“Enjoy your meal!” said the waiter.
“You too!” I responded thoughtlessly.
The dialogue which shapes our lives is often a fumble. We stutter, misspeak, offend, reveal too much or not enough. Once we say what we do, it cannot be unsaid. In a technological world, what we type is forever imprinted somewhere. Contemporary “cancel culture” ensures that what we say and write is not only permanent, but unforgivable. Similarly, what is unsaid in one moment can remain forever unsaid, and the chances we don’t take in speech or otherwise are rarely offered to us for an opportunity to do-over.
This phenomenon, and perhaps its pressure, was one reason I was drawn to playwriting. Drafting the dialogue of drama allowed me to control speech and situation, making the uncertainty of reality anticipatory. The first piece I wrote for the stage centered on this very notion, called “Backspace,” my quasi-one act play had a plot driven by the nonexistence of a backspace key on the typewriter used to write our lives. Without the power to return in time and in text, everything, once written, could not be rewritten. In the end, the characters confronted the one-directional passage of time and developed skills of apology and forgiveness to progress through their stories. There are ways to move forward in a life marked with errors, as we have all been forced to do, but moving on does not always eradicate missed opportunities from our memory.
Playwriting is attractive as a medium in part because the dialogue I write can achieve anything I choose. With that power, I can say the right thing, offer forgiveness, give depth to the unknown and resolve conflict.
Still, the stage attempts to proxy reality, and as such, does not show perfectly smooth speech. Certainly, there would be no purpose in drama which was gutless or without despair, but the truth lived on stage is a manufactured one in which the desired ending is reached regardless of contextual complexity. The act of writing a drama, and not simply living one, gives me a semblance of control.
Living, however, has provided me ample opportunity to misspeak. One of my most serious errors in dialogue happened when, as an adolescent, I took it upon myself to criticize the life choices of a sister’s friend through the self-righteous gossiping in which I had learned to participate. After at least 30 long minutes critically disparaging her grades, friends and clothes at a slumber party, I was shocked to find out she had been eavesdropping from my sister’s room next-door and overheard all of the unkind things my friends and I said. In the tense period after the interaction, I took to writing the drama as I wished the reality had unfolded. In one version, my friends and I had complimented her, and she became confident and joyful. In another, she did not cry outside the door but instead laughed, taking our words as facetious and offering us easy forgiveness.
In reality, my 12-year-old self apologized profusely after a period of embarrassment-induced blame I threw at my sister and her friend for sneakily listening in. I could not undo what I had said, but I tried to offer a revision. Fortunately for me, she and I remain friends today, since she accepted my apology. But this outcome was not guaranteed, and on other occasions, these accidental unkindnesses and offenses in dialogue have had lasting consequences. Sometimes, we have to write forgiveness into the story ourselves.
Dialogue is instrumental to the unfolding of our lives. How many times have the trajectories of our lives been decidedly altered when we were brave enough to greet a new friend, impress the right executive or defend what we stand for? How many times have we failed to speak and so cannot know what could have been? There is a profound ache that comes with the regret and anguish of life paths not taken and the torture of wonderment they stir in us.
What if I had just said “yes,” or “no,” or something at all?
I have not been unscathed by the force of regret for the unsaid. One particular fate-induced meeting still stands out as a catalyst for longing.
One night, while I was solo-traveling in Stockholm, I found myself stranded eight miles from my residence — I had been living in Iceland and forgot the sun sets during the night in other parts of the world. Without a phone or cash, I wasn’t sure how I’d hail a ride back across the city’s isles, but that summer I had adopted the Icelandic mantra, “Þetta reddast,” or “it will fix itself,” so I remained unconcerned. I saw a boy my age walking the same direction as me — using his obviously-charged phone — which seemed like the logical way out of my situation. Conveniently, he had called an Uber to the same district that I was staying, and I shared the ride with him through the city.
On the 40-minute journey through the night, we talked through multitudes of the political and personal, finding fateful linkages of days we’d both been in the same capital cities, interests we shared and beliefs we both found inalienable. When he implored me to stay up through the night, to explore the posh district and race against the sun’s rising, I fumbled for words and landed on non-adventure.
The next morning my instinct of making things right — or rather, rewriting the regret — set in. As I took a train to Oslo, I wrote the dialogue I remembered and altered the ending, subtitling it, “with the grace of hindsight.” What might have happened that night if I said yes? The question would weigh on me for weeks.
Most people can name a time they wanted a do-over, and writing for the theatre gives us a chance to create one. This past summer I co-directed playwriting workshops in Kosovo, and we drew on this desire for rewriting the personal to make peace with past things said and unsaid. We created an activity called “Goodbye Stranger” for our final week, where students were to think of an encounter with someone they saw once and then never again. They could write the interaction with any ending they desired.
One student wrote of the last time she saw a former crush, when she wanted to accept his apology for the hurtful things he said. When she performed the piece with the dialogue she wished she had actually used, her voice was brave and pure. She showed me that it is redemptive to forgive.
Another student rewrote an interaction she had with an aggressor on public transit, who threatened her with stares and catcalls. She reimagined the scene as one in which she defended herself and the women around her from his taunting. She showed me that it is redemptive to empower.
Another wrote of the interpersonal depth she thought existed within her favorite celebrity, who she had seen once on the street. Her scene detailed his hardships and hopes, reminding us what we might miss when we take someone’s surface as their entirety. She showed me that it is redemptive to inquire. Making things right or deep or new by rewriting moments missed is a process of redemption and one of reclamation.
I keep writing dialogue to put the world back in order — to forgive myself and others, reimagine lost time and put an end to conflict. On the page and on the stage, the progression of things is in my control. It would be nice if, in the writing in times of war, we ended it, or in recovering time spent we had second chances to muster bravery. In fictive worlds, we can imagine these better outcomes and actualize them when we choose. This process is not as imaginary as it seems. After all, in being reminded of the worlds I wish to inhabit, it becomes easier to set out creating them.