By Emma Forgione
She sits at an orange typewriter on the mezzanine level of the lobby, at the Public Theater in New York City. There is a velvet rope in front of her little desk to signify that this is an event. Around her, at little high-top tables, there are scattered young writers, either on computers or scribbling down handwritten notes in their notebooks. For 30 minutes, everyone just writes to the soundtrack of the ticking keys of her typewriter.
This is ΦBK alumnus Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Watch Me Work” event that she holds at the Public Theater every couple of weeks. Parks is currently the Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater, where she will be premiering her newest work, White Noise, in March. However, this is only her most recent step in a playwriting career that spans 30 years.
Parks is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where she started writing under the mentorship of acclaimed playwright James Baldwin, who encouraged her to channel her natural talent into writing plays. Since then, Parks has composed an astounding collection of plays, screenplays, essays and a novel, and is recognized as one of the most influential American dramatists today. Parks is the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in drama, which she won in 1999 for Topdog/Underdog, and is a recipient of the Macarthur Genius Award and the Gish Prize for Excellence in the Arts.
How often is it even possible for an aspiring writer to come into such close contact with one of the most successful and prolific playwrights of our time? That’s one of the reasons Parks hosts “Watch Me Work” at the Public Theater, where any person can come and write along with Parks for a half hour or so and then ask her questions about writing or about their own work. She does this because she values education. She is a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which has its own prestigious MFA playwriting program. But she wants to offer her insight to people who do not have adequate access to education.
Each session of “Watch Me Work” is like a little writing class. These can run for up to an hour or more including the Q&A segment. I attended one of these sessions and was blown away not only by the access to such an acclaimed teacher, but by how much care Parks gave to each question asked by her writing audience.
People asked questions about setting deadlines, knowing when a piece of work is “done”, navigating criticism, setting standards for their work, and more. On giving feedback to writers, she says “I always want the writer to continue, to make it to the next draft. But I also tell the truth.”
She also provided insight into giving oneself the permission to try things in their work. “I do not have a hard-pressed standard of quality. If the first draft is not good, I lower the bar. My standards in the writing process are very low because I realize if I just try things, the good stuff will manifest.”
Something that hit home was when Parks was talking about how you write a character that is different from you. She encouraged writers not to look at how a person is different from you, but how that person is like you. She described human emotion as a river that flows through all of us, and no matter how different someone is from you, we all as humans share the same palette of emotions: “Own that voice. Ask, ‘How are they like me?’ There is a part of you that connects with a part of them. Allow your spirit to go there. Go out and find a pair of shoes you think they might wear, and wear those shoes.”
Even her advice is as poetic as her writing, and it’s amazing how ΦBK alumni, no matter what their acclaim, feel an inherent need to share education with everyone. This was a truly inspirational event that I will return to. It is motivating to see a woman like Parks so humbly share education with all, a desire at the heat of what ΦBK is all about—Love of learning is the guide of life.
Emma Forgione (ΦBK, Muhlenberg College, 2018) is a recent graduate in English and theater with a minor in creative writing from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg College is home to the Pi of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.