Atticus Finch famously advised his hot-headed daughter that you never really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. And while both un-hygenic and impractical, it’s still a great code for living. I also find it useful as a writer. Not only in terms of learning to empathize with characters whom you might not naturally see eye-to-eye, but sometimes quite literally.
Occasionally, when I feel I’m in danger of falling into a rut, or am creatively stuck as a writer (which is a big chunk of time), I will try to deliberately ape another writer’s style. It will be writing I will never use, at least in its entirety, but it does a good job of making me reassess my natural diction and rhythms. Often, I will deliberately try write in an other genre entirely. It’s a great way to step out of your own habits, some of which you may not even recognize as habits until you’re walking in someone else’s shoes.
This evening, having some time to kill and being in many ways a lonely, lonely man, I decided to write a “Bob Dylan” lyric, circa 1965 or so. The advantages of this, to me, are legion. First of all, I’m not a lyricist, so I am freed from the burden of having to do it well. Secondly, I’m writing in the style of one of the great masters of the English language of the past century.
There is a 0% chance what I write will match the quality of his work. Which isn’t to say I’m not going to try my best to write as well as he can. But of course, that’s not going to happen, so rather than concentrate on the overall quality, per se, I can focus on seeing if my brain can approach language in a different way. The work, in this case, a Dylan knock-off I called, “Invisible You,” and its value to me as a writer isn’t necessarily so much about quality (I certainly hope not) as it is about breaking old habits I may not even be aware I have. To prove to you, as if you needed convincing, that I don’t write lyrics as well as Bob Dylan, I’ll risk your reasonable ridicule by posting it here:
I crawl through darkened doorways just to stand upright Stare down some cutthroat killers who’d put up no fight Down my drink to the sacred watchmen’s roar In voices too familiar to ignore What’s done is done, but so much’s left to do Til I hope to glance Invisible you
The cascading fires of the godtouched preacher’s words Land unheeded on pagan ears but afterwards Sparks of regret fill my crowded head Volcanic sorrows for what I’ve left unsaid I pace down all your empty avenues Searching in vain for Invisible You
Quicksilver mines refuse to yield me any ore All my better angels have to say is, “Nevermore” The poets have no urgent aching words To comfort me for all I’ve overheard What’s done is done, there’s nothing to undo It’s burnt to embers, Invisible You
The riddle’s only answer is a dirty joke And the dancer’s only costume’s a velvet cloak That hides a truth too ugly to reveal Of a wound far too deep to ever heal And a grudge that no midnight can conceal It doesn’t matter if it’s false or true As you fade to black , Invisible you
Honestly, I have no real sense of what this song is about. Were I to work on it, I think that would be one of the first issues I’d tackle. But the whole point it is I’m NOT going to hone it. It’s a pastiche and is of course in no way is meant to pretend I can effectively imitate his genius. But it did make me play by different linguistic “rules, ” and even if it’s a game I’m not very skilled at it, I learned a little something, even if I’m not sure what it is (other than Bob Dylan has nothing to worry about from me). Also, amid some eye-rolling aping, it yielded a phrase or two that in some future iteration might be of value, which I wouldn’t have otherwise have had. I’ve also tried my hand at sonnets, writing sentences like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and stage directions like Tennessee Williams. The common denominator is that these are all masters, and I’m not putting any pressure on myself to rival anything from Tender is the Night or “Hills Like White Elephants.”
Anyway, I think it helps my writing in the long run. And it’s not like I don’t have the free time.
I attended a concert the other night, which is a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing at this point in my life. Not because of my age: I’m still reasonably young (for, say, a Supreme Court Justice, which, in full disclosure, I am not nor am likely to be) and in fact, the artist I was there to see, Bruce Springsteen, is essentially my parents’ age. It’s more that I suspect I’ve transitioned into the yelling at kids to get off of my lawn stage of life. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music quite a bit. Specifically, his gift for marrying the complex network of compromises, joys, and disappointments that make up life to lyrics that are somehow simultaneously plainspoken and lyrical.
Now, whether or not you cotton to The Boss’s music isn’t important for the purposes of this post. Frankly, as much as I like him, he’s not my all-time favorite (nor am I his, so we’re even). In fact, when my old friend from high school, whom I hadn’t seen much of the last couple of decades, suggested we go see him about six months ago, I enthusiastically agreed but then all but forgot about it. When reminded of it last month, I was ambivalent at best. I’ve been nursing a pretty resilient depression and it seemed like an enormous amount of work. I’d have to leave the house. I’d likely have to shower. And almost undoubtedly, I’d be obliged to wear pants. But, when I learned my oldest friend was also now joining us, I began to look forward to it. That is to say, I resigned myself to it, which is sometimes as close as I can get.
Our Graduation Gowns Lie in Rags at Our Feet
We had a long, enjoyable dinner first, which was my friend’s idea, and it turned out to be a great one. We all had significant catching up to do, and the hardwired warmth that instinctively reboots when we’re reunited with friends from our salad days lurched to life inside my unruly brain.
And then the concert began. Well, we ate, paid the check, and drove to the arena in between, but I’m skipping over that part, although now I’m not, apparently. Like him or loathe him, you have to give kudos to Springsteen for his work ethic. In his early 70s, he came out swinging and didn’t stop (often, quite literally for 10 songs or so at a clip) for three hours. I have a hard time doing anything for three hours, but of the few things I might be able to do for that timespan, I promise all involve sitting. His set was sequenced, my friends and I quickly all noticed, the way you would sequence songs on an album (an often overlooked but vital part of the art of album making). The order of songs was a narrative tool; it told the story of growing older, losing friends and family as time does its relentless and monolithic thing, and above all, how to honor and even treasure the past without succumbing to sentimentality or stasis. Also, there were lots of rockers toward the end, which is fun.
But this message, which in some of the rare moments of pauses between songs, he talked about explicitly, hit me in the solar plexus. I’m at the age at which I still have time to accumulate vibrant memories and author impactful experiences but am also aware I’ve had more summers than I’m going to have. And this realization, as the evening reinforced, can be a blessing. Seeing this show with two friends I’ve known most of my life underscored this visceral knowledge. 35 years ago, Bruce Springsteen was making music that my friends and I enjoyed. And 35 years later, with all of us having traveled – and continuing to travel – divergent paths, we are still around to bear witness to each other’s pasts. We are more than people we like: we are proof positive for one another that what we recall through the cloud-like curtains of ebbing memory truly happened. At least, our presence with each other confirmed the larger contours of our recollections are rooted in truth.
We’re Riding Out Tonight to Case the Promised Land
This soul-consoling thought was, for me, made more poignant by the knowledge that in another 35 years, which I know for a fact flies by swiftly, most, if not all of us, will no longer be here. That these roads occasionally intersect is one of these journeys’ simplest and purest rewards. At some point in the packed arena, I looked around to see people in their 20s summoned out of their seats by ecstasy and rhythm to sway and sing words they’d absorbed without having tried. And these people swayed and sang next to and with people whose ages spanned decades, thousand of individual roads intersecting for one moment, cohering for one joyous instant into one community. Souls who, for a blink, ignored differences in age, gender, education, and experience to form a tight-knit, briefly indissoluble tribe of complete strangers. Like all art or faith worth the naming, it reassured us we’re not alone in our aloneness.
And if Bruce was still here, still every bit present and accounted for, still pouring every atom of his Bruceness into singing “Born to Run” for the umpteen thousandth time like he was singing it for the first time, if he could still palpably register the love of his art and the moment, then maybe things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.
So, in the end, I did go to a concert, which after all, derives from the Latin “to unite,” but to label it as a concert feels far too flimsy a word to support the weight of the experience: it was a three-hour nonstop convocation/celebration/consecration/revitalization/big tent religious revival/uplifting/heart-wrenching/self-sustaining/city of brotherly and sisterly love and recognition which not only made feel blessed to be alive when the E Street Band performed, but to witness them with people I’d been lucky enough to have known, know, and will keep knowing for at least a little longer.
So, I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this – apart, of course, from the entire post I dedicated to it – but a new play of mine has been released as a radio drama on all podcast platforms (It’s called Step 9 and produced by New Normal Rep). As such, I’ve been lucky enough to appear on some podcasts to help promote it. To a person, each podcast host has been kind, smart, and fun to talk to.
I was scheduled for a podcast interview today and so I listened to a few episodes of it this morning. Why did I wait until the last minute? Because it makes me feel like I’m back in college again; it keeps me young at heart. Anyway, it was unbearable. The host’s vibe was not unlike that of the host of a low-budget infomercial who’d recently scored some Ivy League Med School grade Adderall. And I soon discovered why it sounded more like an ad than a show – it’s because this person was selling something: in this case, their playwriting classes.
Now, to be clear, I do not begrudge this person doing that. The entire reason I was going to be on this podcast was in order for me to sell my play. So people who live in glass playhouses, etc., etc. What I begrudge, however, not to mention bemoan and flat out take great, mountainous heaps of umbrage with, was that each ‘cast (that’s what the cool people, I’m told, call podcasts. It’s a real time-saver) was loaded with rules. And when it wasn’t pronouncing rules, it was proscribing certain approaches, prescribing methods, dishing out dictates, and issuing edicts. And/or selling the necessity of their classes.
Let’s Get Real for a Second (Pulls Up Chair, Turns it Backwards and Straddles it, Resting His Arms on the top of its Back)
I had a friend with whom I would write comedy sketches; he was often very dark but just as often very funny. In one sketch, he created a deeply, delightfully (for some) lascivious and bizarre funeral director who tries to comfort a young widow. Well, things proceed in a typically dark but funny way, to the point he reassures her they have a company rule forbidding the staff from, how do I put this, violating the deceased in a marital way. When she reacts in horror, “That’s a rule???” the character responds with the deathless (bad word choice, let’s go with”one of my favorite”) lines, “Well….it’s technically more of a guideline than a rule…” Cue an admixture of loud laughs, gasps, and the sound of people leaving the theater, demanding their money back.
The point it is, yeah, there’s lots of good advice to give about writing. I’m always eager to hear some, and I try to occasionally provide some here. But they are more guidelines than rules. Let’s take just one of this host’s ABSOLUTES (emphasis theirs; the only way to accurately quote them is in all caps): “YOUR MAIN CHARACTER MUST BE LIKABLE!!!”
You’re the Boss of Neither Myself Nor My Characters
Sure. Your main character must always be likable. Absolutely. Just ask William Shakespeare about his Scottish King in the Scottish Play (you know the one), Arthur Miller about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, August Wilson about Troy Maxson in Fences, Tennessee Williams about Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, or Edward Albee about, hell, pretty much any of his characters in any of his plays, but especially George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Tragically for these well-meaning playwrights, these characters lack of “likability” (whatever the hell that even means) fatally sank what were otherwise promising scripts.
Oh wait, these are all considered supreme examples of the art.
What I’m assuming this person meant is that we must (and I’d very much quibble with that word, too) feel an emotional connection to the character (emphasis mine. Well of course it is, I’m the one writing this) for your play’s central figure. Yet the two qualities are very, very much not synonymous.
Shakespeare’s Scottish King slaughters (or delegates the slaughter) of family, friends, foes, children of friends and foes, their employees, and the people who slaughter the slaughtered for him. And yet we fully grasp his isolation and knowing sense of futility by the final act. Willy Loman is a philanderer, inveterate liar, casually cruel to his wife, and consistently insults the only person in the world willing to socialize with him. And yet…our hearts break for him (spoiler alert, although in fairness, a play called Death of a Salesman is kind of a giveaway. Also, I guess I should put “spoiler alert” before the spoiler.). And be honest, would you accept an invite for drinks over at George and Martha’s house?
Here’s a Rule: Don’t Hector Writers on the Importance of Detail and Specificity and Then Use a Word Like “Likable“
To describe a character as “likable” is a maddeningly vague and lazy choice of descriptor at best. It’s fundamentally wrong at worst. Now, do I think characters should be people we feel for? I think it’s certainly an excellent guideline, but there are exceptions even to that. Hedda Gabler leaps to mind. Yes, we understand, perhaps, why she behaves as she does. But very few people I’ve met who’ve seen or read the play can say they can deeply empathize with her. Although I’ll bet there are those who’d disagree with me.
Which is not only fine, it’s one of the main points of art. It’s a Rorshach Test; it’s the old mirror up nature thing Hamlet talks about, specifically, your nature. And if you’re honest with yourself, it can show your good and ugly parts, as mirrors tend to do.
Saying a character needs to be likable is not only cringingly nebulous and cliched but, from a writing standpoint, dangerous advice (Sorry, PRONOUNCEMENT!). That’s not to say central characters can’t be likable, of course; they are more often than not. But “Likable,” with all of the sweeping banalities that word implies, will likely sound to someone just starting to write as if their protagonist shouldn’t have anything problematic about them. Such an approach, and this is another guideline I’d suggest, is usually not conducive to creating interesting characters.
Didn’t You Begin This Rant with Something About Dodged Bullets?
Oh right. So anyway. This podcaster was sent a “media kit” with my bio, etc., by the nice people tasked with the thankless, well, task, of talking folks into letting me on their shows. Included in the media kit thingy are links to productions to two of my plays so, if they’d like, they can get a sense of my stuff. But this person wrote back in at least mid-level dudgeon that they do not read scripts for FREE!! . never mind that there would be no reading involved – they were fully produced works. They then summarily canceled the interview (hence the bullet dodged!!), as they saw my spending a not inconsiderable amount on a PR team as a transparent and cynical ploy for me to finagle their sage advice gratis on two plays that, it should be noted, have already been produced.
Of course they assumed that. How could they not? When you believe you alone possess the truth, locked securely away from the great unwashed and unproduced, everyone who isn’t a supplicant is a thief trying to con the key out of you.
The summer after he and I graduated high school, my friend (for the sake of anonymity, let’s call him Ed, even though his real name is Joe), had perhaps his first truly adult date with his girlfriend (get your mind out of the gutter; I don’t mean it that way). That is, Ed went to her house one summer evening, where she had cooked a romantic dinner for them.
His girlfriend, (let’s call her Esmeralda, because, why the hell not,?) had spent the day preparing a three course meal. Salad, spaghetti with veal parmigiana (which for the sake of not offending vegetarians, we’ll call eggplant parmigiana) and a dessert of, well, who cares, because in this anecdote, we’re not going to get to dessert.
The Perils of Culinary Appropriation
It’s important to note Joe, sorry, “Ed,” is 1/2 Italian and was raised in a home, which I can personally attest to, which had a reliable stream of remarkably good Italian food. Next level stuff. Equally vital to know is that Esmeralda is, well…the furthest possible ethnic iteration of 1/2 Italian. Let’s say, I don’t know, 1/2 Korean, 1/4 Icelandic, and 1/4 Wonder Bread.
I think we know where this is headed. Ed ate the meal, the conversation no doubt pleasant, because Ed is congenitally incapable of not making pleasant conversation. In my mind’s eye, there was even a violinist on hand to play for them, but since this took place in her suburban kitchen, that’s likely not true. It was only at the meal’s conclusion that things took an unfortunate turn. For reasons lost to history, Esmeralda asked a fatal question, and the die was cast: “What did you think of dinner?” Ed must have been mum on the topic until now. Which should have perhaps been a hint, but maybe she was distracted by the lack of violin music.
When Ed offered his best white lies, she sweetly swatted them away, and said, “No, really; I want to know what you really thought. Seriously.” (n.b. Just as there likely wasn’t a violinist, there definitely wasn’t a stenographer, so I’m ball-parking the dialogue here) Oh, Ed. “Well, to be honest, the pasta was sort of sticky…” and this was the gentlest critique he offered. He went down the menu like a rabbi studying the Talmud and offered a specific – perhaps at times even granular – litany of the meal’s many misfires in both conception and execution as he saw them.
It was only as he was summing up that he noticed Desdemona’s (I’ve decided I prefer this pseudonym to Esmeralda) face turn into collage of hurt, embarrassment, and, I have to believe, at least a few dashes of anger. Looking at her face and now frantically concerned with saving his own skin, Ed hurriedly came up with a sentence he hoped would act as a verbal Heimlich Maneuver, propelling the foot he’d lodged in his mouth safely free. “On the other hand, you make a mean salad.”
Spoiler alert: the foot never budged.
What the Hell, Ed?
Now, if this were a scene in a play or movie, it could be written and played as comic or cruel, or, since so much of comedy is founded on cruelty, a bit of both. And, depending on the tac it took, we would find Ed either an ungrateful, deeply insensitive, perhaps even mean-spirited jerk, or a clueless, dim-witted narcissist.
Wait, Aren’t You Close Friends with Ed?
I’m getting to that. Here’s what makes this story, one whose deathless punchline I know is in fact, verbatim, because it is so memorable among our friends (hell, even my kids know about this story about their Uncle Joe, which is pet name they have for Ed): Ed is the precise opposite of all of the above-mentioned qualities. He’s a tremendously bright, unusually kind, upbeat, and empathetic soul. I’ve literally never met anyone who knows him who doesn’t flat out adore him. And believe me, I’ve searched.
This, for his family and friends, is such a memorable anecdote because it’s such a startling contrast with everything we associate with him. We, now understanding the larger context of his nature, realize this was a result of a flaw in Ed. It’s one most of us have at 18, and it’s not a tragic flaw by any means, but a flaw nonetheless: naivety. This flaw – foible, really – led to behavior antithetical to everything we know about him. Yet, given the givens, it was not only utterly plausible, but in a way, inevitable.
Let’s Be Honest: We’ve All Done Something Like This. Well, Not on This Level. We’re Not Monsters.
And we’ve all had moments like this. It’s perfectly fine to have protagonists (in fact, many feel it’s preferable) who are demonstrably good, decent people. I believe strongly your protagonist is under no obligation to be good or decent, but more on that in a second. But if your protagonist is nothing but nice, you’ve written one hell of a boring character.
To err is human, as the saying goes, but it’s also the basis of good dramatic development. I’d argue (not sure why I’m using the subjunctive here, as I clearly am making this argument) your first obligation as a writer re: character development – your only obligation – is to make that character interesting. And while showing flaws and/or contradictions in characters isn’t enough in itself to clear that benchmark, without them, you’ve got no chance whatsoever.
Do I Contradict Myself? Of Course I Do, I’m a Person
Writing a character you want the audience to root for? Terrific, but if you don’t give her some contradictions – ambivalence about a situation or relationship, a weakness for something or someone which impairs her judgment and leads to foolish or even cruel decisions – something that saves her from perfection, well, blech. Or even worse, yawn. In a worst case scenario, your audience will not connect with the character, because none of us are without shortcomings, and you may even end up having the audience rooting against your character as smug or pollyanna or…pick one.
If you want your character to be unlikable, it’s generally a lot more interesting in any non-action movie context (and even then, I’d argue) for us to get a glimpse why they have gotten to this place. I’m an acolyte of the notion that the audience doesn’t need to know everything motivating the characters at all times, but you have to at least give them a glimpse. And the most efficient and interesting way is to have them act, if only for a moment, in a way that runs against their perceived grain. If the character inflicts emotional cruelty (knowingly or unknowingly, another choice you’ll need to let the audience in on) throughout 9/10ths of the script, giving them a moment of sensitivity, or showing them to have a side that belies their actions, buys your character instant psychological credibility and the audience an keener interest.
You Don’t Win Friends with Salad
I’m obviously not stating anything most of us don’t know at least intuitively. Yet, given how basic this writing truism is, it’s amazing how often we can let it get away from us. As George Orwell observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And this is one such instance of that axiom. Remember, in the end, the Salad Story, as it’s known in certain quarters, is retold in laughter because we know Ed’s innate goodness, and it’s this radical juxtaposition of that nature and his actions that night which makes the story so memorable. After all, we only know about it because Ed shared it with us, ruefully, but with a full awareness of its humor.
We still all root for him. And we always will. But few of us are willing to cook for him.
I was thrilled to appear on this great podcast about the necessity of storytelling, New Normal Rep’s mission to help democratize theater, writing an audio play, and my new audio play, Step 9, available free of charge wherever you get your podcasts!
John Lennon has, of today, been dead 42 years – or roughly two more years than he was alive.
I was 11 when I heard about his murder. I was living in London and found out on the morning of December 9th when I got on the school bus. I was the first one picked up, and there was the driver and a chaperone (basically someone who just yelled at us), and they were both bitterly morose. I asked what was wrong (pretty ballsy for an 11 year old), and they said John Lennon was dead. I didn’t let them know I had no idea who the hell he was, although I got a hint when a song (Imagine?)came on the radio and they sharply shushed my questions.
I was aware of Paul, vaguely, but not John.
Over the next week, you couldn’t escape Beatles and Lennon music. I was in a store, and, having had my fill (something that’d be a unique occurrence in my life), I commented to my father, “He’s more popular now than when he was alive.”
Recently, my online theater company, New Normal Rep, released an audio play, Step 9, which is available to you, free of charge, on all podcast platforms. I’m very proud of this play, and especially, the production put together by New Normal Rep. The cast is really remarkable, and it’s an object lesson, as if I needed another, in the fact that theater is a team sport. And I had a hell of a team to play with. Their acting raised the level of my text, but just as crucially, they gave me thoughtful critiques along the way that helped me to rethink several key elements which demonstrably improved it. More on that in a bit.
While that concept is one I’m quite at home with, this is the first time I adapted a stage play to an audio drama. I found the process to be enlightening and, I’m willing to bet, it will help me in the future, regardless of what medium I write for.
In many ways, as I tend to rely more on language than visual imagery in my plays, the switch to audio probably isn’t as great as it would be for some writers. But there are, I realized, more than a few moments I rely on the audience seeing something to provide the necessary context for the audience to understand what’s happening, let alone engaging with it.
Words, Words, Words. And Then Some More
There are a few moments in the play in which one character has a conversation in her head (like we, or at least I, tend to do). And whereas normally I’d let the director and perhaps lighting designer make that apparent to the audience, I had to use language. It put me in the very rare position of having to write more.
At the same time, the dialogue had to feel organic and not weighted down by anchors of exposition. “Well, here I am imagining a conversation and how it might play out according to the dictates of my own imagination” would not do, despite my wishing it would.
By and large, as I referenced before, the medium didn’t require too many radical changes in my script, as I tend to rely on dialogue to a greater degree than other writers do (or, put another way: I lack the capacity for imagery that many other writers do). What it did do, however, was require me to apply a scalpel to language wherever I could in the script, ironically because audio dramas rely so heavily on it. Because the listener will be experiencing the play entirely via dialogue (and sound effects), there is, so to speak, no escaping the language (unless they turn it off, but that’s something I ideally wanted to avoid). Therefore, I tried to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding unnecessary words (it would also make life easier if I’d apply this principle to the rest of my life). This is always paramount with me, as adding the extra sentence, or even extra words in a sentence, is a trap I fall for with a frequency that rivals Wile E. Coyote’s inability to learn that the highway he has painted on a mountain face, while permeable to the Roadrunner, won ‘t give way for him.
See what I mean?
But in this instance, I knew I had to make the text as aerodynamic as possible. There is no doubt I was less than totally successful, but I hoped I would, to use Samuel Beckett’s phrase, fail better. This is where listening to your cast and director is crucial. While there is a danger for a playwright in taking everyone in the room’s advice uncritically, it’s equally critical that you don’t ignore them, either.
Firstly, it’s a huge advantage if you trust the people you’re in the room with. In my case, I was working with a company of actors whom I trusted implicitly. Even more importantly, I had a justifiably unwavering faith in my director. Ultimately, most actors can’t help but be advocates for their characters first rather than the play as a whole. After all, that’s their job. Only you and the director are responsible for looking at the whole landscape, and of the two of you, only she is approaching the script without the endemic prejudices of the script’s creator.
There was one scene in particular almost everyone – but very much the director – felt was deeply problematic. Not the dialogue itself, but its fundamental premise. They felt it rendered one character irredeemably unsympathetic. I was surprised to hear this and, having heard their arguments, felt they were in the wrong. That’s a dilemma. Maybe the biggest dilemma writers face: when to stick to your guns about something you’ve written despite pushback, and when to entertain the nauseating notion that you may not have the correct read on your own writing.
Trust Yourself, But Not Too Much
Here, it quickly became clear I should reassess my views. If several people – all of whom you respect – are saying take route “X” while you’re still clinging to your internal GPS urging you to stay on route “Y,” it’s probably wide to at least pull over for a bit. In this case, I did something I’d recommend to other writers (I’m loath to give advice because, why would anyone feel compelled to listen to it? But this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and I want to spare others the hours I’ve wasted, because I’m exactly that nice): why not try writing a version of route “X”? Doing so required me to add a new character, but it was only after I had been willing to go down that road, to stretch the metaphor past any hope of dignity, I came to realize, route “X” was infinitely better.
This was the thing I’d known for years, but had to relearn. And likely will again. It’s a play I’m proud of, and I hope you’ll give it a listen. It’s available on all major podcast platforms, and also be clicking this link:
The wonderful blogger and all-around smarty Wynne Leon interviewed me a little while ago about my new audio play, Step 9, available wherever you get your podcasts (just search “New Normal Rep” and “Step 9” and you’re good to go! She generously allowed me to reprint it here:
In March 2020 when Seattle went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, my 4-year-old daughter and I were scheduled to go to a show at the puppet theater. The theater company founder and director was a Seattle fixture who had been delighting families with shows for over 30 years with her troupe of puppeteers. That show was canceled as was the next and the next and the next. In the months after lockdown she sent out updates to us season ticket holders trying to plan and make good with the final shows of the season all the while balancing her expenses of rent and payroll.
And then several months later the next notice I received was an invite to a Zoom memorial service to celebrate the life of that puppet theater founder after she unexpectedly passed due to heart failure.
For me, this small example epitomizes so much of the experience of the pandemic – hard times and disappointment mixed with incredible innovation and flexibility in order to celebrate life. There are so many stories of how we’ve established a new normal and created new ways to create community and find meaning, many of those through art. As Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
So when I had the opportunity to talk with the brilliant and witty playwright, Jack Canfora, about his upcoming release of Step 9, one of his plays via podcast, I thought I’d share our conversation about the innovative way this brings theater to all of us and how we all can become patrons of the arts. [Spoiler alert: it’s by checking out Step 9 and donating!]
What made you think of delivering a play by podcast?
The company I’m a part of, New Normal Rep, grew out of the pandemic. It started by me reaching out to actors I knew and we’d read a play via Zoom every week. My main motivation was just to see my friends. But then it occurred to me it was a terrific group of actors and that, while plays over Zoom range from the painfully embarrassing to painfully boring, I and my friends thought we could find a way to make it interesting. It’s a new medium, and you have to adapt to that. Which was thrilling and sort of terrifying. Two of our plays from our first season are on our YouTube page at the moment, and we worked to establish some sense of physical continuity, and we (and by we, I mean myself, the actors, and the director of our first play, the famously brilliant and brilliantly famous Marsha Mason) settled on the actors looking directly at the screen. It’s not TV or the movies, it’s not even exactly theater, but it’s highly theatrical. It also privileges the language more than other mediums, so selfishly, that’s enjoyable. People described it as more intimate, and several felt as if they were in the scenes. So we were happy with that; we are proud of that.
But to finally answer your question, part of what we like about New Normal Rep – the cool kids just call it NNR – is that makes the experience vastly more democratic. You don’t have to live in New York or Chicago or London, and you don’t have to take out a mortgage to buy a ticket. We’re big believers in spreading the theatrical experience. And so it follows that podcasts, which are ubiquitous – two million of them, in fact – is a natural extension of that aim. They’re even more accessible. And there is great tradition of radio drama. In the UK, at least, it’s still very much alive. Pragmatically, we felt we could reach far more people, and our hope with this play is to establish some sort of footprint. Which is also why this play will be available for free. Moreover, because of various union rules, we can’t keep our productions online indefinitely, but with podcasts, there’s really no time limit.
How do you think this changes the world of theater for playwrights, actors and young people just starting in the business?
Great question. It’s always a 90 degree uphill swim, but what also happened during the pandemic, perhaps because of the pause, was that artists of color really organized and spoke up about the fact that they are generally really underrepresented. So it’s an exciting time in that sense, and NNR is excited to be a part of that, said the middle-aged white guy. Two of our first four plays were written by people of color, and two were by women, and the casts reflected real diversity. So that’s something else important to us. Literally anyone can hear our podcast and hopefully it will help inspire people who had traditionally viewed the doors as shut, or at least hard to talk your way inside past the bouncer, are now more accessible.
What does it take to produce a play as a podcast?
Well, some money, which, in the grand theatrical tradition, we are perilously short of at the moment, but, in an equally great theatrical tradition, we will find a way to get it done. We are very lucky in that a lot of people are contributing, and even the small donations add up. It also takes a quality recording studio and a sound engineer who knows what they’re doing. It’s also our first one, so I’ll be able to better answer the question in a few weeks!
How do you think this changes the role of patrons of the arts? Is there still a need for that or does this become something sponsored by advertising and corporations?
Well, the short answer is artists are always going to need patrons. This medium makes it more democratic, as you can do it for under 20 grand. An independent film needs at least a couple of million quite often. So in America especially, although it’s become ubiquitous – that’s the second time I’ve used that word, which I was privately betting that I could do – yes, ads and companies will be vital.
How does an audience best applaud and get involved in this new model?
I’ll take any applause, regardless of quality or sincerity. Even that slow sarcastic clap will do in a pinch. I think audiences need to be made aware that these new forms of media are popping up and need to do just a little digging to find it. The good news/bad news for us and the listeners is that, yes, it is a niche, but the listener can have more of a say in what they want and companies like ours have a chance to get some notice. Because, as theater people, we need to be noticed at a level that is basically pathological.
But fortunately for us, we’re easy to find! You can go to our website to find out more about the play at www.newnormalrep.org as well as check out some of the plays and shorter pieces we’ve done on our YouTube channel (New Normal Rep)
What’s Step 9 about?
It’s about a woman debating whether she should prosecute her rapist after he writes to her and apologizes 30 years later. Is she willing to dredge up all of that trauma and in a sense relive it to get justice? Especially given how hard rape trials are to convict in the US. Her mother and daughter also have strong views on it, and all are smart feminists, but from different generations and therefore different philosophies. It’s also got jokes
Talking with Jack made me think of the ways we can all be patron of the arts. For companies like New Normal Rep who are democratizing how theater is brought to all of us, we can give our time and attention as well as donations (DONATE | New Normal Rep) to make sure that what evolved from pandemic hardship and disappointment carries on in hope and community.
Because even my 4-year-old daughter knew, there is so much goodness in being with others to enjoy theater, laugh and think a little bit.
