New England writers love the fall. It’s like a candy store of language: brilliant, crisp, smoky, autumnal, fiery, rustling, crunching, incandescent, bracing, aromatic, golden and haunting. The very name of the month, October, sounds curious and rare, like a noun trapped in amber.
It’s also a month dense in symbolism, with images of harvest and transformation. I guess I had such words on my mind a few weeks ago when I stepped out of my non-fiction comfort zone to take part in Ernest Thompson’s “Write on Golden Pond” workshop in New Hampton. The objective was to compose a short play in a single weekend — a daunting feat for a chronic procrastinator like myself — and then have that play read aloud by actors before an audience on Sunday afternoon. It was a chilling prospect, like a creaky door opening in the dark to welcome a treat or a trick. After all, I had no reason to believe my play (assuming I could actually finish one) wouldn’t stink.
Oh, did I mention that Ernest Thompson happens to be the Academy Award-winning writer of “On Golden Pond,” or that local luminary Lowell Williams (whose play “Six Nights in the Black Belt” is being produced by New York’s famous Negro Ensemble Company) was among the participating writers? Right. No pressure.
Turns out Thompson may have missed his calling. Sure, he’s written a bunch of successful plays and movies. After benefiting from his patience and insights as I struggled with my 10 pages of script, I’m convinced, at heart, he’s really a teacher.
The weekend began with a gathering fueled by good food and drink. It was a chance to get to know the other writers and, for a touch of foreshadowing, to meet the actors who would later perform the readings of the scripts. Then the work began.
The first assignment was for each of the nine writers to offer up one character, a person of influence in their lives. Those personalities were to provide the characters for our plays. At first, this seemed like a challenge stacked upon a challenge. It was hard enough to conceive a plot and dialogue out of thin air, but to have to use an arbitrary cast of players and put words in their mouths? I was ready to spirit myself back home.
Even so, as each character appeared from each writer’s memory as a mature being, fully formed and recognizable, the genius of the approach was clear. People don’t emerge from stories, stories emerge from people. With this painting box of characters and a borrowed laptop, I managed to finish my play and it was graciously performed by three talented local actors. (Thanks, John Piquado, Lauren Patterson and Paul Hartwell!) If my script stank, no one was impolite enough to say so.
The bracing chill of October reminds us it’s good to take on a challenge and survive. This year, as I watch the drama of autumn burst incandescent upon the tree tops and curl hauntingly out of smoky chimneys, my inner writer will once again visit fall’s candy store of language, but I’ve learned that even brilliant language can ring hollow. Without a cast of characters to bring life to those words, there’s really no story to tell.
Fortunately, in New Hampshire, the cast of characters is as dense and as colorful as our autumn leaves.