One of the cunning tricks employed by script teachers is to get students to spell the word ‘Playwright’. The aha moment is of course the realisation that we are not play ‘writers’, but belong to a more arcane tradition called ‘wrighting’.
A wright is a maker of useful things: carts, wheels, ploughs. If we take a genealogical approach to this, we can deduce that the most prosperous of the makers was the all purpose Wright. ‘What do you wright?’ ‘I wright all sorts of stuff.’ The phone book will probably find you quite a few Ploughwrights and Cartwrights as well, not so many Wheelwrights, I suspect. There will also be a few Wainwrights; not makers of music as one might suppose (Dead Skunk anyone?), but also makers of cart-like vehicles (‘it is not a cart, it is a wain!’ [ref: Monty Python Zeppelin sketch).
But I doubt you’ll find a Playwright in the book (maybe a super-optimist or two in the yellow pages). We can suppose that not enough survived/bred/felt that way inclined to pass on the name-as-craft, or just as likely that some ultimate arbiter decided that second jobs/hobbies didn’t cut the nomenclative mustard.
Before we move on, a question: why are there so many Smiths and relatively few Farmers, given that there would have been far more of the latter ‘in the field’? Simple really; the farmers were too numerous to mention, while the smiths were thinner on the ground and really, really useful…
The wright trickery falls apart when we get to screen’writing’. This is a shame and an etymological anomaly, which we will blame on Hollywood reductionism. There is little doubt that screenwriters would happily identify with the arcane tradition. After all, the much cited Aristotle was hardly a spring chicken when he made his way to the dream factory.
So what does it mean to be a maker rather than a writer?
The most obvious difference – and perhaps the most significant – is in the way we might use language. During my PhD I was in a post-grad workshop group with students and staff. I was the only script type person – a not unusual situation in such a setting. I found myself developing a (pathetically) subversive tactic of quietly cutting any line that my colleagues drew attention to as being ‘well-written’. It’s not that they were poor judges, but that their parameters were all about an artifact on a page. I decided that the well-written lines were attempting to rise above their station.
Cut to a very different process. My thesis play managed to get a run at the National Playwright’s Conference, where the questions were such as: ‘what’s that scene for?’;’what is my character trying to achieve here?’ ‘how do we vary the tone at this point?’
This begs the question: can I get a troup of actors on stand-by? Yes and no. Collaborative studio environment, sure why not? Home office, not so much.
So, assuming the latter, what is the process starting to look like? Maybe it looks less like labouring over a screen and more like something else. I am willing to be contradicted on this, but I assume for a prose writer the primary tool of process is language. So what is it for one of our species? Image perhaps? Yes, certainly, but perhaps also Time. Most of all perhaps, some sort of Immanence – a sense of the physical presence of the characters and of the action.