As the leaves start to turn, like so many stomachs at the sight of a MAGA hat, one becomes reflective. I’m the one, by the way. I’m not saying I’m Number One or anything, it isn’t an ego thing. I just thought it would sound classier. But reading back over it, it feels maybe a little narcissistic – which isn’t a deal breaker – and a tad too mathy. Which is.
Anyway, as I, which I just realize looks like Roman numeral I, so maybe I should stick with “one.” As one (I) feels the crisp first days arrive and the summer ebbs, one’s thoughts start to become philosophical. After all, autumn is the season which represents change. Well, all the seasons do; that’s their defining characteristic, come to think of it. But autumn is in the subset of things which bring about change. So here a few of my random musings I made in my own journal, strolling aimlessly along my own leafy street, in my own pants:
I’m hardly the first, and likely not even the third person (ones) to make this observation, but when did Pumpkin Spice become the organizing principle of fall (trigger warning: I’m going to use the words “fall ” and “autumn” interchangeably: try to keep up)? And this trend seems to gather troubling, if pleasantly scented, orange steam. This year, I found some “Pumpkin Spiced” crap (metaphorically) in AUGUST.
The answer, sadly, is all too clear: The shadowy, nefarious minions of the Pumpkin lobby. When I was a lad, pumpkins knew their place: arranged rustically on front porches and stoops or dropped off of the occasional overpass. Now, however, they have infiltrated every nook and cranny – yes, even the crannies! – of our lives between Labor Day and early December, when egg nog rears its ghastly, viscous head, goes by in a spicy albeit pleasantly scented blur. One expert (me – that should have been obvious because I said “one”) has calculated that by 2030, we will have transitioned completely into a gourd-based economy. That is not a world I want to live in.
Now bear with me, as this is an emotional topic for me (one): I like to think of myself as a reasonably empathetic man. I don’t know people’s struggles, so one at least TRIES to reserve judgement.
But (and I think you know where I’m going with this):
I have NO sympathy for Alvin and the Chipmunks’ manager. I don’t get his short fuse and frankly abusive tone.
Yes, Alvin is an insufferable jerk. That’s a given. He’s freaking unbearable at the best of times. But anyone who opts to manage chipmunks and steer them through the cutthroat world of the music business must expect difficulty in getting them to focus, let alone harmonize. They’re freaking chipmunks. I mean, 10 points for thinking outside the box, I guess, but you signed up for this. You let chipmunks loose in a studio, wires will be chewed and equipment destroyed. That’s part of their process. I know it’s not strictly (or even loosely) a thought involving autumn, but it occurred to me this week, and this week is in autumn, so. Nameless (as far as I know) chipmunk manager guy: talk to someone, please. A person.
The fall is, of course, when elections are held in the United States, always on a Tuesday, which makes you swell with pride at how our Founding Fathers were able to shrewdly pick the optimal day of the week to take the time to go vote. But call me old-fashioned, but one hates how political divisions have caused so many families and friendships to be torn asunder. When are we going to return to the traditional American values of having families and friends ripped apart by chronic alcoholism, infidelities, and the occasional pack of marauding hobos? Ah, simpler times. No going back, I fear. Much like fall itself, as the leaves turn copper-colored and the late afternoon suffuses the air in a peaceful honey-hued glow, we know we can’t return to the verdant summer, and instead must watch helplessly as everything around us dies.
Yikes, that sentence took a real sharp turn at the end. Apologies, I (in this case, the I is the Roman Numeral I) am as appalled as you about the mordant tone it took. On the other hand, if you stuck with this post past the pack of marauding hobos part, you had to expect the occasional dark diversion.
It’s early yet, but it’s looking more and more like my investment in a truckload of “Sexy Rudy Giuliani” Halloween costumes will likely not yield the level of profit I was promised by the nice toothless gentleman who sold it to me beneath that underpass.
And when did Halloween become so commercialized? It used to be all about the druid-based belief that all hell would spring from its shadowy netherworld and reign in cruelty for one day of darkness (or the druid equivalent of hell. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s druid-based. It’s likely not, now that I think about it, seeing as its name comes from the fact the next day is All Saints Day). It used to be about unbridled terror and communion with the unholy. Now it’s become all about hoarding candy and dressing up as M&M’s or football players, or, to a far lesser degree than I had hoped, Sexy Rudy Giulianis.
So this year, let’s try to keep the Anti-Christ in Halloween.
As the nights grow longer and colder, it’s clear to me, as it must be to you by now, that one’s meds need adjusting.
The French, who insist on saying everything in French, call it “L’espirit de l’escalier,” or “The Wit of the Staircase.” It’s coming up with a perfect comeback to someone after you’ve left the party and are walking down the stairs to go home. We’ve all been there. Just last week, someone (my therapist) told me I was “Breathtakingly shallow in ways no textbook or class could have ever prepared [her] for.” It was only later that night I realized exactly what my reply should have been: “Well, your face is breathtakingly shallow!”
Regrettably, she moved offices and changed her number before our next session. I think she intuited I was about to verbally skewer her.
But who has the mental nimbleness and sangfroid* to come up with a savage riposte at the right moment? So, I’ve taken the trouble to come up with some one-liners which I have found, over the years, to have left various rude clerks, pushy salespeople, social workers, and drivers who’ve cut you off in traffic** speechless. Feel free to use them:
I Also Had “Jerkface” Up My Sleeve. So You’re in Good Hands in the Battle of the Zingers
Your kitchen cabinets are arranged haphazardly!
Your taste in music sickens me with its banality!
I can name far more Vice Presidents than you!
You would be a disastrously unsuccessful emcee, regardless of the occasion being celebrated!
Your haircut is regrettable!
You know nothing of my inner longings!
Your draft picks for your fantasy sports team lack coherence!
Your footwear is utlitarian at best!
Living in this thin air has hampered your cognitive skills! (This only works if you happen to be in Denver or some other high-altitude location)
Your alma mater’s mascot was likely racially insensitive!
Your attention to matters of local governance is perfunctory! Perfunctory!
Does the clearly displayed caution “Baby on Board” in my window mean nothing to you, you knave (This one should be used largely in traffic disputes. Also if you have one of those “Baby on Board” thingies, word to the wise: try to have a baby on board in such conversational gambits. I’ve learned the hard way how things tend to play out otherwise)?
You are an inveterate triskaideckaphobic!
And finally, if you’re feeling especially bloody-minded, as a coup de grâce, a terse, “Ne’er do well!!” never fails.
I can honestly say, everytime I’ve employed these veritable verbal razors, the other party has been left speechless. I think that can only mean I got the better of them.
Use them, but use them wisely.
*Full disclosure: I’ve been given a small stipend by the French Tourist Board to write this piece. Or more precisely, I’ve agreed to boost France after the campaign I spearheaded, “France: This Year, It’s YOUR turn to invade us!” fell, let’s just say, short of expectations.
Like most people, I’ve led an unusual life. For me, part of its unorthodoxy is my insistence on trying to make a living as a writer. Let’s just say, it’s been an uphill climb.
But occasionally I comfort myself with the knowledge that there are a million reasons why things either gain recognition or fail to. So, here are a few quick and hilarious examples.
In the 1950s, a book was rejected by several publishers, with withering comments such as, “very dull,” “a dreary record of family bickering,” and, “even if the work had come to light five years ago when World War II was timely, I don’t see any chance for it.” That book, however, did get published, and it has sold almost 40 million copies worldwide. Its title? The Diary of Anne Frank.
I point this out not to highlight the brutal lack of human empathy of these publishers (although, “a family bickering”? THAT was your take away from that story?), but to highlight the deathless wisdom of the great screenwriter William Goldman’s quote, “Nobody knows anything.”
See, I KNEW This Post Would Be Short!
Just one of a trillion examples (Harry Potter leaps to mind). My favorite is a tie between the rejection of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” because “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.” and Decca Records’ rejection of The Beatles in 1962 because “guitar bands are on their way out.”
Nobody. Knows. Anything.
That can either depress or inspire you. Your call.
Until the last few years, I’d prided myself on my ability to sleep virtually anywhere, regardless of privacy, noise, or light levels. That this is what I prided myself on is a topic for another post.
Categories of Sleeplessness
There are two kinds of sleeplessness: the one in which your brain wakes you up and says, “I feel like we don’t spend much quality time, so I figure, we’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Let’s dish!” This type, coined by one expert as the “Sadistic Sleepover”* is inevitably irritating and can lead to nothing good, especially if done a few times in a row or over the course of a week. No one likes not sleeping, of course, but it wreaks havoc on my brain with an unusual intensity.
Science has proven that for most people, driving in a sleep-deprived state is the equivalent of driving while intoxicated. Once, while sleeping only 11 hours over the course of five days, I was arrested for attempting to make love to a moving city bus.** I was acquitted of the charge only when my attorney pointed out there was no specific law on the books prohibiting this. Also, several of the passengers testified to the fact it was in fact an attempt to make love to the bus, and not merely use it for my own auto-erotic*** needs.
Sleeplessness Type II, Sometimes Known as the “Dutchman’s Revenge”*****
Then there’s the second type of sleeplessness: the one in which your brain is excited to show you the three hour powerpoint presentation it’s made about every bad choice you’ve ever made, followed by a montage of your failures scored with the Benny Hill theme song. Maybe it varies a bit person to person.
I’m making these glib little jokes because I’m trying to use semi-clever glibness to blunt the impact of what really swims endless laps in my mind during these bouts of sleeplessness. Let’s face it, no one ever wakes up at 3:00 a.m. to dwell on their good qualities. In the grips of this sleeplessness, I perform close readings of the whole canon of my inadequacies with what can only be described as a Talmudic intensity. I lament, I pity myself, I pity others whom I wronged, or that one woman in September of 2000 who took what I meant to be a benign comment as a deeply hurtful insult and didn’t seem to buy my increasingly shrill and needy apologies.
It’s Going to Get a Little Dark for a Bit. But the Good News Is It’s Also Pretentious.
I’ve raged at things and people, and I’m not proud to say I’ve also felt true hate (always tempered come morning, but still). It’s unpleasant to know I’m capable of that. And before you think I’m splitting semantic hairs distinguishing between rage and hate, you have a valid point in terms of potential actions and consequences. And spend too much time in either’s company, and it the effect will be the same: you’ll rot from the inside out. But in terms of experience, my sleepless self contends you are very wrong. I know you’re wrong**** because I studied this idea deeply during a recent sleepless night.
I’d argue many hate groups and crimes are really expressions of rage. Rage is often scattershot and feeds on ignorance, stereotypes, racial, economic, sexual, political, etc. Hate is always as sharp and exact as a needle. Rather than feeding on ignorance, it tends to subsist on a particular knowledge. Rage is often a source of pride, albeit often terribly misplaced. Rage can be communal and binding. Hate, I think, is to feel, among other things, isolation in its most punishing and undiluted state.
They’re both awful and destructive, but rage can offer a cruel exhilaration, whereas hate, if you’re doing it right, always feel like acid on opened flesh. Rage is a drug; hate is a disease.
I Did Warn You
You see what I mean? This is the sort of reductive, septic sophistry that happens in the second kind of sleeplessness. As awkward as that may have been to read, trust me when I assure you it could have been worse. I could have shared my lengthy nocturnal meditations on, for example, why The Simpsons, for roughly its first ten years, was among the greatest, smartest comedies in TV history and then precipitously sank into the realm of the unwatchable. Or how there can be a symbol for Anarchy.
Worst of all, it can throw you off for days in both palpably physical and psychological terms. And I’ve tried everything in the book. The worst is that I often don’t just get up and do something for a while (sometimes effective) because I’m convinced I’m thiiiisss close to sleeping. Many’s the night my psyche’s thrown good money after bad this way.
Ironic This Is All About Sleeplessness, But SOme Might Argue It’s Been a Little Sleep-Inducing at Times
I’ll close with among the better closing lines in a play I’ve ever heard. It’s not actually the last line, but it’s pretty close. And I won’t tell you the play and ruin that play for you because I’m not a sociopath. A younger character, troubled by the play’s events, confides in an older character, “I don’t sleep well anymore.” To which the older character says, “Maybe we’re not supposed to sleep well.”
I don’t think that’s always true. But I feel there are times when it may well be. Sometimes I can understand such times, and sometimes they pounce on me out of left field. Those are the worst. They’re reminders that my mind is always trying to work something through, and that at times those things are insoluble, but it doesn’t stop my inner workings from plugging away regardless. And it reminds me that, sometimes, perhaps, the point isn’t to solve the issue, it’s to accept that the issue cannot be solved.
*Reader, it was me. It’s also the title of my latest work of Nancy Drew Mystery fan fiction. DM me for details.
**I have no direct memory of this. Or even the trial, come to think of it. But my college dorm roommate swears it happened and when I point out how that isn’t even believable, he counters reasonably with, “How would you know? You were sleep-deprived.” And he’d have no motive for lying. Nor for telling that saga to every girl I dated in college, right? Or at my wedding in lieu of the traditional Best Man speech.
** *I know, I know. All I can do is apologize and promise you that as disappointed/disgusted as you likely are with me for inflicting that on you, I feel it ten times more. Also, it’s likely to be a slide on the next powerpoint my subconscious cooks up.
**** I’m mostly kidding? What do I know? I also studied for my Chem final with great intensity and believe me, I was still wrong for a lot of it.
***** No it isn’t. I just made that up. But I think I may have heard that phrase at some point. Most likely as either a tropical drink or a venereal disease.
I moved into a new house in March and for the first time in my life, I am the only human living with myself. I find, almost five months in, that I’m generally OK to live with, albeit a little moody and quiet sometimes. I usually keep the same hours I like to keep, which is helpful. I’m good, for the most part, at taking out the recycling. I’d give myself a solid B+ on that. I’d like it if I were a little more on top of the dishes, but even with that, it’s been better than I thought it would be when I agreed to move in with me. I’m also on top of the vacuuming and laundry, which is really nice to come home to, so props to me for that.
My taste in music aligns really closely with my own, thank gosh, and better still, I inevitably play it exactly when I’m in the mood for it. I find I’m more polite than I’d assumed I was. So much so, I’ve apologized on several occasions to inanimate objects, like when I said “Oh, I’m sorry” to the fridge (its full name is refrigerator, but I like to think we have that kind of relationship) when I closed the door too hard. Or when I freely admitted, “My bad!” aloud to my washing machine for not pressing the “start” button.
Both of these events, and several more like them, actually happened.
This Isn’t a Bad Thing, Per Se. It’s Not a Thing at All, Really.
I also realize that most of my new neighbors would likely describe me the way neighbors of serial killers inevitably describe them: “Nice guy, friendly, generally kept to himself.” I try not to worry about that too much, because I think overall I share very few other traits normally associated with serial killers. Almost none, just about. I’ll just say this: I don’t for one second think I’m living with one, and I’m in a good position to know.
OK, now we’re all starting to think maybe I’m sounding a little defensive about not being a serial killer. Like I seem a little too eager to assert that I’m not. Although, I’m absolutely convinced I am not.
Let’s Move On
I’ve learned I apparently enjoy growing flowers more than I’d thought I would. I wouldn’t have pegged me as that kind of guy. But hey, you never really know someone until you live with them.
Things to Work On
It’s not perfect, mind you. I am constantly unable to find where I’ve put the tv remote, and when I ask where I might have left it, inevitably I can’t seem to remember. Moreover, I sound a little annoyed at the question. That’s annoying.
Also, I have too many plates and drinking glasses. Like, to the point where it’s inconvenient to store them all. Yet, despite telling myself I need to get rid of some, and even agreeing many of them aren’t even especially nice, I never seem to get around to it. That’s going to eventually become a thing if I don’t shape up. Ditto my annoying habit of eating the last of something I’ve been saving for later. I do that a lot, and I don’t get why I can’t get how disrespectful.
I recently have developed a disconcerting habit of thinking I need to assert I’m not a serial killer. I mean, why would I even feel like I’d need to establish that?
I’ve also learned that any kitchen is an eat-in kitchen if you’re willing to stand, although that’s more a general observation than being about me. And although it’s not an especially funny observation, I chuckled politely when I made it, because it’s little gestures like that which help grease the gears of domestic life.
Overall Conclusion Five Months In:
I’ve also found myself quite lonely at times, and living alone really drives home the basic existential dilemma of being with oneself from cradle to grave. But I’ve also found that loneliness is sometimes a good teacher, and that I sometimes, although not as often I aspire to be, am decent student. Still, I haven’t given up on the idea I can improve on that.
Now, if I could just get me to do something about organizing my basement. Just for normal stuff, of course. Nothing nefarious.
I talk a good game about writing because you want to and to make your peace as early as possible with the fact all you have control over is your own willingness to work and work as hard and honestly as you can at whatever you’re trying to create, and your doggedness in trying to get your work seen/heard/produced, etc (if you even want that).
I still believe in that. And I still believe if you’re expecting the Art Gods to act is if they have any interest in fairness, let alone thinking that all of your toil and hours you’ve sacrificed somehow obligates them in any way to give you a helping hand, you haven’t been paying attention.
And yet, I am less than a perfect adherent of my own maxims. I’ve reached a unique moment in my life as a writer. I’ve had moments of utter despair, shattering almosts and nearlys that have made me want to take my ball and go home. That they’ve increased over the last few years makes sense; between 2007-2013, I had a four full length plays produced about seven times regionally, and two of them had very well-received runs Off-Broadway. I had a fifth play optioned play optioned and set to open on Broadway the falling October. If this sounds like distasteful bragging to you, the next paragraph will make you feel a lot better.
Between 2014-and July 11th, EDT, 2022, I have failed to land another agent, which may have something to do the fact that in that eight year-stretch I had my option dropped, and have had a total of two new plays produced once each.
It’s Hard to Follow My Advice Because I’ve Seen Myself Attempt Things Like Try to Set Up a Universal Remote or Be Overly Liberal on the Five Second Rule Re: Dropped Food
If my career were a pet, it likely would have been euthanized.
Eight Years Isn’t a Slump, It’s a Brand
The thing is, it’s not like I wrote only two plays in that period. I’ve written well..a lot of stuff. Tons. Something like eight full length plays, a web series, two screenplays, and two one act plays, in addition to two complete seasons of tv series. I believe firmly, and people whom I respect tend to concur, it is some of the best writing I’ve done. So based on my philosophy, I should take solace in that.
But to my embarrassment, these days I find can’t. Not even a quantum of solace*, which is a phrase I’m shoehorning into this sentence because it was actually the name of a James Bond film (which I still can’t fully accept this somehow got green-lighted) and maybe the the most absurd and stupid three words ever strung together. Anyway.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I’m feeling discouraged. For the first time ever, the thought of writing, among the few things that has always allowed me sniff out some sense of who I am, fills me with physical and metaphysical revulsion.
All I seem to feel when I think of rolling a fresh sheet of paper in to start a new work is humiliating foolishness. Partly because I don’t have a typewriter, and I keep forgetting laptops don’t need paper. But mostly because I am living out the famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result.
Obligatory Rhetorical Question If a play is performed in a forest – or a theater – or a forest/theater and no one comes to see it, does it exist?
And it’s not like it’s been read by bunch of professionals and deemed unworthy. That would be disappointing and frustrating, but something I’d have to be willing to hear. I can’t get anyone (in a position to produce it) to read it. Not in theater or tv. And it’s not just my bank account and ego who feels this sting of rejection, although sure, that’s in there. It’s that it starts to feel like a delusional act. It stops being nourishing and gratifying and starts to seem a little embarrassing to myself.
Many Believe the Universe is Indifferent to Our Lives. Perhaps. But I Know for a Fact Art Is.
This when to remember Art has made it quite clear it isn’t obliged to you in the least. Art doesn’t owe me (or anyone) any favors. It didn’t sell on becoming an artist like it was talking you into a time share. Art says, “You want to be an artist? Great. Best of luck,” and then it walks away, probably on its way to a gallery opening in the West Village, and leaves you to do the rest.
I’m not arguing what I’m feeling is right from an aesthetic, philosophical, or emotional stand point. If a friend approached me with the same dilemma, I know just what I’d say. I’d be encouraging and mean it.
I admit chasing fame and fortune are poor goals for an artist. I’m not (I wouldn’t turn it down, of course, but I’m not chasing it. The fact that I’m a playwright sort of proves that. If I’d hoped to achieve fame and future as a playwright in America, it’d a little like moving to Kenya hoping to achieve adulation as a figure skater.
Usually, I somehow just trudge forward, not out of some heroic dedication but because I’ve unlearned how not to. And who knows? Scarlett O’Hara famously said, “After all, tomorrow is another day!” Thing is, she’s not the fictional character you’d look to for solid life advice.
So, What Now? Will I try to write again? Sigh. Probably. Did writing that jut now depress me? Very much so. Will the fact few if any may ever see it or care gnaw at me a lot more than it used to? It seems to be trending in that direction. Certainly more than I’d hoped from myself.
Art owes artists nothing.
And you could argue that no one put a gun to my head, forcing to become an “artist” (I’m a bit self-conscious about this term. I worry it’s too self-regarding). But if you feel this is something people can just walk away from or stop emotionally attaching to once they’ve realized how disappointing it can be, I have to tell, this in’t like the last season of Game if Thrones. Sure, you likely got pissed at the lazy writing and oddly unsatisfactory ending, but then you started binging something else. God, what bliss it would be to simply stop caring like that.
Let’s Open Up the Floor
How do you deal with these feelings as actors, writers, artists, etc.?
I’m curious about how others have dealt with such moments: please let me know your experiences and philosophies.
*It’s hard not to believe that title wasn’t the result of some drunken party at the producer’s home, in which hundreds of words were clipped out of magazines by interns, placed in a hat, and then picked at random. And when the guests dared the producer to name a film that, he (“he” is accurate here, because a woman wouldn’t be this idiotically obstinate), fueled on drunken bravado, shouted, “You bet your ass I’m gonna use this title!” and the next day, hungover, when he tries to back peddle, his buddies won’t let him off the hook. I’m pretty sure that’s how Hollywood works. Or at least, how it worked HERE.
In Jewish law, a fetus attains the status of a full person only at birth. Sources in the Talmud indicate that prior to 40 days of gestation, the fetus has an even more limited legal status, with one Talmudic authority (Yevamot 69b) asserting that prior to 40 days the fetus is “mere water.” Elsewhere, the Talmud indicates that the ancient rabbis regarded a fetus as part of its mother throughout the pregnancy, dependent fully on her for its life — a view that echoes the position that women should be free to make decisions concerning their own bodies.
The belief that abortion is “murder” is generally not one shared by scientists. So I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the opposition to abortion springs predominantly from a religious (read: Christian) perspective. Given this, how do we square today’s decision with the views of one of the chief authors of the Constitution, James Madison, whose belief that religion had no role in law or government was so absolute that he was appalled at the idea of Congress having a Chaplin? How does it align with the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote there would always be a “wall” between Church and State?
More crucially, how does this not violate the First Amendment? If a tenet of one faith at odds with that of another is codified into law, it is hard to make a sincere argument that there is true freedom of religion.
Before the Constitution, religiously based laws were commonplace. You could not hold a political office in New York if you were Catholic. In Maryland, you HAD to be Catholic to hold political office. One of the driving forces behind the Constitution was to eliminate the divisiveness of religion in public life once and for all. Today’s decision is clearly at odds with that aim. Ironically, the justices who overturned this precept view themselves as strict constructionists.
For those who may not know, and also for those who do, June 16th is the day we follow Leopold Bloom, the protagonist from James Joyce’s super-dense but super-rewarding novel Ulysses. Insufferable types like myself refer to it as “Bloomsday,” because, as I established in this sentence’s first clause, we are insufferable.
It’s probably the supreme example of stream-of-consciousness: we follow Bloom, along with his wife, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus (this is his literary side hustle in addition to his regular gig as the protagonist of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”) throughout the whole day, morning to noon to night, and we hear their every thought.
That sounds exhausting.
And to be fair, at times it is. But it’s far less so when you catch on to what Joyce is doing: he’s capturing the way all of our minds work: an endless stream of tangential thoughts as we try to make our way through the day and make sense of what we encounter. Before him, most literature tidied up its characters’ thoughts, but Joyce had little patience for neatness (but plenty of time for precision).
Anyway, that idea made it easier for me. I tried reading it my senior year of high school, and man was I ever outgunned by the text. Tried it a few years later, and was still beaten black and blue, but got through it and knew that it was a great novel and also knew that most of it was way over my head.
That’s still true, though maybe (?) a little less each time I dive in. I’m now at the point where rather than being angry for reading something a little above my pay grade as a reader, I’m grateful for it (most of the time). Also, it’s easier to relate to one of its central points as we get older: as we move forward with our days, we constantly – sometimes without realizing – cast glances into our pasts, or as F.Scott Fitzgerald put it a few years later, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In fact, Fitzgerald would not have been possible if not for Joyce, and Ulysses especially. Well, HE would’ve been possible, obviously, just not much of his best writing.
Anyway, why am I writing when you could be reading Joyce! Here are some bite sized gems from Ulysses, some are profound, some are funny, and some just drenched in a palpable love of language, beauty, and for all of its daily indignities, annoyances, and boredom, life.
So, here’s a few of its most famous bits:
“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”
“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
“We can’t change the world, but we can change the subject”
“From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step”
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” (Man, has there ever been a better description of a beautiful night sky in summer? That’s rhetorical. The answer is no.)
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes… Shut your eyes and see.” (That’s as transcendent, metaphysical, and flat out psychedelic as anything the hippies ever produced. Joyce would’ve loved the 60s)
This one’s for the Catholics:
“They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.” (Joyce, like most Catholics, harbored a lot of, let’s just say, feelings about that condition)
“Who made those allegations? says Alf.
I, says Joe. I’m the alligator.”
And the famous closing paragraph, or at least a small part of it, among the more famous closings ever: it’s long and unpunctuated (but for a good reason, as opposed to being pretentious, like it would in the hands of almost anyone else):
“And Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Has anything better captured the memory of one’s happiest moments of young love/lust? Of the memory of being richly, swooningly aware and alive in the way only youth can? Or more to the point: the FEELING of that memory?
Joyce thereby manages to leave everyone who’s braved the whole day with Leapold, Molly, and Stephen the best possible reward: the simple message of “Yes.” Not bad for a novel that continually wrestles with regret. At the end of the novel, at the end of it all, with all of his unique mountainous genius for English, he opts to end the novel, and it all, with “Yes,” and implicitly urges us to do likewise.
In The Great Gatsby, its narrator asserts in the opening paragraphs that he makes a point of not judging people. He then goes on, roughly one paragraph later, to start judging and barely a page goes by in which he fails to not only judge people, but do so in a delightfully dry and at times super-catty, mean teenage girl sort of way (I’m also convinced Nick is clearly in denial about some clearly homoerotic feelings. If he’s not at least bi-curious, try to make sense, for example, of the end of the second chapter. Go on. I’ll wait. Did you read it? See?). I’m surprised how little scholarship on the novel has been devoted to this.
But that’s not the point of this post, if it can be said to have a point. As of now, it’s an open question. I hope it turns out to have one. Those are usually the best kind of posts. Fingers crossed!
I’m writing this to confess I’m very judgmental. I try not to be. I try really hard not to be. And a good 95% of my judgments are never voiced. But despite my efforts not to judge, I have fallen well-short of the mark, in my judgment. Of course, like almost anything, judgment of others can be both good or bad. In fact, I want to say judging others can be a positive. Is this the point? Maybe. Let’s find out.
We judge other people when we make friends. We judge other people when we fall in love, or decide this person selling me a time-share isn’t telling me everything. So, my point is that judging is not only necessary in life, but also a source of some of life’s greatest experiences.
Great. I had a point in this post. Shortish for me, but that’s good, too.
However, (crap; maybe that isn’t the point of this post. Could this post have two points? That feels awfully ambitious for the likes of me) when people get all judgy about being judgmental, it’s the other kind they’re talking about. And damned if I don’t do that dozens of times a day. Today’s notable one was when I glimpsed a man going by wearing his hair in a man-bun, I think it’s called. Now, this look is very dignified, assuming you’re a samurai in feudal Japan. But I’m willing to bet almost anything this man was not a feudal-age samurai. He was alive, for one thing, and also, he just didn’t present in an overtly samurian way.
But A) Who am I to judge someone else’s grooming/fashion choices? My daughter reliably informs me I have little insight into fashion. And I’m awfully judgmental for someone who temporarily blinded himself last week by vigorously shaking a bottle of salad dressing with the cap off.
For the record, that actually happened.
Second, why would I have an opinion about something so superficial? The fact I have a pejorative opinion about his hair says a lot more about me than Evan (that’s probably not his real name, but it’s more likely to be “Evan” than “Man Bun Guy”). And what it has to say isn’t pretty.
And you see what happened back there? I not only arbitrarily subjected Jeff (on reflection, he looked more like a “Jeff” than an “Evan”) to my scorn, but myself as well. I find randomly and unfairly passing negative judgment on others tends to boomerang back to me. Judge me if you must, but your judgment of me is nothing compared to the judgment I routinely judge of myself. Moreover, my judgment, in my judgment, would likely be in agreement with your judgment, assuming it’s an unflattering judgment.
Yes, judgment like that never helps anyone, least of all the judge, but it’s also sort of baked into the way the human mind works. It’s a pretty important survival tool, after all. So maybe cut yourself – and me, while you’re at it – a little slack. We’ve all heard the quote, or a variation of the quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Some people attribute this to Plato, but it almost certainly wasn’t him. In fact, no one actually knows who said it (or something like it) first. Which is a shame, because as quotes go, it’s pretty damned pithy.
So, just for the purposes of bookkeeping* and clarity, I’ve chosen to attribute it to the only surviving member of the Monkees, Mickey Dolenz. Because why not? He’s been around the block. No doubt he has some wisdom to share. Also, “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” ** are highly underrated songs.
Anyway, this quote, first uttered by Mickey Dolenz, is always worth remembering, at least for me. And if I can get myself to remember that more often, both as it applies to others and myself, then I’m willing to bet life will go a lot better for both me and those around me. Even for Brandon. Yes, he looked more like a “Jeff” than an “Evan,” but he really, when I think about it, looked like a quintessential Brandon to me. And that is said without any judgment.
*This is only word in the English language with three consecutive pairs of matching letters. And yes, there’s also “bookkeeper,” but you get the point.***
*** God, Jack, please shut off your rambling mind for just five minutes.
** Fun fact, although “fun” is all relative: this song was written by the great hit-making husband and wife duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Also, Neil Diamond wrote the theme song for the show. And I think we’ve reached the point in which I’d argue you’d be justified in judging me, and none too favorably, either.
