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hold me (but not too close) by Alan Z. '23

on writing the full-length play

act I: prologue

When I was a kid, I used to dread going to sleep. I would lay there in bed, words and thoughts spinning around my head without pause. Often, I would simulate conversations with people I’d had that day, where I suddenly had an infinite amount of time to respond in a way that was not awkward, and everything worked out fine in the end. Every once in a while, I’d open my eyes and check the clock, just to see that only five minutes had passed.

It felt like sleep would never come.

Once I fell asleep, though, dreams took over. On occasion, I would wake up from a dream which I was enjoying and decide that I wanted to keep having that dream. I would continue the simulation in my mind until I fell asleep and the story continued. Eventually, I’d be wrenched out of the world that the random firing of my neurons had created for me, but, for just a moment, I could extend my stay there.

One of the skills which I think MIT has worn out of me is empathy.

I won’t say that I was always the most empathetic high school student, but I feel like I did my fair share of making sure the people around me were doing okay. I felt like, for the most part, the words I said were helpful—that I was capable of comforting and supporting the people around me when they really, truly needed it.

During my freshman fall at MIT, one of my friends told me about a traumatic experience they had had. I wanted to say something—anything at all—but the words just seemed out of reach. Every turn of phrase in my mind just seemed trite, or contrived, or simply wrong. I ended up saying nothing at all, which was somehow worse than all the other options I had considered.

I’ve had more experiences like that since then, although I’ve done my best to avoid saying nothing at all. It’s probably true that, in college, the situations that one has to confront are more dire than those found in high school. Yet, it’s also true that this school has made me a lot more careful with my words, in a way that has made it hard to be helpful to anyone around me.

I still do my best to check-in with my friends; still do my best to read people’s body posture and facial expression and determine if they’re feeling down. I think genuinely caring for the people around you is one of the most important parts of making this school tolerable. Yet, genuinely caring for the people around you doesn’t mean you’ll always have the right answer, or the right words to say. In fact, it seems that the two are hardly correlated at all.

The truth, it seems, is that I can’t really understand other people. I can imagine how they might be feeling, but I can’t really share that emotion, or find the right words to make them feel better.

When I tell someone “I’m a writer,” I almost always get the same question: “oh, what do you write?”

I never have a good answer to this question. Part of it is that I haven’t quite figured out my medium yet: I write poems, and I write blog posts, and I’ve written short stories and approximately half of a novel.01 during an abortive NaNoWriMo attempt freshman fall Yet, I think the more troubling and complex part of this is that part of me believes that writers are supposed to produce fiction. You are supposed to produce these beautiful stories that make people feel something or teach people some important lesson about life.

In some sense, this is a result of a societal expectation. If I tell someone I write poetry, I’ll usually get a “Oh, I never understood poetry. What’s the point?” If I tell someone I write blog posts,02 which, for the record, I am <b><i>paid</i></b> to do I’ll usually just get a weird look. If I tell someone I’m working on a novella or a short story, I never get those kinds of questions—usually, I just get the question of “what’s it about?”

The problem is: I’ve always been a bad fiction writer. For starters, I live my life avoiding conflict at all costs, which hardly lends itself to the kinds of interesting stories which people desire to read. My main problem with fiction, though, is that I find it extremely difficult to write characters who are not very similar to myself. I mean, how can you write fiction outside of your own experiences when you can’t really understand other people?

act II: pushing back

This past semester, I took 21M.780: Writing the Full-Length Play. The premise of the class is simple—it’s right in the title. Over the course of the semester, you write a play that is somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes long. The class met once a week, on Tuesday evenings, for three hours, and during each class you’d get to hear your pages read aloud by your classmates before an ensuing discussion.

This was scary as hell. Every week, as Tuesday approached, I would feel this overwhelming sense that I had nothing to give that week. How was I supposed to produce any amount of art when I was so tired from everything else I was dealing with this semester? The ideas were gone, nothing made sense, and all the dialogue was dryer than the Sahara Desert. It was simply not possible.

Yet, every time I started writing, I would feel this kind of renewed energy. It was like I was dreaming again, simulating what happens next, one line of dialogue at a time. I’d play out these scenarios, and I’d find just the right words for each response. I’d grin at each clever one-liner, laugh as I found a way to foreshadow an upcoming event, and, every once in a while, I’d be hit by a bolt from the blue with some crazy new idea that would solve the dramatic roadblock I had found myself facing. It felt like I was finally conquering the roadblocks between me and writing good fiction. I was doing it!

In week seven, we were supposed to bring in something approaching a first draft. It didn’t have to be complete, but we had to have a general idea of what was going to happen over the course of the play. I brought in 30 pages of first draft03 in playwriting format, one page of a script is approximately one minute of dialogue. in other words, I brought in around 30 minutes of dialogue. over approximately nine scenes. I felt like I had a general handle on what was going to happen: we’d do a table read of the draft, and then I’d get comments on how the play felt—and, although the play wasn’t done, I thought that it was on the way there, at the very least.  

The response I got was devastating. The characters seemed listless, without any glimpses of deeper emotions; they seemed confused about their lives, but not in an interesting or convincing way. Scenes ended just when they started to get interesting, and there needed to be more conflict. I had poured all of my emotions into this piece of work and it had been ripped to shreds in the span of an hour.

