Inside The Writer Army with Madeleine George & Anne Washburn

In the year since opening, The Music Hall at DGF has hosted over 1,000 writers for workshops, panels, readings, and writing groups like The Writer Army.

Let’s start at the top; what is the Writer Army?

The Writer Armies are weeklong stints where writers work together in a room in silence; the silence allows you to concentrate strictly on your work; the togetherness is a spur — the presence of other writers, tapping away seemingly without worry, is a source of both inspiration and shame — the light social pressure and the companionability often allow you to work longer and harder than you would on your own and helps you to move through those periods of inattention and distraction when left to your own devices you would be sorely tempted to dive into the internet, or clean the kitchen, or call a friend.

“The light social pressure and the companionability often allow you to work longer and harder than you would on your own”

It began as a strict rent-share — everyone went in on the cost of a rehearsal space, and coffee — and now that some of our spaces are rentals and some are donated (Thank you Dramatists Guild Fund! Thank you Playwrights Horizons!) we pool the costs and charge a much lower price all round, and make slots available for people who can’t swing it financially.

The particular schedule we’ve set up is that each day is divided into a morning session, 10–2, and an afternoon session: 3–6, Monday through Sunday. You don’t have to attend every session — some people will come pretty much the entire week, some people will just duck in and out for a session every now and then. We also start our morning sessions with 10–15-minute stretches and writing warm-ups, just to help people get out of commute head and into writing brain.

You could do a one day army, a weekend army, a weeknight army. You could do an army where everyone pledged to begin a new draft, or to finish up an old one. You could do no warm up exercises or a much more rigorous set of them. You could perfectly well do armies with no start or end times where people just trickle in and out of a shared writing space throughout the day. You could do an army all around a shared writing challenge or topic. You could share work at the end.

Where did the idea for the Writer Army come from?

The Writer Army has its origins in a series of silent playwriting retreats led by the playwright Erik Ehn, which we have participated in and administered for many years. The silent retreats, in which you complete an entire play in a short period of time, are much more intense than the Writer Army — we go away for anywhere between three and nine days and live and write together in complete silence twenty-four hours a day — but they have proven to be so catalytic for producing good work that we wanted to bring a little bit of their rigor and pleasure into our regular lives. The strict schedule we maintain during the Army, the prohibition on speech in the work space, and the no-internet rule are all hallmarks of the silent retreats.

If you’re interested in reading more about the silent retreats, an article about them ran in a recent issue of American Theatre magazine:

From what I understand, there are few rules you’ve developed for the group. Can you talk a little about those and how they help the process?

The most important rule — and mind you we think you could have a perfectly successful army with very different rules or perhaps with no rules at all — but the most important rule, for us, has been the rule that everyone starts each session at the same time and doesn’t leave until the end. It’s a quiet space, it’s a space well supplied with snacks, and without distractions but most importantly it’s a space where everyone is working steadily — or seems to be working steadily. If someone comes late or leaves early it’s subtly demoralizing and just increases your own tendency to think that surely you’ve accomplished enough for the day and now you can take off.

“Most importantly it’s a space where everyone is working steadily — or seems to be working steadily.”

So that’s our big rule; other stern rules which have been helpful are: no internet — there is internet, actually, but we ask that if you use it you do so covertly so the illusion of an internet-free space can be maintained and there’s just that much less temptation. Other rules: to avoid sitting in the same spot every day (prevents people from inadvertently staking out the best spots and holding on to them for the week), no screens before the session or during lunch.

We ask that people not work during the lunch hour — with the caveat that of course if you want to continue work you should do so — just sneak off to a coffee shop or something and work there out of sight. This proviso came from discovering — again, in these Erik Ehn silent retreats — that periods of not working, of switching off and cooling gears — are really helpful for the overall productivity of the day.

That’s pretty much it for rules.

We also ask people to consider that this is a demi-communal endeavor — we organize the armies but on a strictly volunteer basis and actually running them would be demotivatingly time consuming — and it only works if people help to take care of the whole thing — sit in the space for half of one lunch hour to look after the computers, or volunteer to lead a writing warm up one morning. And we ask everyone to bring a snack, something healthy or delightful, and that always works brilliantly, there’s always a table heaped with food which, again, somehow makes it easier to stay in the room.

Again, these are the set of rules and, customs, I guess, which we’ve devised and work well for us but any/all of them could be jettisoned or reconfigured.

How does working in a group setting effect the writing process? How has working in this group setting affected your own writing?

It doesn’t change anything about the writing itself — it’s very much an extension of whatever your own particular process is — but it does help you to stay in your seat past your own particular usual bail-out point. It’s really just an environment in which it’s easier to concentrate.

Aside from being in the same room with other writers, because the Army moves between venues, how does the physical space change the dynamic?

It’s important to us to have windows in the space, because staring into the middle distance is a big part of a lot of writers’ routines and because daylight is generally healthful. It’s also nice — but not required! — to have a room that has different areas in it, different little nooks and crannies and corners so the architectural experience shifts subtly over the course of the week as writers move from spot to spot. The Music Hall space at DGF is a little bit magical for our purposes because it’s light-flooded and comfortably furnished and gorgeously decorated, and the piano in the corner gives the space an indefinable but unmistakably theatrical vibe, even though all we do is sit near — and sometimes under — it.

What advice would you give to writers who are looking to set up an Army of their own in areas around the country?

We strongly recommend trying it. It’s not complicated — identify your values, clarify your “rules,” be creative about scouting spaces, don’t be afraid to approach theaters you have relationships with to see if/when their rehearsal spaces might be lying fallow so you can slip in then. A couple of tips: There’s no reason armies should be only for playwrights, of course — we have a number of poets and novelists who write with us regularly. And also, in our experience, armies work best when it’s not just a group of friends participating, since the subtle communal pressure exerted on individuals by the group is softened when everybody knows each other well and is willing to cut each other slack — even silently. So creating an initial invite list in which friends invite other friends is a good way to start.

“The subtle communal pressure exerted on individuals by the group is softened when everybody knows each other well and is willing to cut each other slack — even silently.”

Lastly — most rehearsal spaces or meeting halls have chairs, but very few have tables. We use cheap wood tv trays or mini folding tables instead of writing desks. People could bring their own, or make a communal purchase.

Rachel Routh, Lynn Ahrens, Carol Hall, Stephen Flaherty, Gretchen Cryer

The Music Hall at DGF provides free space to writers thanks to the generosity of Carol Hall & The Grisham Family Foundation with a piano donated by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty.

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