In Department of Theatre and Media Arts, Guest Artists, Media Arts, Theatre

Edson answered student questions about the process and purpose behind “Wit”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and elementary school teacher Margaret Edson met with students in the Department of Theatre and Media Arts for a lecture and Q&A during her visit to campus in February.

Edson is a unique figure in contemporary theatre history — she has only written one play and has no plans for another.

“Wit” follows the reflections, realizations and physical decline of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Edson’s script and its film adaptation are often studied in theatre and English courses, and the play is currently running as a staged reading in BYU’s Contemporary Voices festival.

“I am very familiar with Margaret Edson’s play ‘Wit,’” said Denali Linton, a theatre arts studies major. “I have studied it in script analysis classes and have seen several productions. I was thrilled when I heard she would be speaking because she is an example of someone who had a great idea and made it happen. She was a public school teacher, not a professional writer, but she wrote something that is incredible and has blessed many people, including myself.”

Edson largely credits the play’s power and resonance to language. “In your writing, every word needs to be the right word,” she said at the beginning of her lecture.

Both Linton and media arts student Riley Jeffs were struck by Edson’s emphasis on carefully and purposefully selecting words.

“The amount of research and care she had for the title of her play alone amazed me,” said Jeffs. “I loved when she talked about every word needing to be the ‘exact right word,’ because someday people might ask why you chose the word that you did and it will be important to have an answer. I got the sense from her that she had said everything she meant to in her play and had meant what she said.”

After her lecture on language, Edson took questions, many of which focused on her research-heavy writing process.

Courtesy of Margaret Edson

“The reason writers are all insane is that there’s a part of your brain that is always working something out,” said Edson. “Sometimes it gets this spark, this flash, and even if you’re out walking around, it just comes to you; it’s as if you’ve already seen it and are remembering it. You don’t even need to write it down — it’s just there!”

“And then there’s the rest of the time,” she joked, noting the difficulty that most writers experience to find and maintain inspiration, ideas and motivation.

“As a student in the arts, it was inspiring to know that writing is a struggle, even for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights,” said Jeffs. “Writing can be a gamble. As she said, ‘You can’t tell how it’s going until it’s actually up on its feet going.’”

For Jeffs, the purpose behind Edson’s words is even more important than her process.

“What was most interesting to me was her deep concern and interest in capturing some of the essence of humanity,” said Jeffs. “Good art captures humanity and helps people feel. That is what I hope to do with my writing.”

Edson’s love of people came through in her response to a student wondering why she chose to tell Professor Bearing’s story through a play rather than a novel or other medium.

“I like talking and listening more than I like reading and writing,” said Edson. “I like conversation more than I like reading an essay. I like times where we’re all together, and there aren’t many forms for that anymore; the play is still one of them.”

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