Play It, Maestro

A writer should worship words the way a maestro worships Mahler and play them with the same kind of fervor those maestros show on the podium. Using a different metaphor, I discussed this in one of my recent videos (released on our social media channels every Thursday morning). I’d like to say (or show) a few more words on this.

Playwrights tend to be especially gifted with language. Here’s a passage from Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, in which a composer, a jealous rival of Mozart, discusses the importance of his profession:


We took unremarkable men—usual bankers, run-of-the-mill officials, ordinary soldiers and statesmen and their wives—and sacramentalized their mediocrity. We smoothed their noons with divisi! We pierced their nights with chitarrini! We gave them processions for their strutting, serenades for their rutting, high horns for their hunting and drums for their wars! Trumpets sounded when they entered the world, and trombones groaned when the left it!

That’s fancy language for sure, as musical as the music it describes. But words can work their wonders in a much simpler and more realistic manner.

Here’s a passage from Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, in which a factory worker discusses a previous owner of the factory:

Because he knew what was going on, and you can only know that by being there. A machine was broken, he knew. A worker was having trouble, he knew. You don’t see the young guys out there. They find it offensive to be on the floor with their Wharton MBAs. And the only problem is they don’t wanna get their feet dirty, their diplomas soiled with the sweat…or understand the real cost, the human cost of making their shitty product. 

So effective, and yet it sounds like nothing more than the words of a working-class fellow in a bar.

Not all writing is meant to be spoken aloud, but it helps if you, the writer, test your words by doing just that. If you don’t love the words you’re saying, change them until you relish the way they sound in your mouth.

Finally, here’s a neat trick—words that make us laugh.

Here’s the comedian Jim Gaffigan talking about discovering a three-floor M&M store in the UK:

The first level is so you can buy M&Ms. The second level is so you can buy more M&Ms. And then the third level is so you can jump to your death. Because you wasted time in an M&M store—when you were in London!

Oh, wait, check out this Student Success story, where you’ll meet a teenager already quite talented at playing her words.

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Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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