The other thing was that they were right. I had written characters that were just like myself, and, in doing so, I had created two characters who were too stuck in their own heads to ever accomplish anything interesting together. The simulation in my mind was just that: simulation. It bore no resemblance to reality, and, more importantly, it bore no resemblance to an interesting narrative.

How do you write characters who are not yourself? How do you understand someone other than yourself?

I took a week to recover. The following week, I brought in some new pages, and got generally good feedback. The characters were sharper, the ideas were more focused. I was happy! The week after that, I brought in even more new pages, and was told once again that my characters were too in their heads and too similar. It had been two weeks, and I had made backwards progress, and now I had five days to turn in my first, complete draft of the play. 

I was terrified. I turned my terror towards the page, and worked until I felt like I had brought the story a little further into focus.  By the time I turned in my first full draft, I had thrown out three scenes, written three new scenes, and then rewritten another two scenes. 

Thanksgiving break came and went. I got comments back. There were some of the same critiques: “How can [your characters] be more dramatically compelling? How do we create more conflict?” There was also a new phrase mixed in, though: “There’s a lot of really great stuff [here].”

In the following two weeks, I once again substantially rewrote my play. I combined two scenes, rewrote two scenes, threw out another scene, and wrote one last new scene. In the process, I changed the entire story arc of the first half of the play. I did my best to increase the sense of tension, even when it felt like the conflicts I was introducing were fake, or overwrought. I brought some of my new pages to class, feeling utterly unconfident that anything I had written was good. Yet, when we read the pages in class, it felt a lot more exciting than anything else had before. The feedback, too, was overwhelmingly positive: people felt like they knew these characters a lot better, and that there was a lot of tension between them.

Once again, over half the play had changed, but this time it felt like my work had paid off. Looking back at the end of the writing process, I realized that the characters I had written were no longer myself—or, at least, not exactly myself. They were sure of themselves, of their identities and their passions, in a way that I still am not, and perhaps never will be. In a way, I envied them, or, perhaps, aspired to be them.

I turned in my final draft on the very last day of classes. I exhaled. I had produced art—45 pages of it—and, not only that, I had produced fiction. Despite everything, and despite facing one of the hardest semesters I’d had at MIT so far, I had done it.

act III: an uncertain ending

I gave a few of my friends my final draft to read over. I’d kept it mostly secret throughout the writing process, partially because of my general philosophy that one should not receive the gratification of having one’s work read too early on. Part of me was also scared though: this work was, in a way, about myself, in a purer form than I usually display.

How can you understand other people when you don’t let other people understand you?

I’d like to think that I try my best to be vulnerable with people—after all, I spend a good amount of time writing publicly on the Internet about my thoughts and feelings. Yet, there’s also a lot about me that stays hidden from everyone: when I have conversations with my friends about certain topics, it feels like I am always taking and never giving. The title of this play reflects this fear: hold me (but not too close). The play delves into the parts of my psyche I am least proud of, and sharing it with people that I cared about scared me.

What does it mean if they don’t like your characters? What does that say about you?

I think one of the highest compliments that a writer can receive is “this made me cry.” Art is about communicating a feeling to the observer. When your words on the page—nothing more than black ink printed on pieces of paper, or a collection of pixels on a computer screen—are enough to evoke such an emotion, surely you’ve done something right.

One of my friends told me “this made me cry.”

But, of course, one semester is not quite enough time to produce a completely polished product. The play remains a work-in-progress: I’ll be taking 21M.785: Playwrights’ Lab in the spring, where I’ll get to collaborate with a professional director and professional actors to work towards producing a staged reading of the play in April. Before that happens, though, a more fundamental question remains: “What is your play about?” In the comments on my final draft, my professor asked: “What journey do you want the audience to go on?”

One would think that after a semester of working on this play, I’d have a good answer to these questions. After all, isn’t the point of writing fiction producing a narrative which makes the audience feel something, or teaches them a lesson? Any good story ought to be about something. It ought to give the characters a satisfying journey from A to B.

But, to be honest, I don’t really have any answer at all. When someone asks me what my play is about, I stumble and say “well, it’s about two queer college students, who sort of stumble into liking each other, and it all ends quite badly.”

The real answer though—the one I’m scared to give—is that it’s about me. There are two characters who are kind of like me, going through experiences, some of which are similar to ones that I’ve had. It’s another one of those dreams, those simulations, which I’ve been playing out in my head since I was a child. It’s a space to try and say right things without the real-world risks of discrimination or job insecurity or awkwardness. That’s the whole play.

Maybe that’s okay.

The final question, then, is how does it end? As my professor put it, “Where do you leave [your characters] at the end of the play? How have [they] changed?”

The play, as it stands, ends uncertainly. I think, for the most part, that’s okay. Most real-world situations don’t end cleanly or certainly. For a play to be satisfying, though, that uncertainty has to be different from the uncertainty the audience came in with. Something has to have changed.

How have the characters changed at the end of the play? And, if the characters are still myself at the end of the play, how have I changed?

And, perhaps more importantly, how do I hope to change?


  1. during an abortive NaNoWriMo attempt freshman fall back to text
  2. which, for the record, I am paid to do back to text
  3. in playwriting format, one page of a script is approximately one minute of dialogue. in other words, I brought in around 30 minutes of dialogue. back to text