Note to Playwrights: Everybody's Mother Dies

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I was talking with a poet friend a few years ago over coffee. She was bemoaning the hundred or so entries she was tasked to read as the judge of a poetry contest. Many entrants were evidently new to the genre and their work was . . . not great.

We commiserated, as I have also judged contests for short fiction, ten-minute plays and musicals. I told her that, based on my experience, there's a pretty standard distribution in the quality of contest entries: 10% of the authors didn't follow the directions or subverted the topic beyond recognition and are therefore disqualified, 80% of the remaining pieces are predictable or forgettable, and about 10% are really good.

She smiled at my math and shook her head. Then she sighed and said, "You know, everybody's mother dies."

At this point I burst out laughing, which is probably totally inappropriate. Obviously I don't want YOUR mother or MY mother to die and I don't normally spontaneously giggle at others' misfortunes. But I understood her sentiment. 

New writers often look to their own lives for material. (Experienced writers do that too.) And one of the most shattering experiences a person can have is the loss of a parent. I get it. It is painful. It is universal. But it is often a terrible theme for a poem or play, because there's nothing particularly interesting about it to other people

Writing as a means of therapy is a great idea. I heartily recommend that. And I do it. Sometimes it really helps to get feelings out on paper to process big emotions. But when you decide to show your writing to other people, it needs to be about more than your mother died and you are sad. It needs to tell an audience something they did not know before. It needs to examine the situation in a new, compelling way. Otherwise, you're wasting my time being boring and repetitive. No offense to your mom. I'm sure she was lovely. 

I bring this up because I have been inundated this year with plays about Baby Boomers watching their parents creep toward death in the throes of dementia. "On Golden Pond" is a great play (and movie) about that. Everything I've seen since. . . not so much. 

And they just. Keep. Coming. I understand that this must be very painful. Though I was not their caregiver, I have had three grandparents go through this strange and horrible decline and it was heartbreaking for me, long-distance. But by god, if playwrights are going to write this story again, and again, and again, they have got to find a new angle, because I am tired of being able to figure out the rising action, climax and denouement of the "Mom's lost her mind, now what are we going to do with her" play in the first few minutes. 

Before you write me off as completely unfeeling towards the families of Alzheimer's sufferers or mothers in general (I certainly am not), I will say I've also made this plea -- for bracing originality when dealing with a common subject -- about plays on the Holocaust, racism, the Vietnam war, the AIDS epidemic, and the "dinner party play" where two couples start out having a perfectly nice dinner together and by the end they are reduced to biting, screaming, feral dogs. 

So please. . . surprise me. Shock me. Delight me. Enthrall me, with whatever you choose to write, and I will try to do the same. But remember. . . everybody's mother dies. That's not the important part of your story. Tell me something completely original about how your characters moved forward after that.