My lifelong obsession with Sam Shepard began in high school. I attended an arts school, where I studied acting, which really meant I spent most of my time reading plays. Checkov was good, Shakespeare was better, but nothing affected me like Sam Shepard. His dialogue came out of my mouth like molten lava.
His twisted, worn-down characters profoundly opened my eyes to the human condition. Buried Child and Fool for Love both blew my teenage mind. I remember seeing Lie of the Mind at the Mark Taper Forum and being so tearfully impressed by a then unknown Holly Hunter in the startling role of brain-damaged Beth. Just a few years back I wrote a play called Vampire Mouth, heavily inspired by Shepard and Patti Smiths’s Cowboy Mouth. The entire world mourned when David Bowie died unexpectedly last year. Shepard is my Bowie and I will forever miss him.
Here are seven things I learned about writing from Sam Shepard:
No. 1. Location as a character
Shepard grew up in Texas, New Mexico and Southern California. He used these locations to create a sense of desperation in his plays and movies. The West, infertile and unforgiving, pervades his stories, hinting at the idea that death is closer than you think. The desolate landscape sets the stage for characters who are all thirsty for something and if that drink of water, alcohol, love, recognition, justice doesn’t come soon, all will be lost. Choose your locations wisely in your screenplays and let them inform your characters.
No. 2. Your family is your biggest inspiration
Whether or not you like childhood, your siblings or your parents is completely irrelevant. Those people, those experiences you had with them, are in your psyche forever. Look at your characters (male and female). How are they like your mother? Do they manipulate the way she does? Are they strong the way she is? Does she play favorites even if she says she doesn’t? Do they see only what they want to see? Use your mother (and father, etc.) like a Rosetta Stone. Translate her into your characters and they will gain power and authenticity.
No. 3 Embrace the chaos
Shepard said, “I’m a great believer in chaos. I don’t believe that you start with a formula and then you fulfill the formula. Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in chaos — we don’t live in a rigorous form.” A man from a mob family wants to get out – that’s the chaos of The Godfather. An activist uses her ex-boyfriend to help her new boyfriend escape the Nazis – that’s the chaos of Casablanca. A family does everything they can to help a talentless little girl win a pageant – that’s the chaos of Little Miss Sunshine. By giving your protagonist an extreme want of the one thing they absolutely cannot and should not have, you will create chaos in your own story by upended the status quo.
No. 4. Find the new beginning in the ending
“I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius,” said Shepard. Audiences today are savvy as heck and know there is no happily ever after. How does the end of your story make space for a new story?
No. 5. You can’t force creativity
Halie in Buried Child says, “You can’t force a thing to grow. You can’t interfere with it. It’s all hidden. It’s all unseen. You just gotta wait til it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong enough. Strong enough to break the earth even. It’s a miracle.” This doesn’t mean to do nothing when you have writer’s block. It only means that meaningful inspiration will come organically.
No. 6. Dialogue is meant to be spoken
We all know that, but do we remember it every single time we write a line? It should roll off the tongue. Dialgue also shouldn’t have an agenda. It should be clouded by subtext. How many times a day do you say exactly what you mean? Shepard asked, “What you write is eventually going to be spoken. That’s why I think so many really powerful novelists can’t write a play – because they don’t understand that it’s spoken, that it hits the air. They don’t get that.”
No. 7. Romantic love is “terrible and impossible”
Shepard said, “The whole thing between men and women is really the most amazing thing [long pause] there is. But, yeah, it’s impossible the way people enter into it feeling they’re going to be saved by the other one. And it seems like many, many times that quicksand happens in a relationship when you feel that somehow you can be saved. And of course that’s going to be a disappointment.” If it’s a rom/com, Harry and Sally need to be sinking in quicksand. If it’s a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet are drowning in a swamp. If it’s a true love story, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip are plunging off a cliff. True love is fleeting, never really expressed in words, but more accurately expressed with the body. Remember that scene in Game of Thrones where Lysa Tully was breastfeeding her 8-year old son Robin? That’s true love.
May Sam Shepard rest in peace.