A Disquisition on the Efficacy and Utilitarian Pragmatism of Orotund Language
I love words the way other people love music. Or painting. Or, I suppose, grilled cheese sandwiches. There’s gotta be some people who are passionate about them. They’re pretty great, Gardening is something people love, too, I suppose. Or, I don’t know, Civil War trivia. Also, I really like most of those things as well.
I’ve strayed a bit. Suffice it to say I love words like other people love…other things. There’s a physical reaction, a surge of endorphins when I come across the artful arrangement of words. A well-wrought sentence can leave me quite literally in awe. I also delight in individual words: the sound of them, their rhythm, their self-contained histories. As the linguist Nom Chomsky (or Mr. T.: I always confuse the two) once sagely observed:) “I pity the fool who can only think of words as merely a means to an end. “
Having said (or technically, written, that), and proven myself quite happy to throw in the occasional latinate doozy (e.g., latinate), there is a line. Where that line is fluid, but, like has been said about the elusive definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. And I would like to report the sighting of an egregious line-crossing.
Who Am I to Judge?
You might might be tempted to point out I am not an authority on language nor a prominent voice in the writing community. Yes, that’s true. Thanks for picking at that scab. But I’m a reader, dammit, and I have rights. Specifically, I have the right to read an article in a much-loved magazine (I won’t reveal the name. Let’s just say it rhymes with The Atlantic) without having to crash into the linguistic abutment that is the word “stochastic.”
For reasons lost to history (but it’s a safe bet not having a date that night played a role), I happen to know the meaning of that word. I have a quiet hobby of mentally cataloguing obscure words. I know, how did I stay single so long?
I May Not Know Much, But I Know What the Word Stochastic Means. I’m Also Not Invited to Many Parties
And now, so do you: it means random. That’s it. Not some subtle variation of random, not random, but also freighted with some ineffable but present sense of otherness. It just means random. No more, no less. Also, it’ a synonym of arbitrary. Obviously. Granted, statisticians use it at times to describe a random process, but that’s super-technical jargon, and it means, at the end of the day, “random.”
I don’t begrudge the forgotten, one might argue, stochastic, soul who coined it, and I feel the pain they must have as they saw it fail to catch on in a meaningful way. Who I am picking a bone with is anyone who’d use it of their own volition when publishing for the general public.
Sure, if you’re writing for Statistics Weekly or Statistician’s World or Stats!, fine. But for a magazine not in the sexy, ruthless world that is the statistics-centric magazine market, you’re pushing it, even if your magazine’s demographic skews to the highly educated.
If you’ve written a piece that has forced you to use “random,” “arbitrary,” and even “indiscriminate” past the point of comfort, maybe you can justify it to yourself. But this happened in the first paragraph. And in the rest of the article, the need for stochastian (or maybe stochast-esque? Pick your favorite) language is minimal.
One of the things I love best about English is that it may be the finest tool for communication ever devised. Your mileage may vary. My theory (hardly novel) is that it’s chiefly because the English language is a voracious and remorseless thief. If it finds a word it likes that we don’t have a precise definition for, like schadenfreude, from the Germans or simply love how the sound communicates the meaning, like gung-ho from the Chinese, it swipes it. And Lord knows how many words the French have surrendered to us (what a reductive, cheap joke. Still, apparently I decided to keep it. I want to be clear: I’m just kidding. And I feel I can because the French and I have that kind of friendship).
You Know I’m Just Kidding, France, Right? You’re Not Answering My Texts and Now I’m Worried You’re Mad. Don’t Be Mad.
And of course there’s the litany of invaders of Britain who’ve shared their words during their raping pillaging of the British isles. Or more likely after. But I digress. And as much as I’m a sucker for words of all shapes, sizes, and especially, sounds, I realize that, even at its gaudiest moments of impressionistic invention, its chief function is communication. You certainly never want to talk down to your readers, and if you have an arcane word that is the absolute mot juste (thank you, France! You know what we’ve got is special), go for it.
But stochastic? Its only pragmatic function in an article not about statistical values is to show off. It’s sure as hell not not making a good-faith effort to communicate, is it? And let’s point out the elephant, or pachyderm, in the room: the author is a vastly more successful writer than I am. After all, she writes for a magazine that rhymes with The Atlantic.
But this diction is such that it pulls the reader out of the sentence with whiplash-inducing suddenness and violence. And to be clear, I’m so geeky, I become a little giddy when I have to look up a word I don’t know (it happens frequently). And that’ s because 95% of the time, the word conveys, with tear-jerking precision and beauty, something that more prosaic diction would have failed to do.
I Empathize, Ironically Because I Dabble in Narcissism Myself.
I get it. I mean, we all, or certainly many of us, write in part because we want to show off. For approval. For validation. To prove, once and for all, that you, Joanne D. were a FOOL to reject my request to go with me to the 6th Grade dance.
But ultimately, it’s an abrogation (yep. I think that’s the best word here) of our responsibility to readers. But you’re too good for that, author of this problematic article. Let’s try to spot and ignore those impulses in ourselves. They’re puerile. I mean childish. Dammit
Please, please, please follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jackcanfora
Yesterday’s slaughter at an elementary school in Texas is an act of evil beyond the scope of most of us, myself included, to fully absorb. I know no particulars of this latest mass shooting. I confess I felt no point in doing so. I saw the headline and kept scrolling. Allow me to be crystal clear: what I’m going to write in terms of sorrow is a small cup of water compared to the ocean of grief the victims’ families are feeling. What I’m going to talk about is my relative lack of grief.
Let Me Try to Explain, to Myself and You
Let me rephrase: I feel terrible grief. Let me rephrase once more: I think terrible grief, which is to say I recoil at this satanic malevolence, but I find myself doing so only in a theoretical, and if I’m honest, performative way. I feel, and I’m ashamed to admit this, virtually nothing.
I know it is a stark sign that my basic humanity has been diminished by years of this unspeakable, unremitting, seemingly unbreakable pattern of gun violence in America.
Neither I, nor anyone in my life, have ever been a direct victim of these mass attacks (A woman I knew in college was murdered a few years ago, and I felt – I still feel – grief about that, even though we hadn’t seen each other in decades). But each slaughter that chips away at my humanity has created a thicket of scars around what I will refer to, for lack of a more exact term, soul. And these scars have left me largely numb.
The Wisdom of Tyrants
Josef Stalin once said one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic. I’m not a big one for quoting Stalin, but he had a point. I think the breaking point for me was Sandy Hook. Once we apparently decided as a society that murdering young children was bad, but a price we have to be willing to pay to keep our guns, I checked out. Not consciously, but something in me became deadened. My capacity for empathy has continued to be quietly shaved away, sliver by sliver, with each subsequent shooting.
I was a bit too cynical in that paragraph. It’s not that most Americans feel that way. Most Americans – including a majority of NRA members – are in favor of some gun reform. But the NRA, and its allied lobbyists don’t care. They and every politician who takes their money has blood on their hands, their arms, over every inch of their polluted selves. And although most Americans want gun reform, they don’t want it enough for it to be an issue they will base their votes on.
The Obligatory Deadly Disease Metaphor
This is a sickness that’s infected all of us. And like many fatal diseases, it is so quiet and insidious that we don’t realize it’s become an inextricable part of us until it’s too late to do much about it.
Once again, my (and I suspect many others) existential crisis is a universe of magnitude away in severity from the grief families in Texas are suffering tonight. Or Buffalo last week. Or over 200 communities in 2022 alone. That’s correct: over 200 this year. And we’re in May.
What I feel – or, more accurately, fail to feel – is the result of residual trauma that’s become an ambient, barely perceptible distorted noise in the back of every American’s head.
I’m not trying to be glib, but mass killings in America have become a bit like living near train tracks. The trains routinely rumble past, but we are so used to it, we stop noticing them after a while.
Conclusion So Obvious About These Tragedies That Even Stating It Is A Type of Tragedy
It shouldn’t be like this. None of this should be like this. All of this is awful beyond words. There ought to be a word for how useless words are. And when the only visceral outrage about today’s news I can muster is at my lack of outrage, something simple and fundamental about me, about my ability, my right to be fully human, has been eradicated. It’s a shame there’s no cynical, murderous lobby to protect that constitutional right. That doesn’t give me an excuse to stop trying.
But my God, America, with its leaders brimming with thoughts and prayers, makes it one hell of a steep climb.
There are people, and you’ve likely met some of them, hell, some of you may even be some of them, who are, and there’s simply no polite way of saying it, organized. You know the type. The types who always take out the correct recycling on the right night. Who never misplace their car keys or ATM cards or young children.
And these people, when they are not busy alphabetizing their receipts, schedule some time to look down on those of us who are disorganized, although that term is now considered offensive; Unfortunatley, the preferred nomenclature is still being beta-tested, so, for the moment we’re stuck with “disorganized.”
Anyway, the “undisorganized,” as I call them, insist nah that becoming more organized leads to more efficiency, which paves the way for less stress, more free time, and more mental, emotional, and physical space, which in turn begets a feeling of calm and optimizes creativity. Personally, I think that’s asking a lot from, say, Post -It Notes, but I confess I have alway found a certain logic to their argument.
For example, I’m 53, but if you subtract all of the cumulative time I’ve spent looking for my wallet or car keys, I am only in my late 20s.
It isn’t easy for me to be organized. And it’s not like I’ve never tried. A couple of years ago, Netflix instructed us to throw out anything that didn’t “spark joy.” I dove into that project head-first, but after discarding all of the non-joy-sparking items I owned, I ended up naked in an empty apartment.
Worse yet, it wasn’t my apartment.
Regardless, my friends, family, therapists, pharmacists, and more than a few extroverted strangers have assured me that, whatever I am doing now in terms of, as they put it, “stumbling blindly through the final decades of your life,” needs a serious reset.
So, I determined once more to go into this organizing thing, and go in whole hog. Well, in total candor, 3/4 hog, as there are parts of a hog that realistically would only hinder my organizing.
I was also told the first thing I should do is make lists. And so I dutifully set about doing so, some of which I share with you now:
So far, so good. “This is EASY!” I thought with glee. But then, I was overcome with worry that Donovan might someday resent I listed him second; they say animals can always sense these things, so I compiled a second list just cover my bases (which wasn’t easy to do, dear Reader, as I couldn’t find my base covers anywhere, because I’m disorganized).
My dogs (In Descending Order of Size)
As you might imagine, I was pretty tired by now, but knew I should keep going, as the only thing standing between me and living a life of efficient bliss was the discipline to compile just a few more lists.
Now, as you’re no doubt thinking and I came to appreciate only in retrospect, I should have drilled down more on what exactly these lists should focus on. It’s easy to realize that in hindsight, but I think we’ve all felt the peerless intoxication that can only come from going on a list-making bender. I quickly rattled off another:
Ten of my worst attempts at dissing someone in a Facebook thread and/or Sick Burns I’ve yelled at fellow motorists:
1) The draft picks on your fantasy sports teams seem at best arbitrary! 2) You know nothing of my inner longings! 3) You’re left-handed & hence an aberration! 4) You’re right-handed & hence banal! 5) You would make a tedious Master of Ceremonies, regardless of the occasion being celebrated! 6) You are seldom punctual! 7) Your cousins are on the whole more successful than you. 8 My knowledge of trivia regarding the Titanic leaves yours woefully wanting! 9) The color schemes in your home are trite! TRITE! 10) You seem the type of person whose taste in music I would have little regard for!
Inspired, I immediately wrote down another:
Ten Cities I Have Never Spent Time in with Danny DeVito*:
Battle Creek, Michigan
* This was my first real snag. The problem with this list, I realized early on, is that cities are big places, and therefore the only way I could know for certain that beloved character actor and national treasure Danny DeVito and I hadn’t spent time together in any given city was to list cities I have never been to, or, in one case, a city I’ve visited several times, but during a period in which neither of us was alive. It was a foolproof idea, if you thought about it, but only if you thought about it very, very quickly.
By now, I’d started to wonder exactly how these lists would make me more organized. I’d now made several, but didn’t feel any more organized. In fact, I lost four pens while writing them. And I was writing on my laptop. Which I lost twice.
But, I trenchantly observed, the whole reason I’m making these lists is that I’m not organized, I’m the last person who should try to figure that stuff out. Armed with that piece of unassailable reasoning and a long nap, I pressed forward.
Ten Catchphrases/Idioms/Words I Have Tried and Failed To Make Popular Again
“It’s raining men!”
“Saaaay, what’s the big idea?”
“The cat’s pajamas”
“Victrola” (I feel technology was working against me on that one)
“You sank my battleship!!” (I tried to make it too sexual, in retrospect)
“Your milkman is hard to converse with at parties!” (That was more something I made up myself as the ultimate mic drop dis, but it never caught on.)
Routinely referring to strangers “Mack.”
I was feeling pretty good about these lists, especially as I’d lost two more pens and was sure I was making progress.
However; I was quickly disabused of this confidence by my so-called friends. “The list,” I was told with what I maintain was an unnecessary display of exasperation, “Should be about taking inventory of your possesions and getting rid of what you don’t truly need.”
Well sure, it makes sense once someone phrases it like that. So I gave it one more shot. Things I should get rid of. Ok:
Ten Household Items I’m Hanging On To Only Out of Sentimental Attachment And/Or They Are Also Nicknames I’ve Encouraged People to Call Me:
My curated collection of novelty fly swatters shaped like hands.
A 1:1 scale Lego model of all of my Lego sets
The Paint Stripper
The Long Extension Cord
The Widowmaker (now this was something I knew I should chuck, because, as some of you may know, The Widowmaker is not a standard household item. It is, in fact, a large rollercoaster, which I had won in a contest a few years back by succesfully naming the astrological signs of all the Vice Presidents. Now, was it a good conversation piece? It was a great one. But still. Organizing was going to require some sacrifice.)
The Freezer (I decided in the end to keep this. It’s a kick-ass nickname, and it’s an invaluable visual aid when I hold my presentations to convince people to call me by that name)$
My vast collection of Civil War reenactment uniforms, weaponry, and paraphenalia, even though I don’t participate in Civil War reenactments.
The Old Weed Wacker
Most of my living room, a.k.a., “The Chia Pet Sanctuary”
Once again, when I shared what I had done, my efforts were met with scorn, derision, and in one unfortunate case, a restraining order. I came to realize that while being organized made some people more efficient and calm, there are others like me for whom the act of organizing is a great stress inducer. And while a clean, organized life gives some the illusion of control, it is just that: an illusion. And I refuse to live that kind of lie. Not lies in general, obviously; I’m obviously willing – need – to live many other kinds of lies. But that’s straying from the topic.
It’s Not Rocket Science, Although Given My Utter Ignorance of Rocket Science, Maybe Part of It Is
But I doubt it. I recently tweeted something on the Twitter machine – a silly, mildly amusing tweet that said, “I have never been in any way harassed or demeaned by Scott Rudin; this isn’t meant to condone his behavior in any way; it just shows how far down the ladder I am in my career.” Now, it’s ok-ish as jokes go; it got a handful of likes. But it also got some finger wagging responses questioning whether this tweet was “moral.”
I’m now undergoing physical therapy to rehabilitate my eye muscles after the severity of the reflexive eye-rolling it induced.
Now, like the joke, don’t like it, whether or not you enjoy the joke on its admittedly modest merits doesn’t matter. The point is that the person who is the target of this joke is 1) Me, 2) Me, and, arguably, 3) Both me and Scott Rudin (with whom I’m OK mocking).
And I’m ok mocking Rudin because he was apparently a terrible, terrible person to work for. In fact, downright abusive. It should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t, that I was in no way mocking the people who were repeatedly yelled out, called demeaning names, and occasionally had actual heavy office supplies hurled at them.
I’m Not Sure I FollowYour Thinking, or Lack Thereof
I’ll go further: there is no way that tweet can be interpreted as such.
Unless, of course, you really, really want to. There is a pretty well-worn axiom about comedy; namely, that it should always “punch up.” In other word, the targets of jokes should be those with power, and those who clearly deserve ridicule (there’s often a healthy overlap on that Venn diagram). Punching down, therefore, is a joke that makes fun of people who are not in any way responsible for the topic at hand because they lack the agency to control the situation.
I’ll give you a current example. I found the movie Licorice Pizza, problematic in a lot ways, both aesthetically and ethically, which I assume is keeping Paul Thomas Anderson up nights. But there has been a bit of a, and this a word I don’t use lightly, hullabaloo, about a minor character: A white man who weds two Japanese wives. The joke Anderson writes is that neither wife speaks English very well (and spoiler alert, the man doesn’t speak Japanese, a punchline we saw coming from the opening moments), and so, when he talks to them, he adopts a cringe-worthy, caricature of a white person’s insensitive impersonation of how Asian people talk.
And yes, it’s super cringe-worthy. But also, if you can get past the cringing, pretty funny. Because we’re not laughing at the Asian women, nor are we chuckling at the imitation. The man himself is the object of derision: the joke is about his utter stupidity and cluelessness that this is either acceptable or effective. Anderson is mocking – and mocking pretty scathingly – the character’s white, male cluelessness.
Several groups have protested the movie because of this (the public seems largely is the central plot of a 25-28 year old woman in a complicated and ultimately romantic relationship with a 15-year-old boy. And man, let’s just take a moment to not only wonder what PTA is up to with this, but the hypocrisy of the viewing public. Would people be OK with it if the genders were reversed?) bit.
And I respect the argument that if said joke offends a portion of the Asian community, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? I’m not. I just want be clear that if they are protesting that this bit makes fun of Asians, then I respectfully submit they’ve really misread that joke.
But, but, BUT
Should that matter? Especially given the atmosphere in America and the increase of racial verbal and physical violence the Asian-American community has experienced? And aren’t there going to be some people too stupid and hateful not to understand it’s satirizing the patronizing, racist attitudes of some white male Americans?
To the first point, I say…maybe. I certainly take the point. To the second, I say, absolutely not. This is what I believe: We should never refrain from making something, from a joke to a painting to a cathedral, because someone, somewhere, might misinterpret it. That’s known as playing to the lowest common denominator.
When Did People Become Convinced They’ve A Right Not To Be Offended?
I have seldom set out to deliberately offend anyone, and when I have, I’ve always tried to make sure, I was punching up. If someone approaches me in an open-minded and hearted way and says what I said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do caused them to be offended, I would invariably apologize and explain as best I could why I had meant no offense. I’m no saint, sometimes I speak without thinking, and I’m, despite my best efforts, occasionally insensitive. I try to assume the fault is mine (thanks, Mom and Catholicism) until I am persuaded otherwise.
But being offended isn’t a sign of moral superiority. At least not a lot of the time. Someone tweeted at me that I was mocking the Trans community with that tweet. Perhaps Rudin was transphobic? Certainly wouldn’t say it was beneath him. But in what world is that Tweet an attack on anyone (other than Rudin), let alone on a marginalized community?
I’m No Authority on These Matters (And Yet I’m Blogging About It)
I’m just saying, before I should post a joke, I should reasonably (Ah there’s the rub. What’s the definition of “reasonable”? Not literally, I mean, I majored in English) assume might be gravely misinterpreted or offend people? Absolutely, and I’m the first to admit – the people who tweeted at me would rightly point out I’m NOT the first – that I don’t always get it right. But perhaps, before you publicly question someone’s morality over a joke, maybe that person should understand the joke. We already miscommunicate enough as it is.
Let’s try, if even only as a thought experiment, not assuming the worst about each other. And maybe find the differences in ourselves between being offended and fetishizing that feeling.
I’m Not Joking When I Say This:
Some of you may disagree, in which case I welcome a healthy and civilized discussion. But it’s how I feel. I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I don’t think it should.
For Those Who’ve Been Around the Writer’s Block a Few Times
I’ve been lucky in terms of having suffered from it fairly infrequently. Or rather, I’ve experienced it in a different way. It’s just sometimes I don’t know what is supposed to happen next. “Well Jack,” you are likely thinking, “I hate to break it to you, but that’ the same thing.
Maybe, but I do differentiate them a bit. “Writer’s Block” implies to me that I’m driving along and I’ve hit a wall. It feels somehow visceral and violent. That’s different from simply getting stuck because you’ve run out of gas. One’s a collision, the other’s a petering out. One is a – you get the point.
Car Metaphors Are Obviously Not My Strength
OK, so I find plugging away at it is often counterproductive. I’ve often been saved by walking away. I’ll still think about the problem a lot, but not exclusively. Because I have laundry to do and baseball to watch and emails to fail to return. This loosens up the grip on my thinking a bit, and allows me a little more limberness of thought (gymnastics metaphors are also not my forte).
If that doesn’t yield results after a week or two, I find it’s often good to write about the work as if you were writing to someone and had to explain the problem to them in great detail. That simple, stupid trick fools my simple, stupid mind more times than not, and then I gain the perspective I need to see what the road ahead should – indeed must – look like (road metaphors are essentially car metaphors, so I’ll top there).
Failing that, I return to the writing technique I employ most: Frequent naps.
Second, Unrelated Thing
Our theater company has started a podcast; of course we have – everyone has. Anyway, please subscribe – and maybe even listen to – “New Normal Rep’s Play Date,” available wherever you find your favorite podcasts (it may take a day or two for it to be on Apple podcasts). I will owe you one. And visit http://www.newnormalrep.org to watch a live rehearsed reading of Nikkole alter’s excellent play, Torn Asunder on April 25th at 7:30 EDT, with a online talkback hosted by Jill Eikenberry.
I sometimes think about those first few Allied troops who stumbled upon the death camps that Nazi Germany had infected Europe with and the obscene spectacle they had to behold and absorb while trying to help the poor ragged souls who were somehow still alive.
As we bear witness to stomach-twisting sights of sadism in Ukraine, remembering the horrors of the Holocaust and the liberation of those camps in April, 1945 seems especially crucial.
For these hardened soldiers, who saw, endured, and in some cases inflicted horrors few of us can imagine, this sight was beyond even their capacity to comprehend human cruelty.
I would think the most awful moment that day was when the soldiers happily started handing out food as swiftly as they could to people who had been starved beyond the point of imagination. The soldiers must have allowed themselves an iota of pride as they nourished people who must have appeared all but drained of anything human. For the skeletal survivors, despite holding the food in their disbelieving hands, this must have felt beyond the scope of their imaginations.
The measure of gratitude both must have felt. At being able to eat, and being able to feed.
But then, almost immediately, the soldiers were ordered to take it all back from the newly liberated prisoners. Allied doctors knew these survivors of what would become known as the Holocaust, or Shoah, would die in agony if they ingested solid food in any large amount.
They would have to be slowly reintroduced to nourishment. They weren’t yet ready to rejoin the habits of the living.
To the confused recipients, given bread only to have it wrenched away a minute later, it must have seemed as cruel a psychological trick as anything the Nazis inflicted. And for the soldiers taking the food back, prying it from hands so skeletal and weak that their resistance must have felt unbearably sad. It may have even made them feel complicit in the evil they had found.
This was hardly the greatest cruelty these prisoners had to endure, of course, but something about that story affects me quite deeply. Perhaps because this historical snapshot takes the Holocaust – an event of such sweeping and sadistic barbarity that it will forever be impossible to fully wrap our heads around – and manages to make the enormity of it personal and human-sized.
Or maybe, it is because there are acts of unreasoning hatred and violence so stark in this world, even its healing demands a brutal patience that’s almost as cruel.
William Faulkner famously urged writers to “Kill your darlings,” and Hemingway would never shut up about some variant of that advice, usually in clean, economical prose. He went so far as to say you should write your story, and then take all of the “best” lines out. Was he in the middle of A) killing something B) divorcing someone C) drinking heavily or D) All of the above as he gave this advice? Most likely.
Yeah, Yeah, Whatever.
Still, I concede it’s good advice. Not a bad rule of thumb. But, like, a rule rule? A rule without thumbs? I dunno. Would we like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin half as much if they took our their best lines (I know, I know: what does “Best” mean? Let’s let that lie for today). The problem is, of course, most of us aren’t Fitzgerald, Morrison, or Baldwin. In fact, if I understand these things correctly, none of us are.
Which leaves us with the vexing problem of figuring our just who the hell are we? As writers, not people: I won’t even try to squeeze down that rabbit hole here. This is why it’s so important to have a good editor, or if you’re a playwright like I am, a good director and/or dramaturge.
Another thing: when we’re starting out, we haven’t learned that there’s a good chance the more we love a line, or a sentence, the more likely it needs to come out ASAP. It’s most likely self-conscious and overwrought. Or if it’s comedy, maybe not as funny as you think. This stage takes a long time. Very much so. More than is comfortable. But, with luck and metric crapload of trying and failing and reading and writing, and re-writing, and rinse, lather, repeating, you start to not only develop your own voice, but start to understand it. Two different things, it turns out. But if you begin to understand what you do best, and how to rely on craft to make it happen, you’re on your way. Well to the next difficult step, anyway.
Understanding that voice. This isn’t always quite the conscious act it sounds like, and that’s very often a good thing. But here’s what sorta sucks. Sometimes what we do well becomes our worst enemy. Because it’s now a trick, a crutch, and a good excuse not to push forward as hard on the other things. But surely if it’s what you do well, you shouldn’t stop doing it, right?
Yeah, Like I Know. Anyone Who’s Watched Me Try To Wrap A Present Wouldn’t Take My Advice On ANYTHING
I dunno. Depends on who you are as a writer, and how realistic you are about the quality and type of stuff you’re writing (and good luck with that. You likely wouldn’t have become a writer without at least a little ego and ego is the arch-nemesis of good re-writing, which incidentally nine times out of 10 is the secret sauce). At a guess, I’d say most of us shouldn’t abandon those skill we’ve come by, but always be wary about how and when we use them. Which is, I think, the crux of what Faulkner et al were getting at.
I just had a reading for a new play about Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. They were, if you don’t know, chock full of brilliant quips and loved, loved, loved to talk. Scratch that: Conversation and one-liners were, I think, a pathology for them.
Now, as you’ve no doubt gleaned, I’m a big over-writer. I’m fine with that, because I’ve also learned to become fine (usually) about chucking out a lot of my writing in rehearsals. I always lean towards cutting the damn thing. Even if I really like it. If it slows the momentum down or doesn’t work like you hoped it would, it pays to be a ruthless editor of your own stuff. Like, you don’t like you ruthless. And for many writers, at least the first part is easily doable.
But with this play, it was a challenge, because I had to balance that instinct with the reality of who these characters – and yes, they were people, but now they’re characters – are. Two people whose natures demanded honoring their stream of quips and flood of language. Also, I only allowed myself five of Parker’s real-life quips and like, two of Benchley6’s, which set up the downright hubristic challenge of putting quips in their mouths, which is a little like saying to Mozart, “Here, I wrote a tune for you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
Help: You Need Somebody; Not Just Anybody
I had the advantage of having really good and really smart actors – you’d be surprised how the two qualities don’t always totally overlap, as well as a very smart director. Together, we’d all pitch in with editing suggestions, which, if you’re insecure about you’re writing, you’re going to let your ego become defensive. I’m a carnival of insecurity in real life. My memoir will likely be titled, I Apologize for Inadequately Assessing My Inadequacies.
But with writing, I think I have the correct ratio, more days than not, of eagerness to hear smart criticism (and how to separate the smart from the not-so-smart criticisms should be like, 3/4 of any writing course. I’m far from infallible at this, but my rule of thumb i: are they critiquing your work, or arguing why you should write the play/novel/story that they would write?) but also stand my ground when I, open-minded as I am, still feel I’m right. Of course, feeling I’ve reached a good place in this is a clear sign I need to constantly reevaluate that belief.
Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself
I wrote a post a while ago about being really skeptical of writing advice, and would personally feel uncomfortable offering any. And yet here we are. I think it’s because this last play forced me to wrestle with the kill your darlings axiom more than usual. So, I’m probably doing this at least as much for myself as anyone who may stumble across it. The main reason I feel unqualified – apart from not being on the level of William Faulkner – is that I’m not you. You are the best judge of your writing. Or at least, you’d better try to learn to be. And how hard is that? Trying to learn to be objective about an innately subjective craft based in which your material is drawn inevitably from yourself, about whom, I hate to be the one to break it to you, you’re probably at least a little subjective.
It’s a hard gig, it turns out. But then, that’s why it feels good. Sometimes. I sometimes wonder what I have a better chance of totally grasping: my writing or my life. It’s a false choice, of course. That’s the whole freaking point. In the end, I think one writer said it best: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” sure, Shakespeare, you make it sound easy because you’re Freaking Shakespeare.
And even that guy wrote stuff like Timon of Athens on occasion. That’ kind of a comfort, though. we’ll never get it totally right, or even, for the vast majority of us, mostly right. That’s not the point. The point is trying to with every atom in your body and soul, while being OK with the fact you’ll fail. But maybe, to quote another guy who knew how to write, Samuel Beckett, you’ll fail better.
My Opinion are Not Necessarily The Opinions of My Own Blog or Even My Own Self
But that’s just me. Feel free to let me know where you think I’ve got it wrong and why. Cos I promise you, I have. Incidentally, I had an amazing last sentence for this, but I ended up cutting it.
I had my birthday this week – I had been putting it off for a while now – which means I turned 53. And so I got to thinking, “What, if anything, do I feel I can honestly say I’ve learned in this half century and change?
Here’s what I’ve come up with, and now I give you the gift of my wisdom. “What, me giving you a gift? It’s your birthday; surely it’s we who should be giving YOU a gift.”
That’s a great point. But you didn’t, did you? For whatever reason (and in the end, does it matter what the reason is?), you didn’t. So we will just have to put that behind us. Or try to. It’s early days. Anyway, here is a partial list (didn’t want to bog you down in Monty Python sketches) of what I THINK I’ve learned. Your mileage may vary:
– Despite my earlier assumptions in life, kindness is vastly more impressive and important than intelligence. Being proud of intelligence is like being proud of your blood type: an accident of birth. Kindness is a choice. An often very difficult one, whose benefits in the short term redound to others rather than yourself.
– Despite my earlier assumptions in life, our access to jet packs in the 21st Century is meager at best.
– I will never understand why some people have done what they’ve done. There reaches a point where accepting that is important and liberating.
– That isn’t permission not to make a good faith effort to try.
– I will never understand why I’ve done some of things I have done, and there reaches a point sometimes where accepting that is both important and liberating.
– This doesn’t free me from regular check ins about why and how I make the choices I do.
– Your friends matter. A lot. Choose them carefully and then tend to these friendships often and with care.
– Doing things with simplicity can be harder than building ornate structures for our thoughts and feelings. Complexity in thought and action is often a wonderful thing, but it can sometimes be used in the service of obscuring.
