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Stiff Competition

By ROBERT BETHUNE
ART TIMES January February 2009

I recently came across a statement from a working playwright which laid out the case for trying to be a playwright in todayís world. It was fundamentally an appeal to the primacy of creative individualism: ďI have important stories to tell. No one can tell my stories the way I can; I am unique in the truest sense of the word.Ē

That may be true—but I have my doubts. Itís much, much harder for any writer, including any playwright, to make that idea come true in todayís world. Think of it this way: you have to make it through a gate. And that gate is bigger, wider, heavier, and more tightly closed than ever before, just because of simple demographic facts.

Letís say Iím a playwright, just in the simple sense that I do spend some significant amount of time writing plays. Never mind ifí theyíre getting produced or not, or making me any money or not. Hereís my situation: I am one of probably about three billion people on the planet who can write, figuring the world-wide literacy rate at about 50%. That might be off, either too low or too high, of course. Iím no expert on that.

However, whatever that figure is, it means that if I really do have important stories to tell, the importance of those stories had better be pretty significant, sufficiently so to be self-evident to the world, or I have no claim that my stories actually are important enough to deserve to be heard over the stories of the other billions out there. That means I'd better be working pretty damn hard at those stories, and that I'd better be pretty damn successful at it, so that the results prove their value to the world.

If it is really going to be true that my style of thinking, feeling and writing can be so unique that it would genuinely stand out among all those billions, I had better be able to show that I do something very, very, very special, again so that the results prove their worth to the world.

If I can't do those to things, then I need to wrap my head around the idea that writing should be my hobby, not my life. Thatís not going to be easy to accept. Anyone in that position is going to be prey to all sorts of wishful thinking and wish-fulfillment fantasies, some of which may manage to displace reality at some level. Hard thinking makes hard choices—never a pleasant prospect. In other words, maturity hurts.

That's the curse of being a writer in such a large world. When Shakespeare wrote for the London audience, he was only competing with maybe fifty other playwrights, counting the ones we never heard of because they never made it through the gate. In the modern world, each of us is competing with many thousands at the least, not to mention the thousands upon thousands upon untold thousands of people competing for the attention of the world in other media.

Ultimately, itís much harder to be an individual in todayís huge and compressed world. The special uniqueness of any one voice is very tenuous when seen against the background of billions of other voices. A playwright has to be much more talented, much harder-working, and much luckier to stand out. And thatís just the way it is.

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