Brian L. Gray: This is a story about a story
I’ve started work on a new play. I’d like to share with you what it’s about, but I’m not one to delve into too many details or talk in depth or length on projects that are still being worked out in my mind, so this column might be short. But I can’t guarantee that – I just started writing.
I’ll share this much with you – the play takes place in only one location, next to a boulevard of trees near a park, in the middle of a block of homes. It’s based on a location in Mandan I used to go when I was a kid, a place some of my friends lived next to. Not many people hung out there, and in a weird way it felt like it was our own personal playground, a place no one else knew about and therefore was created solely for our enjoyment. A secret garden, if you will.
The seed that sparked this idea for the play was when one of my friends and I decided to bury something of ours in front of one of the trees. We were young kids at the time, and promised to return there together years later to dig it back up. Before we were able to do that, however, my friend moved to Fargo, and our plans were instantly cut short. I had no idea if he would ever come visit again, and after waiting a few years I went to the park on my own to try and find what we had buried there years earlier. I dug and I dug, revved up by idea that this would be a great gift to surprise him with the next time I saw him. But after about an hour I, surrounded by dozens of empty holes, hadn’t uncovered what I was there to find. I figured someone had either found them or I couldn’t remember where we had buried our stuff. So I walked away, defeated, and never searched for them again.
Whatever I left buried there apparently simmered in my mind after all this time, and the anticipation and unfinished business of me and my friend’s original mission never left me. That kernel of a memory evolved into an idea for a story, and I chose to use that place from my past as the location for a new play.
This idea was never contrived on my part. It was something my memory offered me – through a dream, of all things – which caused me to think of that possession of mine that, in all probability, is still buried somewhere near those trees.
I suppose that loss, and the unfulfilled expectation, is what drove the idea. From there I started work on this play that explores several different characters, over several generations, who are all connected together by this one location.
I enjoy the notion of having several different people feel a deep connection to one thing, whether it’s an object, a location, or even a family pet, and how each connection is a personal and intimate one. Much like the way I felt about that park when I was young, and how I’m sure there have been several kids since then who have been raised in that same part of town who feel that park has been created only for them too.
I think of the original home I was raised in, and how important it is to me to this day. Even though I lived there for only 12 years I still feel that it’s still my family’s somehow, and that no matter how much it means to them it doesn’t compare to my connection with it. Which is ridiculous, although my emotional connection to it still lives and breathes. Yet I wonder how many others since me feel the exact same way about the same place.
The biggest obstacle in writing this play, I’ve learned, is getting over that self-centeredness and instead focus on the location, which becomes its own character in a way. From there I get to explore each character’s individual connection to it.
…I guess this column wasn’t that short after all.
I recently returned to the location for the first time in several years to see how it looked these days. I went there expecting to be overwhelmed with some provoking, inspirational moment, like more ideas for the play would come flowing out of me. Which didn’t happen. Instead I embraced a new reality, that this park is still alive and kicking, although much different in appearance than I remember. But a sliver of how it lives in my memory could still be seen, in the outdated tennis courts and ground imprints of the slides and rides that used to be there. It was rebuilt for a new era of people to create cherished memories there.
Although much has changed, the row of trees that stood in front of me and my friend’s buried possessions were still there, looking as though they hadn’t changed one bit. While I was tempted to start digging, I decided against it and instead made my way back home.
So what is the point in all of this? Well, I’ve made several metaphorical points already, you’ll have to figure it out yourself. I’m not here to spell it all out for you. You know how to spell.
But the literal point I’m trying to make is to always keep your eyes open. Leave yourself open to be moved by things, and allow yourself to be moved. Because you never know where inspiration hides.
I’m often moved by things in my life, and that’s usually where I find the best ideas. I admit, I’m selfish that way. I never know when an idea will stick, but I stay alert each waking moment, never knowing when some chord will strike and motivate me in ways I could never predict.
Even if that means having to lose something for it to reveal itself.
But it’s often worth the sacrifice. Life becomes a lot more rewarding when you pay attention to it.