– Biting into an oatmeal raisin cookie you assumed was a chocolate chip cookie is a legitimate existential crisis.
– I will almost definitely never play for the New York Yankees. Frankly, the odds of ever making any Major League roster look dim at this point.
– So many of my life goals involve things beyond my control, and though that’s little comfort when I realize I may not achieve them, maybe it means I have to recalibrate my goals. Doing so is hard. It’s ok to feel how hard it can be.
– This is a BIG one: everyone is more or less winging it. I used to think there’d come an age when I’d wake up and finally understand the world. I haven’t. And I’m pretty confident no one has. I used to believe there must have been a day in school they taught us how to be adults and I happened to be absent that day. There is no such class.
– Few people terrify me more than those with absolute certainty.
– I need to remember that when I feel absolutely certain.
– This doesn’t exonerate you from your responsibility of taking action.
– I have accepted – at an alarmingly slow pace – the cliche that love is a verb and not a noun.
– Never turn down an offer of cake. Obviously this doesn’t apply to carrot cake.
– Forgiveness is often the hardest task in life, which makes it extra-important that we try our best to get good at it.
– There ARE no Nigerian princes who will to share part of their vast fortunes if you just give them a little money to help them out of a jam. Don’t believe their emails.
– We will probably never learn who let the dogs out.
– Be grateful if you can regularly achieve true gratitude.
– There will be things you say and do in an offhand way that you’ll quickly forget about that will stay with others their entire lives, for better or worse.
– Evil is real but relatively rare. Goodness is abundant but often hard to spot.
– This a controversial one – it’s ok to appreciate the contributions of people who may have also done bad things.
– The next time you want to condemn a person in the past for lacking what seems to us to be obvious moral and ethical truths, realize later generations will do the same to us.
– Giving a thank you wave when someone lets you go ahead of them in traffic is moral imperative.
– Unless they give you a good reason not to, always tip as generously as you can.
– A friend taught me this recently: Allowing people – especially loved ones- to help you isn’t a sign of failure.
– Don’t take it for granted people will always help you.
– Try to be frequently complicit in gentleness with whomever you can, whenever you can.
– Don’t confuse your gentleness for weakness, and make sure others don’t make the same mistake.
– If you’re debating about whether or not to order dessert, lean towards yes.
– I will never be able to correctly pronounce the word “Sudoko.”
– Ditto for correctly spelling the word “Bureaucracy.” I literally had to copy and paste it just now.
– Say yes for as long as you can, and learn to recognize when you no longer can.
– Learn to accept some people won’t ever like you. Obviously, try to keep the numbers down, but not everyone is going to like you. Just like you aren’t going to like everyone.
– You’re not required to like people, but you are required to be respectful of them. A hard one.
– Generally speaking, the love you take is equal to the love you make. I stole this one, obviously, but it’s still true.
– There are no grand conspiracies, evil or otherwise. You’re giving people way too much credit. We’re just not smart enough as a species.
– Learn the difference between quitting and choosing a different path.
– Your feelings subsist largely on a diet of your thoughts.
– The guilty party in every Scooby Doo episode is the second character the gang meets. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.
– While endlessly fascinating to you, no one else wants to hear the details of that dream you had last night. No. One.
– Our most important job is to make the world a slightly better place when you leave it than when you showed up, even if only an inch.
– I know, it’s hard to do, but I’ll repeat: it’s been too long now, and any potential leads have long since evaporated: all we can know is that the dogs are out. Who created this condition is unknowable. Let the healing begin.
Follow me on the Twitter and Instagram @jackcanfora
So, I’ve had no new plays to write recently, which is totally fine by me. I wrote two last year and something like five the couple of years before that, so I’m ok giving myself a break. I also wrote, for no reason other than I love British crime series, a British crime series. Not that I hold out much hope for it going anywhere; it just passed the time pleasantly.
It also gave me some much-needed practice at writing for television, which is not unlike writing plays, but it’s not exactly like writing plays. Sure, there’s dialogue, but it as rule needs far more economical language, far more characters, far more scenes told visually, and very few scenes that last more than a couple of pages. So actually, it’s very different. And I for one, find the differences challenging, but in a way that I can’t help but think will help my playwriting. I have a theory, and I doubt it’s very original, that your greatest talents as an artist, without constant vigilance, can quickly turn into your greatest weaknesses. You either lean too heavily on them that they become tiresome and predictable, or you fail to develop your other facets. Probably both.
As a playwright, I’ve been told, that dialogue is probably my greatest strength (or smallest weakness, depending on whom you ask). But even for playwriting, which is far more liberal medium for denser language, I still enter every rehearsal knowing that I will if I’m smart, I will walk out of that room with a shorter script than I walked in there with. So something like writing teleplays is, at worst, a good chance to become leaner with my language.
However, a few weeks ago, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I became interested in a story my brain was vaguely formulating that I instantly felt should be a novel. A novel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid reader of novels, and have been most of my life. So it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the basic blueprints. But still, I do believe at least a little in the 10,000 hours theory ( I believe it’s a necessary but insufficient requirement for mastery), and though I don’t have an abacus handy, I can safely say I won’t be getting anywhere near that number.
Regardless, I started it as an exercise, just to give me something to do and try out a different part of my writing brain. And I’m here to tell you…it’s weird. My girlfriend, who is a novelist, was actually encouraging about me trying my hand it. I was touched by her support. I now realize it was in part fueled by the joy she would experience reading my offerings and know the money and time she had spent requiring an MFA were not spent in vain.
I’m only about two chapters and one virtually complete rewriting of those chapters in, but it is, I am confidently told, guilty of writing too much and yet explaining not nearly enough. My dialogue, which in theory should be the one thing I can get a handle on, doesn’t quite cut it in the context of novel writing. As a playwright, you hope (or at least I do) strive to have your characters talk intelligently and in a way that makes them dimensional. Inevitably, this requires the characters often talk only obliquely – if it all – about what their true feelings and intentions are. This can work well in novels, but then I’m told it’s incumbent on the author to let the reader into the characters’ true intentions, and man, after spending so long avoiding that at all costs, is that a hard skill set to acquire. Because it necessitates eradicating so much of what you’ve absorbed into your writer’s DNA.
Of course, there are other writers who might disagree with this formulation. Hemingway leaps to mind. But that requires another whole other kind of mastery and well, once again, 10,000 hours is a long time.
I’ve no idea if I’ll continue to try to write this wannabe novel much longer. Regardless, I’m glad I’ve done it and am trying it. If nothing else, it’s forced me to look at narrative building from a new angle. And I think for someone such as myself, who’s written almost exclusively plays for decades, that’s a pretty gift. Regardless of this book’s development (or lack thereof), I have a feeling I’ll write my next play with a slightly fresher perspective. That’s pretty hard to come by after all these years.
You’re invited to a special reading of a new play by Jack Canfora, A VICIOUS CIRCLE. The reading, on April 11th at 1:00 and 6:00 at Open Jar Studios, (1601 Broadway, between 48th and 49th, 11th floor, Studio 12J), is a simultaneously laugh-out-loud and soul-wrenching drama about Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the trauma, loneliness, and longing that sharpened the tongues of two of the 20th century’s greatest wits.
Of all the members of the famed Algonquin Roundtable, Parker and Benchley, or “Park Bench” as they called themselves, were the closest of friends and yet the source of each other’s deepest insecurities, drawn to each other with a magnetic irresistibility they were both intoxicated and terrified by.
Directed by Heather Arnson (HERE’S TO THE LADIES WHO, F.I.R.E., THE ADULT IN THE ROOM) and compellingly read by Jeffrey Bean (DUBLIN CAROL, THE THANKSGIVING PLAY, FELLOW TRAVELERS) and Eleanor Handley (Tomm Stoppard’s The HARD PROBLEM at Lincon Center, JERICHO, THE SOURCE), Canfora’s (JERICHO, FELLOW TRAVELERS, two-time Edgerton Award winner for best new American plays) and produced by Evan Bergman (FELLOW TRAVELERS, POETIC LICENSE, BUTLER ), A VICIOUS CIRCLE is a play for anyone who has ever found their own brilliantly
constructed emotional walls have shielded them from both bitter disappointment and their best chances of happiness.
Alternatively, if you simply love watching devastatingly witty and smart people make damaging life choices in the cleverest possible ways, this is a can’t miss.
Seats are limited, so please reserve your free slot for whichever reading you’d like to attend: 1pm or Sis pm by writing email@example.com.
I’m no expert in…well the list is too long to leave here, but military matters and deep insights into despots number among them. But I think people who believe Putin has gone crazy do so at their peril.
I mean, he is clearly a sociopath, which is a kind of insanity. But that’s not new. I think most people mean “irrational,” and I don’t think he’s been so. He gravely, gravely misjudged the mood of Ukrainians towards Russian annexation, perhaps because of how Crimeans reaction to his invasion in 2014. Perhaps because no one is willing to tell him any unpleasant truth. That’s certainly the case in his miscalculation about Russia’s military readiness.
But given his info, invading Ukraine was totally rational. Evil and murderous, yes, but not “crazy.” He has always wanted Ukraine for various strategic, pragmatic, and nostalgic reasons. And it was a great way to dip a toe in the water to see how NATO would react. If they reacted as he had every reason to believe they would, that is to say, fractionally and loaded with internecine squabbles, it would clear the way to take on the NATO Baltic states.
He must be shocked to see NATO this unified, because, let’s face it, NATO is a little shocked to see NATO this.
Now he’s stuck in a war he knows he absolutely cannot win long term. This makes him very dangerous. But still, attacking NATO now would be the height of irrational thinking, and moreover, radically different than every other war he’s fought. Like all bullies, he generally goes after targets a lot less imposing than he is. NATO isn’t only every bit Russia’s size and bigger, but infinitely better equipped and trained (many Russian soldiers have been issued rations that expired in 2002).
I’ve no idea what will happen next, but the talk about Puting being irrational, well, I don’t see it. I see horrible planning and intelligence, and a surprisingly resilient Ukraine and United West, and God knows I see evil, but I think dismissing him as crazy is a serious misreading.
Yesterday, I stepped out the door of my childhood home for the final time. I moved there in early 1978 (I distinctly recall thinking at the time how long ago that was), and apart from a 14 month sojourn in London, stayed there through the early 1990s, apart from when I was away at college. I’ve lived many other places, but that house, or home if you want to be all Oprah about it, was the chief setting of my little life: a central and abiding fact of my existence.
And now, to be factual and melodramatic at once, I will never return. Which isn’t all bad, by any stretch. As Arthur Miller wrote, “Life is a casting off.” I had spent the last few years back in an apartment on my parents’ property – because I’m exactly that cool – and it had long since been time for me to move on. Besides, as people in their 70s living in the suburbs of New York, my parents are required under penalty of the law to move to Florida. So the writing was on the wall that the movers nicked a few times getting my couch out.
But as I walked through my old home’s rooms after they’d been freshly hollowed out, and every step or sound was thrown back in shrill echoes, I once again found myself a victim of my crippling nostalgia.
I mean, let’s face it: not every memory there is a happy one. That’s hardly surprising for a relationship that lasted nearly half a century. But I know that my children, and I think my father, and perhaps even myself, always had a vague ghostly notion that the property would stay in the family somehow. Life had other plans, like always (life can be a dick that way). But the fact remains, regardless of what happens in my remaining time above ground, I will have spent the bulk of my life in the emotional and pragmatic orbit of that home.
My children still live nearby (for now, when they aren’t in school), and I won’t be too far away, either, so I’ll have ample chance to drive by. But I don’t see that happening. I have a sentimental weakness for having a sentimental weakness, so that trip would puncture too big a hole in my balloon-thin facade of stoicism. Perhaps I’m more affected by this than I think I should be (even more than I’m letting on, which, considering this whole post is centered around how much this is affecting me, is probably quite a bit) because in my formative years, the corporate ladder my father climbed had rungs in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York once again, London, and then New York for good. All of them ascended before I turned 12. It’s probably why I’ve lacked the geographic restlessness so many of my friends have had.
It’s been an interesting few days. Scrambling to move is often a bit of an emotional and logistical trial, and this one really leaned into that aspect. On the plus side, I did set a new sea-level record for putting down a roll of packing tape only to be unable to find it 10 seconds later. Watching my parents leave the house for their final time, my mother without so much as a look back (my mother’s photo, accompanied by her statement, “I’m not a sentimental person” is now the Oxford English Dictionary’s official definition for the word “Understatement”), my father worrying over practical details as ever, I was struck by how unlike their attitudes mine is. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Maybe I’m just a bit of a wuss; it’s quite possibly both. Definitely the second one plays some role.
Either way, to quote my second playwright of this post (Kushner, Tony), “The world only spins forward.” And while I have some quibbles with that cosmic plan, God isn’t returning my texts these days. So, while my two dogs and I wait out my nearby move into our new home (hard to tell which of the three of us feels most unsettled), at an Air B and B 15 miles to the east of my family’s no-longer home, I am using my time in isolation to improve at something I have no gift for: looking ahead without resisting the urge to rent a boat and row against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. That was a pretty good line I just wrote, no? Don’t Google it. Anyway, it’s out of copyright.
For once, my actual environs match my inner ones: dislocation. It’s probably good for me. Perhaps it builds character, which is something stupid people say when they’re trying, but not really trying especially hard, to pretend an objectively awful thing isn’t objectively awful.
So, if the moment calls for a little wallowing, I’ll probably indulge in a wallow or two. This certainly counts as one. But it’s always good to know that ultimately you can carry things with you and still move forward. Or, I as I wrote in a song I composed this morning, “You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” Good, no? Don’t Google it.
Ok, just to be clear, this isn’t a post debating the merits and debits of cancel culture. At all. So, let’s all take a cleansing breath to celebrate that. However, the passing of the peerless Joan Didion got me thinking about what it takes to be a great writer (not that I’m putting myself in the running at all). Didion, with her clean, often spare yet often poetic prose, her cool objectivity that allowed her readers to see with unprecedented clarity, wrote some of the greatest sentences I’ve ever read. That’s a big part of what makes a her deeply memorable writer, in fact a supremely gifted writer, to be sure. But I think, and further, I bet she’d agree, those qualities are necessary but not sufficient to make her the truly great writer she was.
She was unquestionably a GREAT writer. So, then, what is that special quality that separates the very, very good, even the gifted writers, from those who works will be read 50 and even 100 years from now.? Didion felt quite sure – and was happy to talk openly about it – that quality is ruthlessness. She was, with admirable frankness, unambiguous about expressing this idea. She referred to writing as an “act of aggression,” and added, “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
Well, you may be saying, that’s not so bad, I mean, it’s not like she holds a gun to the reader’s head to read her thoughts. I sympathize with that notion. Most readers want authors to challenge or impose themselves with their writing.
But what about the time in the late 60s, while visiting a filthy hellish distortion of a hippie commune in San Francisco, sifting through the putrid aftermath of “Flower Power,” and she happened upon a toddler on LSD? ] She was later asked what her reaction to this sight was. She said she was appalled, that she wanted to call the police. But, after a long embarrassed pause, she added, with more quiet conviction “Let me tell you, it was gold.” Her face in this interview suddenly reveals a bright unapologetic gleam in her eyes. “You live for moments like that,” she flatly declared, “if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.” You live, she makes plain, for moments like that. A human tragedy and a scene of jaw-dropping child abuse? No doubt. But what an image! But the fact is, she has a point. That moment framed not only one of her greatest essays, but one of the definitive essays of that era.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about great artists who were jerks more or less all their lives, like Hemingway or Picasso. I’m asking if every writer needs an unabashed thirst for the jugular if they want to write anything within walking distance of “great.” I’m not calling a Joan Didion a monster or anything. That’s what makes this so interesting to me: she wasn’t. She was, by many measures, a very good person. She felt genuine pity and disgust for what that poor child was being subjected to. But any impulse of compassion was usurped by the palpable thrill of what she knew would make an indelible mark in her essay and in the minds of those who read it.
I’m a playwright, mostly, not an essayist. And I’ve only written one play in my life that was vaguely based on my direct experience. And it wasn’t really very good: I was probably too close. I’m also not pretending to in any way on the level of Joan Didion, of course. But the fact is, the cliche about every character in a writer’s works are reflections of the writer’s mind, which necessarily includes her/his feelings and opinions of others, has more merit than I’d like to cop to. I sometimes wonder if the difference ultimately between a wonderfully gifted writers and GREAT writers is more than a willingness to live with their mouths filled with the taste of blood, but craving it.
It’s entirely plausible to me that a truly great writer will – in fact, must -privilege their work over everything else in their lives – including their family. I mean not only in terms of giving them her time and presence, but a willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, to peel back away the psychological pain of those closest to them like a cored apple. Or, as Didion herself expressed with characteristic distance and clarity, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” I kinda see her point. I’m relentless with my characters, not to be cruel to them, but to reveal themselves with as much honesty as possible.
And any true act of honesty has at least a whiff of cruelty to it.
I also think it’s important as a writer to find a part of their characters they can empathize with, no matter what they do or how they behave. And the truth is, although my plays almost exclusively deal with characters and situations I’ve never directly experienced, I can only write about what I know about people, who by definition are comprised largely of my friends, partners, and family. It has long been impossible for me to be with anyone, in any context, without unthinkingly observing their behaviors, attitudes, language, and even – let’s face it, especially – their pain, which I unconsciously (mostly) store like live lobsters in a tank, until I see one I think will do, pluck it squirming, and toss it into the boiling pot until it’s ready foe consumption.
Are most of my characters directly related to the people in my life? Almost always not. But sometimes, there are clear moments (or clear to me) of overlap, and it’s never focused on what’s admirable and dignified about them. Because those things are, from a dramatic perspective, boring. I’ve stolen individual moments and words – too many to count – and although sometimes I’m not conscious of doing so, just as often I am. I try to justify this by thinking the individuals are unlikely to recognize themselves – in fact, it’s fascinating how often people see themselves in characters they having nothing to do with. At least I think they don’t. How can I claim to know?
I quote Didion again: “To believe in the “greater good” is to operate, necessarily, in a certain ethical suspension.” I’d like to think it’s not a prerequisite. Perhaps it isn’t.
And the bonus is, it wasn’t written by me, but by someone much better, and better still, now long since gone past the point of copyright concerns!
Besides, the letter is written to someone named Kappus, which I repeatedly misread as Krappus, so that’s comic gold right there…
Rome, 23 December 1903
My dear Mr Kappus,
You shall not go without greetings from me at Christmas time, when you are perhaps finding your solitude harder than usual to bear among all the festivities. But if you notice that it is great, then be glad of it; for what (you must ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not great?
There is only one solitude, and it is vast and not easy to bear and almost everyone has moments when they would happily exchange it for some form of company, be it ever so banal or trivial, for the illusion of some slight correspondence with whoever one happens to come across, however unworthy …
But perhaps those are precisely the hours when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys and sad like the beginning of spring. But that must not put you off. What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours – that is what one must arrive at. Loneliness of the kind one knew as a child, when the grown-ups went back and forth bound up in things which seemed grave and weighty because they looked so busy, and because one had no idea what they were up to.
And when one day you realize that their preoccupations are meagre, their professions barren and no longer connected to life, why not continue to look on them like a child, as if on something alien, drawing on the depths of your own world, on the expanse of your own solitude, which itself is work and achievement and a vocation?
Why wish to exchange a child’s wise incomprehension for rejection and contempt, when incomprehension is solitude, whereas rejection and contempt are ways of participating in what, by precisely these means, you want to sever yourself from?
I’d not planned on posting in depth about “Get Back,” but after a couple of people expressed disbelief that I hadn’t, I realized, “Hasn’t my entire life on social media been leading up to this?” Fair point. So, having had some time (not enough, I’ll be returning to and unpacking this behemoth for a while to come), I’ll offer my first impressions.
Spoiler Alert: The Beatles Eventually Break Up
Spoiler alerts. First off, if you’re at best a casual fan of the band, I’d wager there will be parts that will be pretty tedious and downright yawn-inducing. This project wasn’t really made with them in mind. If you’re moderate fan, I think you’ll enjoy it quite a bit, even though you’ll maybe want to fast forward here and there. I mean, it’s 8 1/2 hours in total. But if you’re a serious fan of The Beatles, well, it’s one of the most fascinating things you’re likely to ever see on them. It has fundamentally rewritten the story of how and why they broke up, for one. More on that in a bit.
Allow Me To Mansplain The Beatles For A Second
But here’s my theory about why The Beatles get into so many people’s nervous systems and stay there forever. Of course, most of it is that they wrote and recorded some of the greatest music ever, period. But beyond that, more than any band I can think of, their personalities were so interesting and large that they had their own narratives. So much so that even casual fans have some vague and yes, reductive, notion of who they were: Paul polite and cute, Lennon funny and biting, Harrison removed and spiritual, Ringo affable, etc. Their music and their personalities can make you feel on some deep and ineffable level that you know them and they – somehow – know and understand you. I’m talking in sweeping and simplified generalizations, but I hope you get the gist. And Get Back’s greatest accomplishment emotionally is that feeling of truly having a mysterious, inexplicable, intimate knowledge of them is intensified geometrically. We are in the room with them, hearing and seeing how they interact with another in a way that’s nothing short of revelatory. Yes, there is an awareness on their part that they’re being filmed. But the cameras are so ubiquitous the unrelenting they often, especially in Parts 2 and 3, seem to forget about them and we see how they truly worked together as a band and as friends.
Part One is at times, frankly, a little tough to watch, as there is a palpably odd vibe (to borrow from the vernacular) to it. It’s far too early in the morning for them – namely, it’s morning – they’re in a cavernous and cold foreign space with as, George immediately observes, “Terrible acoustics.” Also, bear in mind, they had released The White Album – 30 songs – less than two months before, and now they proposed writing and performing 14 new songs in less than a month. Who’d even try that? The traditional narrative (bolstered by the Let It Be film) paints Paul out as a bossy and relentless taskmaster whom John and George understandably grow sick of. And yes, Paul IS very much the one to wrangle them like a teacher trying to inspire bored students (I know his pain). But what’s made clear here is that Paul knows he’s coming off this way, and he HATES having to be put in that position. And he has been put in that position. Most immediately because John is addicted to heroin and Yoko and has seemingly checked out (which he kinda is through much of the first part). And George….well, let’s talk about George for a second.
The Quiet One
Harrison, after contributing songs like the brilliant While My Guitar Gently Weeps and the tragically underrated Long, Long, Long, had established himself as among the better songwriters around to more or less everyone except John and Paul. To them, he was still a kid. When George joined the band, John was 17 and George 14. Think of that age gap. And think of your family – it’s really hard to ever escape how you’re seen by your older siblings. In Part One, George had just returned from hanging out with The Band and a singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan. It turns out they not only respected George as a musician and composer, but admired him. Dylan himself expressed his admiration for George’s musicianship and writing.
And so George comes into the project hoping to instill some of that feeling of open and easy collaboration. But he is immediately reminded by Paul and John he’s the junior. Paul does this by barely being able to muster polite interest in his work, and Lennon with outright mockery of George’s new song, I, Me, Mine. George responds appropriately with “I don’t give a fuck if you don’t want it on your album.”
Finally, George quits, in a very Harrison way: quiet and totally indifferent to what other people think. He says simply he’s leaving, and when asked when, he says “Now. See you round the clubs.” and he’s gone. And while Lennon quips they have to figure out how to split up George’s instruments, and callously says if he’s not back by Tuesday they’ll get Clapton, we see that this is bluster. The three remaining Beatles huddle together, physically and off mic, clearly shaken by this.
Let’s Do Lunch, And Secretly Record It
In one of the most amazing parts of the documentary, a mic is hidden at a table unbeknownst to John and Paul as they talk about George over lunch. Lennon is honest and insightful, owning up to the truth that he and Paul have created a deep wound with George and that it’s now “festering.” Paul agrees. John also says that Paul’s penchant for knowing exactly what he wants everyone to play on his songs has made them feel like session musicians rather than collaborators. What’s unmistakable in this exchange is that these two men have great love and respect for each other, and feel bad about mistreating George, whom they also love and, yes, if they have to admit it, admire at least a little, and their regret at treating him badly for so long. They have hurt him in the way many family members hurt each other: unthinkingly and carelessly. When George does come back, they both make a point of treating him with more respect, and they are all the better for it, emotionally and musically.
From there on in what we see is a band of brothers. Lennon is fully engaged, invested and brilliantly playful and witty. He’s also charmingly self-deprecating about his relative lack of instrumental skill compared to George and Paul. Playing a rare lead part on a song, he quips, “Every time I play lead I remember why I don’t play lead.” George’s input is heard and valued, Paul is still leading the way, but with a gentler touch, and Ringo remains everyone’s friend.
It’s also clear they know they are on the cusp of breaking up, not because of Yoko, but because they’ve been been together for a decade and, just like brothers leaving home, they have reached a stage where they need to be their own people. Even Paul, who clearly doesn’t want this to be true, tacitly acknowledges this.
Here are some fascinating/fun/moving takeaways, in no order:
– Yoko is actually pretty chill. Once or twice she does her unbearable wailing thing, but she doesn’t seem to impose herself very much. She is right next to John at more or less all times, but that is clearly John’s need, and the others, especially Paul are generally respectful of that. Paul makes a couple of oddly prescient and prophetic points throughout the series, but perhaps none more than his observation “It’ll seem pretty silly in 50 years time if people say we broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.” He is largely supportive of the relationship, admitting they’ve gone a bit overboard, but he says “That’s what John does.”
– The moment early in Part Two when Paul starts to think the band may be over, the camera stays on his face as he sits silently with tears welling in his eyes. He is a man dazed and crushed by grief, and it’s heartbreaking.- When John arrives soon after then and resolves to be more committed and begins to joke and entertain everyone, Paul is in heaven. Throughout the series, the love and respect the two have each other is made more clear than ever. Their bond is unique, once in a lifetime, and though they wouldn’t admit it, they both know it.
– It’s no news to hear that they weren’t saints by any means, but something I felt and have heard from others is just how NICE they were all are, even John. They are surrounded by people who are desperate to be near them and want something from them all day every day all their lives, but seem largely mindful of how to treat people with kindness and dignity. The moment where a clapboard operator stands near Paul and asks him questions about how to write songs is a great example. Paul sits at the piano and talks to him in a completely unpretentious way, and treats the kid (maybe he’s 20?) as an equal, explaining things without seeming arrogant in any way. He then tells him, “Unless you stop yourself, nothing can stop yourself,” which is both something Yogi Berra should’ve said, and a truly profound statement about making art.
– speaking of creating, the sequence in which Paul, knowing they’re short of material, starts strumming one string on his bass over and over until we see, in the space of about three minutes, he wills a new song – Get Back – out of the ether. George and Ringo witness and go from being bored to enthused in three minutes. It’s just sort of a jaw-dropping moment to behold. Getting to watch Paul McCartney make up a song is one of the greatest gifts of the film, I think.
– Man, was McCartney on fire. After all of his White album contributions, as well as writing Lady Madonna and Hey Jude in ’68, he shows up in January with another trove of tunes, including Let It Be, and brings new ones in almost daily. Many of which end up on Abbey Road, and one or two in his solo work. Part of this is also clearly showing off for his new girlfriend Linda Eastman. It worked
– Not that this is important, but Linda, often derided by misogynists for not being as pretty as her husband is, in fact, quite beautiful as well as being funny and instantly likable. Her six year old daughter Heather shows up for one session. Paul’s clearly in love with her and is heartwarmingly paternal. The other Beatles are also great with her: Ringo makes her laugh by letting her bash on his cymbals and acting stunned, and John gently teases her about her new kittens, asking if she’s going to eat them. She finds this funny and tells him you don’t eat cats. She then describes the kittens, and John grudgingly agrees, “No you don’t eat those kind of cats, you’re right.”
– The film’s director is pretty unbearable, and they are all far more patient and polite with him than you’d expect of not only the world’s biggest stars, but just any sentient being. They make it clear they’re in charge, but in a very gentle and non-aggressive way.
– Billy Preston’s arrival and joining the group invigorates them and they are all spurred on to give their all- The unabashed joy Paul and John take in playing live together and the looks they exchange are thrilling and moving- Watching all four of them listening back to their music in the control room, clearly happy with what they’ve done, and being in each other’s company, making each other laugh, makes you understand how special their bond was.
I’ve been right all of this time to like The Beatles
Anyway, that’s my first impression thoughts. If you had the patience to read this whole thing, you’ve definitely got the stamina to watch it in its entirety.
Trigger Warning: this post has no content. Not literally, obviously. I mean, the very words “this post has no content” proves that there IS content. I mean, there’s nothing in this post in terms of, well, anything. It’s a blank canvass, minus the blankness and the canvass. This piece is pure Zen, but without the Zen part. It’s, for all intents and purposes, Zenless.
That should be clear at this point. But I don’t mean “nothing” in the smoking cigarettes in a Paris cafe and romanticizing the vacuum that we all must face. Well, maybe a bit. But that’s not its central thrust. I come not to bury nothingness, but to praise it. Full disclosure: you can’t bury emptiness. Which, just taken on its own terms, sounds vaguely profound. But I’m here to reassure you it isn’t. It is, in fact, nothing.
As usual, The Beatles were right: “Nothing is real.”
Don’t get me wrong: too much of nothing, assuming there can be too much of something that doesn’t exist, is problematic. Paradoxically, I’ve found when I have nothing to do for too long, that nothing corrodes into an interiority which is quite unpleasant. So too much nothing becomes something if you’re not careful.
But, just the right amount of nothing, which is something I find, well, hard to find (hard to find being one of nothing’s primary characteristics) is a wonderful tonic for the soul (assuming the soul is something). Today, for no reason I can think of, the relentless inner monologue that normally pinballs around my head has taken a brief intermission. For the sheer disquietude of that I can only liken it to a snake eating its own tail in a documentary narrated by Gilbert Gottfried. By the way, there is a word for a snake eating its own tail: ouroboros. Isn’t that something?
But not today. Today the vast presence of absence fills me with calm, or, more accurately I guess, drains me of uncalm. Which I don’t think is a thing. Not for nothing, but I know what you’re thinking (I think). You may be thinking: “But Jack, you ruggedly handsome thing, this whole post is so achingly self-conscious, the idea that nothing is happening in your head is ridiculous. Nothing worthwhile? Sure. But surely something’s going on up there.”
Ouch. First of all, stop objectifying me. And…you may well be right. However, today, where I live, it’s gloriously sunny and warm, but not hot, and the leaves are starting to put on a show, and I, for once, am content to just watch them fall softly to the ground. And I’m happy, at least for the moment, to be contented with that.
