No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

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Little Things

My old Kenpo instructor (now retired) used to say, “Kata is how the system expresses itself.” It was one of those little things he’d say that made perfect sense at the time as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Later, I’d wake up at 3am or 4am or whenever the dog decided to go out, and I’d think, “Wait. What?”

Of course, after pondering for a bit, I’d come to almost the exact same conclusion that I had when I first heard it. Full circle.

Now, for those of you scratching your heads wonder what the heck a kata is, it’s a pre-programmed set of movements that’s common in the martial arts. Some systems live and die by them, others use them sparingly, still others eschew them entirely. Think of kata as a way of chaining strikes and blocks together and you’ll get the general gist.

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One of these people understands movement, the other does not

His intention was to point out that kata is a way to display the ebb and flow of the system. It’s not carved in stone, it’s not the end all be all of movement, but it allows us to take the bits and pieces of Kenpo and see how they can fit together. Each kata has a kind of theme with it, be it retreat, dealing with grabs, dealing with pushes, dealing with punches, or kicking people when they’re on the ground. And each of those kata are built up using techniques and transitions. In a way, kata is how the system expresses itself, by pulling the basics into techniques and then finally putting the techniques together into a coherent piece of expression. Ideally, in the final analysis of kata, they become moving meditation.

Since kata are built on techniques which, in turn, are built on basics, one could say a kata is a large system comprised of little things. They may look fancy, but at their heart kata are nothing more than a lot of things like steps, blocks, kicks, and punches all performed in a particular sequence. Which would imply each of those little things has to be done correctly to get the whole sequence to come out right.

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Otherwise someone gets shot.

This may seem like an esoteric thing, limited only to arcane aspects of the martial arts, but it’s really not. Every large system is built on little things, be it a book or a program or even just painting your bathroom.

Little things matter. In the writing world, it’s the small details that make the story come to life. Maybe a character’s penchant for peanut butter shakes or cheap beer doesn’t drive the plot, but it can say a lot about the character. That character, in turn, helps move the plot forward.

I’m not saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is wrong, I’m saying pay attention to those little details and treat those details with as much care you can. The end result, be it a kata, a program, or a book will be all that much richer for the attention.

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Even your chainsaw kata will look better.