THE WRITE LIFE: Paul Dervis
Posted on March 12, 2019
Writers are viewed in many ways, and one of those ways are that they are tortured, solitary manic types who lock themselves in eccentric places like lighthouses, castles, and haunted houses in order to fuel their creative fires. I’m not saying that those people don’t exist, but you’d be surprised at how many writers are social, and how many are actually functioning members of society. (Though let me live in a lighthouse, please. That sounds amazing.)
We writers are seen as loners, and with that in mind – I really wanted to showcase on my blog the writers in my own life I’ve come to know, for various reasons and at various times, to sort of tell everyone or show them that we writers can be social, can have friends, and can exist outside of the cliches and the stereotypes.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I’d like to introduce you all to a friend of mine, Paul Dervis. I actually met Paul years ago, but we didn’t fully connect until just recently when I joined his writing group, which he leads with discussion, advice, and readings every week here in Portland, Maine. Paul recently interviewed me himself on his public access television program, “In The Belly Of The Beast” (and you can see that episode HERE if you wish) – so I asked if he could reciprocate for my blog.
Paul has been writing professionally since 1975 when he was employed by the Boston Ledger as a theater critic, and by the International Times as a restaurant critic while he was still in college. His first play to receive a professional production was a cabaret review titled “AND FIFTY CENTS WILL GET YOU COFFEE” in the early 1980s. He has been the artistic director of five different theater companies over a forty year period of time. Paul has lived in Boston, New York, Montreal, and Ottawa before coming to Portland five years ago. He taught playwriting for fifteen years at Algonquin College in Canada. He has had his plays produced in New York at the Hudson Warehouse Theatre, Urban Stages, the Nat Horne Theater, the Intar Theatre, and has had a working relationship with Theater For A New City amongst others.He has also raised two daughters, the youngest being a Freshman at McGill University this year.
ME: What personally drives you to write?
PAUL DERVIS: Writing has become a natural process for me. I have long been a creature of habit – Every morning I get up, I get out of my house, I go to a coffee place where I can hear conversations around me… and I write for three hours.
I started writing creatively when I was thirteen and in boarding school. I laugh about it now but as a child in that environment I found myself comparatively talent-free. Other children painted or played an instrument or excelled at other various creative outlets. It’s odd to think about but I chose to write because the medium seems so subjective. I felt who could tell whether I was any good or not? If you play the piano and you are no good, everyone can hear that… but writing? It did seem like a very good cover for me.
By the time I was eighteen I was a member of a poetry group in Boston (Stone Soup poetry, quite well-known) and I read my work with such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I then went to Tufts University to study with Denise Levertov, David Slavitt, Jonathan Strong, and Juan Alonso. Juan commented on my sense of dialogue and that’s when I turned from writing short fiction and poetry to writing plays.
I had fairly early success in theater both as a director and a playwright. my play MAKING TRACKS won be 1986 New York one act play Festival at the Nat Horne Theater on Theater Row. My 1989 play POKEY had an extended run off Broadway. It was turned into a film in Canada produced by Dreamweaver Studios. I have made valuable contacts through directing in New York, New England, and Eastern Canada. It has enabled me to have my plays produced in various cities such as Montreal, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Kingston, Ontario, Ottawa, and of course throughout New England of the Eastern Seaboard.
ME: Who are your influences?
PAUL DERVIS: Jack Powers was undoubtedly the greatest influence on my writing life. He was the founder and facilitator of Stone Soup Poetry. He also spent countless hours helping inner-city kids. He supported all the writers, giving them constructive criticism while allowing them to develop their own inner voice. John Wiener was a very important and influential ’50s and ’60s poet (sadly forgotten now) from the San Francisco School of beat poetry (often called confessional poetry). He taught me to write from my heart and that one should love their own words because no one could write a story that resonates with you better than yourself. John was a man who looked like Larry Fine of Three Stooges yet walked the streets of Boston in a sundress and a parasol. That told me to just be myself.
When I was a young director I had the opportunity to work with Israel Horovitz (“THE INDIAN WANTS THE BRONX”) and that opened up doors for me to work with other great playwrights such as Leonard Melfi, AR Gurney jr. , David Mamet, as well as Canadians David Gow, Victorio Rossi, and Michael Melski.
My field of interest in my theater major was Contemporary British Drama 1957 to 1973. John Osborne and Peter Nichols were particular influences on my writing style. I had the great good fortune to direct Nichols’s “A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG” as well as Osborne’s “LOOK BACK IN ANGER”.
On my bucket list to direct is David Rudkin’s “ASHES”.
ME: What’s your technique for escaping Writer’s Block?
PAUL DERVIS: Writer’s Block? I’ve heard of it but I don’t suffer from it. I am lucky in that I also write film and theater reviews for a magazine (The Arts Fuse) as well as still dabble in poetry. I fairly easily go from one medium to another. And I also create little stories on my Facebook page.
If I am struggling with a play it usually means the characters are not speaking to me. I am a big believer in that I am in fact not writing dialogue but just listening to it in my head. If it’s not flowing then I will just drop the story. I have written twenty-five full length plays as well as countless one acts. I probably have five to seven pages of ten times as many plays as I’ve completed sitting in drawers. I will not beat myself over the head with a play that is not writing itself.
Last year I finished a play that I had started over twenty years ago. I am also someone who will write more than one piece at the same time. I have the ability to move from one project to another and then back again. Routine is everything to me. And I don’t criticize my pieces as I’m doing them. I have no need to be perfect. If I write something and it’s no good, so be it. Tomorrow is another day. I find writing is like putting on pants… if one pair (or story) doesn’t feel comfortable, I just put on another.
ME: What’s one must-read book you can recommend?
PAUL DERVIS: I’ll give you five books, five plays, five films and one epic poem… and I won’t explain why. One will just have to see and read them.
Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer by Kenneth Patchen
Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
An Autobiographical Novel by Kenneth Rexroth
Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols
Edmund by David Mamet
The Sport of My Mad Mother by Ann Jellico
Singer by Peter Flannery
Women Behind Bars by Tom Eyen
O Lucky Man directed by Lindsey Anderson
The Blue Angel directed by Josef Von Sternberg
The Palm Beach Story by Preston Sturges
Touch of Evil by Orson Welles
Husbands by John Cassavetes
Alan Ginsberg’s Howl
Now there is a bucket list for your readers!
ME: What’s one piece of advice you can give to a new writer?
PAUL DERVIS: Writing is not about having a story. Everyone has a story… hopefully more than one. My father used to say “I’ve got a story! You should write it!” And I used to respond “Write your own story, dad!” which of course he never did… and that’s what separates writers from the rest of the world. There are a hundred people in Harvard Square on any given day who claimed to be “writers” but who are really only chess players.
From a craft point of view, find what the most productive time for you to write is and set that time aside for that sole purpose. It really doesn’t matter if you write a word, a sentence, a page or a chapter… or merely stare at a blank screen. Allot yourself that time.
My second purely technical point of view is keep on writing… don’t rewrite until you at least finish with your beat, your scene, or your chapter… or ideally your first draft. Too many writers strive for perfection instead of completion. I always say you can fix the problems later but get your story out.
If you’d like to see more of Paul’s work, check out his public access program IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST or check out one of his plays (whether directed or written, or both) from the STORM WARNINGS REPERTORY THEATRE. (“ROOFTOP SONATA” opens March 22) Also, if you liked this interview, you’ll find more with other writers under the Write Life tab on my home page. The other interviews are all archived there. Thanks for reading!