Stepping off the plane, I inhale the brisk Yukon air and am thrilled. I’ve returned home to participate in the Nakai 24-hour Playwriting Competition in Whitehorse held at the Westmark, marking my first attempt at playwriting.
My mom greets me at the airport with a wide grin, exhibiting a new pair of gleaming braces. She looks like a 14-year-old girl and I mentally note the comedic possibilities for character development.
In Teslin, I hibernate for a week before the competition and tackle a reading list of classic plays. My hope is to absorb, by osmosis, the literary genius of Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard.
I review my favourite movie, American Beauty (initially intended to be a play), for clues in how to build complex characters connected by a gripping plot. The telephone book rests on my lap as I rapidly sift through Teslin listings, hoping to unearth my main character. Coming to a dead end, I toss the telephone book aside and spin through endless magazines. I end up facing a stack of story and profile clippings. Not surprisingly, a consistent theme of recession and hard economic times rises to the surface.
Competition day arrives and I am loosely considering four main characters and a theme involving a businessperson being laid off from work. Each fictional being embodies a mixture of traits and eccentricities found in family, friends and foes. My challenge is to place their idiosyncrasies toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose and tease out the consequences.
I am pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the producers of the competition is Jerome Stueart, who taught me English at Yukon College five years ago.
Various writers from diverse (geographical and cultural) backgrounds attended. A few contributors from What’s Up Yukon were present, including editor Darrell Hookey. The general feeling was optimistic and easygoing. After all the writers acquainted themselves with one another, Stueart explained the order of events.
“There will be two yoga sessions, at 11 p.m. tonight and at 7 a.m. tomorrow.” he said enthusiastically. “You will have access to this room,” he motions to the table at the back of the room, “and the fresh supply of baked muffins, chocolate bunnies, fruit, veggies, refreshments and coffee until midnight. At 9 p.m. we will be bring in your orders of specialty coffees, so make sure to write down what you would like.”
We agree to meet back in the room in seven hours for a supper break. The clock strikes 11 a.m. and we retire to our respective rooms.
Before I actually sit down to write, I make sure the room’s atmosphere is perfect. First, I change into my Spandex pants and take off my bra. Then I open the window. An ideal amount of air sifts into the room. The hotel lamp creates a satisfactory mood.
My reading material is neatly packed against the back of the desk. This is an essential component (of my creative process) consisting of five classic plays, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, the movie American Beauty and season two of Extras with Ricky Gervais (for comedic inspiration).
My water jug is full and I have a supply of fruits and veggies. I opt to skip the giant chocolate bunny, but I did take one for later.
Crucial to concentration, I must avoid snacking and smoking. These are the two biggest time wasters and writer’s block enabling activities.
Six days ago, I quit smoking. Second, snacking is an avoidance mechanism that distracts my imagination with irresistible chocolate bunny sweet loveliness.
Finally, I sit down at the desk.
I pick up the phone and call my mom.
“…I have my own coffee maker! They even supply us with chocolate bunnies … uh-huh…” I glance at the clock and it’s already 11:30 a.m. “Sure, I would love for you guys to come see the room.” I still have 23 hours.
Within a matter of minutes, my visitors arrive. Mom and her partner enter the room. They bring my Teslin neighbour, Savanna (seven years old), with them. She is impressed with the prospects of an endless supply of chocolate bunnies.
A prize for the best integration of a mandatory line, “You do this every spring” is awarded.
Children are fabulous storytellers; therefore, we explored Savanna’s imagination for possibilities how the mandatory line could be used.
I convinced Savanna to speak the line happy, then mad and then sad. On cue, she repeated the line in giggles, in a storm of anger (while crossing her arms and stomping away) and with variations of teary eyed expressions.
Children perform ‘upset’ so well. If only I could capture that picture on paper.
The time was creeping away so I said goodbye to my Teslin posse.
With no more distractions, I worked for six hours, taking one break to visit the common room to fill my veggie tray.
At 6 p.m., we took a supper break and ordered a few pizzas. This gave us enough fuel to work through the night.
I missed the 11 p.m. yoga class. By midnight I had written 15 pages. By 2:30 a.m., I decided to take a two-hour nap. I called the front desk for a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.
The rhythm of the fan lulls me into a state of relaxation. My body’s heaviness sinks into the sea of soft sheets and pillows. My eyeballs bury themselves in my head. My cheeks compress into the pillow. I feel warm drool leak from the corners of my parted lips. I don’t care.
An hour passes. My brain won’t shut down.
By 4 a.m., my mind is still restless, sleep a hopeless wish. I will my body over the edge of the bed and crawl to the computer pushing through until the end of my play.
7 a.m. arrives, I decide to join morning yoga class. Jerome and I are the only participants.
The instructor leads us through a number of stretches. Each motion encourages more blood flow and I can feel a second wind blowing. Additionally, watching Stueart, challenge his flexibility wearing jeans is delightful.
By 8 a.m., I return to my room for the last leg of the race. I use the last couple of hours to edit typos, grammar, sentence-structure, plot inconsistencies and unsuccessful attempts at humor. By 10:30 a.m. I head, memory stick in hand, triumphant, back to the common room with a 23-page-long, three-act play.
Quality you ask? I don’t know. The point is I completed my first play. OK, call it a draft. Besides, good writing, I hear, is rewriting. Now I have a script that I can improve.
The Yukon’s Nakai 24-hour Playwriting Competition is an annual forum where writers test and hone their skills.
It is camaraderie of solitudes. It is an endurance marathon. It is the elation of penning the perfect turn of phrase and the disappointment of a mundane mind.
Each participant brings to it and takes from it precisely what they need.
For me, the 2009 competition was the accomplishment of a goal: in literary history, perhaps of little import. In my history, an awakening.
Ashley Hunking grew up in Teslin. She is now a freelance writer and actor
who lives in Vancouver.