Role models

Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok discusses playwriting as a career choice

Martyna Majok won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018 for “Cost of Living,” a play depicting relationships involving people with disabilities. Her other works include “Ironbound,” that presents the “American dream” from the perspective of a Polish immigrant, a story partially based on the experiences of Majok’s mother, as well as “QUEENS” and “Sanctuary City,” both stories that center immigrants. Although she often takes up underrepresented voices as major characters of her plays, Majok promises she has never set out to write “issue plays” or “identity plays” about immigrants, diaspora, security or a low-income life, but rather, stories of the people she knows and grew up with.

In an interview with W Insight, Majok discusses her career choice and explains why winning a Pulitzer didn’t make her writer’s insecurities go away. She also talks about overcoming writer’s block and following bold dreams.

Joanna Socha: Tell us about the moment you realized that theater could be something you could do for life. 

Martyna Majok: I didn’t know that you could do this for a living. It was in my final year of college that I started writing a full-length play. I found it incredibly difficult but, at the same time, I’d never felt quite as honest with myself as I had after I’d finished writing. I’m still not sure that I’m naturally good at writing. I’ve worked hard at it. But going through the process of writing, workshopping, and rewriting allows me to access thoughts and feelings that might never have been given voice — both within myself and out in the world. So once I realized that, I felt like that was the path to follow. This was what I felt I had to pursue to be able the fullest version of my life. But I also had no idea how to go about that. I found out about a fellowship for immigrant students called the Merage Foundation Fellowship for The American Dream. It awarded a few immigrant students a sum of twenty thousand dollars over two years to pursue their “American dream.” I have complicated feelings about that term — in that, I think it doesn’t address the fact that not everyone has the same resources, so it’s not necessarily a lack of “hard work” if someone doesn’t achieve their dream, but potentially a number of factors and an uneven playing field. I applied for the award nonetheless and, thankfully, luckily, I got it. That was one of the first instances of validation. I felt like someone was saying: we believe in you, we have faith in you, go forth and pursue a life of storytelling. 

My mother, on the other hand, was concerned. Understandably so. She wanted security and safety for me. We came to the country together, with no English, and she worked in factories and cleaned houses. She was like, you wanna be a what — a playwright? You wanna work in the theatre? We both knew there were no guarantees in a life as an artist. No roadmap.

And I had no financial safety net, nothing to catch me if it didn’t work out. But at the same time, I knew I loved this thing. I loved collaborating on stories. I loved rehearsals. I loved having written. So I applied for that award and made a plan. That fellowship meant I could work part-time and, with the rest of the week, I would be at the library reading every play I could find, learning from it, writing and rewriting my own, seeing theatre, taking classes. I made a pact with myself that as long as somebody was paying me to be a playwright, I could continue being a playwright. So I kept applying for awards and fellowships and funded graduate programs with stipends and health insurance — whatever opportunities allowed me continue to do this. Which I’ve kept doing up to the present moment. It might be too late to be a lawyer now.

You are an alumna of the Yale School of Drama and Juilliard School, among others. How did you decide which schools to choose? 

They were easy choices. They were free. And they accepted me. Both are tuition-free programs with stipends and health insurance, at least when I was there. I knew that if I wanted to be a playwright, I had much to learn, and that a graduate program might offer the time, space, and resources that could help. But I could only attend one of those schools if I had funding. So I found where they offered that — Yale and Juilliard, among a few others — and worked on my application. I actually really enjoyed the application process. It was so concrete. Making art and telling stories can be so wide and open, so limitless it’s daunting at times. But with these applications, it felt more like math or budgets — I needed an essay, letters of rec, GRE tests. For one school, I had to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) because I was born in Poland. (My degree in English from the University of Chicago didn’t count.) Best standardized test experience I ever had. Loved showing I could speak English.

