Cover photo credit: Julia Forsman
Toilet paper (soft & regular strength)
Ballpoint pens (assorted)
THE WRITING PROCESS
I started with an array of pens. Laid out like an artist’s tools. Or, perhaps, a surgeon’s, given the way these could cut so easily through the paper.
I wasn’t sure which pens would actually be capable of writing on toilet roll. Most had points that were too sharp and risked tearing the delicate surface. But after a quick test, I found my winner – a ballpoint that pressed gently into the surface, but was rounded and gentle enough that I didn’t need to worry about ripping through.
It was an interesting experience to need to write so gently, particularly after the feel of the pencil. I couldn’t scrawl my words out – the movements had to be made deliberately and carefully, even with a specially selected writing implement. It was also a strange sensation to write on a surface that has so much give. Paper is firm. But toilet roll has a cushioned surface that seems to absorb the words into itself, even though it’s a more challenging process to lay the words down.
Psychologically, it’s a peculiar sensation to create something brand new on a material synonymous with refuse and waste. I didn’t expect to have this reaction, considering I was working from a roll fresh out of its plastic, but it felt slightly taboo to be claiming this as a writing material. I kept having the little shocks of sense memory, as I felt the paper in my hands: thinking, “this is something I rub on my most private parts.” We take notes on napkins, not loo roll. I don’t believe I’d ever seen toilet paper marked with words, only waste.
It’s an interesting paradox that the material we treat with the least respect in our daily lives requires such careful handling to be turned into a material for creation. I suspect there’s a zen lesson that lies on the deeper level of this.*
(*Not to mention, extreme gratefulness to the cohabitant who allows you to keep a roll of toilet paper prominently displayed on a bookshelf for weeks at a time while working on this project. If you ever fancy an experiment, try setting out a roll of toilet paper in your primary living space and invite friends and colleagues over. Interestingly, not a single person commented on it, and I got so used to seeing this as normal, that it didn’t occur to me what a strange situation this was until it came time to write up this week of the experiment.)
Upon beginning to write, I had set the roll out in front of me, to unwind as needed. But while I continued to write in a traditional left-to-right fashion, I found myself writing up the page rather than down it. I could almost feel this change in direction reorganizing my brain as I worked, throwing me out of familiar patterns. I would reach a state of flow with this arrangement when my hand was putting the words onto the paper, but every time I wanted to read back the work it was a challenge.
In the end, this extra level of complexity actually felt like a benefit: rather than simply scanning over my words, I had to move my eyes with a new self-consciousness and take them in with more care. I found myself drawing little arrows periodically to remind me of which direction the words flowed. I didn’t need this when I was writing, but it was essential in rereading my work.
I also experimented with ripping squares off the roll and writing on these individually, allowing me to move things around and resequence the words. I could see myself returning to this as a useful technique in the future, but in these circumstances, it made me feel more scattered rather than illuminating connections between unrelated ideas as I had hoped.
Sometimes when writing, it all seems to flow and the work finishes itself almost by magic; sometimes the results are a challenge. If I’m being entirely honest, this entire experiment almost went entirely off the rails in week two.
I’d initially conceptualized ‘This Is A Play’ as a series of individual short plays that could be collected into a series. But there was something about this beautiful, haunting image that spoke to me for a project that’s been playing on my mind for a number of years now. So this changed from being an isolated project into filtering into my work in a much deeper way.
I like to compare my writing process to popcorn. There are a bunch of ideas getting hot and bouncing around, and you never know when one is going to ‘pop’ to the forefront.
This image grabbed me. I tried to resist it and direct the creative process toward the neatly laid out path I had initially envisioned for ‘This Is A Play’. But no dice. So this week ended up being an interesting lesson in what happens when you resist the creative process.
I kept circling back to this image over a number of weeks, with numerous fresh attempts, but it wouldn’t come into focus. Perhaps a good reminder that an experiment isn’t really an experiment if you try to engineer the results in advance. That’s not what we’re here for.
Finally, it seemed foolish not to channel this inspiration and energy into the piece it was speaking to, even if it shifted the direction of the project. And fortunately, Julia is wonderfully flexible and supportive collaborator, and was comfortable with me making this shift. So it seems ‘This Is A Play’ will become be more of a reflection of my immediate creative moment than a collection of standalone short pieces.
Thus liberated, I was able to dig in with gusto. The piece I worked on (which I can’t speak about in more detail just yet, as it’s still lurking in the corners of my mind) is a slippery one; a project I feel passionate about, but which I’ve been circling around for years, trying to find my way into the voice of it. I haven’t yet arrived there, but the work and experimentation I did in response to this week’s challenge did feel like a big step forward.
There isn’t any of this piece that’s ready yet to share. I say that partially out of self-consciousness, knowing the writing isn’t finished yet. But I say it partly out of the knowledge that this idea in development is precious and rare, and deserves to be protected until it’s ready to take its first wobbly steps into the world. Right now, it needs to stay in the incubator.
However, I’m sharing one line that seems to touch on something deep about this story. While it may not make its way into the completed piece, I feel it may help to light the path going forward.
THE SCRIPT – SAMPLE
JOHN: Have you forgotten everything? Your path is the hardest. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’re not the driver, but the plow. You have to till the earth for him who comes next. That’s why you were born with a hard head. It’s not supposed to be easy.