Liz Schiller is a writer, and not only that, she’s writing a musical, one of the more complex and demanding dramatic forms to master.
But a year ago, she was stuck, overwhelmed by her giant project.
I had been working on a musical for several years, but I’d also gone through a lot of personal upheaval. I went through a divorce. Before the divorce, there was the trying-not-to-get-divorced.
The end of a relationship can rattle your confidence, even in the best of circumstances. And this project felt particularly overwhelming, for all the right reasons.
Liz is ambitious for her work. She wants it to be great, and she wants it to have real impact. And not only for the sake of her own ego. This is a work with a mission, which I’ll get back to in a minute.
I had been reluctant, I had been a little stuck before I went back to it. I was a little afraid of it.
…Because it is this huge project, and it’s something that I want it to be seen really widely, and I want it to be really good. And that’s such a high bar.
So that was intimidating. I felt a little stalled, it felt difficult to go back to it.
I needed a kick in the butt.
Less than a year later, on September 5th in New York City,, an excerpt of Liz Schiller’s musical, Look For Me, was performed at the New York New Works Theater Festival.
Liz with her collaborators and cast, September 2018
What can you do when you’re overwhelmed by a giant project?
Writing a play is no joke, and musicals come with many more moving pieces: a larger set of collaborators; usually requiring a lyricist, composer, choreographer, actors, a director, a producer…
…not to mention the sweat and tears that go into producing any work of fiction.
And Liz’s idea is by no means ordinary. Here’s Liz describing the scope of her project:
I’m working on an original dramatic musical organized around the theme of PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma—and how it’s possible to heal from trauma.
The conventional wisdom is that if you are raped, or you go through some natural disaster, you come out of that with the anger and depression and all the twitchiness that is sort of stereotypical of PTSD; and that’s a life sentence.
And that’s not true. I am creating a work that depicts people in their situations who do come out the other side of it with some really specific strategies. And along the way, the audience member is going to empathize with their stories, relate to them, they may relate personally or they may relate to people that they know in their lives—suddenly the weird things that their friend did in college become clear. And there’s also technical information about the brain and about how trauma works.
It’s a big challenge to communicate all of that.
And, by the way, songs. About PTSD. I find that equal parts crazy and awesome.
Yes, songs, because trauma is intensely emotional. How else do you convey intense emotions, except through song?
So, given all that—how important the subject matter is to Liz, how difficult a project creating musical theater is—it’s no wonder that she got stuck. The more ambitious and significant a project is, the harder it is to retain your sense of ownership over it. It’s so easy to start to think, I don’t think I can handle this.
And that’s where she was when she joined the Creative Focus Workshop, and gained the keys to taking hold of her project and making it happen.
The most important insight Liz gained in the CFW was that she would have to choose her musical over all the other options, if she was to see it through and launch it into the world.
The more numerous your options, the more difficult it becomes to settle on one. When you’re overwhelmed by a giant project, or have too many on your plate, you end up doing precisely none of them.
When she started the Creative Focus Workshop, Liz felt pulled in many directions.
… because there are so many other issues that I was interested in. I thought about writing some journalistic pieces. I even started learning how to pitch and was starting to look at outlets.
But after the One Goal module, I thought, wait a minute, I’ve invested all this time in this huge project which is, to my mind, hugely socially significant and important. And it’s almost done.
Why would I walk away from that and do other stuff? This has to be my One Goal.
When I started making that one project the focus, it gave me a huge clarity of mind. And I started making actual progress.
But having that clarity made it easier, to say OK, this is the only thing that I can do right now, so just sit down and do it.
The cast in rehearsal
The power of the cohort
Having that clear goal didn’t magically erase all self-doubt. The other piece of the puzzle was to do the work with the feedback, support, and accountability of working with a group of ambitious, committed creative people in the CFW.
I still go back and forth a little bit about, well am I really a writer?
Occasionally, I would be wiggly about that on Slack. And my cohort would say, yes you are. Yes, you’re a writer!
Liz attends a songwriting workshop almost every week, and gets great feedback, but just on the songs she’s currently working on. Once she was in the Creative Focus Workshop, she realized she needed a lot more overall operational support. I asked her what she thought the special sauce was that made the cohort so effective for her.
… having deadlines, having meetings that you show up for, the discussions, and also the Slack channel where people are asking questions and sharing their experience. It wasn’t a thing that I knew that I wanted consciously, but it was really valuable.
The concrete information, you could probably get from the exercises or from the book [Growing Gills].
Ready for her curtain call
Liz’s One Goal was to finish the third, and essentially final, draft of her show. (We all know from the movies that theater isn’t truly finished until after the preview performances…but this draft is a reasonable facsimile of “Done.”)
She had finished the first draft in 2015, and then radically reimagined it. She’d written most of the songs. But there it sat, key components still unfinished, until she made it her One Goal and leaned on the support of her cohort to push through.
One of her key markers of being “finished” was to send the draft out to several professional readers.
I had to push the deadline out a couple times. I did have to send it in a less-completely-finished form to one of the readers, who had his own deadline.
But In March of 2018, I finished it.
I also went to a writer-producer speed-date event.
Out of that, I had a positive reaction from a producer, which led to me applying to a festival, called the New York New Works Theater Festival.
I was just accepted yesterday. An excerpt of the show will be performed in New York in September of 2018.
So, it’s kind of poised to leap now, and that’s really scary and exciting.
My brain’s exploding right now. But yeah, it’s going to be good. I’m really excited about going to New York.
The changes Liz put into place in the CFW will serve her well as she moves forward with this project—and with future goals.
My work style has changed, I think, in some subtle ways, and at least one or two ways that you can see clearly.
I do the One Goal thing as a habit. I actually have a One Goal right now.
The concept of having that goal for a period of 6 to 12 weeks—you can really wrap your head around that. You write it down, and you have a list of things to do, so you know when you’re done. It makes things so specific.
It opens up the world.
And…here’s the video of the show at the New Works Festival!
A postscript update from Liz: “Since the August reading, the September festival performance, with all the dramaturg comments and a class I’ve been taking this fall on writing musical theater, I’m doing a little more rewriting of one of the character arcs and writing a few new songs (and took a few out)… it will be done soon! Soon!”
Liz Schiller is a writer, songwriter, volunteer, and a mom, as well as a financial advisor. She’s been writing dramatic works since her 2012 radio adaptation of the classic HP Lovecraft story “The Cave” for the nonprofit organization Audio Theater for Our Troops. In 2014, a television script she co-wrote with Andrew Helm, Last Chance, was named a semi-finalist in the Final Draft Big Break writing competition, Hour Pilot category, making it to the top 50 out of thousands of submissions.
Liz has been working on her first musical, Look For Me, since 2013. The show is about PTSD, trauma, healing and love.
Find Liz on Twitter.