Maybe the hardest part about beginning on this path was admitting to myself that this was what I wanted. That I was gonna take a bet on myself. It was understanding that this choice is a gamble and that it might not work out. This is what I think my mother was afraid of. With careers in banking, IT, law, or medicine, there seems, at least from the outside, to be a clearer roadmap and more job security — at least compared with a career as an artist. If you want to be a doctor, for example, there’s specific schools and accreditation, specific residencies and programs. I’m not saying it’s easy but it seems like the path to becoming is a little more well-defined and legible when you’re starting out. But how does someone become a playwright? Should they? Will people want to listen to them? Probably the hardest part was believing in myself. 

Now that you won a Pulitzer, do you feel like you’re good at this?

Nope! And maybe that’s a good thing, actually. Because I don’t feel done. I want to continue doing this. There’s more things to say, more stories to tell, more growth to cultivate within myself, more to learn. A Pulitzer didn’t magically make all my insecurities go away, like maybe I hoped it would. But, on the up side, it also didn’t end my love of storytelling for the stage.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve dreamed of this ever since I knew what a Pulitzer was. I thought having one meant that you were a successful, valid playwright. That you’re “good” and “worthy.”

But then you realize there are Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who nobody knows about, plays people haven’t read. And plays and playwrights you love that don’t have Pulitzers. You realize your play was chosen by a select group of people who all have their own tastes and experiences — if any one of them weren’t on the panel that year, it might have gone a different way. One person’s favorite play isn’t necessarily another’s.

I want to stress that I’m not ungrateful in any way. Truly, it’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me and I cherish it as maybe the best day of my life. But I think the experience also encouraged me to question and expand my definition for success. To make it more personal for myself. I can’t control if I’ll ever be celebrated in the same way again. So with no guarantees, what do I have? My insecurities and worries and anxieties didn’t go away. Cuz if you believe the good reviews, don’t you also have to believe the bad ones? So I try to treasure what I love about this life in the theatre. Which is being in a rehearsal room with people, discussing ideas and discovering a story with collaborators and then sharing it with an audience. Finding a truth amidst the words and moments. And trying my best to tell an honest story. I don’t know whether anyone will remember me or my plays. I hope so. But a lot of that is out of my control. I think much about my finite life and what I’m doing with the time given me. I hope I’m able to leave behind stories that feel true. And to be present and grateful within the moments I do have, creating with other people.

Martyna Majok (private archives)

Where were you when you got the news that you won a Pulitzer? 

I was actually supposed to be doing jury duty. It was April, raining. I left my uptown apartment at 8:00 in the morning to go all the way downtown. When I wasn’t chosen for jury duty, I went home to finish my taxes because they were due the next day. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, my agent called me and told me that I won a Pulitzer. I thought he was joking. I actually got angry at him cuz he knew how much it meant and it felt really cruel to joke about. I thought it was an April Fools. For about ten minutes on the phone, he and the whole agency were laughing, swearing it was for real. Apparently, they announced the prize on a live stream, but I was looking for articles which hadn’t been written yet. My agent told me to give it a minute and when I hung up, I saw I had like, twelve texts. And more coming in every minute. So the rest of the night was a big party — including with my agent, who forgave me. But first I quickly filed an extension on my taxes. Cuz I had some drinking to do.

How have your personal experiences shaped the topics you choose for your plays? 

I tend to write from a personal space. It’s not autobiography but I often pull from things that I’ve experienced or witnessed. I’ll create composite characters from various aspects of people I know. When I first began writing, I didn’t necessarily set out to write about immigrants, or economic insecurity or any particular identity, in any sort of Capital Letter way. I was writing my friends and family. Things that I saw as universal (or that I needed to feel like were universal, so I could feel less alone in those feelings), housed in very specific characters and circumstances. I was labeled as someone who writes about immigration, low income women, single mothers, etc, because those hadn’t necessarily been the dominant narratives of the theatre at the time. There weren’t many plays about Polish immigrant cleaning women and factory workers in the American theatre. It’s not untrue — I do write about those things. But I don’t see these stories as “issue plays.” They’re stories of myself and people I know. They’re stories of people.