George Washington mandated his troops get small pox inoculations (he was initially hesitant, as he was afraid it would signal weakness to the British then realized the pros vastly outweighed the cons), when its efficacy wasn’t exactly peer reviewed.
He didn’t tolerate the insipid line of thinking that confuses freedom with utter self-absorption.
If you think Governors Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis know more about core American values than George Washington, you shouldn’t be allowed outdoors unaccompanied. Nor indoors, come to think of it. History will unambiguously damn these politicians and their sociopathic, enabling hucksters who play on peoples’ ignorance and heartlessly sacrifice lives to keep their bloodstained clutches on the levers of power to compensate for the gaping holes in their humanity. But shame on us for letting them.
OF COURSE YOU DO, FRANKLY, WHO COULD RESIST SUCH A GREAT TEASER?
The good news: this will be a short post. The bad news: I’ll be acting as if I know something. And I think it’s only fair to reming everyone of the late, great William Goldman wrote, “Nobody knows anything.” So, that said, let me tell you what I know. Or think I know. Or think I think I know. I think.
WAIT, SERIOUSLY, YOU’RE ACTUALLY GOING TO TALK ABOUT WRITING MONOLOGUES?
Yep. So, recently, a good friend of mine, who is among the best playwrights I personally know (her name is Julia Blauvelt, btw. Remember that name. You heard it here first) paid my a great compliment. She felt that I wrote monologues especially well (modesty forbids I repeat the full extent of what could, and indeed must, be described of her gushing to me about it. But Capitalism compels me to remind you my plays, Poetic License and Jericho are both available on Amazon and begging you to judge for yourselves whether or not she was right. For my money – or rather, yours – start with Jericho). She asked me my approach to them, which was very flattering, primarily because she assumed I had one.
But, it turns out, I think I do have one. And I offer it to you here, gratis, so you can be assured of getting your money’s worth. So, bounded in a nutshell, here it is, more or less:
OBVIOUSLY, NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO TAKE OUT YOUR NOTEBOOKS.
My personal theory on monologues is that they should be like Shakespeare’s soliloquies, or songs in a musical: they should only happen when the stakes and/or emotions are so high that regular dialogue simply won’t cut it. The should feel, at least in retrospect, inevitable. They should either reveal something frightening but necessary to articulate, or that the character feels profoundly unheard. Ideally both.
Approach them with caution, I say. Like you would, say, a dog you don’t know, or someone who ends their Facebook posts with “Just sayin'” Monologues are also – for me certainly, but I suspect I’m not alone – when a playwright is most likely to give into falling a little in love with the sound of their voice. And now you’re not articulating your characters’ issues, but your own. And you’d be amazed how less invested audiences are in your own.
Now, do I follow my own advice? Generally, I’ve found that following my own advice never ends well (e.g., “These denim shorts would look AMAZING on me). However, on this, I try to. I try to. It’s hard no to fall into this trap. And sometimes, let’s face it, it’s just easier. Because, as that insufferable dictum states, you’re now telling and not showing. Incidentally, I also believe that maxim, while a good rule of thumb, should be more of a guideline than a rule, because sometimes telling something to an audience, if done well, can, to quote Chekhov, “Fucking rock!”
SORRY, I’VE FORGOTTEN: WHY THE HELL SHOULD WE LISTEN TO YOU?
A fair, if somewhat needlessly aggressively question. I would say in my defense between a playwright who follows me on Twitter and myself, we have racked up a Pulitzer prize. So that’s something, maybe? I don’t know. I could be wrong about it all. I guess my best reason to offer would be that I have actually spent time on this gloriously sunny day, devoted some time to writing about it, which means I must have given it a modicum of thought. And I’m not a TOTAL idiot (those are rare). After all, I just used the word “modicum” successfully. Anyway, let me know your thoughts about this.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. My next one: “Tank Tops: 10 Reasons Why I Should Never Wear Them.”
I know, I know, the picture is a speech, not really monologue. Apparently a commencement speech for a depressingly small group of students. But you, know, you get the gist.
Dear God, Please Don’t Tell Us You’re Going To Try To Teach us About Comedy
For the few of you who can recall essays I have written on here, I tend to try to levin somewhat serious topics with occasional stabs at humor (some hits, some misses, to be sure). Comedy and seriousness can often make for strange bedfellows, as anyone who has tried to sleep with comedy can attest to (an S.J. Perelman homage), but I happen to think they are largely inseperable. Most of life, I contend, makes it so.
Oh God, You ARE Going To Write About Comedy. That Never Ends Well.
Anyway, I was recently asked to write a about the nature of humor, despite my conviction that talking about comedy is as useful as swimming about Keynesian economic theory. Like anything else humans are or do, humor is equally equipped to salve or savage, to poison or purify, to nurse wounds or grudges. Please, be assured I will in no way attempt to explain the nature of comedy, or what makes something “funny.” Dear Lord, nothing is less funny than that. Besides, who the hell am I to think I know?
Want an example of how awful explaining humor is? For that, let us turn to some of the great Western minds. One in particular.
Oh God, You’re Bringing In A Philosopher. It’s Gotten Worse, Somehow
If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, read the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For a sheer eat-your-angst-ridden- heart-out-Morrissey level of humorlessness, he is tough to beat. He tackles humor with all the sunniness of Sophie’s Choice. Like most philosophers, he makes the critical error of confusing humorlessness for seriousness.
“Observing the imperfections of other men,” he says, “causes laughter. Much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words, humor is sometimes cruel. When I read this, I made a roll of my eyes so strenuous I needed to be rushed to an ophthalmologist. But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things that aren’t.
Besides, viewing humor like that is to miss the point entirely. It is like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanoma and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. Hence Hobbes’ nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Is There Going To Be, You Know, Any Humor In This Essay On Humor?
Yes, life can be all those things (imagine what Hobbes would have had to say about life in the 17th Century had he been an Englishwoman). And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? No one I’d ever trust. I believe that humor binds us because it reassures us that, despite evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are.
The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, puppies, and the living poetry of great athletes. The world is home to playgrounds surrounded by green, rolling hills, as well as playgrounds with glass sharded over its asphalt like sprays of diamonds on black cloth. It’s also home to innumerable flowers struggling and blooming through cracks of that asphalt. Most importantly, the world also contains laughter.
Hobbes called laughter “A Sudden Glory,” but he was a philosopher, so I cannot assure you he meant it as a compliment. Maybe the idea of momentary joy – perhaps, in the end, the only kind of joy there is – as a pure good eluded him, as it often eludes most of us. But, every now and then, it catches itself on the ragged edge of a laugh. And that has to be enough. It is enough. We should be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. Let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. Those moments are our best hope of it, I believe. Such moments are indeed “sudden glories.” I wish you, and all of us, many of them.
“HOW HARD IT IS TO BE SIMPLE!” – VINCENT VAN GOGH, IN A LETTER TO HIS BROTHER, THEO
I start with this quote not merely to lend my post an unearned credibility by associating it with the sentiments of a genius, but because I find it an amazingly true insight into creativity and, ugh, I’ll just get this out of the way by admitting it upfront: Life.
Last week, I posted about the necessity of being thrown out of your usual habits to grow as an artist, and for all I know, a person. I believe in that still. And yet…and yet…I come not bury that thesis, but offer some caveats, a word derived from the Latin “wimping out”.
OSCAR-WINNING CASE IN POINT
I watched Nomadland this weekend, and thought it was magnificent and deeply moving. Art with a capital ART. But rather than enthuse about its many great qualities, I’d like to focus on some of my thoughts afterwards (and even during) that film. I loved virtually every scene in that movie, and marveled at how economically it approached the telling of its narrative.
And I kept thinking, “I would love to write like that. But it’s the mirror image of how I write.” And while last week I wrote about the necessity of setting up challenges and obstacles for yourself to whack your brain out of its well-worn grooves, I also realize there is more than one way to make art, and there is more than one kid of artist.
There’s no formula. That often becomes the antithesis of Art. A fundamental problem in making “art,” as I see it, is that your strengths are often over time transposed into your great weaknesses.
LET’S BE HONEST WITH OURSLEVES, HOWEVER TRAUMATIZING THAT MAY WELL PROVE
Am I good at pithy dialogue? A little, I think. So great! That’s a lovely skill. But lean into that too often, and I become at risk of being merely that. Writing nothjng but empry calories. Desserts. I’m missing the meal itself. I can only speak for myself. My strengths turn inevitably into my crutches. And in the immortal words of Chico Marx, “Thattsa no good, boss.” I try to be on guard about getting mired in technique and habit, both of which are invaluable by themselves but not the sum of good writing. This delineation is harder for than it sounds.
I always try to curtail the worst excesses of my many writerly indulgences. Like I said last week, I think it’s essential for artists to stretch themselves. And yes, all of these discussions on writing circle none-too-subtly around the ides that these concepts apply equally to Life.
But, in the end, there’s only so much of your tendencies and style you can change until you cease to become you. Would I love to be able to write the stark, and as I understand it, at times improvised dialogue that madeNomadland so moving? I think I would, yes. But, for better or worse, that’s no the writer I seem to be.
And while I maintain it’s important to constantly challenge yourself as a person to see if you’re approaching things critically and intellectually form a fresh perspective (hard to do), I think you can’t do that until you come to an honest understanding of who you actually are.
And this is the reason I’m convinced I’m not invited to many parties. I’m always flip-flopping. Can’t seem to stick to one set of ideas. So not matter what someone says, I’m inclined to disagree. Or agree and then immediately question that agreement. That’s got to be the reason. It’s certainly not my bringing my guitar and insist we have a singalong but make clear I will NOT be taking requests. Nor can it be my reflexive habit of referring to everyone, even lifelong friends, as “Chief.”
“LORD, WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE, BT KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE”
Hemingway famously advised to write your story, and then take all the good lines out, and then and only then do you have your story. I think this is worth bearing mind as a guard against prose that’s too purple, and especially sage advice for young writers, who likely became writers because they did love the sound of their voices, would we have truly wanted Fitzgerald to take out his “good lines” in The Great Gatsby, Or Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues,” or Morrison in, well, anything?
Faulkner wasn’t Hemingway, who wasn’t Morrison, who wasn’t Fitzgerald, who wasn’t Baldwin. And while I’m all for greedily snatching up anything I can from these geniuses, I also need to realize what my basic nature is, and while honestly challenging it at times, never to go to war with it.
Take out Tom Stoppard’s good lines and you’re more likely than not left with a ten minute and equivocating essay on quantum theory and the like.
So writing, and again (Jesus, we get it, you’re drawing parallels to life at large, don’t make a meal out of it), Life, seems a constant internal recalibration. Anyway, that’s one of the hardest thing so for me about writing. That and titles. And , well, everything else.
ALWAYS, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, BELIEVE IN MODERATION
As a fellow Long Islander – one who never met a line of his he seemed to dislike (feel free to correct me, Whitman scholars) – “Do I contradict myself? Very Well, I contradict myself.” As the Greeks, whose dramatists I turn to whenever I feel the need for raw human emotion or that my family isn’t truly that bad, phrased it: Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
TYING THE PROVERBIAL BOW ON THINGS
And so my cyber-comrades, yes, this is why, as the title suggests, my equivocation on supposedly deeply held below is among the reasons I’m not invited to a lot of parties. But to be clear, my schedule’s pretty open. Drop me a line, Chief.
In my experience, there is only one true way to tackle a diet: failingly. This perhaps explains why I am becoming the answer to the seldom asked philosophical question, “What would Orson Welles have looked like if he weren’t a genius?”
Having said that, I’m happy to report that my latest diet has been largely successful: a steep reduction in my news consumption. For most of my life, I’ve been an avid follower of politics and current events. I not only found it interesting (for the most part – financial news will forever sound to me like when the adults spoke in those televised Peanuts specials), but if I can climb on my high horse for moment without hurting it or myself too badly, I believe it’s a basic obligation of a citizen of a democracy to stay informed. Please avert your eyes as I try to dismount: it won’t be pretty.
America, 2015-2021: What The Was That? And Why Is It Still Here?
There. Only fell twice, and they assure me the horse, with some patience and therapy, will walk again. Ever since the 2000 Election, when I was but a young boy (emotionally), I feel that duty has grown even more urgent. And let’s just say that the last four years or so have not been easy on my nervous system. In fact, as the – and forgive my coarseness here – shenanigans of the past administration continued to help drive the world into a bad rewrite of an abandoned Orwell novel, I found myself even more consumed with the events of the day, which seemed to accrue with a speed Chuck Yeager would have found dizzying. I realized it made me edgier (not in the “Oh my god, he’s so cool and daring” way, more the, “What the hell is your problem” way) and an even harder person to be around than normal (a fairly high bar).
For much of the summer, I tried to curtail my news intake, knowing that come the fall, I would need to focus on what I thought, in my understated way, was the most consequential moment in American history during my lifetime. And although I felt profound relief in November, by the day after January 6th (I think that was the 7th, but it’s hard to recollect exactly), my anxiety had reached its peak, or nadir, depending on how you view it and/or are comfortable using the word “nadir.”
Warning: Shameless Alliteration Ahead
By then, thank Buddha, my work as the Artistic Director of my online theater company kicked into high gear, and over the next two months, that work consumed most of my waking hours. And though that had inherent stresses of its own, they were at least stressors that I had a large part in shaping and affecting. I allowed – or, more aptly, had little choice – but to stop riding the carnival of continuous chaos that is cable news (I apologize for that flagrant alteration. I will do everything in my power not to repeat that. That was hard on both of us). And while I still feel I have to at least have a sense of which way the wind is blowing, I don’t feel the need, to borrow from Bob Dylan, to constantly check in with my weatherman.
If you’ve felt a similar stress, I cannot recommend a News Diet highly enough. Please don’t misunderstand my, I’m not suggesting you starve yourself of news, but try to limit your intake to bite-sized portions. I’d also urge you to avoid the empty calories of nightly opinion shows, or at least cut back (I can’t stay mad at you, Anderson Cooper, with your eyes I can get lost in for days). Let’s hope for better news and the days ahead, and less of it.
If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, you don’t have to subject yourself to Holocaust footage, or read about the Slave Trade, or, God forbid, turn on cable news. Even Nazis, for all of their dehumanizing cruelty, proved an occasional source of humor, as Mel Brooks made a fortune proving time and time and, perhaps one time too many, again.
No, if you really want to divest your soul of any humor or capacity for laughter, just read philosophers trying to dissect humor. I double dog dare you. Plato, it turns out, wasn’t a fan of, well, fun. And he was not alone. The list of great minds who have tried to forensically examine our capacity for laughter only to end up like those chimps braying incomprehensibly at the obelisk at the start of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is legion. However, for sheer, weaponized, eat-your-angst-ridden-vegan- heart-out-Morrisey level of humorlessness, Thomas Hobbes is tough to beat. Hobbes tackled the phenomena of humor with all of his trademark intelligence, insight, and gang-rape level of sunniness. Thomas Hobbes, it turns out, was a laugh riot, once you realize most riots end in blood, chaos, and trauma.
“Comedy Is You Falling Down a Manhole. Tragedy Is Me Getting A Paper Cut.” – Mel Brooks
As Hobbes once put it, “Laughter…is caused by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words. A lot of humor is based on cruelty. And to this Colossus bestriding the Enlightenment, I can only offer a humble but heartfelt: well, duh.
Yes, of course much laughter is based on the idea of “Thank God it’s that guy and not me!” But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things in this world that aren’t. To view humor in those terms is to miss the point. It’s like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanomas and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. In defense of the Great English Thinker, he was man of many gifts, but looking at his mug of ale as half full was not one of them, hence his pithy, nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Fine, If You’re Going To Be THAT Guy
Yes: OK, fine, Life can be all those things. And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? One my mother once said has always struck me as uncommonly wise: never spend a minute more than you need to with someone who can’t laugh at themselves.
If music moves us because it perhaps expresses something we have no words for, then let it be equally said that humor and laughter bind us because it reassures us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are. The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains The Brandenburg Concerto, gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, Jane Austen novels, puppies, and the cool, seamless poetry of Mariano Rivera’s whip-like delivery to home plate. It’s home to countless, small flowers struggling and blooming through imperceptible cracks in asphalt.
Make ‘Em Laugh, And Other Wisdom From The McCarthy Era
Most importantly, the world also contains laughter. Hobbes termed laughter a “Sudden Glory,” but, as only a philosopher could, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Will it forever mark me as a cretin if I refer to one of the most important philosophers in Western political thought as a bit of a dick? Oh well, too late.
The idea of joy being an unalloyed good seemed to elude him, just as unalloyed joy too often eludes most of us. Certainly, it glides beyond my grip like mercury more days than I can count. But, every now and then, a bit of it catches on the edge of a laugh. So let me make the rather obvious but apparently philosophically radical proposition that laughter is not only good, but necessary. I urge each of us to be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. And while we’re at it, let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. That truly would be a sudden glory.
Why I’ve Been Gone For So Long, And Why It’s Totally FINE You Didn’t Notice. Seriously.
It feels like a long time since I’ve posted on here; it’s likely you, with your busy lives crammed with saving democracy, binging various food-themed shows, and (if you’re like me) binging on actual food haven’t noticed my absence, but I certainly have. Much of it has been for a happy reason: I’m the Artistic Director of a new online theater company, New Normal Rep (follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, he plugged crassly!), and we’re about to launch our inaugural season, and so: too busy to do much of anything else.
But despite this sense of hope, gratitude, and purpose this project feeds me, I’ve also been battling what Winston Churchill called “The Black Dog” a great deal recently: a gnawing, visceral, unnameable certainty in the complete futility of, well, anything. In less melodramatic terms: depression. Or, in slightly more melodramatic terms than in the previous sentence: Depression.
The Black Dog, The Noonday Demon, The Ring of Unpleasant Potpourri: It’s Depression Anyway You Slice It, Although I Think The Last One Isn’t Actually A Thing.
This particular flavor of Depression has featured an unaccountable irritability a sharp itch to escape the world and its populace, an occasional surprise visit from volcanic, formless rages, and a deep sense of numbness and distance from those close to me with a simultaneously attuned sensitivity to the sadness and indelible loneliness of strangers and animals. I saw a man on a subway platform at Penn Station this week accompanied by a ragged menagerie of animals he was selling for “adoption.” Both the man and the animals were dirty and careworn, and one dog in particular looked at me with such a piercing and forlorn hopelessness, that I boarded my train with my face mask salty and wet. That poor dog still haunts me. For all I know, she feels the same way about me.
I Mean, They Gave Us Schadenfreude. The Word, Not The Feeling. Although Sometimes, Maybe, That, Too.
But it doesn’t take objectively pathetic sights to press the trap door button on my emotional armor (See? I’m mixing metaphors. THAT’S how bad). The most prosaic scenes can set my spiraling. There ought to be a word for the ineffable sadness that’s sometimes aroused in observing otherwise ordinary things. For all I know, there is. I can’t imagine the Germans haven’t got that one covered. That seems right up their alley, no?
Anyway, I have no sense of what brought on this deluge of Sad, but I’ve found that it’s often very hard to comprehend the most basic truths about myself, in the same way the simplest and smallest words are often hardest to define. Just as words like “an” and “the” can stump even the most articulate of people to express their meaning, the necessary bits of myself that glue my basic narrative together often glide by unnoticed.
It Ain’t (Sic) Over ‘Til It’s Over (Sic)
I sometimes feel like a jigsaw puzzle of a solid gray background. As Yogi Berra once explained, “There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” I’m sure we all have. That’s why Yogi was so beloved. That, and his clutch hitting.
Objectively, I have much to be grateful for, and much to look forward to. I know that, and remind myself hourly. At the moment, however, I’m not returning my calls to myself. But I will.
Anyway, I’m back. And still here. Sometimes, that’s enough.
2020 Is Close To Going Away, But Not Before It Ruins The Holidays
It’s sooo on brand for 2020 that it’s a Leap Year. No, no, 365 days weren’t enough for this Annus Horribilis (and yes, you’d better believe I triple checked the spelling on that first word): it was so overflowing with awfulness, so teeming with terribleness, so rife with wretchedness, it needed an extra day to pack all of its surfeit of suffering in.
So, although most of us haven’t thought about it, as we slog towards 2020’s finish line, the truth is that line is a full 24 hours away further than it normally would be.
Who Cares? The Months And Days Are Arbitrary Markers. Time Is A Flat Circle, Or Something
So what, you no doubt think. It’s just a day; it’s not like everything will magically be better on January 1st. You’re right of course. It won’t (nothing is better in January. Sorry people with January birthdays). But symbols are important in life (maybe too much so for writers, but let’s gloss over that for now). 2021, whose first few months promise to be quite bleak indeed, still affords us the chance to unchain ourselves from the shackles of these past 12 months that have weighed us down, Jacob Marley-like, link by odious link.
Some Signs 2020 Has Defeated You
Here’s just a few of those links that have, one by one, hung so heavilyy on our shoulders:
You’ve finished Netflix. I don’t mean you’ve gotten bored or fed up with it. You’ve actually finished it. All the baking shows, all the sitcoms, all the Scandinavian detective series, all the documentaries. You’re done. You hit the Home button and it merely says, “Oh my God, what more do you want from us?”
You’ve developed a deep bond with a certain cohort: you’ve had your ups and downs, your misunderstandings, your moments of healing and bonding. I’m talking of course, about the hosts of nightly cable news shows.
Pornography disgusts you: not because it’s misogynistic, exploitative, and warps our perceptions of intimacy and sexuality, but because they’re not wearing masks.
To Hell With It
But to hell with it. Let 2020 have its extra day. It’s in February, and if anything, February sucks even more than January (two words: Valentine’s Day). And yes, when we finally cross that threshold into 2021 on the stroke of midnight (one good thing to come out of this pandemic: the unwatchable Times Square New Year’s Eve television extravaganzas will be totally changed. Who am I kidding? They’ll find a way to make it suck, anyway) we can take a deep socially distanced, mask filtered breath . Hope, I truly believe, is on the way.
The holidays will feel very different this year. And mostly not in a good way. But here’s what I recommend. Watch It’s A Wonderful Life. I know, you’ve probably seen it umpteen times, and maybe you’re generally done with it. But although it’s often dismissed by cynics as sappy, it really isn’t. In fact, for a key portion of it, it’s surprisingly dark. We see a man who sees his life as nothing but a string of failures. He feels he’s hopeless. He literally wishes he was never born. But by the end, he learns that all of his grandiose dreams that failed to materialize don’t really matter nearly as much as what he’s done for those around him. It is a film that points out that it’s the small acts of kindness and empathy that matter most in life. That serving one’s community, however one defines it, is noblest of ways to expend one’s energies. That a sense of and responsibility to our communities, both immediate and larger, is how we get along in this world.
Every Time A Bell Rings…
In a way, 2020 robbed us of our sense of community: time with our friends and family, the rubbing elbows with our neighbors and peers. But in a deeper sense, it’s given us a chance to reevaluate our priorities and sense of what constitutes our community, and where we fit in it. What we contribute to it, and how it enriches the quality of our lives. That’s why I think It’s A Wonderful Life will resonate even more with me (yes, I’ll be crying at the end. I’m not a monster). I hope we can, in the midst of reviling this past year, recommit ourselves to the painful lessons it’s taught us.
If we don’t or can’t won’t, to paraphrase another well-known Christmas tale: God save us, everyone.
Ever Had Your Work Rejected By A Teacher/Professor/Editor/Publisher? You Have Impressive Members In Your Club
To be an artist or writer means to become intimately, and more often than not, quite frequently, acquainted with rejection. Fortunately, I have become somewhat inured to rejection due to a rigorous immersion in it in middle school. Still, some rejections can sting the most jaded of us, regardless of how many girls laughed at you, or walked away, or looked right through like you were a window pane, or, in more than one instance, feigned a seizure when you asked them to dance. The bottom line is, we’ve all experienced rejection. If you somehow never have, read no further. In fact, get the hell off this blog, Karen Matriccio! And Stephanie Wyler! In fact, everyone at Elwood Junior High’s Homecoming Dance of 1984 (Wait, a homecoming dance in junior high? What exactly were we coming home from? The orthodontist?), get the hell off my blog!
Sorry, my work on my anger issues is a…let’s call it a work in progress.
Anyway, my point is sometimes it’s good to consider some of the many great writers and artists who’ve been slapped down, often repeatedly, by people who seem like, in retrospect, utter fools. I’ve saved you the trouble of scouring Google and compiled a few of my favorites, which I now share with you.
Buckle Up: Next Stop, Rejection
U2 – May, 1978, from RSO records: “We have listened with careful consideration, but feel it is not suitable for us at present.” I love how this letter combs over its cattiness with a patina of British civility. At first, “careful consideration” sounds good; it means they really gave it a lot of thought. But more probably, it means they really, really are thoroughly convinced that U2 sucks.
Kurt Vonnegut – from The Atlantic Monthly: “[your submissions] have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance.” Ouch. So close. Vonnegut actually loved to collect rejection letters, having received quite a few early on, and had this framed. That’s a confidence we should all aspire to.
That’s Nothing: Read These:
Alice Munro – from Knopf: “As a collection I suppose there is nothing particularly new and exciting here,” writes Editor Judith Jones. Guess again, Edith. Munro is now a Nobel laureate for her work in literature and recipient of the Governor General’s Award, the highest literary honor in Canada.
William Golding – Lord of the Flies rejected 21 times, with one publisher gently calling it, “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” While some high school sophomores might be inclined to agree, most of the literary world – eventually – did not.
Stephen King – Ace Publishing rejected Carrie, stating flatly, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Negative Utopias? Did no one at Ace know the word “dystopia”? Definitely a money laundering outfit.I’ll be honest, I have no idea if Ace Publishing even exists any more. I do know that Carrie still manages to sell a few copies every year.
John Cleese – From the BBC’s initial rejection of Fawlty Towers: “I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.” Now bear in mind, John Cleese had already achieved accolades and fame from Monty Python, broadcasted by the BBC. Fawlty Towers is generally regarded as among the greatest sitcoms ever made.
The Beatles– From Decca Records: “Guitar bands are on their way out.” Not so much, it turns out.
The Ultimate Proof No One Is Rejection-Proof
And if that doesn’t lift your spirits, Shakespeare gets on 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on Amazon. Which means, somewhere, there are sizable cohort of people who think Hamlet is crap. And eventless people are in good company. Leo Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, for example.
There are legions more. I would argue, as disparate as the artists are, they have one thing in common: they were all original, and it takes a rare talent indeed to recognize, let alone appreciate, originality when they come across it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m open to the idea that many of my rejections can be chalked up to the fact that what I submitted just wasn’t good enough. Or it may have been fine, but just not to this person’s taste. And remember, their jobs invariably center around rejecting people.
It Takes Different Strokes To Move The World, Yes It Does
And bear in mind, no matter how brilliant you are, not everyone love your work. No one is admired by everyone. Marlon Brando hated The Beatles. Dorothy Parker couldn’t abide Katherine Hepburn’s acting, acidly dismissing her work in one review with the the deathless quip, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Oh Dorothy, how we miss you.
So, sure feel bad if you get rejected. give yourself an hour or two, or even a whole day if you need it to feel sorry for yourself and misunderstood in your time, like Van Gogh (oh yeah, we didn’t even get to him!). But get up, and get back to it. I firmly believe art is, as much as anything else, an endurance sport. Here’s to building up all our staminas
John Lennon was 40 when he was killed; that murder took place 40 years ago today. Walter posted beautifully earlier about Lennon, but I figured if there were an artist worthy of two posts, it was, as Paul Simon called him, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.”
I spent most of my teenage years trying to be John Lennon; eventually I realized that position was permanently filled. The whole band (you know who I’m talking about, right?) grabbed my imagination and still hasn’t loosened its grip. But for a teenage boy of a certain age and sense of alienation, John cast a particular spell. His lyrics were often incandescent with imagination. His melodies could be propulsive and muscular and tender and beautiful: sometimes at the same time.
The Witty One
And then there was his wit: stinging, diamond-hard, and lightning-quick.
“For this next number, I’d like to ask your help,” Lennon said to the audience at the Royal Command Performance in 1963. “Will the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands? And the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.” Another time, on the BBC, as they were just starting their careers, the band introduced themselves (tough to believe there was a time when any of them needed to identify themselves):
“Ringo: I’m Ringo, and I play the drums.
Paul: I’m Paul, and I play the um, bass.
George: I’m George, and I play the guitar.
John: I’m John, and I too play the guitar. Sometimes, I play the fool.”
There are a multitude of more moments like that sprinkled throughout his all-too-brief 40 years. In short, his voice – a plaintive, nasal snarl imbued simultaneously with haunting vulnerability – was one of the few things that pierced the thick shell of my self-conscious, adolescent cynicism.
Lennon also had a prodigious amount of demons. He was far from a perfect man, but today isn’t the day too dwell on that. In fact, that he was so unflinching in his honesty about himself – about everything – and struggled to be a better person is an example and consolation for those of us who are trying to do the same thing as we wrestle with the darker angels of our nature.
My life, and indeed the whole world, would be a tangibly darker, lonelier place without his time here, just as it would no doubt be a little better if had been allowed to live the last four decades.
The first time I heard John Lennon’s name was when I heard he had been killed. I was bewildered by the weight of grief that pressed on so many of the adults around me that day and the weeks that followed.
Now I get it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years have blurred past us since that time. As Lennon himself instructed us on one of his final recordings before his murder, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Everything changes at the holidays. Even seminal works of literature.
(Gatsby in his mansion, alone, disconsolate.) Gatsby: Daisy chose Tom over me. It can’t be. It can’t. (The phone rings. Picks it up.) Daisy? Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Well, it’s been a long time since anyone’s called me Daisy. No, it’s your wise but hitherto unmentioned uncle. Gatsby: People used to call you Daisy? Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle. Now never you mind, nephew. Come home to your mysterious home in the Midwest, the town of Christmasville, for the annual Christmasville Festival. Gatsby: It’s early September. Gatzby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Which, if you recall, is when the Christmas season kicks into gear here in your previously unnamed hometown of Christmasville. Gatsby: I suppose there’s nothing for me in the East but further corruption and dissolution. But, no, I MUST stay. For Daisy. Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unknown Uncle: Just for a few days. You said she’s in Europe, anyway. Gatsby: No I didn’t. Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Oh. Um… Gatsby: All right, I’ll go, but I promise myself that I won’t be sucked into the small-town dead end provincialism I made a point of escaping early in life. Gatsby’s Wise But Hitherto Unknown Uncle: What?
