cohesively when I’m in free-fall. But what if the ground keeps moving? Do I stop writing? Or stop about maybe cohesive writing worrying all at. I’d like to be more forgiving with myself about falling off the writing wagon as I strive to find some softness in the eye of the storm, lest I forge ahead and become too hard, too glib. I remember my former days of innocence when my biggest concerns were counting calories and throwing up pizza. Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race and family dynamics that would become the basis of my writing for the next twenty years. Too glib. I’m going to have to come back to this question.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
Finding structure. Although I terminally resist routine, clinging to the idea of personal freedom, I’ve found it’s best to find a reason to get out of bed even if it’s for something horrible, like a job. During the early days of the pandemic, I had all the time in the world; I thought for once I might be able to catch up with my writing (I’ll save the definition of catching up for my blog) but instead, I got stuck inside my head. I’d get dinner on the table after midnight – if at all – and fall asleep in my clothes because I didn’t know how to end the day. I got so tired that one time I fell asleep while I was jogging! Since then, I’ve tried to anchor myself with a list of things to do on a dry-erase board. Recently, I erased the whole board thinking that a clean slate would be motivating. Huge mistake. It was overwhelming and I got jack done. Anything’s better than nothing. Shower. Dishes. Lunch. Work. Yoga. Take out dogs. Write. Something – anything – every day, even if I don’t feel like it (except when I’m too tired).
I met a lady at Starbucks, an editor who works on speculative fiction. She told me to put my writing ideas on the whiteboard and to look for the words that glow.
I collect ideas and prompts so that I always have something to work (or play) with.
I talk to somebody.
Note that I don’t set out to write on themes. When I try to do that, my mind goes blank, and my writing becomes constipated.
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
I don’t navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances very well. We had a dog named Bobby who was a total pain in the ass, bursting through doors and running into traffic, but he was always super confident and present. I’d like to be more like that (without bursting through doors and running into traffic).
Regarding your piece in Issue 02, what does it mean for/to you?
My piece in Issue 02, "Snails," came out of a conversation with a friend about global warming. Lately, almost everything I write has an environmental bent, which I’m calling eco-comedy. A play about snails allowed me to access a dimension where the pace is less about time and more about perspective. Also, I like that there’s an opportunity for gender-fluid casting.
Would you tell us a bit about your process for writing a play? What goes into that, and how do you know that format is right for the body of work you are creating?
My process for writing a play. Wow. This is a question that deserves a generous answer. It’s also the kind of question that scares me because it could make me sound like I know what I’m doing but I’m going to go for it -- one, two, three!
I’ve already talked about how I don’t like writing on themes, but I try to do it anyway because I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration. There was a submission opportunity for a local theatre group on the theme of dreams, which called out to me because I was writing down my dreams at the time. I looked through my dream journals for a throughline but I didn’t find one. Then, I brainstormed and decided to write a play inspired by a true story I’d heard on NPR about a somnambulist. In my play, a newlywed sleepwalker can’t separate his dreams from reality on his honeymoon -- and both dimensions are disturbing. It didn’t get into the festival but I don’t regret writing it. Sometimes I find myself writing in play form when I thought I was writing something else. I’m a talker and when I talk to the page it often answers back in dialogue and then I’m like, oh, this is a play. I tend to be a rule-follower but I’ve done a lot of experimental theatre and have found the theatrical form is where there’s freedom in breaking the rules. Writing a play, I don’t have to get all in my head about whether to put commas and punctuation inside or outside of the quoted dialogue. The colon is my friend. I probably write plays more than anything else because I find it an efficient form. I need to hear my stuff out loud, and luckily I have friends who will read it for me, but even when I’m in the process of writing I’ll take on my characters and talk to myself. I have lists of ideas and prompts but I can get overwhelmed with too much to write about and then I don’t write anything. Recently, I dragged every play into one folder on my desktop and now I’m trying to limit myself to pulling one thing out at a time -- we’ll see how that goes. Structure is essential for me from the start; if I don’t have a template I need to find one. I might discover it in a premise or genre or in requirements and restrictions.
I know I said that "Snails" came out of a conversation with a friend about gender identity and climate change, which is true, but it became a play because I was taking a playwriting class and the instructor told me to write a play with two characters and a spoon. I spent a week trying to figure out why the dish ran away from the spoon and I got all caught up in where the fork fit into the relationship and whether it took place in a drawer and did I want the actors lying down and if they could be in a stack with social distancing and I ended up scrapping it. I was reading about snails being able to change genders and that it could be triggered by drought and I didn’t know it was going to be a play, but it started writing itself. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a process at all, but I do; it’s just abstract -- even to me. Even so, I combed through a pile of notebooks looking for clues about how I go from chaos to a play and I found the inceptions of "Snails" and "The Dreamwalker." The original title of "Snails" was "A Seduction between Two Snails & a Spoon" and I remembered that seduction was part of the prompt. I named the snails S1 and S2 in shorthand and wasn’t sure I’d keep it because abbreviations can be distracting but I guess it didn’t bother me. I noticed that I wrote the dialogue fast (it’s almost illegible) the way I heard it in my head and wasn’t worried about where the spoon came in until I had a feel for the characters. As for "The Dreamwalker," I had been working on a poem in my journal and drew a line under it and started a list of ideas for the play below that with the names of three characters, a couple of things about vomit, some scene notes and the last two lines. Maybe I’d also started the play on the computer (I do both) -- but it doesn’t matter. These were the seeds. It's tempting to keep revising a play before putting it out in the world but I need to remind myself that a play is impermanent and imperfect at its best. It’s important for me to get feedback from people I trust, but I have to stand on the page. One reader hated the parts about vomit in the play but I kept them. Another, my poetry mentor, suggested I change the ending of the play even though I’d had the end in mind from the beginning. He was right.
Do you have any recent publications and/or projects?
My most recent publication is in The Champagne Room's Issue 02, you can buy a copy here.
Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?
Final words of wisdom? Hmm. You know I have trouble with endings. Back to the question of finding time to be productive -- I’d like to add that sometimes it’s okay to put on the brakes. Like jogging, my best writing doesn’t happen when I’m falling asleep.
Janet Ehrlich Colson (she/they) is a playwright, poet, experimental theatre artist, teaching artist, and yoga instructor living in Detroit. Pre-pandemic, Janet was writing about family dynamics, eating disorders, addiction, and identity. More recently, they are writing about eco-calamity, squirrels, and nuts. Janet was a writer and performer in Lansing’s Renegade Theatre Festival from 2012-2019, where she created the Experimental Theatre Stage. Janet’s full-length play, "EA, Eater’s Anonymous," a play about finding recovery from food, was presented virtually by Riverwalk Theatre in 2020. Their short play, "Snails," an eco-comedy, appears in the second edition of The Champagne Room. Janet is Drama Editor emeritus and contributor for Fleas on the Dog online magazine where her play "Priced to Sell," a comedy about displacement, desperation, and gentrification appears in Volume 11. This spring, Janet presented a workshop called “Why Plays?” as part of Lansing Community College’s Take a Stand! Sit In! social justice event in which participants explored ideas about creating theatre in a post-pandemic landscape. Janet received an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Their blog exists at janetehrlichcolson.wordpress.com.