Darrin Hagen has had many roles throughout his life, but he didn't become a writer until penning his one-person show, The Edmonton Queen, which tells the stories of lives lost to the AIDS epidemic.
"I'm a writer that was created by a moment in my life, and I responded to that moment artistically," says Hagen, whose show began as eulogies for drag queens that had passed away during the '80s and early '90s.
While the evocative show continued to draw crowds, Hagen decided to publish the stories within it as a book. Now as an author, playwright and a queer historian, he works to encourage and support aspiring writers.
I'm fascinated by the queer experience. Queer history is mind-blowingly interesting when you start diving into it, and you realize that almost no one's gotten there before you have. I wrote a play called The Neo Nancies: Hitler's Kickline about the true story of a bunch of elite SS guards who were forced to do drag for a big propaganda musical in World War II. Of all the stories about Nazi Germany, that's the one I wanted to write!
Related to that, I'm obsessed with Rasputin because the basement he was killed in was owned by a bisexual cross-dressing prince who liked to perform in his mother's jewels and drag. If you look at all these moments in history through a queer lens, you can find the queer stories there. So for me, a huge motivator is always looking for the stories that I want to tell and bring forward and feel they're as important as every other narrative.
“Commit to those deadlines fearlessly. Don't wait for the world to be ready for you.” —Darrin Hagen
Q.How do you take an idea and make it into something bigger?
I like to research. I like to overwrite — I write way too much stuff and then scale it back. The important thing in the early stages of your writing is to never say no to your impulses, even if they take you down the wrong road.
You don't need to know where your writing is going — you just need to follow the impulse. Write down a word, write down a sentence, write down a story from your childhood. It doesn't matter. For me, the creative process is about starting. So many people never start. If you start, you will have a journey.
Q.What drives you to finish a piece of writing?
If I don't have a deadline, I will never finish anything. But as soon as a theatre calls me up and gives me something to do, I will finish that thing so fast. For instance, the Fringe opens in August, whether I'm ready or not. So my job is to be ready. I'm a deadline-driven writer. My mom will tell you that when I was a teenager, I usually finished all my school projects just before they were due.
But without a deadline? I don't think I ever would have written my first play. I don't think I ever would have written that book. Just that idea of the deadline will force you to become a writer. Seriously, this is why I tell people to enter writing contests, apply for grants, do that thing that says you must be done by December 15 or whenever, or because there's going to be an audience. Sign up for something. Nothing will make you pump out a piece of writing faster. Sign up and commit to those deadlines fearlessly. Don't wait for the world to be ready for you. Create the world you want to step into.
“Every life is a work of art; every piece of art changes the world.” —Darrin Hagen
Q.What's the number one thing people ask you as a writer in residence?
Everybody wants to get published. And okay, have fun with that. But it can't be the reason you write. You don't write to get published — you write because you have something to say. You don't make music to make zillions of dollars and win a Grammy — you write music because you're in love with music, and it moves you.
So if your intent isn't pure from the beginning, then there's no point in starting. Everybody wants to be published, and I wonder why. To what end? Anyone can get published. Publish yourself. Your first questions should be, What are you writing about? What are the questions you're asking the universe?
Q.What's your advice for aspiring writers?
There's a quote that I'm quite proud of that I wrote for The Edmonton Queen, and it's kind of been my mantra: Every life is a work of art; every piece of art changes the world. For even the person who's only ever going to write one thing in their life, it gives them the courage and it makes them realize that their one story is important – as important as everybody else's body of work – and I hope it encourages them to know that they can tell the story they want to tell.
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