Cut To: (Christmasville, USA. Gatsby’s home town. Gatsby takes it in.) Gatsby: I’d never noticed how beautiful and Christmas-like Christmasville is. Or how generically beautiful everyone here seems to be. Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: Hey – Aren’t you James Gatz? Gatsby: I’d normally deny it, but your kind and innocent hometown ways have already broken down that line of defense. Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: I’m not sure I follow. For as you can see by our eerily picturesque Main Street, life is simpler in Christmasville. Especially come Christmas. Not so much in February, of course, when the seemingly endless winter spikes our suicide rates appreciably. Anyway,I’m glad you’re back in town, even if you have put on some big city airs, James Gatz. I can’t wait for you to meet my implausibly sweet daughter. Her father died tragically in the Great East Egg Nog fire four years back, adding just the right amount of pathos to my backstory. Gatsby: I’m sorry to hear that. In any event, I won’t be here long. My life’s based on the greed engendered by corrupted American values and goals, thus driving me to want all the wrong things. Generically Pretty Girl: Whatever! Just help me put up this tree, eat these cookies, and join me and my irritatingly twee daughter tonight as we listen to the town choir sing Christmas carols at the tree lighting, as they do every weekend of the year.
Cut To: (Choir singing. Gatsby and the girl hold hands discreetly)
Cut To: (Morning, Christmasville Town Drug and Soda Shop. Gatsby, having just established a bootlegging operation there, emerges.) Generically Pretty Girl: Hello, James! You know, there’s some canoes down by the dock, right near the green light, and the weather’s lovely. It won’t snow until nightfall, because that’s more atmospheric. I was hoping maybe we could go for a boat ride.
Cut To: (They’re on the river. Gatsby paddles.) Generically Pretty Girl: You sure are a mystery, James Gatz. You’ve sure changed. Gatsby: Did we even know each other when I lived here? Generically Pretty Girl: Who knows? Anyway, let’s get out of the boat. Gatsby: Yes, despite all my paddling, we’ve seem to have been borne back ceaselessly. Generically Pretty Girl: You say the funniest things sometimes, Old Sport. Say, you’re not going to miss the town tree lighting tonight, I hope. Gatsby: Wasn’t that last night? Generically Pretty Girl: There’s one EVERY night! Isn’t that creepily wonderful? Incidentally, you should know, my barely mentioned daughter has suddenly clung to you as a paternal figure, which complicates this plot further. I think it was all the brightly colored shirts you inexplicably threw at her. Gatsby: Yes, she did cry stormily into them. (They look at each other a long, lingering moment). Generically Pretty Girl: I’ll see you at the tree lighting! I’ll bring hot cocoa, because at this point it would be weird if I didn’t!
Cut To: (Tree lighting ceremony. There are Christmas carols being sung quietly in the background) Gatsby: Who’s singing? Generically Pretty Girl: No one knows! It just happens every night between early July and mid-June. We’ve just sorta roll with it. Gatsby: You know…I’m awfully embarrassed, I never got your name. Generically Pretty Girl: It’s probably something like Ashley or Dakota. Let’s go with Ashley. Gatsby: Fair enough. You know, Ashley, Christmasvile seems immune to the corruption endemic to American capitalism somehow. In fact, the more problematic aspects of our country’s rapacious and brutally Darwinian ethos seem entirely absent here. Generically Pretty Girl: What? (Just then, a Colorful Town Character runs out of the drug store in which Gatsby has established his new bootlegging empire) Colorful Town Character: Mr. Gatsby, there’s a “Daisy” on the line, here voice full of…well, money, is the only way I can describe it, breathlessly begging to talk to you. Gatsby: The name’s Gatz. Tell her I’m not in.
Amy Long is an award winning author whose non-fiction book of essays, “Codependence,” of which noted author David Shields raved, “Against all the easy recovery narratives, against all the Opioid Crisis Hand-Wringing, stands this heart-stopping book–ferociously written, powerfully felt, absolutely persuasive in its extraordinary nakedness, bravery, and gallows humor. Brilliant.”Her writing has appeared in the Best American Experimental Writing 2015 anthology, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018.She was kind enough to talk to me about her work, her process, just generally wax winninglyin general.
When did you know you when you were, like it or not, bound to be a writer?
I don’t know about “bound,” but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I’ve written fiction and poems and stuff since I was, like, six. Since I could write. But I veered off course a little in college, and I really thought I was going to be a feminist media studies professor (I have a Master’s in Women’s Studies that I got right out of college and had planned to do a PhD). Then I was working for nonprofits, which I liked, but something felt missing. So, I took a night class at NYU with Amy Shearn, who is wonderful (she just put out a really gorgeous novel, Unseen City with Red Hen Press, which makes such good editorial decisions), and she encouraged me to take classes at Sackett Street, which is this great program run by Julia Fierro in New York and, I think, LA now, too. Emma Straub, who is a great workshop instructor, said “If you apply to 20 MFA programs, you’ll definitely get into one,” so I applied to 21, and she was right. I got into a couple, and I ended up at Virginia Tech, which was a perfect program for me. I’d have these lovely conversations that I call “serenity talks” with my advisor, Matthew Vollmer (he’s the best, and his work is amazing), and I think the way he talked to me about my work and my life made me realize, like, “Oh, I can actually do this. Wait, I am doing it. I am a writer.” So, forever and then when I was maybe 27.
Tell us about your award-winning book, Codependence?
Codependence started out as an installation sort of project thing I made in Matthew’s creative nonfiction workshop. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. Like, I made detailed pill-bottle labels and rolled up stories inside them or designed motel keys and used the instructions on the back to tell a story—those ended up in the book almost unchanged—and then the medicine cabinet became an outline (I can’t work from outlines; right now, I’m writing an album that is the outline for Book Two), so a lot of the book is me trying to figure out how to get all this 3D stuff onto a 2D page. I alternated between the more experimental essays (the book includes an essay in the form of a glossary, one that’s shaped like a map and has this amazing actual map that goes with it that my friend Silas Breaux made for it—basically hermit-crab essays) and more traditional braided essays that let me flesh out and ruminate on things and kind of wander around my life and my subjects. I had the manuscript written and revised around the beginning of 2017, and I’d started sending it out to agents and small presses at the same time. I kind of knew it would be a small-press book. It’s formally weird, the subject is so specific, it doesn’t have that redemptive memoir arc that’s common to drug and illness narratives, it’s not hopeful, and I wouldn’t have changed that. So, I saw that Brian Blanchfield, whose essay collection Proxies I’d just read and loved, was judging Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s annual Essay Collection Competition, and I had this weird moment when I thought “I bet Brian would like this book. I really feel like I can win this.” And I entered, and I waited, and I’d come up to New York to see your play about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and I got the email telling me that I did win! It was weird. Like, I had a good feeling about it, and I was right! I remember we were walking around near Central Park after I’d called Matthew to go “What do I need to ask this press?”and I made you sit at an intersection on the sidewalk while I talked to my editors, Caryl Pagel and Hilary Plum, who were really wonderful and really got the book in a way I hadn’t expected anyone to get it. Their cover designer, Sevy Perez, did a beautiful job with the cover (and I did not make it easy!), and the book is just, like, this gorgeous object that sometimes I look at and can’t believe is really mine, you know?
I remember.It was exciting to see you as you were finding out the news. What are the some of the technical challenges specific to writing autobiographical essays? What drew you to the form?
What drew me to the form was how easily the story came out when I used it. I’d written a glossary essay in Matthew’s workshop, and it was maybe the first personal essay I’d ever really written, but all this story just fit so easily into it. Often, the form felt as if it generated the content, or the constraints inherent to a form were generative for me. I’d been trying to write it as a novel, and it was so boring. It was boring to write. I’m pretty sure it was boring to read! But the essays felt so natural. Like I wasn’t even really trying. And I find myself inherently interesting, so there’s that.
A lot of the challenges come in part from other people—like, how much of this person’s story is okay to use? Or will my sister be mad if I write about that? Does using this story that involves someone else serve my story? But I think I’m missing a privacy filter that other people have. I don’t have trouble revealing things. In talking to other essayists and memoirists, I’ve found that the privacy aspect, questions about memory, and revisiting trauma give most of us the majority of our troubles. But, for me, writing the book was fun and like a puzzle, and at a certain point, I did become a kind of character to myself, and it got easier when I thought of myself that way. I think Matthew kind of instilled that in me.
Like, it’s all fiction once it’s on a page. When I write, I watch the scenes like a movie in my head. It’s not like dissociating or anything. It’s just how I remember. So, a lot of it was, like, “I see this in my head, and I’m missing this…,” but one of the really freeing things about nonfiction for me is that I can say “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I love that. I value honesty a lot, which is I think what allows me to bypass that “I don’t want people to know this” filter, so the ability to admit that I’m not sure if X happened in Y way or Z way is really more about honesty than my stoner memory. I have a great long-term memory, but if I watch a movie tonight, I won’t be able to tell you the plot tomorrow (but I will be able to tell you who played what character on The Americans, The Wire, or Grey’s Anatomy).
When do you know you’ve got something to write about? Or are you one of those lucky writers who has a notebook full of ideas?
I think in books. So, it’s usually a “big” idea, and then I have to figure out what goes in the idea. I do have a notebook of ideas, but I rarely use them. I just know. It’s intuitive, I guess. But I kind of can’t go further than, like, “chronic pain drugs and fun drugs” or “loneliness and relationships.” Like, I need an idea that can contain a lot of experiences and doesn’t dictate to me, if that makes sense.
What kind of writing really gets you excited?
Any form used in a cool way. Noor Hindi wrote these poems that were published in Hobart a few months ago in the form of a multiple choice quiz, which I’ve been trying to do forever, and it always ends up, like, an actual quiz! I was so impressed, and then we figured out we met each other when I read at CSU in Cleveland last year! I’m also always up for a good drug story.
Are you a redrafter? Let me rephrase: How much do you revise.And when do you know it’s time to let it go?
I do a lot of revising as I go, so it’s hard to say. Like, usually when I sit down to write, I go over what I wrote the day before and spend an hour “fixing” it. My drafts end up pretty clean. But sometimes it takes longer to get there.
I know you’re working on a few different pieces at the moment, including a novel. Tell me about the differences in doing that? What’s easier and/or more challenging for you about the form?
I don’t know if I’m still working on the novel! Every couple years, I decide I want to write a novel, and I love it for the first couple months, and then I want to write about myself again! I think fiction is way harder. It’s the getting from one place to another without feeling like you’re just going from one place to another, I think. But I love the description and the character planning and the way that anything can change with a sentence. It’s just not really my form.
What writers would you say have influenced you most? And who are some of your favorite writers (I’m assuming there may be an overlap, but not necessarily)
Joyce Carol Oates is a forever favorite. For Codependence, my main influences were Maggie Nelson, Elissa Washuta, Leslie Jamison, andDenis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But no book had a bigger influence than Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points. It was the first book I’d read in which the pained narrator does not get better, and it’s a huge touchstone for me. She’s a friend, and she’s incredible at community building, and I’m so stoked for the novel she’s writing. Rob Roberge’s Liar was an influence, too; it’s all in the second person, and I use the second person kind of a lot, so I went back to it to look under its hood a good bit. And Joshua Mohr’s Sirens got me interested in drug narratives again when I thought I was sick of them. I also always go back to Matthew Vollmer’s inscriptions for headstones. It’s such a good mixture of the mundane and the profound, and that’s hard to do.
Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater, which all center on chronic pain, were important to me when I was revising prepublication, and I’m really looking forward to finally starting Sarah Ramey’s The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. There’s been a kind of pain-book boom lately, which is exciting.
I’ve been reading a lot of friends’ books lately. I’m loving Nick Jaina’s novel Hitomi. I just finished Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, and I was struck by how perfect it was for my pandemic attention span but also just how much it has to say about bodies and love and the state of the world. Lee Klein’s Neutral Evil0))) is a lot like that, too. I love my friend Tatiana Ryckman’s novella I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) and her novel The Ancestry of Objects (I tweeted about how much I loved the former, which is how we met, and now we write songs together!). Reachel Anne Jolie put out an amazing book last year, Rust Belt Femme, that I love in part because we’re the same age, and she references a lot of the bands I also loved in high school, but it’s also just so well done. I loved Jeannie Vanasco’s latest, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, and Sejal Shah’s essay collection This is One Way to Dance. I also really loved David Shields’ The Trouble with Men. I know this wasn’t the question, but if I had to go back through my whole reading life, we’d be here all week!
Alexandra Naughton’s a place a feeling something he said to you has been important to my writing and thinking lately. I did a reading with her a while back, and I bought it and fell in love with it. I’ve been gravitating toward relationship books because that’s kind of where my writing head has been. Tatiana’s books are huge resources for that, and Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, an Outline of a Man and Melissa Mathewson’s Tracing the Desire Line are calling to me from my TBR pile.
Do you have a set regimen for your writing?
Kind of. It depends on how my pain is that day. With ideal pain management, I start writing around 11am and stop at 5pm or 6pm. With the actual pain management I have now, I have three specific hours during which I might feel good enough to write, so I have to use those. But, if I can, I like to write all day. Maybe take some breaks.
What was the best piece of advice about writing you ever got?
From Trysh Travis, my advisor in Women’s Studies grad school: “There is no such thing as writing. Only editing.”
What advice would you give to other writers?
Write about what obsesses you. Don’t worry about whether it will obsess anyone else. If it obsesses you, readers will feel it. And don’t let your book tour depend on anyone else!
Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (2019), chosen by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. She holds a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida and an MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing Program. She is a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. She is on Twitter and Instagram @amylorrainelong
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the year 2020. We talked about 2020’s accomplishments, its regrets, its future, and what it might have up its sleeve its last 6 weeks.
Q: 2020, welcome.
2020: Thank you, Jack. Glad to be here. And by here, I mean in 2020. So I guess I’m saying, it’s great to be with me.
Q: Of course. Well, I have to say, a lot of people wouldn’t share that sentiment.
2020: Ouch. Starting right away with the tough questions. I can respect that. After all, I hit the ground running, too.
Q: That’s an understatement. The calamitous fires in Australia in January, for example.
2020: Right? (Laughs) Doesn’t that seem forever ago?
Q: Exactly. And at the time, I think a lot of us thought that may be one of the big news stories of the year.
2020 Dishes Out a Scoop!
2020: Well, I’ll give you and your readers a bit of scoop: that was totally deliberate. Diversionary tactic til Covid was ready to really take off. Now, let me share some credit. I didn’t invent CoVid-19. That was all 2019. Was it maybe a little too much, maybe you could even call it tacky to put its own name on the damn thing? That’s not for me to say (Chuckles) But I kid 2019, we’re like brothers, really.
Q: Right, so he started the Coronavirus.
2020: Yes, that’s true. Absolutely But, and this going to sound maybe a little…I don’t know.
Q: No, please.
2020: Well, I think was the one who really saw its potential pretty early on. So right off the bat, pardon the pun, I decided to go global. Looking back, you gotta admit it was a helluva gamble for a young year just trying to find its footing. But go big, I always say.
Q: Did you expect it to take off like it did?
2020: Well, you always hold out hope, one can always dream, of course. But I’d be lying if I said I knew it would explode like it did. And let’s face it: I owe a lot to you guys.
2020: You guys! I mean, you’re still split on basic science! Which is such a gift, I have to tell you. We haven’t been given the chance to work with that sort mass, pig-headed ignorance since.…well, it’s been awhile (chuckles).
2020: I mean, and again, credit where credit’s due: I can’t thank 2016 enough. 2016…well, it was sort of a legend around the office. It set a mighty high bar. And its trajectory that just kept gaining steam, 2017, 2018, 2019 – I know it’s hard to remember, but people bitched nonstop about those years as they were happening. So, I don’t mind telling you, the pressure was on!
2020 Gets Real
2020: But ultimately, Jack, and this is a message I really want your readers to hear, is that I had to go to some pretty dark places inside of myself, confront my demons, really do the work, to speak my truth. And that is so empowering. In October, 2019, I made a vision board – I know, I know that sounds so, whatever. But it helped – it gave me the gift of believing in myself. (Becomes teary-eyed)
Q: You want to take a break?
2020: You’re kind, but no. I think it’s important for people to know the real 2020, warts and all.
Q: Warts and all? You created a pandemic that killed over 1.4 million people
2020: So far. 2020’s not done yet.
Q: That’s true. You’ve got about a month left.
2020: (A wry smile) I wouldn’t be quite so sure about that yet.
Q: How do you mean?
2020: Well, time’s kinda lost all meaning in 2020, right? Everyone’s saying that. People are saying it. It just all seems to run together, am I right?
Q: I guess, but –
2020: I’m saying that there’s doubt – real doubt – that this is even November. In fact, there are experts who – I hear people saying that it’s probably late August at most.
Q: Well, the calendar quite clearly –
Calendars: Fake News?
2020: (Rolls eyes) Calendars? OK, OK: let me ask you something: you believe everything the liberal calendar lobby tells you? Think: who stands to make the most profit off of a new year? Big Calendar, that’s who. Follow the money.
Q: With all due respect, that sounds a little –
2020: There are people looking into it is all I’m saying. The best…we’ve uncovered substantial evidence of widespread fraud in month-counting.
Q: But that’s….I mean, it’s getting cold out. The days are getting shorter. Surely –
2020: Let me ask you something, and I’m not trying to sound – you know – but ask yourself – with the way I’ve gone so far, you’re saying it’s not possible that I could make that happen in August?
Q: Well, I –
2020: I think your readers know better. We’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out. What’s your next question?
2020 Reflects…On 2020
Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment?
2020: Oh gosh, so many…and again, it’s a team effort, you know? Without the last ten years at least that came before me, I couldn’t pulled this off all by my lonesome. I mean, the Pandemic would be such an obvious answer. So, besides that, I guess I’d have to…gosh it’s hard to pick one. The Increase in racial tensions in America is certainly something I’m proud of, um, I mean, um, Q-anon has just blown up under my watch. I think I’m doing a good job picking up where the last few years left off in terms of escalating right wing racist tendencies in Europe.
Q: What about the election results in the U.S.?
2020: I try to stay apolitical, sort of like , you know, the Queen or Susan Collins. But – and here’s the beauty of it: it didn’t matter. Either Trump would win, and well, I mean: great. But Biden winning just means vast swaths of the American people are gonna buy into conspiracy theories that will…well, I don’t want to steal any of 2023’s thunder.
Q: Any regrets?
2020: Well, looking back, I think the Pandemic was such a runaway train, it just sucked all the life out of everything else. (Chuckles) Let me rephrase. There just wasn’t much room for anything else, you know? I’ll give you an example: I think my celebrity deaths didn’t get their due. Kobe Bryant. I mean, that was the last one we got a lot of mileage out of before the Pandemic. But I mean, Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Alex freaking Trebek? I’d stack that roster against anybody’s. Also, the whole Killer Hornet thing. Amazing idea, just, there was just too much going on for it to stick in most people’s heads like we’d hoped.
He Did NOT Just Say That!
Q: Let me ask you: when did years become so evil?
2020: Whoa, whoa, whoa there. We take our cues from you people. Assess the general trends. Play into the zeitgeist. You were all feeling pretty angry and divided. Don’t get me wrong, the Coronavirus was playing hardball, sure, but it could have been a chance for you all to come together, you know. I didn’t force you people to become even more fractured.
Q: Yes, but –
2020: I mean, masks? Masks? In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought you guys could’ve made something ugly out of that. George Floyd’s murder? I mean, it’s recorded! Don’t blame me if you guys found a way to be divided on that one.
2020: And where’s my thank you for getting Steve Bannon arrested? Where’s the thanks for that? I would’ve tried to pull some shit on Stephen Miller, but, honestly? Dude scares the crap out of me. And Giuliani? I gave you Rudy frigging Giuliani ranting like a vampire off its meds all year on cable news and topped it off with a press conference between a dildo shop and crematorium? And that, that press conference with the leaking –
Q: Hair dye, yes. That was good.
2020: See? Thank you. And, FYI: not hair dye.
2020: A common misconception. It was simply the last remnants of his soul leaving his body. That’s what it looks like, sometimes.
2020: Right? And, two words: Queen’s Gambit. Pretty great series. No? So, you can’t say I didn’t do anything right by you.
Q: I think I speak for all our readers when I say, “2020, fuck off.”
Or maybe it’s…no, it’s definitely Three Dog Night.
Wait, what’s the other band I’m thinking? With that guy?
You what I’d LOVE right now? An egg roll. Or two. Two.
(Rifles through desk drawer for Chinese menu, comes across a scorecard from a 2004 Yankees-Twins game, spends rest of day googling old Yankee player stats).
Ok, my list obviously demonstrates my overt suspicion of “How To” books about writing. Or most “How To” books, actually. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are many that are truly helpful to many people, and, as John Lennon wisely counseled, “Whatever gets you thru the night.” Suffice to say, I would never write one (Full disclosure: no one, absolutely no one. has ever asked me to do so. And while I’d still say no, it would feel nice to be asked. for God’s sake).
I believe manuals that purport to teach one how to write, or undertake any artistic endeavor, by definition erase the one thing that makes actual art: the artist’s unique mind, shaped by his/her/their unique chemistry, life-experience, etc. I do think some of these books (and courses) can teach one the basics: the nuts and bolts, the carpentry, the technical aspects. And that’s not nothing.
But We’re All Snowflakes, Remember (In The Good Way Our Kindergarten Teachers Taught Us, Not The Right-Wing Twitter Way)? Or Something.
But I’d also argue that those lessons are better absorbed by doing vast, diversifed, steaming great, heaping piles of reading. Read and read and read (or listen to the equivalent amounts of music, or looking at paintings, or whatever you’re trying to pursue). I’m also an immense fan of re-reading, especially stuff you adore and stuff you abhor to try to figure out why you do.
If you read enough, a lot of those answers about the basics will seep into your brain through osmosis, into your subconscious. I’d argue that’s ultimately far more valuable, and that seeking out a formula is not only a cheat code, it’s bound to make your art, well, rather formulaic.
Hang On A Sec, Jack, You Ruggedly Handsome Bastard
Hmmm…for a guy who is openly cynical about anyone telling people how to write, I’ve spent a lot of time the last two paragraphs telling people how to go about doing things. But I’m not. I’m just telling you what’s worked (sorta, to varying degrees) for me. In art, like life, others can help, but you’ve got to figure it out, I think, for yourself.
10,000 Hours Of Practice To Mastery: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
Malcolm Gladwell has famously argued that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft. I generally find myself agreeing. But that’s not all it takes. Let’s use one of his most well-known examples: The Beatles. While still young (George Harrison, was in fact, underage), they were not held in high esteem by their fellow Liverpool rock musicians to say the least.
Then they gigged in Hamburg. And gigged and gigged and gigged. Six nights a week, usually eight hour sets. It not only forced them to hone their craft, but the sheer number of stage time to fill forced them to turn to broaden their minds and look to other genres to fill the hours: show tunes, improvisations, Country & Western, comedy songs, standards. And when they came back to Liverpool, the town went crazy for them, and well…you know the rest.
But here’s the thing: Lots of bands gigged like that in Hamburg. Tons. Only one came back as THE BEATLES. Also bear in mind, John and Paul had been writing songs at a steady pace and the best they had to offer for their first release was “Love Me Do” (I’m not knocking it, but that was the highlight of their five years of writing).
On The Other Hand, You Can’t Always Get What You Want
The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, saw Lennon-McCartney literally sit in a corner of a studio and write the Stones their first hit (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” for you trivia fans). After that, Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a room and basically said: “Right: you two do that.” And that worked out OK.
More On Those Iron-Clad Writing Rules
My point is there no magical formula. It’s not like building a stool (like I have ANY idea how to do that. The sight off me trying to build stood, if recorded, would be part physical comedy routine worthy of adulation from the French, and part searing commentary on the futility of human existence). But my guess is, once you’ve learned how to build one, you can practice and get progressively better, You can even get fancy, but you’re still building a stool, because it’s a skill you’ve learned.
Writing, for me anyway, isn’t like that. Every time I start to write a new play, TV script, or blog post, I feel as if I’m starting from scratch. I haven’t clue one what to do first: the legs or seat (metaphorically, although, I have to admit, sometimes literally, too). Moreover, I have no idea if my writing will be better than the last effort or worse.
70’s TV, Once More, Teaches as It Entertains: It Takes Different Strokes To Change The World, Yes It Does.
There are brilliant writers who outline every detail before they write a word. There are not so brilliant writers who do the same. There are brilliant writers who start off with a spark, or an idea, or sometimes even just a line (or sometimes not even that much) and see where it goes. Also, not so brilliant writers do that. As the great playwright Sir Tom Stoppard once observed, “If I knew how my plays were going to end, why would I bother finish writing them?” My point it there are NO universal rules (Which sounds suspiciously like a universal rule).
I know, I know. I’m writing a post whose thesis is not to listen to anything or anyone but your own experience, and yet posting this is, by definition, asking you to listen to me. I majored in irony and minored in hypocrisy in college, so believe me, I do get it. So disregard this post. Or don’t. Whatever you feel is best for you. Dammit, more advice. There seems no escaping.
OK, No More Iron-Clad Rules For Writing. Just A Few Incredibly Un-Iron Like Suggestions
So let me get out of this corner I’ve painted myself into by just saying my general approach, which may or very well may not work for you (and, sometimes, doesn’t even work for me).
I try not to confuse facts with truth. I try to write something I think I’d want to read. I often find myself writing in order to figure out what I feel/think about something, not to prove what I think is necessarily correct. The less I think I know to begin with, the less I have to let go of when it turns out I was wrong. I try to be utterly without judgment when I’m writing, and ruthless when editing. For me, my gut always maps out the way better than my head. I try to be prepared to discover, accept, and trust what I think I was writing about is actually not about that at all.
As The World Is On The Precipice Of…Something, It’s Hard Not To Feel Alone.
When the American Revolution seemed all but lost, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Imagine if he also had to deal with Twitter and Cable News.
First, let me reassure you: this is not a post about politics. At all. Rest assured. Zip. NADA. I PROMISE. Not even a little.
Well, I Mean, It’s A LITTLE Political. Obviously.
That goes without saying. But not, you know, political political. Because the flood of toxicity streaming from Washington, D.C. would never have been possible if we hadn’t placed it there to begin with. It seems these days, more than any other in my life, we are drifting further and further away (an insight into my neuroses: I struggled mightily between farther and further here, as it’s a potential gray zone. People are clustering, it seems, more and more, by physical distance. So, farther would be apt. Conversely, it’s also a question of degree, hence further, and in the end I figured that was more pertinent. I hope you agree. Welcome to one of the many dark quarters of my unquiet mind:)). Perhaps, we were never that close to begin with.
A House Divided Against Itself Has Very Poor Resale Value
It used to be that liberals and conservatives used to disagree about what issues we needed to prioritize and how to tackle them. Now, they disagree about the nature of reality itself. It’s hard to find common ground when you live in different worlds.
We’ve been gradually but inexorably sorted into not only competing, but antithetical narratives about the world. I’m not going to get into all the reasons and theories why this has happened. For one thing, they’re too numerous, speculative, and detailed to examine fully here. Moreover, I’m hungry, and so I need to wrap this up pretty quickly and put food in me.
The point is we have become not only aggressively tribal, but have increasingly come to see the other groups not only as competing factions, but as enemies. In some cases, not even human. Perhaps the only commonality among all these tribes is that they’re angry and appalled all the time. For most of us, it’s become physically and psychologically exhausting. For those broken souls for whom anger, resentment, and a sense of grieving disenfranchisement are the only nutrients they’ve been fed, these are boom times.
I Don’t Just Fell Alone. I Feel Alone And Pissed, And It’s Killed My Golf Game.And I Don’t Even Play Golf
I’ll admit it: I find myself looking at many of my fellow Americans with bafflement and even, at times, horror. And to my dismay, I’ve found that the more I find myself alienated from others, the more foreign I become to myself. And all of it, from all sides, is born in and sustained by fear. We are the United States of Fear. Worse still, we’re mostly afraid of each other.
In my view, America has always been a Petri dish for loneliness. Composed as we are by citizens whose origins hail from all over the world, it has never been very hard to stoke division (consult you local library for more on this topic. “The more you know” (insert rainbow animation)). Throw in the American myth of Rugged Individualism, and it’s easy to see why often find ourselves feeling, amidst the White Noise of our daily lives, adrift and alone.
Feeling Alone: As American As Apple Pie And Gun Fetishism That Verges On The Sexual
I don’t believe America lacks universal healthcare for financial reasons, nor because Americans endemically lack empathy. My belief is that we have been taught to view interdependence as weakness; many of us view requiring help as a fundamental moral failing.
Now, I want you to prepare yourselves for this next part. I’d advise sitting down. Here’s something that might, nay, most likely will shock you: despite what my boyish good looks might indicate tenth contrary, I’m smack in the center of middle age: a Gen Xer. I’ve observed a palpable acceleration of that individualistic, cutthroat ethos over at least the last 20 years. Also, things are getting a bit blurrier. I don’t mean morally (although maybe that); I mean things are literally getting blurrier. That’s more an ophthalmology issue, which I probably should look into. But I digress.
I, for one, have seldom felt more intrinsically isolated and disconnected from my fellow person than I have these last few years. Because of Covid, some of this is tangibly true. But that feeling of distance and alienation that I’m sure the Germans have the perfect word for was there long before the Pandemic hit.
Counting My Blessings (While Also Nursing My Grievances)
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with great people in my life whom I love enormously. And yet the gnawing alienation persists. Even grows. I sometimes want to shout out, “Don’t you all feel it? This aloneness? Can’t we all at least by admitting that? And whatever happened to the original MTV Vee Jays? I feel like if we had more input from J.J Jackson, I’d somehow feel calmer.”
Oh God. J.J. Jackson Died. Now I Feel Extra Alone. Why Don’t You People Tell Me These Things?
He passed in 2004. This both grieves me and sheds some light on our current cultural swamp. In the meantime, someone call Martha Quinn’s people (I know, I’ve totally lost everyone born after 1975).
I Am Spartacus. Assuming Spartacus Can Be Used As A Metaphor For Alienation And Lonelieness (And Why Can’t It)?
Anyway, I’ll start the ball rolling. I feel isolated. In a O. Henry-like twist, reconnecting with long lost friends and acquaintances on social media often makes me feel more alone. I don’t mind admitting I’m scared these days, both for myself, and for the world at large. I try to do my paltry bit, but am just as often overwhelmed by how paltry that contribution is. Then I remember the words of the Talmud:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” There’s not only wisdom in that, but an intrinsic sense of connectedness, of community. Of having purpose. Mattering.
