A Leap into the Unknown: Laura Harrington on the unexpected twists and turns of the writing life

Last month, I posted a Buy This Book nudge for Laura Harrington's lovely debut novel Alice Bliss which grew out of her off-Broadway musical "Alice Unwrapped." We invited Laura to share some thoughts on the writing life, and here's what she had to say:

I went to grad school thinking I would write a novel. My first semester I took a playwriting class with Arthur Kopit for the electrifying reason that the class description, which said we would have to read each other’s work out loud, terrified me. That class changed my life. In the three dimensional world of the theatre, I found an art form that was built from language and image and often, music. The three loves of my life. I dropped my attachment to the novel like a hot potato even though I continued my lifelong habit of reading. In fact, I still read plays dutifully without enjoying them much, whereas I read books – both fiction and nonfiction – with intense, almost guilty pleasure.

For the next twenty-five years I wrote for the theatre: plays, operas, musicals, radio plays, screenplays and teleplays, librettos and lyrics. I was in love with theatre; the never-ending challenges were intoxicating. I was blessed with opportunities, with wonderful collaborators: composers, directors, designers, performers. My work was performed across the US, and in Canada and Europe.

As with every profession, there were also the negative experiences: controlling collaborators (the composer who refused to do any revising whatsoever because he’d decided the opera should have 666 measures. I can laugh about it now, at the time I wanted to strangle him), avid competition for scarce resources, snarky directors, bad reviews, the inevitable rejection letters. And, as the years flew by, playwright Robert Anderson’s famous comment: “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,” rang louder and louder.

And then in 2008 I was given this incredible award that changed my life again. The Kleban Award (funded by the estate of Edward Kleban, the lyricist for A Chorus Line) is given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” This was both a wonderful affirmation of my theatre career and a cash award that gave me two years of writing time. But when they handed me the check I didn’t think: Oh boy, I can’t wait to write my next musical. Instead I thought: I want to do something I‘ve never done before. I want to re-connect to the creative process. I want to be a beginner again.

I decided I wanted to try to write a novel. I wanted to write every day without worrying about selling tickets, or how large the cast was, or whether I could get a theatre producer interested in a story I was passionate about. It’s not that those are huge problems necessarily, just that there are already constraints in place before you even begin to write, and these constraints inevitably impact your imagination.

Being a beginner, tackling something you’ve never done before is a rare experience, especially as we get older. I remember feeling a mixture of excitement, elation, and fear. It was exciting to be standing on the edge of a new experience, to take a flying leap into the unknown. I was elated to feel so free, to clear my head and my mind and try to imagine writing in a completely new way. And I was full of fear. Not so much the fear of failure – I tend to view first drafts as experiments – but could I actually figure out how to write a book? Would any of my theatre skills apply? Or would they get in the way?

I was also haunted by a kind of identity crisis. Who was I? What was I? I wasn’t a novelist. Not yet. Was I still a playwright? Could I move back and forth between the genres? What would happen to my playwriting career that I’d spent so much time and love and energy on if I ignored it for a while?

I had to let go. It’s an illusion anyways that we’re in control of our lives or our careers, and I had to remind myself constantly to just trust and move forward. Trust and show up every day. Trust and listen to my characters. Trust and enjoy the process. Embrace the mystery and the unknown. Let it be fun. Let if be play. Be playful. Be foolish. No one’s watching. No one’s waiting. No one cares. This was the freedom of being a beginner. The freedom to re-write the rules, the freedom to discover, the freedom not to know the answers, not to know where I was going, and, finally, the freedom to trust the journey, wherever it might lead.


Great interview, Laura! I love what you say about the illusion of control and wanting to be a beginner again. Thanks for stopping by BtO!
Laura, I love your story! The funny thing is that in some ways, we are the exact opposite. I went to grad school (the first time) to be a playwright--or so I thought. But there was only one main playwriting professor, so I was "forced" back into fiction. Unlike you, though, I had the opposite identity issue. In my mid-twenties, I thought I could do it ALL! Sure, I could write plays and short stories and screenplays and maybe even musicals! Of course I could! Yeah, right. ;) But I understand the lure of the theatre, because it still lurks there for me too. The difference is that now I'm willing to stay when the going gets tough, and to do something I feel like I'm failing miserably at until it works. Maybe that's true love?

Great post, and I think it's funny how many writers have love affairs with other genres and other arts.
Oh, and congratulations on the two years of writing. That's huge.
Joni Rodgers said…
I'm delighted to say we'll be hearing more from Laura Harrington on BoxOcto. What a terrific, head-on-straight author. And I do love her publisher, Penguin imprint Pamela Dorman Books.

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