Has writing helped you escape or distance yourself from difficult experiences in life? 

I wouldn’t say I used it to escape or distance myself. Actually, I think I go deeper into it. It helps me to commune and understand. To be in somebody else’s shoes. And my own. What I appreciate about writing is that, when you write, you have to be everybody. Sometimes that means being someone who’s done harm to you, or who acts in ways that seem psychologically paradoxical. When I first began writing, I would go backward from an event to try to understand how it might’ve happened. I didn’t feel like I got answers necessarily. But I got to spend time with it. To embody versions of other people and imagine what might have been driving them. To imagine lives that might be closed to me usually, in actual life. 

I don’t actually like the act of writing. I find it so difficult. It’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to dig up all these difficult things and then craft them into a cohesive, propulsive arc with made up characters! I don’t want to have to confront my doubts on the daily about whether whatever I’m making is good enough! But I don’t know how else to get to that feeling that I get to at the end of it. Or in the rehearsal room, when you’re learning from it. How else to lose yourself in order to find yourself. At the end of writing and staging a play, I feel like I’ve understood something in a deeper way than I would if I just tried to talk about it. It’s like going for a run. I don’t love to run, but I love to have run. I hate writing, I love having written, as Dorothy Parker said. I go through the act of writing, which can be difficult and painful, in hopes that there’s going to be something larger than myself on the other side. 

Do you ever experience a writer’s block?

Every day.

How do you fight that?

I think there’s two forms of writer’s block. One is when you’re already writing something but can’t move forward. When that happens, it may be because you’ve been dishonest with yourself at some point, and something in your subconsciousness won’t allow you to move forward til you fix the part of your writing that’s a lie. Sometimes that lie is cuz you refuse to look at something. Which probably means that’s exactly where you should go. 

The other form of writer’s block happens when you’re spiraling around what to write about and how. This happens before you write, where the perfect version of a play exists only in your imagination — but which will probably turn out to be imperfect and disappointing as soon as you write it down. (As most first drafts are.)

It can be tempting to stay in the Everything is Possible Phase, where you never write. Because once you do write anything, once you’ve made a decision, you’ve maybe closed a lot of other doors for what could have been. And did you make the right choice? Was there a better version you just cut off? Will anyone even care about this? It can make you go a little round and round, feeling like you’re not going anywhere. I’ve been in this stage a lot this past year. I’m not sure how others break out of it but I think for me, it’s about making sure I’m pursuing what genuinely interests me, what I’m frustrated by, what I love or hate or have strong feelings about. What feels true, even if it’s messy or difficult to face? And then writing that to find out what might be there. Seeing the words outside yourself. Otherwise, there can so much insecurity and fog around what you should be doing that it gets in the way of doing anything at all.

Is dark humor something that you often try to include in your work? 

I think dark humor is a part of the characters I write and the people I know. It’s their opinions and perspectives. I tend to write characters that have gone through a lot. And they’ve got opinions and, yeah, oftentimes humor about it. Some readers and audiences have told me they weren’t sure they could laugh, given the characters’ circumstances, which some people have called “depressing” or “sad.” I would find that frustrating and hurtful. Because I don’t see these characters’ lives as depressing or sad or ugly. It’s their lives. It’s people’s lives. So I learned to try to make an audience laugh within the first minute or so of the play to disarm them, so they feel they have permission to laugh moving forward.

And how about your mom: was she happy that you decided to say something through her story? 

The first time she encountered one of my plays, we didn’t talk for about a year. She found it very exposing. She wasn’t prepared. Which — I don’t blame her! It was a bad play! Her criticism was on point! 