And here’s another piece of irony that is O. Henry-like in its fiendish, um, irony. Those of us who feel that marrow deep isolation: there are legions of us! The last thing we are is alone. Loners of the world, in spite of the inherent oxymoron, unite! It may be harder than ever to find commonality and community, but it’s there. Even those whose worldview we find repugnant and alienating are, deep down, coming, too from a place of fear and alienation. I try to remember that. And that’s at least something in common.
Maybe that’s something, eventually, to build on. We’re all human, for better or worse. I was recently reminded of this when I read an extraordinary book, Codependence, by the supremely gifted and tragically underexposed author Amy Long. The author’s experiences and what she writes about have almost zero relation to my life experiences, but every page glows like a lantern, shining a light on our essential sameness, just like good art is supposed to.
OK, I’m REALLY hungry now. Let’s Wrap This Sucker Up.
Work for kindness and sanity in our communities to whatever extent you can, and I promise to do the same. Find solace in art, music, film, theater. In your friends. In your family (maybe). Most of all, in yourself. For me, that’s often hardest to do. But it’s there.
Regardless of the election results, a large cohort of Americans are going to feel honest to God devastation. Uncertain times are bound to ensue. Let’s try, as best we can, to be there for each other and ourselves. Vote. Be strong but kind. And stay safe. Til next time.
Love In The Time Of CoVid-19(Or, Alternatively) Fear And Loathing In Trumplandia, You Know, Depression/Despair, Whichever You’re Feeling More At The Moment
I get it. I totally get it. Whatever you’re feeling at this point in 2020. Anger? Sure. Fear? Totally? A seemingly intractable sense of existential depression and despair you can’t quite name but nonetheless is the ambient soundtrack of your days? Depends on my level of meds at the time, but oh my God, yes, absolutely: 100%.
I do not believe a sense of loneliness and despair is endemic to the human condition writ large, but I do believe that it is for many of us. I have struggled with depression virtually my entire life – before I knew there was a word for it, and well before I knew not everyone felt this way. At times – sometimes long stretches – it has dominated me; at other times I’ve been able to hit back hard enough to force into a strategic retreat.
Cheer Up: It’s Not AllBad, Even When It IS All Bad
To be fair: I think Depression has helped me develop some of my better qualities: an appreciation for kindness, a striving for empathy (some days I do better than others), and whatever meager talents I may possess, I feel sure they’ve been whetted by my depression. Most critically, it dissuaded me in the late 80’s from making any serious attempt at break dancing, which I think turned out to be a blessing for us all.
But this post is not about me (which is odd because, as a writer, I tend to assume most things are), but rather an attempt to share with those of us who are both lifelong members of this club (our coat of arms is a person lying in bed, with a half eaten box of donuts lying on the adjacent pillow), and those who may be experiencing it for the first time, or at least more intensely, during this annus horribilis(believe me, for obvious reasons, I took great pains to make sure I had that spelled correctly.
We Have Nothing To Fear Except More Or Less Everything. Including, If We Can Believe FDR, Even Fear.
No matter your politics, I think we can agree that there is something despair-inducing about seeing America, and indeed much of the world, so riven with seemingly intractable hostilities. Most of us have lazily on some level bought into the old bi-partisan saw that “What separates is smaller than what unites us.” The past few years have made it harder and harder to believe that. There are a million reasons why, and we’ve all heard them, and most of them aren’t new. Some have argued that we’ve been acceleratingly alienated form one another and ourselves since at least the Industrial Revolution.
I’ve long held to this belief in theory. But to see it take full bloom in the hothouse of media-induced chaos – both of the corporate and social varieties – has driven that alienation and corresponding rage and sadness with a despairing regularity. Perhaps, worst of all, we have no sense of when we will return to a sense of normalcy, whatever that word implies. As master pop-craftsman and de facto philosopher Tom Petty long ago instructed us, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
A Lot Of Our Despair Is To “Return To Normal.” And I Hate To Be That Guy, But…
What, and who, get to define “normalcy”? For many of us, “normalcy” has meant a persistent and exhausting struggle, marginalization, and fear. Whatever happens in the next year or so, I feel confident about this: the world will have shifted, at least slightly, in a new direction. Could that be a direction more tolerant of hate, vulnerability, and so-called “otherness” than ever before? That’s certainly possible.
But I’m optimistic this ugliness, this despair we’re all embroiled in to one degree or another, is a tragic but necessary step to take towards improve. In one, very, very small way, I’m glad racism and prejudice have felt free to come out or their dark corners and into the open these last few years: we, especially privileged White guys such as myself, can no longer pretend in good faith that everything’s fine.
Memo To The Founding Fathers: Less Time With The Slavery, More With The Grammar!
I’m also hopeful that, eventually, we’ll get a little closer to forming that “more perfect union” (the insufferably pompous writer in me despair’s of the Constitution’s phrasing of that: surely perfection is an absolute state, therefore one cannot become a more perfect union. But then I remind myself of the wise words many friends and family have counseled me with: shut up). America has always been an aspirational society, an idea. An idea, which it has never, not once, lived up to. But in general, we tend to move a bit closer to it, albeit, as these last years have shown, not in a straight line.
Winston Churchill once remarked (and I’m paraphrasing, and my God, Google is but a keystroke away), “America always does the right thing, after it has tried everything else.” While, like all pithy remarks, it’s reductive, I believe that’s true of humanity at large.
Anyway…Despair and Depression in 2020
I don’t pretend to have the cure for ending despair. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to program my DVR. But I strongly suspect part of at least reducing this pain lies in looking for the good in people in moments like this: and, as usual, there is no shortage to behold. Heroism, kindness, and empathetic action abound. You don’t even have to look that hard for it. Try, to whatever extent you can, to be a part of that. The amazing thing about that is that it not only makes the world a little better, it will bring you some degree of relief, too.
I know we’ve all heard this stuff before. That last paragraph was a carnival of clichés. But clichés become so for a reason. There’s something irreducibly true about them. Find a community: family, friends, and like-minded souls. A sense of belonging, along with a sense of meaning and purpose, has always been a balm for me.
A Frank Capra-esque Ending? From Me? A Bit. And Anyone Who Doesn’t Cry When Harry Bailey Toasts His Brother George In “It’s A Wonderful Life” Is History’s Greatest Monster.
I think the good people out number the bad. I believe why the forces of hate and disenfranchisement have been screaming louder than ever: they can hear the evolutionary tock clicking, even if they don’t believe in evolution. Or even clocks.
That’s all for now. Stay calm and kind, even to yourself. Or at least try to. I promise to do the same.
How To Pay Tribute To A Man You’ve Never Met, Yet Managed To Save Your Life Anyway, While Still Acknowledging His Flaws.
I doubt I’d be here without the Beatles. I don’t mean I’d be dead (though I don’t discount that possibility), I mean I wouldn’t be me. The Beatles are among that most exclusive of cohorts: people without whom you literally cannot picture what the world today would look and sound like. The difference is, most of that cohort achieved that distinction through violence or the exertion of political power. The Beatles, uniquely, did it through the sheer genius of their music and the force of their personalities.
And the most forceful personality of all was John Lennon’s. The acknowledged “leader” among a band of erstwhile equals (at least during their early years), Lennon quickly established himself as a man to be taken seriously with his intelligence, razor-sharp, zero bull wit, one of the great singing voices in rock history and, above all (with a little help from his friend and fellow composing genius, Paul McCartney), his unique and prodigious gifts as a songwriter.
The Impact Of John Lennon On This Boy (And A Few Million Others)
I was younger, so much younger than today (11) when John Lennon was assassinated on December 8th, 1980. I remember the next morning, my school bus driver was visibly shaken as she drove us to school. “Imagine” was playing on the radio. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “John Lennon was killed.” “Oh,” I said solemnly. After what I felt was a respectful interval, I asked, “Who’s John Lennon?” The look on the driver’s face was among the saddest faces I’d ever seen.
But at 14, I discovered The Beatles for myself, and, to borrow from video game parlance, it was like the Universe had suddenly leveled up. I became obsessed, and though I’ve learned to partially control that obsession in most social interactions, it’s never really gone away. For a 14 year old of a certain disposition, John Lennon was everything you’d ever want to be. Brash, talented, funny, rebellious, suffering no fools and taking no prisoners. That many of these traits stemmed from childhood trauma didn’t concern kids like me. In fact, the more I read about him, the more hooked I was. He was the only Beatle who grew up comfortably middle class. And though he suffered several severe psychological blows in his childhood (the likes of which I was certainly spared), it showed to me that being angry was an acceptable response to the world. In fact, when viewed from certain angles, it was the only authentic response to it. Any of my perfunctory efforts at homework quickly yielded to practicing guitar.
Most of all, of course, it was their music that got to me. Music of immense, indescribable joy that sometimes also managed to have just the right sized thread of loneliness and sorrow running through it simultaneously. Music that said that the world was made for discovery and taking chances: that there was always something new ahead to explore, delight in, and learn from. It made me feel more alive and less alone. It still does.
John Lennon: Bigger Than Jesus? MaybeNot, But A Lot Funnier.
A man like Lennon wasn’t going to enjoy the scrutiny and monotony of adulation and attention without some bumps in the road. Nor could it erase his past. He’d always been angry, and on occasion violent. He was a cruel, cutting drunk (and in the early days, he drank a lot). He was cruel and cutting when sober at times, too. On at least one occasion, he hit his wife, Cynthia. He was serially unfaithful (I mean, rock star). He was, charitably, a largely indifferent father to his older son (Paul was far more a father figure to Julian than John was).
I think there was a time when most of us, including myself, just sort of brushed past those things because we wanted to like him so much. These days, there’s no doubt a cohort of people who advocate “cancelling” him (and good luck with that). I think both approaches are misguided, largely because, for all of his flaws, Lennon never pretended not to be flawed. In the largely McCartney penned 1967 song “Getting Better,” Lennon contributes the following lines: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat and kept her apart for the things that she loves/Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.”
Do I believe he deserves a medal for this, or even praise? No. What I do think, though, is he lived his life, especially from that point on, with an honesty that at times verged on the embarrassing. He was willing to let us see his struggle to become a better person. He was willing to let us see him often fail in that pursuit. He (usually) admitted his mistakes.
I won’t delve into the whole fraught and nuanced role of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s life, but give her this much: she helped open his eyes to the oppression of women. For a man who once quipped, “Women should be obscene and not heard” to actively campaign for feminist causes shows an admirable willingness to learn and try to evolve.
On a far less serious point, the churlish and childish interview he gave in 1970, “Lennon Remembers” set in a motion a narrative that he was the only serious artist in the band, and was personally disparaging of his former bandmates, especially Paul. Any serious student of the Beatles knows the idea of Lennon (or even Lennon and McCartney) being the only reasons The Beatles were the Beatles knows this is hopelessly wrong. Lennon later dismissed many of his comments from that interview, but he never shied away from the narrative that he was the genius of the Beatles, a view which only picked up steam after his death. But it just isn’t true.
Instant, Or At Least Cosmically Speaking, Relatively Quick Karma
I’ve outlived John Lennon by 11 years. I like to think I’m a little more evolved than I was then. And I have no doubt John would’ve continued to grow wiser, too. I also think he would’ve gone overboard at times and looked foolish sometimes, because he did that, too. I don’t think anyone, especially Lennon, would nominate him to be canonized (except maybe that week or so in ’68 when he thought he was Jesus. Ah, acid).
But one of the things I’ve learned in my 51 years is that a person can do bad and foolish things, and still have wisdom and leave the world a better place than he found it. In fact, I’ve realize all of us have done bad and stupid things. Some of us take that as an excuse to compromise with our best intentions. John Lennon, for all his flaws, did not. He did some ugly things in his life. He tried to learn from them. And, like few others in history, he left the world a remarkably richer, wiser, happier place than he found it.
I, and millions of others, owe him a debt for that. So I’ll be listening to him all weekend, and although he was taken far, so absurdly far too soon from us, I’ll be grateful we had him, warts and all, as long as we did.
2020 For The World Is Like That One Semester In College YouTry To Forget Ever Happened. But With A Lot Less Parties And A Lot More Death.
What terrifies me most about 2020 is that we’ve still got a third of it left. White Nationalism is showing its ugly, empty-eyed face throughout America and much of Europe. In much of Eastern Europe, in fact, it’s gaining a stranglehold. Not a wellspring of hope. CoVid-19 seems here to stay for now, abetted by the 1/3 of America who can’t decide if it’s a hoax, a harmless flu, or deadly liberal synthesized virus deliberately given to those who tend not to wear masks, which of course robs us of our liberty. Duh. No hope there.
And yet, I can smell the faint aroma of hope on the horizon. To quote noted public intellectual Sarah Palin, “How’s that hopey changes thing working out for ya?” Actually, maybe not so bad, I think. And what reservoir of optimism have I tapped into? Apart from my meds, I’d say it’s because this past week finally Trump and the Right have proven that old adage by Marx (Zeppo, actually, startled historians have recently discovered) that historical events repeat themselves, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” Trump and his enablers have been streaming the crazy on full speed for the past for years that they’ve actually managed to condense history a bit and move it from tragedy to farce in the span of a few months. Last week, most of America became, undeniably, unabashedly, aware it was in the middle of a door-slamming (if those doors opened into rooms with ethical scientists, attorneys, and diplomats)farce that easily outpaced anything by Feydeau.
Yes, Trump’s performance was disgraceful and unhinged. But the difference is this time we had 90 minutes of it nationally broadcast. Lo and behold, the polls, every bit as stable as Trump is not, finally started to lurch inexorably towards Biden. People by and large no longer thought of him as an “outsider” who’ll “drain the swamp,” but as someone you wouldn’t trust to run for pizza, let alone run for president.
Who better to turn to for wisdom and hope during a time of mass isolation than the famously reclusive poet? Her famous line has been taken to mean by most that hope is a metaphorical bird residing within us, that takes flight and sings it song regardless of weather or clime. Easier said than done, at least for me. But she was right in implying that hope is critical for people to function meaningfully. By the time this week came, and The White House literally had more cases of Coronavirus than New Zealand, I think we’d reached the point of no return, and each new poll seems to reflect this.
Can something go wrong? Not only can it, but I feel confident it will. I believe the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day will be, to put it mildly, fraught. Let’s face, our Cal Ripkenly impressive streak of peaceful transfers of power is very much up for grabs. So, how can I not be nervous and despairing. I totally am. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, there. I’m teeming with worry. But, for the first time in a while, hope has gained a toehold, too. And really, sometimes, that’s all the room hope truly needs. It energizes and inspires, it activates imagination and shores up courage. It gives stamina and takes heart.
As I Am Wont To Do In Moments Of Doubt, I Turn To The Early Work Of Sylvester Stallone for Counsel
I’m sure I can’t possibly be the first person to make this analogy, but, 2020 has felt a lot like Rocky II: largely unnecessary, an unlikely vehicle for Burt Young, and, most vitally, 2020 has doled out an Apollo Creed in his prime level beating on us to the point of collapse. But, like the often paired Rocky Balboa and Maya Angelou, “Still I rise.” We are rising. I think. I hope.
Wait: Isn’t This Supposed To Be A Blog About Writing Or Depression Or Both?
True. But I think this qualifies, because if you were to draw a Venn Diagram involving mental health and writing, hope would be the overlap. Like I said, writing is fundamentally an act of optimism: why sweat over every word and comma if it won’t one day be seen? And how can we face the world without at least a scrap of hope clinging somewhere to us?
So here’s to hope. Now, I’m going to fill a soup tureen with vodka, put on a pith helmet, and watch the Vice Presidential Debate.
My Experiences With The Perks And Pitfalls of Collaboration
Theater, film-making, and television are different in a multitude of ways, but they all depend intensely on collaboration. Like most contemplations on collaboration, I will begin with a quote by tennis great Andre Agassi:
“If I didn’t play at the same time Pete Sampras was, I’d have won a lot more championships, but I also wouldn’t have been nearly as good a tennis player.”
To me, that’s a fascinating insight. It speaks to core values: do you want to “win” (which, in the arts, is at best a nebulous concept), or do you want to maximize your potential? Of course, the line between collaboration and competition often blurs, but I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. To quote someone who I’m willing to bet was not a very good tennis player at all:
“It was a good competition. Paul would bring something really good, and so that would kick me into trying to come up with something good, too, which would then do the same for him.” – John Lennon
John and Paul helped each other out far more often than has until recently been generally perceived (who would’ve thought it was Lennon who suggested the lovely horns in the decidedly McCartney-ish song, “Mother Nature’s Son,” or that it was Paul who helped John with some of the surrealist imagery in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Newspaper taxis arrive on the shore/Waiting to take you away” was Paul’s). Not to mention it was an uncredited George Harrison who came up with “Ah, look at all the lonely people” for “Eleanor Rigby.”
Anyway, my point is, I think collaboration is often a wonderful thing. In TV and film writing, it’s a given that there will be dozens and dozens of fingerprints all over your script. That’s why they pay you a relatively large sum of money: to stop you grumbling about it.
You Never Give Me Your Money (Seeing As I’m Now In a Beatles Frame Of Mind)
In theater, however, large payouts are rare, to put it mildly. What theater does afford as a compensation, however, is TOTAL CONTROL OF YOUR TEXT. Not a word, not a comma, can be changed without your explicit imprimatur. Does that feel good? Dear God, yes. Is it something I tend to invoke a lot during the rehearsal process? Very seldom.
Why? Because, if I feel I’m working with gifted and intelligent professionals, it seems an act of self-defeating arrogance to not listen to the input of others. This doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my writing. It reflects a faith in my collaborators (and if you don’t have that, well, the production’s probably not going ever gel anyway).
Any semi-smart playwright will tell you that you learn an immense amount about your play when you hear it aloud. For many – certainly for me – I often realize that I’ve over-explained and/or over-written. These are not necessarily the same thing. Over-explaining is the reiteration of a point I’ve already established (often something I’m guilty of). Over-writing is taking a little too much pleasure in the sound of your voice (something I consider myself guilty of until proven innocent).
You Must Kill, Or At Least Temporarily Brutally Imprison, Your Darlings
I think we’re all familiar with that axiom, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb. But who’s more likely to arrive at an emotional attachment to your words – you, or your director/actors/crew? Sadly, it’s almost inevitably they who’ve the clearer eye with such things. But it’s a fine line, right? Hemingway said to write your story, then take all of the good lines out. Then you have your story. Certainly a good warning to not fall in love too much with your own voice.
But what if Fitzgerald had taken all the good lines out of The Great Gatsby? What a tragic loss that would’ve been. One of the most important things the two legendary authors had in common was a brilliant collaborator, the editor Maxwell Perkins, whom they both trusted to simultaneously respect their individual voices and yet maintain a sharp critical eye. What a gift to have someone like that in your corner.
I don’t think I’m diminishing the genius of either Arthur Miller nor Tennessee Williams when I observe that in the span of three years Elia Kazan directed, in succession, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. Both Williams and Miller were on the top of their game, but so, clearly, was Kazan.
I Try To Be Very Forgiving Of My Flaws When I Write,But At Least Equally As Merciless With Myself When I Edit. Also, When I Have A Say With Whom I Work.
I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of people with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate. People who’ve unquestionably elevated the quality of my writing. But because I consider a good collaborator to be so essential, I choose them carefully and make my best efforts to show how much faith I have in them. This isn’t to say I’ve always agreed or acquiesced. In one play of mine, I make a joke about Leni Riefenstahl. You know, like you do. Both the director and actor pleaded with me with increasing desperation to cut the joke. “People won’t get it,” I was told. “Many people won’t,” I’d always respond, “but enough will.”
The first preview, I sat next to the director, and when joke landed beautifully, I looked over with a no doubt unbearable smugness on my face which, to his everlasting credit, he didn’t punch.
Having said that, if an actor is telling you a line doesn’t feel right, either in their mouths or for their characters, you’d better listen carefully. After all, it’s their character now, too.
I’d mentioned in the intro about the “pitfalls” of collaboration, and to be sure, they can exist. Working with people whose vision of things doesn’t jibe with yours. People who demonstrably don’t like your work, not just have an issue with a particular part of it. People who – and they’re usually pretty quick to spot – are in it just for themselves. And sometimes, despite them being good, kind people, collaborators whose work, if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t hold in high regard. Those are all dealbreakers to me. Collaboration is so important, is such a valuable thing, that you have to be as scrupulous as possible when picking your partners (on those rare chances you have control over that).
Hey Gang, We Can Do The Show Right Here!
And after all, collaboration, to me, is one of the joys of playwriting. It affords me the perfect ratio of solitude and company. I got into to the theater to be with people I trusted and who generally saw the world the same I did. That’s why I still do it. I’d list all the collaborators who’ve added qualitatively to my plays, but the list would be too long, and inevitably I’d forget someone. Moreover, there are people who’ve done so whom I’m sure I’m not even aware of. Playwrights can be pretty self-involved during rehearsals (and all other waking hours).
I don’t feel especially qualified to advise anyone on what to do. About anything. Even picking heads or tails. All I can tell you is the two things that have helped me the most by far: Read and write as constantly and relentlessly as you can. And then, judiciously but consciously, when you find an artist you trust, finagle a way to get them as involved with your work as possible. Theater is a team sport. Find the smartest, kindest, most open-hearted people you can and keep them close. Probably good advice off-stage, too.
In both cases, boy, have I lucked out. I wish you the same!
Someone Famous Said That, I Think, And Yet My Laziness Is So Potent That I Can’t Be Bothered To Look It Up. And I’m At My Computer. Google Could Not be More Readily Accessible To Me If It Were Implanted In My Brain. Which Is Coming in 2024.
“We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s always stuck with me, and struck me as a deep truth, However, I’m having trouble reading these days. And not just the long and hard words, like “avuncular,” or “schadenfreude.” Even the simple words in large print with accompanying illustrations elude me. Reading has always been a refuge for me, an escape, a lifeline to, well, life. These past few weeks, however, for reasons I can only partly identify, have been some of the hardest of my life, and my capacity to read, which would normally act as a much needed solace, has vanished. My loneliness and sense of isolation are maxed out.
In its place? Despair. Costco sized pallets of it. Real, unassuageable, unreasoning, screaming-like-a-toddler-at the-top-of-its-lungs-for-attention-at-a-eulogy despair. No tragedies have befallen me nor those I love. My daughter’s college closed its campus because of Covid-19, which breaks her heart, and therefore mine, but all in all, my family and I are still relatively lucky.
In All Fairness, We May Feel Alone Because The World Right Now, To Quote Emily Dickinson, “Sucks.”
The world is quite literally on fire, and as tragic as that is, that may not crack my top three or so places for unvarnished tragedy and evil stalking the world and, more specifically, my country. 2020 has been to indescribably awful years what The Beatles were to 20th Century music, and Friday’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg may well have been its Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Alas, as an avid Beatles fan, I’m all-too aware that the Beatles arguably went on to top Pepper with masterpieces like The White Album and Abbey Road. So no, we’re not out of the woods (which our president tells us may contain exploding trees, but let’s not even unpack that).
I’ve been undergoing a course of Ketamine treatment most of the summer, and while it initially held some promise and even, for about five glorious days, made me feel fully human for the first time since the Clinton Administration, it has backfired spectacularly these last few weeks; in fact, never have I felt more truly alone. Not to worry, I have a dedicated team of professionals working with me, but to be honest, I believe we are with mental health roughly where we were with bodily health around 1790. I’m hopeful for geometric strides in the field soon, but for now, I’m essentially being prescribed a course of leeches.
I Believe The Coronavirus Will Not Defeat Us, But It’s Sure Has Hell Beaten The Crap Out of Me, And I Haven’t Even Had It.
As Joni Mitchell taught us long ago, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone,” and that’s what it’s been like for me and reading. Now, luckily, I have been writing copious amounts for the last six months more or less uninterrupted.
So at first, I didn’t notice it. But, for the moment, all the drafts have been all drafted as they can be at this stage, and so I turned to books and found they just couldn’t cohere in my brain. Music, too. Music, that I love actually sounds unpleasant to me right now. So, whatever the “it” is that I’m in, I am pretty firmly ensconced inside of it.
I’ve been alternately anxiety-riddled, disconsolate, and arbitrarily teeming with rage (Was it was stupid, mean, dangerous, and pointlessly toxic to yell at the man with the pickup bearing Trump stickers taking up two slots in the parking lot, “We get it: you have a small penis”? Of course it was.) And yet…
Anyway, the point is, I’ve become a pretty loathsome person of late. And just as we need, more than ever, to be KIND as possible to each other. Just my luck. So, yes, the isolation and feeling of alienation from so many of my fellow citizens has, for the moment, knocked me onto the canvass.
I’m writing this not to garner pity or sympathy (although let me be crystal clear on this point: that’s not beneath me), but because I think many of us are wrestling with at least a vaguely similar feeling. Hopefully not as badly as I am, and hopefully you’re coping in less toxic and ill-advised ways. Maybe this might make you feel a little less alone, or ideally, smug about how much better you’re handling than I am.
But Lo, Rising From The Ashes Of My Shattered Psyche Like A Phoenix, Or Like The Idyllic New England Town’s Christmas Carol Singalong In The Last Ten Minutes Of A Hallmark Movie, There Is Hope.We Are Not, In Fact, Alone.
I’m not talking about the whole world right now, but just us. This sense of isolation. It’s largely illusion. We will get through it. Have so far. Even the reading will come back. If I can’t get through a novel, I’ll try a short story. If that’s too overwhelming, a short poem: not a deliberately-in-your-face-screw-you-with-my-obscurity modernist type poem, but a digestible one, designed for humans. If that fails, there’s always The Lockhorns (man, they REALLY don’t seem well-suited for each other).
I read a bit of Rilke last night, largely because I wanted to casually drop into my essay that I’m the kind of person who reads Rilke, but the point is I was finally able to feel a connection again, especially this bit:
““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
That’s good advice. And it’s always, I admit, a sightly sadistic comfort for me in knowing the loneliness and isolation that even a great soul and mind like his must’ve endured to be able write this. Even if the feeling less alone is through pain, uncertainty, or despair, you’re still less alone. That’s the closest thing I can offer to hope to all of you and to myself today. But it’s enough.
I’ve led, by most objective standards, a pretty privileged life. I’ve had the advantages of my parents’ love and hard work, my race, my gender, my sexual preference, and my (brooding and magnetic) sexuality to provide me with opportunities that, statistically, place me very much in the minority. From a material standpoint, I was quite comfortably middle class.
My life growing up was far from perfect, but leaps and bounds better than many others. I won’t bore you with my individual emotional scars, because we all have them, and I’ll bet some of yours are way more gnarly and impressive than mine. I was attracted to the arts at an early age (an opportunity afforded to me by my privilege), and found, luckily, I had some natural aptitude for music and, in particular, acting and writing. No more aptitude than thousands of others, of course, and indeed quite likely less than thousands more.
Fascinating, Griping Stuff, Jack, So Far. What’s Your Point, Again?
As long as I can recall being cognizant of my emotional life, I’ve fought a more or less perpetual battle with gnawing depression and deep alienation (I moved around a LOT as a young kid. Could that be a part of it? Maybe? It also runs in my family. Frankly, who cares why in the end? It just was/is). Still, in even this, I was relatively lucky. My family wasn’t perfect (thank God – material!), but I never doubted I was loved. A basic outcast in elementary and junior high school (who among us wasn’t?), by high school I had the great fortune of finding a group of smart, warm, true friends, most of whom I’m lucky enough to still have meaningful connections with.
Ditto college. I ended up going to to three colleges. The first one gave me still more wonderful, lifelong friends, as well as the third (the second college I attended, SUNY Stony Brook, I found to be what I’d imagine it would look like if your local DMV ran a university. That’s just my experience; that’s not on Stony Brook). I left my first college due to an emotionally devastating break up, which was not the first, but certainly the most tangible sign, that I was not as emotionally resilient as I would like to be. 30 (30??) years later, it is still very much a work in progress.
Wow, This Is Sooo Gripping, Jack. How Have You Not Optioned This Yet? What’s Your Point?
I had already shown clear signs of emotional instability by my adolescence. I half-heartedly tried therapy, but found it pointless. I have since been through almost every therapy and therapist you can imagine (I believe they eventually formed a Facebook support group for each other). The arts – theater, particularly – was the only place I’d ever discovered where I felt truly like myself – the same experience countless others have had. That sense of loneliness and alienation was absent.
Of course, as any professional knows, the great irony of the theater business is that it’s 98% a carnival of isolation and alienation. Artists tend to be thin-skinned and emotionally vulnerable (or available, if you’re an optimist), and yet they work in an industry that can be nothing short of brutalizing to one’s ego and psyche. My 20’s, when an actor needs to spend every waking hour hunting and making connections, was basically a blur of bed-ridden, game-show watching depression for me. I may (or may not) have had the talent to work, but I lacked the toughness and discipline.
However, what I discovered relatively late and after several aborted attempts, was that I could write a little. Moreover, I could do it while working a full time job, because I now had two children, who insisted on eating, without exception, every single goddamned day.
Finally, The Writing Part. At Least I Hope.
With some luck and encouragement, I started to gain a little headway in the field. Not an exorbitant amount, but enough to convince myself wasn’t being delusional. I’ve been a professional playwright for over ten years, and while I’m always going to want to achieve more, I’ve been reasonably lucky. Most importantly, I get to be in rehearsal rooms again – which are truly, besides the times I spend with my now somehow largely grown children, the only time I ever I feel I belong. So, in a phrase, I write because it affords me rare access to feelings of acceptance and belonging.
That’s Sweet, I Guess, But Strictly Speaking, Is That A Good Enough Reason?
I’ve never been sure of that. And the last years have only intensified that question for me. Because, as I’ve made clear, my reasons for writing are selfish. And with the world literally on fire these days, isn’t it ultimately indulgent to do something largely because it makes you feel good? I mean, talk about privilege.
I’m writing this because this year, as I know it has for many of us, forced us into a stark reevaluation of purpose. It’s not like I don’t work for causes I believe in, but shouldn’t I just drop it all and use whatever meager talents I have in the service of helping to make this current cultural hells cape slightly less hellscapish? Maybe doing so would even fill me with a sense of purpose, which might go a long way to quelling the despair, anxiety, and alienation I still wrestle with daily.
The truth is there’s a reason I’ve written three full length plays, a lengthy monologue, a TV pilot, and a one act play in 2020. It’s because that’s what I need to do to keep myself going. There’s been more than one moment as a writer, after a particularly bitter disappointment, where I’ve said aloud, “I’m done,” but I knew I was kidding myself. Who knows when theater will rise from the ashes and what form it will take, yet here I am, typing away. If I stopped writing, even if I never get so much as a reading the rest of my career, a large part of myself, the one part of myself that doesn’t always feel a bit lost, would be utterly at sea.
