A conversation with playwright Christopher Shinn

photo by Talbot Eckweiler

“All writing is the same,” says playwright Christopher Shinn. “The hard part is doing it in the first place.”

Shinn, who won the Obie Award for playwriting in 2005 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2008, is Skyping with a group of creative writing students. He’s in New York City, where he teaches playwriting for the New School for Drama; they are in Allegany, New York, where they attend St. Bonaventure University.

“Writing is the hardest thing you will ever do,” Shinn tells them. “And once you understand just how hard it is, you realize it’s even harder than that. And it’s harder than that.”

Beginning writers can find the work difficult, and many give up because they’re frustrated or embarrassed. “Good writers have stopped writing because it was too hard,” Shinn adds.

photo by Talbot Eckweiler

But there is, he says, no substitute: “Work hard and be prepared to work harder the more you work hard.”

The students, sitting around their O-shaped table, take notes and ask questions. They make references to scenes and characters in Shinn’s play Dying City. They want to know about his career, about his plays, about playwriting in general.

Shinn, obviously delighted to be talking with them, fidgets in his seat as he answers, hardly able to contain himself. Later, he will describe the experience as “a blast.” He smiles frequently as he answers.

Shinn tells them what he tells all his writing students: “The first thing is to acknowledge who you are and what level of accomplishment you’re at. You can’t get any worse than that. You can only grow from there.”

Shinn’s own growth as a writer started in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, where his earliest influences were actually novelists. “It was easier to read a novel than to see a great play,” he explains. He ticks off a list that includes Cheever, Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Welty, Carver. “They were the classic American writers,” Shinn says. “They had a certain vision of America—a realistic vision of America. They captured the American psyche, the pain and sadness of human suffering, the existential challenges of just being alive.”

Playwright Tennessee Williams impacted him. So did Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “I gravitated to canonical major American authors,” Shinn says.

He attended high school at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts then went on to NYU’s Tisch School to earn his B.F.A. in dramatic writing. His professional career as a playwright launched in 1998 with Four, which premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre. His first major American production came in 2002.

In that span, Shinn has cranked out ten plays, and theaters across the country continue to bring those scripts to life regularly. November alone saw two productions of his Pulitzer-nominated Dying City go up—one in Billings, Montana, the other in Portland, Oregon.

His most recent play, Picked, gets a staged reading next month as part of the New Stages Series at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

photo by Talbot Eckweiler

Along with his work as a playwright, Shinn started teaching in 2004. He enjoys it, he says, because he learns as much as the students do. “It keeps me growing as an artist,” he says. “Teaching forces you to articulate what you believe. It forces you to think about it.”

That process of reflection and self-examination is the key to Shinn’s playwriting.

“Ideally, if I have nothing else to do, I’ll close myself in my room for the entire day and just give myself the freedom to write,” he says. “Cumulatively, that might actually amount to only an hour of writing. The rest of that time is spent thinking, dreaming, sleeping, imagining, reading, reflecting, fantasizing. I try to stay within myself as much as possible…. I give myself over to my internal world as much as possible.”

To write, Shinn taps into “very deep, very private” parts of himself. “It’s hard to access it,” he says.

Shinn does so through meditation, yoga, psychoanalysis, “pretty intense engagement with critical thinkers and artists—there are lots of ways,” he says. “It takes an extraordinary level of honesty and courage and self-scrutiny to know yourself.

“Create circumstances for self-scrutiny,” he tells the young writers.

That’s helped his writing, particularly as he’s gotten older. “The writing is more me,” says the 35-year-old Shinn. “I’m truly communicating myself through my work.”

Self-knowledge has immense payoff particularly with characterization. “That’s all you can do—is use yourself to write your characters,” Shinn says. “If you’re going to write about human nature, you better know your own nature.”

Art has a function to get people “to really look at ourselves, to really look at each other,” Shinn contends.

“Not knowing isn’t just ‘not knowing.’ Sometimes it’s not wanting to know,” he says. “Sometimes what we want to say is too upsetting to ourselves.”

And so people lie to themselves and they lie to each other—frequently because they just don’t want to deal with something that’s true.

That makes for great drama, but it can also make for difficult playwriting because, Shinn points out, playwrights are just as likely to lie to themselves as anyone else might be.

“Sometimes, when I find out that I can’t write, it sometimes means I don’t want to write,” he admits. “Then I need to figure out why, and I’ll really scrutinize that and figure it out and realize that I have some hard work ahead.”

But that just comes with the territory. “Art exists to represent things that are difficult to deal with,” he says. “Those kinds of things never go out of style.”

It usually takes Shinn somewhere around a year to hammer an initial idea into a finished script. “That’s a year of dealing with the pain, dissatisfaction, and agony of it,” he says, chuckling. “That’s a year of making sure it’s what I want [the play] to be.”

Seldom does he have a complete story when he first sits down. “I usually start with an image or a line and go from there,” he says.

A year later, “[t]he basic shape and form and meaning of the play are basically finished, are what I want them to be,” says Shinn. “The more I write, the older I get, the more I feel like a play is finished when I say it is.”

He’ll send the script to his agent, who’ll then shop it around to theaters—and also act as a buffer against rejection. “You have to develop really thick skin,” Shinn says. “You have to be willing to deal with a lot of rejection.”

Having a production, though, feels just the opposite. “When it all goes well, it’s a magical, intimate, profound experience,” he says. “It’s agony if it goes poorly, but it’s great if it goes well.”

Only once did a production go so poorly that Shinn felt “traumatized.” He says he couldn’t even look at the script for years afterwards. “It was so painful, so horrible,” he says, declining to name the play because the experience still haunts him.

photo by Talbot Eckweiler

But mostly, productions are a chance for a playwright and a theater company to “create something important and profound together,” he says. “I really love the collaboration. If you love people, if you want a life as a writer where you’re not living a solitary life in your room, playwriting is it.”

Shinn’s role in that collaboration, as playwright, is to create a good story. He leaves it to the director and actors to figure out how to tell that story. “The most important thing is to tell your story first, and then worry about the best theatrical way to get that to come across,” he explains.

“Open your mind, and let it guide you,” Shinn says. “If you open your mind to creativity, you never know what will happen.”