But on top of that, it would probably be a shock to anyone to see a version of themself outside themself, written by someone else. So this has been a balancing act for me ever since, how to blur and blend characteristics and circumstances of various people into a single character. I may take some aspect of one person’s life — their humor or personality or speech pattern — and maybe pair it with somebody else’s life circumstances, or some version of a thing that happened to them or me. They’re composites, never caricatures or impressions, never one to one. It can be a challenge because to write about your life, you also have to write other people. We don’t live in a vacuum. Other people have impacted us. But we also don’t fully know them, necessarily. I mean, I barely know myself some days. So you’re writing through other imagined people — or imagined aspects of imagined other people — to get at something true in yourself and in life.

I tried to write my mother’s story three times. Over seven years. And after each time I’d say Never Again. “Ironbound” was my third try. I wrote that play out of humility and appreciation for my mother, after I’d gone through some similar things that I’d judged her for earlier in my life. That play felt closest to what I’d hoped to make.

So I invited her to the premiere. And I think she got what I was going for. It was some of her circumstances but it wasn’t her. And she witnessed an audience responding to her story. People stood up and applauded. They were on her character’s side. Watching her watching strangers clapping for a version of her life was one of the best moments of my career. I hoped she could see I was trying to honor her resilience, humor, and drive to survive. I didn’t have the skills or distance in those earlier versions to make what I’d hoped to make. Finally, I created this fusion character of her and me. It was an attempt to both thank her and to try to understand something about the both of us.

It’s inspiring that you didn’t give up after the first try and despite your mother not talking to you for some time, you tried again.

We talked eventually! Luckily for me. But I didn’t invite her to my second play cuz I suspected it wasn’t right either. By the third one, I was so worried I was gonna get it wrong, I actually considered making the character not Polish. I was like, maybe she can be Brazilian? Then my mom will never know! But that was a short-lived thought. I kept the character Polish, with certain similar experiences to my mother. And just worked and hoped.

Lee Bollinger, Columbia University President and Martyna Majok (private archives)

What do you love about theatre the most? 

The rehearsal process. The part when you’re working with other people, trying to come up with this most authentic, full version of a story. I love that. I hate being by myself in a room, just me alone writing, mining the difficult, messy parts of myself and the world. But I love that act of collaboration. It feels like a little family when you’re all working together. Falling in love with that process was I think what ultimately moved me to try to make a life of this. And now I can’t imagine a life where I don’t have that. 

Have you ever had moments of doubt when you thought about giving up and changing your career?

I have doubts all the time. Every hour, every minute. It’s active combat. I have to push through it, especially now in COVID. But I think I keep going so I might have the chance to be in a rehearsal room again with other people. And to see what we might make. What other stories there might still be.

You’re very goal-oriented.

I think so. It’s helped me to try to define what I’m pursuing — what type of story or graduate program or what kind of moment or ending within a play. I mean, you can’t really say: I’m gonna win a Pulitzer or I’m gonna get a good review, that’s the goal. That’s kinda outta your hands a lot of the time. But you can say: I’m gonna write the most honest version of a story that I’m capable of at this point in my life. You can look for collaborators that get you. A team of people that brings out the best in each other. And you can hope your work is well received. There’s some goals you can plan (somewhat) and some goals you maybe can’t. 

What would you say to people who would like to pursue their artistic goals but are afraid of failure?

You only have one life. This is it. (This is also me speaking to myself, by the way, reminding myself.) We can continue to be afraid, or we can race toward the thing that makes us feel our fullest. I won’t even say “happiest” because happiness is fleeting. Race with your finite life toward that thing that makes you feel most alive. You’ll absolutely stumble along the way. You will absolutely fail at times. But think about where you’d like to be, what you’d like to do, find out what steps might take you there, talk to people, read, make, and, brick by brick, continue to throw yourself into your own life.


Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

All photos provided by Martyna Majok

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2 comments

  1. First of all, I would like to say “Congratulations!” to her professional achievement and personal passion. Second of all, I would like to say “Thanks” to her inspirational stories and useful advice for the ones cherishing their life goals. I can see eye to eye with her sharing through the interview.
    Finally, I appreciate the sharing.

    Like

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