Bridge Award Winner, Vinnie Lyman, Q&A

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2018 AITAF Playwriting Award Winner!

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WAR STORIES by Vinnie Lyman

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How old were you when you discovered you loved to write and were good at it, and how has writing been a part of your life since then?

I discovered writing when I was six years old and my 1st grade teacher, Ms. Burke, got totally jazzed about a story I turned in, which was actually a plagiarized Transformers episode. I learned three things from this: one, that attractive young women go nuts about writers, two, that straight up plagiarism is okay, and three, that writing was going to be an immediate unqualified success for me. All of those realizations were false. The real lesson is – don't trust the dramatic epiphanies of six year olds.

Addendum – I added one line to my Transformers story – voiced by a pumped up Optimus Prime - "Let's kick some butt," which I wrote "Let's kick some boat," which then became a Lyman family catchphrase for two decades. So it wasn't all in vain.

Are there certain writers, experiences, mentors who have influenced/inspired some of your work and how have they played a role in your writing style and process?

The Good War by Studs Terkel, an oral history of World War II, and The Unwomanly Art of War by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history of female Soviet soldiers during World War II, were big influences on my play, which incorporates elements of oral history. Also The Corner, By David Simon and Ed Burns. But whereas those writers spent years going out and interviewing hundreds of survivors of all backgrounds with incredibly varied experiences and then incorporating those stories into massive, landmark tomes of literature I cheated and made it all up using my own limited experience to write a little play. There are some great plays that incorporate oral history – The Laramie Project, The Exonerated, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 – but with the exception of The Laramie Project I didn't know about them at the time and I hadn't read any of them.

Waiting for Godot was also an influence. That might sound incongruous; hopefully it all comes across.  

The characters in your play are all military – do you tend to write military-themed work? What was new for you about this piece?

No. I mostly write absurdist comedy. The play I started working on and almost submitted for the Bridge Award was called Space Bear: The Amazing True Story Of The Time NASA Sent A Man-Eating Bear Into Space And Saved The World From Time-Traveling Terrorists (a rumination on toxic masculinity and nationalism or something: it's best not to expend too much mental energy analyzing a play about a man-eating bear in space) – which should tell you everything you need to know about the type of writer I actually am.

I'm very suspicious of the war story/novel/movie genre because I think it's often cheesy, full of stereotypes and condescending toward the audience. People have strong feelings about soldiers, patriotism and what their sacrifice means (meaningless vs. heroic) which can cloud their perception of the truth at hand, which is and should be portrayed as complicated. Which is to say, I didn't take the responsibility of writing about war lightly. However, I am also the guy who wrote Space Bear.

How long did it take you to write War Stories, and were there any challenges?

I first conceived what became War Stories in 2007 on a bunk in Kuwait before my second tour in Iraq. Back then it was called Iraq: Jackass, and it was going to be about a group of disgruntled soldiers who pull Jackass stunts in Iraq and then post them to YouTube as a form of protest against their chain of command. It was a great idea. Sadly it never worked, for many reasons, but the characters and stories from that project have been floating around for eleven years now. I guess the challenge was that it went from a book idea to a screenplay to being trashed to a book again to being trashed to being a brief stab at a comic book to being trashed to a play, and somewhere along the way I discarded the original idea, most of the storylines and many of the original characters so that it doesn't resemble the original thing at all anymore. But that's creation for you.

You work full-time in education, have two children and are married, when do you find the time to write and what’s your set-up?

I schedule time into the day and then I try to adhere to that like a Spartan at Thermopylae; albeit a Spartan who sometimes has to take his kids to soccer practice or Urgent Care and also isn't in great shape and okay it's not a very good metaphor and I hated that movie. I write in short bursts – often as short as ten-twenty minutes. This has bypassed being an adaptation to circumstance and become the way I function creatively. That said, there are still plenty of nights where it's not working and I end up staring at a screen, trying to avoid my empty brain.

Writing a play as opposed to fiction is a new medium for you. What was your approach and how is writing a play different than fiction?

You don't have to write long descriptions of what things look like, which is cool. Good dialogue is good dialogue, so that didn't change. Plays are shorter, a plus. You don't have to think about how everything's a symbol for something else, which is refreshing. There's a bigger onus on the writer to keep things moving and make the most of the limited space you have.   

After winning the Bridge Award, you’ve now heard a read-through of your play with professional actors at Juilliard, and been working with director Kip Fagan to get it ready for an industry reading in October. What have you learned along the way?

Well, for starters I learned the difference between stage right and stage left! (which I had backwards and still managed to screw up during the reading even after Joanne Tucker very patiently explained it to me). So I'd say there's a bit of an I'm-just-a-simple-country-boy-and-here-I-am-in-the-big-city-winning-awards element to this whole thing – which isn't entirely false.

To that end, everyone at Arts in the Armed Forces has been wonderful at helping me navigate the process, from rewriting to formatting to elucidating the business side of things, as well as answering with good humor and straight faces the approximately ten thousand questions I've been badgering them with from day one. In particular I'd like to thank Joanne Tucker, Erica Newhouse, Lindsay Miserandino, Anna O'Donoghue and Kip Fagan – future Bridge Award winners will be in good hands!

For anyone looking to submit to the 2019 Bridge Award, what’s your advice to them?

I'm wary of advice from other writers unless it's of the "stick with it" and "keep submitting things" variety. Four months ago I was nowhere recognition-wise, and four months from now might be the same, so I don't know how qualified I am to offer advice other than "stick with it" and "keep submitting things." There's a general view that writing –creating art in general – is cathartic, but it can be the opposite when you are not getting across what you're trying to get across and there is no audience. Statistically, most of us get rejected most of the time. I don't know what the answer is there other than to say that I know how it feels. A lot of x-factors fell into place in order for me to be where I am, and I'm very appreciative of the chance I've got. I don't know if this counts as advice.

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