Last month we went to New York City and splurged on seeing a play. We went from the hyper-busy, noisy street, to the theater’s crowded, buzzing lobby, to the doorway of the theater itself. Inside was dim and quiet. It was a small space, a curtain-less stage. A family’s dowdy living room sat empty and still and waiting. We had to climb to our seats in the next-to-last row, but I didn’t mind, because I had a good view of our fellow play-goers as they too stepped in out of the din and light, paused and blinked and got their bearings. They’d crossed a real threshold. The little theater filled, strangers packed shoulder to shoulder, and even before the lights went down, I felt the deep, the ancient human magic of it. We’d all signed a crazy pact. We’d agreed to leave the rest of the world behind and fall under the spell of a story. We were going to believe in it, if we could. We were going to let it catch us up and whirl us around and—what I am always hoping for—let it change us.
A playwright, even more than a novelist, stops owning her work the moment it’s out in the world. Our books are read, usually, in solitude, the characters’ voices sounding different in each reader’s mind. But actors speak the playwright’s words; directors choose how to play each scene. It’s an astonishing feat of trust and collaboration, all in the service of story. Sitting in a theater always makes me think of sitting around a fire, predators prowling the darkness, stars dazzling the sky, but the big world’s been forgotten as everyone draws close and listens to the man or woman with the magic velvet voice, the story teller. What happens next? We’re all leaning forward, wanting to know. And why? Why does it happen? The older we grow, the more we need our stories to answer that question, too.
I’m working on a new novel now. In singing, there are things called “head voice” and “chest voice”, and from what I gather, the ideal is to blend them together. On days when the writing doesn’t go well, it’s usually because I’m only using what I think of as my head voice. The words vibrate up there, serviceable and doing what they’re supposed to do—move this scene and plot along—but even as I write them, I know I’m going to have to revise them. My chest voice—the voice that draws from my heart—isn’t weighing in, and without it, the words are just words. It will happen, though. For me, a huge part of writing is persisting, believing that if I keep working, the two voices will come together and I will sing my head off. It’s a trust in the story itself: that eventually it will show me the best way to tell it.
When the New York play ended, we wandered out into the lobby. Reluctant to leave yet, we got glasses of wine in the café. We overheard two women at the next table, discussing the play. One of them had loved it and the other was dissatisfied, and before we knew it we were weighing in, the four of us taking stances, offering opinions, sharing lines we’d loved, and by the way, how brilliant was that thing with the wallpaper? The playwright had created a world we still urgently inhabited. We still had a stake in it. Strangers a few minutes before, here we were talking about families, second chances, and, of course, how we felt about the ending.
At last, we buttoned up, pushed open the theater door, stepped out into the blowing snow and blare of taxi horns. But the magic of the play, the story, came along with us. It changed what we noticed, the way we looked at the people rushing by. I can pull it out now, weeks later.
Tricia’s new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island, will be published by HarperCollins in winter 2015.