I write because, through various bends along the road, somehow I became a writer. I can only contribute what I can contribute. Believe me, I’d be a worse than useless frontline worker in this pandemic. I write because it gives me my best shot as being an acceptably tolerable father, son, friend, partner, and citizen. I also write because, hopefully, in some small way, some of it may speak to someone else out there, and at least make them feel a little less alone. But that’s pretty lofty.
I have to be contented with that. Not that I can’t and won’t work as a citizen to help out in other ways, but I have to believe that as long as I’m writing the best way I am capable of, than that serves as reason enough.
It’s been a while since I’v posted on here – well over a month. A confluence of factors, some good, some less than ideal, conspired to keep me away. Like most of us this year, I’ve sort of lost a real sense of time, so my last post, published on July 25th, feels both like just a few days and a lifetime ago.
Mostly, I’ve been busily writing the first draft of a new play, which is certainly a nice thing to be preoccupied with. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been writing more or less continually this year, which is part dumb luck and part, I’m sure, my brain feverishly trying to find a place into which I could escape from my thoughts and the world in general. This most recent play is based on historical figures, which is even better in terms of sucking up time and attention, as it requires a requisite amount of research.
Ignorance: It’s Gotten Me This Far
The two characters at the heart of the play are quite famous, but lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, although there’s no shortage of biographies on them, there are sections that are either merely speculative or lost to history altogether. For me, this is sort of a sweet spot as a writer. It gives me lots of room to play around. I was vaguely aware of their biographies. And I delved and learned a fait amount more. And as both men are famous classical composers, and my knowledge of that genre is scant, I needed to study up on that. Specifically, each man’s contributions.
Eventually, if this play ever sees the light of day, I’ll need to bring aboard a Musical Director, who will have to help guide me where I’ve gone egregiously astray. But the thing is, I feel that while you owe a degree of fidelity to the essence of who these people were, it should only be in the service of advancing the story that you want to tell. And, as the events I depict in my play are lost entirely to history, I don’t even have to worry about warping a narrative just to fit my story.
If You’re Looking For A Good Documentary, May I Recommend Netflix?
Amadeaus is among my favorite plays. Peter Shaffer is a genius, I think. It’s brilliant. Yet, anyone coming away from the play or film believing they now know the real story of Mozart and Salieri is woefully mistaken. There’s no real evidence to suggest Salieri was outraged by Mozart, let alone that he plotted his death. And while Mozart was indeed, shall we say, eccentric in some of the ways he’s portrayed in the script, these quirks are heightened for dramatic effect. I think a dramatist has a responsibility to get at what they feel is the emotional truth and circumstances of the characters (as they see them), but a rigid adherence to facts not only doesn’t ensure this, it often hinders this task.
Historians would be appalled if your thoughts on King Richard III were shaped solely by Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Dramatists are not, nor should try to be, documentarians. Of course the closer you get to present day figures, the more carefully you need to tread. Legal reasons compel this more exacting approach as much as moral ones.
I once spent an hour and half talking to a lawyer from the Shubert Organization about my play Fellow Travelers, which concerned the lives of, among others, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Marilyn Monroe. As it happens, I stuck fairly closely to the facts of the story as it unfolded in real life, but some compressions and embellishments were necessary. and of course, the vast bulk of the dialogue was entirely invented. As it turned out, my script passed legal muster.
“History Is A Nightmare From Which I’m Trying To Awake” – James Joyce
I hear you, James. I feel the same way about current events. At any rate, history is a slippery, and, counterintuitively, very much living and present thing. At least our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Most of my plays are entirely fiction. But a handful are based loosely on real people and events.
This has pros and cons. Personally, I always struggle with plot – writing about history greatly alleviates, although not entirely obviates, this problem. However, and I’ve had this happen, you’re guaranteed to have people approach you in the lobby or bad after a performance, indignantly demanding why I place a certain event in 1952, when in fact it happened in October of 1950. My strategy of nodding politely while slowly but surely walking backwards away from such people has generally served me well.
After All, In The End, Aren’t We All Simply Figments Of Each Other’s Imaginations?
No. Ugh. God, shut up. That’s stupid, despite the fact people like David Hume could never really disprove it. In the end, I believe, as a writer, I have a responsibility to approach historical characters with the respect, fairness, and as close an understanding of their actions and beliefs as I can get at. I feel the same way about my fictional characters. And, come to think of it, people in general. I think my main job is to engage an audience and earn their ticket price. For me, that entails telling a story as honestly as I can. This is not to be confused with a recitation of facts.
Art Has An Obligation To Truth, Not Facts
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m very much pro-fact. One of the key issues afflicting us today is the great epistemological divide in our culture. Everyone, Right and Left, takes most things on faith (e.g., do I know the world is round? Yes, absolutely. Can I, personally, prove it? Ummm…not so much. But I can point you to sources who can). Whom we choose to place our trust in, and the sharp fissure between the Right in Left in its options, is killing us. That’s our problem – our chief one, I’d argue – as citizens. But that’s another blog post, I s’pose.
This Should Really Be Titled “My Pandemic Paradox,” But Then It Would Sound Less Like A Robert Ludlum Novel, Which Is Frankly My Goal With All Of My Titles.
I think the Pandemic may have broken me. And before I even start, I want to make it clear I’m not on the front lines of the crisis; I’m dealing with neither the stress nor the horror of being on the front lines of the Pandemic, nor suffering from the disease, nor watching someone I love suffer from the disease. I’ve suffered financially, but am getting help on that end, too.
In other words, I’ve had a pretty freaking easy time of it, all things considered. In fact – here’s Paradox #1 – as a writer, I’ve seldom been more productive. Since March, I’ve redrafted a new play, re-outlined and completely rewrote a one hour television pilot, written the first draft of a new full-length play, written a one act play to be performed on Zoom, and am 25 pages into another new play. Also, I started this blog. So that’s good, no? Busy is good, right?
But Wait, There’s Less!
The first two months of the lockdown, I had and often expressed the hope that as brutal and awful as this plague is, that it gives a chance to relearn some key life lessons, and that I hoped most of us would emerge from the pestilential fog with more gratitude for our relationships IRL, for actual human connection, and less reliance on the synthetic substitute of social media, which we’ve all known for a while are largely empty calories, but have continued to live on anyway (BTW- I get it, I’m using social media in order to decry its corrosive effects on us; I majored in irony in college). I still hope that’s true.
The last month or so, however, despite my deepening loneliness, I’ve found myself more and more, by subtle degrees, more numb to everything. Including people. Especially people. Especially, I must confess, the people I love. I mean, I still love them, please don’t misunderstand. But more and more it’s come to feel more like an observation than a feeling. “I love my family. I love my friends,” I observe to myself, perhaps in order to reaffirm and remind myself I’m capable of the emotion. (Paradox #2)
But here, in late July, I confess I feel less whole, less fully human than I maybe ever have. And I hate to admit it, but that’s saying something: I’ve lived most of my life questioning my wholeness.
I Blame Society. Phew. Feels Good To Shift The Blame!
It’s been a year of stark contradiction in general, no? We’ve witnessed brutal acts of racially-based violence and hatred, but have also borne witness to much of the country becoming galvanized as never before to acknowledge and strive to mend the deep, bleeding wounds of our nation’s systemic racism.
We’ve watched in horror as friends, loved ones, and strangers alike have battled and sometimes lost to a cruel disease, while simultaneously stared in awe at the too, too many to name heroes who have stepped into the breech at the peril of their own safety to bring comfort and heeling the afflicted. (Paradoxes #3 & 4)
And, on a personal note, I’ve written a great deal of theater at a time when theater isn’t really a thing for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps my sense of detachment is a case of sensory overload. 2020 has had far too much trauma, far too much tumult, for a year to reasonably sustain. And we’re in July.
Being With People Is Not Like Riding A Bike. The Physics Alone Are Completely Different.
As I mention often, I am in a play-reading group that meets every Thursday evening. Professional New York and L.A. Actors, currently scattered around the country, who to a person, in addition to being gifted professionals, are all kind, smart, sort of impossible-not-to-like people. These were the qualifications.
And in addition to providing many hours of great entertainment and quality acting, this group has been largely my only access to people outside my immediate circle of family and significant others (or, other, in this case. There’s no plural, just to be clear. Let’s face it, it’s a minor miracle I have even one). And, as I’ve mentioned more than once, they’ve been an oasis in this dessert.
We’ve spoken more than once about the need to all meet up in person after this monstrousness ebbs. And though I know it’ll be great fun, I hope I’ll be able to deal with it. Because I have a feeling that my reentry into general peopledom is going to be bumpier than I would’ve assumed back in March, or even May.
There are thousands of gestures, some spoken, most not, that we decode and transmit in our daily interactions with the world. They’ve become so ingrained in us, they’re almost always unconscious. My fear and suspicion is that some of those unthinking, intuitive signals have faded from my emotional vocabulary. I think it may take me a while to relearn them.
I also think that, just perhaps, I won’t be alone in this. I hope we’ll be understanding and forgiving of each other and ourselves.
But You Started Off Mentioning A Paradox Of Some Sort. What’s The Paradox?
Well, in my defense, I think I’ve offered several. Hell, I even numbered them for you. Go back and check, dammit. But I think the key one, for me, is that I’ve never been lonelier, yet I find myself less able to muster up the energy required to meaningfully connect with others than ever. Which is not only a paradox, but almost rises to the level of a “Catch-22″* – I know, they’re in many ways the same thing, but I’m trying to drive my point in the home stretch.
Yes, I’m writing more than ever, but will any of it ever be seen? Yes, there’s nothing I crave more on the one hand than being out in the world among friends, but on the other hand I feel ill-equipped to handle that. I want company. I want to be left alone.
It’s Like Plato’s “The Allegory Of The Cave.” But In Reverse. Kinda.
And that’s not depression speaking, or at least it’s not just depression (on this, I know whereof I speak. So much so, I’m confident employing “whereof” in my sentence). Plato’s Allegory of the Cave claims that, because of the limits of our worldview, it is as if we are all chained in a cave, facing the back wall with a fire in front of us providing the only light. We can make of the world only what we see in the distorted shadows that play across that wall. Freed from such chains and able to leave the cave and see the world as it is, how many of us could recognize it? How many of us wouldn’t be consumed with terror and retreat for the comfort of the familiar shadows?
I kinda feel like that’s where I’m getting to. We’ve all been quarantined in a cave, albeit with Netflix. I’m afraid I may be growing to used to the shadows. I hope I won’t stay that way.
Fun fact about Catch-22: Joseph Heller and his editor went round and round about what number to use. For a while, it was going to be Catch-17. But another novel had recently came out with “17” in the title, so they eventually landed on “22.” Thank God, right? It’s just so much better, though I’m not sure why. Maybe the symmetry? Maybe the hard consonants? Maybe both? Art can be so weird and arbitrary and I’ll never get close to figuring it out.
An Interview With One Of My (And Soon To Be Yours) Favorite Actors About Theater, Arts Advocacy, And The Play She’s In Streaming This Wednesday With Paula Vogel’s “Bard At The Gate” Play Initiative
Rachel Spencer Hewitt is one of the most extraordinary actors I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. She has an MFA in Acting from Yale’s School of Drama, and has appeared on Broadway (King Charles III) and Off-Broadway (The Seagull, directed by Max Stafford Clark), (A Civil War Christmas, by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau), and (Peter and the Star Catcher at New York Theatre Workshop).
I also had the good fortune of having Rachel create the role of Marilyn Monroe in my play Fellow Travelers, directed by Michael Wilson at The Bay Street Theater. Her performance was among the most technically extraordinary and emotionally rich I’ve ever witnessed on any stage. She’s also in my Thursday night play reading group, where she additionally serves as a no-nonsense de facto stage manager.
Rachel is also the founder of Parents Artists Advocacy Group (or PAAL), whose work has been featured in The New York Times, American Theatre Magazine, and NPR. She explains the work of this wonderful organization in depth in our interview.
This Wednesday at 7, she will appear in Meg Miroshnik’s The Droll via “The Bard at the Gate,” on Paula Vogel’s website http://paulavogelplaywright.com/bardatthegate, with all proceeds going to charity. You’d be a fool not to watch it. A fool, I say! Also, you’d be one to pass up this chance to get to know this extraordinary artist and person by reading this interview:
Tell us a bit about the play and why it’s especially resonant these days.
The Droll’s alternate title is “a Play About the End of Theatre” and it asks the question “What would it have been like to discover a passion for acting during the 18 years in which theatre was illegal in 17th-century Puritan England?” It follows a band of players as they perform illegally throughout London and the surrounding areas. The Droll was written by Meg Miroshnik and performed in 2009 at the Yale School of Drama’s Carlotta Festival. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the original cast of students to perform this piece, and almost all of us are part of this zoom reading of it.
It’s not only been incredible to reunite with a company of players who all connected over this piece, but also to see what profound relevance this piece has right now as we wrestle with art in a global pandemic. Ten years ago we put up a stunning black box production of the grit and darkness and laughter and bonds that come from creating art in a world that’s shut down around us. Now, we get to share this story when so many of us are finding new ways to connect with a creative community.
We also are so lucky to have Devin Brain return to direct it. He directed it originally at Yale, and his ability to find beauty in the pain of a character’s story as well as find raw, relatable human reasons to move a story forward make his pairing with Meg, especially in this piece, always a thrill to be a part of.There’s so much heart in this stoy that explores how far people will go to find each other and make art when fear, illness, and the immediate surroundings make us vulnerable. When the theatres shut down this year, I instantly thought of this play – to the point I had a dream about it. The next morning I saw Paula Vogel post on social media about remembering it as well, and the rest is history.
Will this be a cold reading, or has there been any sort of ad hoc rehearsal process?
Many of us haven’t visited this piece in a good decade, but we were allotted some rehearsal chunks under the Theatre Authority agreement for benefit performances, so some refresher work using the latest version, and then we did somewhat cold reads with each other and recorded it all over zoom. Meg’s plays always send me into rapture because she writes with such specificity that I always know where I am in the world even while she starts snapping its rules in half. It’s the 17th century except when it’s not; it’s our English except that it’s not, and all the while we know and follow and dive deeper into the story. Her magic is in breaking the rules so we live in a new world to meet people we deeply want to know.
You’ve mentioned to me this play has always stuck with you. Why do you think it does?
I think because of the center of many of our conversations together – that for many artists, creating is equivalent to our very survival. It’s how we understand and navigate the world and ourselves. The hope for many of us is that any illumination we find through this art we also get a chance to share with others for their own illumination, wherever their imagination and empathy takes them.
For The Droll, specifically, it provides historical context for a time when laughter itself was worth doing great evil to find, how the lightness of a play can rid someone of their personal darkness for only a moment, and – also very relevant – how beautiful groups of players have structural flaws that can harm the very people who love creating more than anything. This play allowed me to live through my characters’ path, one of the players who desired to be a maker in the company more than anything, and how her life was changed by the betrayal of rejection from that community.
Meg writes each player with such strongly pulsing heart, that I could fully dive into Doll’s (my character’s name) depression, passion, grit, defiance, pain, and victory knowing full well the play would open up to all her humanity at the same time. My character is vey much a product of her time as well as a figure we recognize fully today. Her raw talent and trauma make her a hero of survivors, even if her methods are suspect. But I won’t say any more to keep from spoiling anything! In the playwright’s notes in the script, Meg writes that it’s “a love letter to actors” and on every page, its so evident that she has a love for every single character speaking. That love makes the playing of this piece all the more vibrant.
What’s it like working on a piece with Paula Vogel? What unique energy does she bring to the (in this case, virtual) room?
Paula’s advocacy for the artists who make new work, in every room, is indefatigable. Her whole mission with this series is to produce plays and playwrights she believes in now that the “factory” part of play development has shut down. When Paula speaks to a room of artists, we are all instantly in her family, and she brings warrior energy that lets you know wherever you want to take this play boldly, she’ll go with you. That fearlessness is contagious. Her belief in what we do as artists is nothing short of life changing.
I worked with her in the room on plays at Yale and in her piece A Civil War Christmas at New York Theatre Workshop. When she said goodbye toward the end of that production, she took me by the shoulders and looked me square in the eyes and said, “Always keep your heart open!” I don’t know if she knew it, but at the time I was engaging very deeply with a character in that play that I struggled to shake when I would leave the theatre, and her strength in that moment became an anchor for me as I matured in my art: to remember my openness and vulnerability as a strength. That the answer for sustaining myself would never be to close my heart but to fortify myself in other ways, in my belief and self-worth. Now, years later, she’s still jumping on zoom calls to grab us by the shoulders and look us in the eye, her twinkle and mischief and fire as strong as ever, and remind all of us of the power of open hearts on every call. It’s life changing, to be honest.
Also, just relevantly speaking, she is constantly speaking up and speaking out about what’s happening in the theatre and society in terms of injustice, so when she brings plays into production, as she’s doing with this series, she’s a necessary voice because of her ability to connect the art of storytelling to the movement of people, and that’s a belief I share, so she’s a leader I look up to very much in that way.
When I became a mother, my art opened up in a way I had needed for a very long time, but the support that was already lacking for me as an artist in our society plummeted – even though I had all the privilege, connection, survival job opportunity in the world, it was absurdity at best and starvation at its lowest. Childbirth is older than even the theater, and still…there was no handbook, there was lack of communication about others doing art and mothering at the same time in a real, intentional and institutional way, and – the worst part of all – I was complicit in silencing myself for a very long time.
The moment that changed that for me was when I learned of mothers who left the field all together and was told by a male colleague not to speak about my successes, and all the silencing from being sexualized in my twenties now threatened to repeat itself in my motherhood, and I told it, internally, in not so many words on the way home, clutching my daughter in my arms fiercely, to f*-off-I-will-not-be-quiet. And instead of taking the advice to be quiet about my motherhood, I began writing about it, researching it, and then organizing for mothers and parents who deserved the support this industry is so stingy in giving them.
I found in this advocacy a community of people who I now call some of my closest friends, most gifted artists, and hardest working, intelligent contributors and creators. It’s just that their opportunities and support are slashed to ribbons when they exercise their social right to a family, or care for an ailing relative, or are the sole provider for a dependent with disabilities. And that’s unethical and unjust. And art without justice, in both its content and process, is not art at all, or bad art at best, and I refuse to play in a world like that, so it needs to change.
This advocacy is close to my heart because the very thing that opened me up, my motherhood, I was told to be quiet about; artists exercising their right to care for family forced them out of the community. I’ll be talking about this for the rest of my life. Caregiver access and support is directly tied to class disruption, gender parity, intersects with race, and affects the disability community exponentially. Creating support is necessary action for forming truly accessible spaces and processes in the theatre.
How does PAAL connect with the Paula Vogel series and the play you’re doing that is showing on July 15?
We are so incredibly honored that PAAL is one of the organizations receiving donations from those who donate on Wednesday at the streaming of the Droll in this series from Paula Vogel. In our work centering anti-racism for caregiver support in theatre, the second round of PAAL COVID Emergency Grants will be going to Black artists with families. PAAL is also partnering with Blackboard Plays – an organization founded over ten years ago to support and develop Black playwrights by incredible playwright and the PAAL Chief Rep of NYC Garlia Cornelia – to produce a powerful new project: The Black Motherhood New Play Festival where we are creating an open call nationally for play submissions on Black motherhood to create a platform, opportunity, and funding for Black artists and their work. We will be sharing a lot of details about the project soon. Garlia has been producing Black artists for over a decade, is a fierce playwright, producer, and mother, and I’m beyond honored to call her my friend and engage on this project with her. I can’t wait to introduce you – she’d be a great interview as this project develops. She’s unparalleled in terms of leadership and vision. So, I encourage everyone to subscribe to your blog, Jack, so they get the updates on that.
In the meantime, everyone can watch The Droll and connect with centuries old and immediately relevant experiences of creating in a pandemic, donate to PAAL to get vital work off the ground, and stay tuned for even more groundbreaking projects on the horizon. These links can make for an exciting week for those of us quarantining!
How can people tune in to see you in this performance on this Wednesday?
Subscribe to the Bard at the Gate YouTube channel or just check out the feed at PaulaVogelPlaywright.com/BardAtTheGate, and it will be streaming there at 7:00 PM EST on Wednesday, July 15! It’s theatre, so it’s temporary and everyone needs to check it out ASAP before it disappears! And you saw my instagram post with the skull, and that also makes a cameo, so check it out to spot the Yorik, at least.
You can follow Rachel on Instagram @rachelspencerhewitt
How Your Writing Routine Shapes Your Writing. Or Not.
It was said Tennessee Williams wrote every day of his life, usually in the morning. Literature is crammed with the works of other authors I was too lazy to google who had/have rigid writing routines. However, others either avoided routine consciously, or failed to establish a routine despite earnest efforts. But does a lack of routine mean a lack of discipline in one’s work? I, for reasons that will become transparently self-serving/deluding, argue no.
Many writers are vocal advocates of writing every morning, preferably journal writing. I believe the much vaunted book, The Artist’s Way, preaches the virtues of this practice. more than that: it claims it as essential. More than a few colleagues I know and respect believe this exercise has made them better writers.
I’m in no position to doubt it. However, like most endeavors in my life, like trying to learn a second language, eat more healthily, or stay married, I’ve been unable to maintain the habit. But unlike the above examples, I’m not sure that, for me, sticking to a set writing routine would benefit me in any way.
Don’t Knock It Before You Try It.
Of course, I could be wrong, and, to be clear, the list of things I’m not willing to try to help me be a better writer is pretty short. I believe, but cannot recall with absolute clarity, that there was a period (likely too brief for anything to take hold) where I did try to journal every morning. It didn’t take hold. The task felt like homework to me (“How would you know?” I can hear my high school teachers asking, “You never did yours”).
I found myself easily discouraged and unable to write in the stream-of-consciousness style that was prescribed. Few things feel more self-conscious to me than trying to write in a stream-of-concsiousness style. Not that I haven’t done so before – but the minute I realize that’s what I’m doing, the spigot (FYI: for no discernible reason, among my favorite words) turns itself off. Ah, the inside of my head: a rat’s nest of random facts, meticulously curated perceived slights, and scores of cunningly engineered self-sabotaging traps. But that’s for another post.
I Come Not To Bury Routine, But To Contextualize It
Part of my problem with “routine” (whom am I quoting, exactly?), I think, is that when I have something to write about, I become more or less consumed by it. Not that I haven’t spent many of those days staring at a blank screen for hours. But the play/screenplay/whatever/thingy is never far from my conscious thoughts, and always simmering in the back of my mind. When it flows, I can easily write for six hours at a time and not feel the least bit winded (those days are admittedly rare). When I’m trying to write a new play, I see almost every action or interaction in my life through that prism. Routine, I think, restricts me. Of course, that could simply be laziness. If I’ve any self-knowledge at all, it’s this: never rule out laziness as the prime motivation for anything I may do.
Habits, Tricks Of The Trade, Shortcuts, Call Them What You Will
It’s not that I don’t ever journal (Ugh, are we collectively OK using that as a verb now? I guess, what with the worldwide pandemic and rising tide of fascism, I’ll have to quit tilting at that windmill for now). I used to write routinely in my journal about my life in general. I took a break last summer because…well…I don’t know. Just did. I’m slowly starting up again.
Regardless, what I do find useful is, if I get stuck at certain point in my script-writing, I will (after I’ve stepped away for a day or two, always my first course of action), write down in a journal what I think I’m having a problem with and why. Nine times of ten, I either solve the problem, or put myself on the tentative path to solving it. Is that discipline or even a habit? Not really, I suppose. More a trick I find tends to work for me.
I admire writers who have a set routine for the same reason I admire people who can keep their homes spotless all or most of the time. Because I find I can’t do it. I suppose my point is that, like so much in life, you need to be open to trying different approaches until you find what works for you. In my half-assed (be honest, quarter-assed) way, I have taken some stabs at routine. But it’s not a natural fit for me.
Ah, HERE’S My Point. I knew It was Somewhere Around Here.
However, I think it’s vital to make a clear distinction between discipline and routine. People often assume they’re synonymous, but I would (in fact, I appear to be doing so at this very moment) argue that they are not one in the same. I do not have set routines. But when I am in the midst of a writing thingy (not to bog you down in jargon), I am quite tireless in trying to get it right, and as ruthless with myself as I know how to be in honing my writing to its sharpest possible form. Some efforts are sharper than others, inevitably, but it’s not for lack of effort. So, yes, I would consider my self a very disciplined writer, albeit one utterly without routine.
I’d love to hear from other writers their thoughts about routine and discipline in their work.
And now, I’m off to clean my apartment (that’s usually code for binging some British panel quiz show on YouTube).
Some Thoughts On The Virtues Of Interdependence On The Eve of Independence Day.
Tomorrow is July 4th, and so tonight, I will, as I do on every Independence Day Eve, lay out a mug of ale and tray of pornography for Ben Franklin’s ghost. But to be sure, this year the holiday will, like every other day of 2020, feel different than all the ones that have come before.
Of course, Fourth of July celebrations are uniquely American. It marks the day we formally announced our freedom from the British Empire. If there’s one thing Americans pride themselves on, it’s their independence. It’s threaded inextricably throughout our national ethos of “Rugged Individualism”; it is the backbone of our idealized national narrative. So much so, in fact, that to most Americans, the idea of “Independence” is synonymous with “Freedom.” Most dictionaries would agree with that formulation. But I’d like to take a moment to say: screw that.
Don’t Tread On Me As I Breathe On You At Close Range
I had hoped that the one consolation of the Coronavirus Pandemic would be a reimagining of our sense of community. Surely, if anything could remind us of our collective commonality and reliance on one another, it would be a virus. A virus doesn’t care about your political ideals or religion or favorite team. In the eyes of a virus (I don’t think they actually have eyes, but I’m not a scientist), we are all inextricably bound and irreducibly the same. We would realize this, I reasoned back in March (Remember March – will we ever be that innocent again?), and be drawn together in our fight against a common enemy.
Whelp. My bad.
Leave it to America – late capitalist, late empire, deeply alienated, and atomized into endless demographic spheres America – to find a way to politicize an illness. Suddenly, believing doctors became a matter of political affiliation. Taking precautions against the spread of a potentially deadly disease became an affront to our freedom in many precincts of our nominal republic.
As a consequence, we are suffering more from this disease – physically, socially, and economically – than any other nation that falls under the dubious heading of “modernized.” And many Americans seem content to die (and infect you along the way) rather than give up any of their blinkered and selfish misconceptions of “Freedom.”
But here’s the thing: we are not independent. No one ever has been or can be. Not totally. And it’s in that small, liminal space of “not totally” that makes our dependance on one another not only necessary, but beautiful.
It Takes A Village To…Make A Village
We need one another in all sorts of ways. Our economy, our civilization itself, takes this fact for granted. But we need each other on a more fundamental level. We need to talk to each other, laugh with each other, learn from each other, and just plain spend time in each other’s company in order to be our truest selves as individuals. These months of forced solitude and social distancing have brought that home to me more than ever.
I’ve mentioned the weekly play reading group I’m in every Thursday night, and I have to say I wake up a little lighter in my heart on Friday mornings than I do any other day of the week. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of this far-flung community every week helps me feel more whole. Just as Hamlet taught us that the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature, we are the mirrors we hold up to ourselves. Just by being a part of my weekly life, I owe them an unpayable debt.
So this year, let’s have a little less hoopla about Independence. Independence, in the end, as we’re grimly discovering, can be overrated. This Fourth of July, let’s sing the virtues of Interdependence. If the last few months have shown us anything, it’s that we truly are dependent on each other. May we always remember to be grateful for that.
In Many Ways, Theater Remains As Much On The Fringes Of American Culture As Ever.It’s Also Never Been Needed More.
In the endlessly wonderful Canadian television show, Slings and Arrows, set in a fictionalized version of the famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one character snarkily (but aptly) observes, “More people listen to the radio than go to the theater. And nobody listens to the radio.” Ouch. Of course, critics and artists have been bemoaning theater’s waning influence on American culture for decades. I was a teacher for many years, and when we began to study a play like, say, The Crucible, more students than I’d like to remember expressed shock that there was such a thing as plays that weren’t musicals.
I have likened wanting to be a professional playwright in America to growing up in Kenya and pursuing a dream to be a professional hockey player. It’s true theater has nothing like the cultural reach of television, movies, video games, Twitter, Instagram…the list goes on for a depressingly long time. Still, there are some of us out there, devoted to the damn enterprise, typing, designing, directing, producing, acting, and promoting our hearts out because we recognize something of deep worth in the endeavor.
Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself. They’re Recalibrating My Meds, And So That’s Gonna Happen Sometimes
I’ve written before about my skepticism regarding overtly political theater. There are obvious exceptions, but generally these plays tend to do little but preach to the converted. However, as I look around at our country’s cultural moment, the word I think it that best describes it is: ruptured. It staggered me that Covid-19 became a source of political division, but it shouldn’t have. Science itself has been an openly partisan issue for well over a decade now.
We can and do have people who watch the same footage of the same acts of brutality, and come away with completely different versions of what they saw. I don’t think a neutral word like “divided” cuts it anymore. We need a word that captures the distance and violent nature of our disagreements. Hence, “ruptured.” Our communities have been systematically smashed into jagged demographic shards, and the sharp, blood-drawing edges are virtually everywhere, including families.
There’s Not Enough Duct Tape In The World
Here’s what I think, though: what theater does best, when it’s at its best, is show us our commonalities. It can tell the story of America’s founding with a multiracial cast playing White slave owners. It can show us that “attention must be paid” to everyone, not just the winners, but those left behind. It can show us the folly of depending on “the kindness of strangers,” while simultaneously reaching down our throats, grabbing our hearts and wishing it weren’t so. It can show us how a passed down piano can hold a family together or wrench it apart. It can not only tell us, but show us why “The Great Work” must begin.
I’ve been struggling for a less pompous way to write this paragraph, but as you’ll soon see, I came up empty. The Greeks told us theater was about Catharsis, but too often we (read:I) tend to think of that in terms of the individual. Really, the whole point of it is that it’s experienced communally. We see each other not only in the characters onstage, but in the strangers sitting next to us. We come into the theater strangers, but we leave, in some ways, forever a community.
At the moment, we’ve been deprived of that chance to experience that. We’re aching for it. But we will get it again. And so, I hope all of us involved in theater will try strive to, in whichever way we choose to, emphasize our commonalities. And the great news is, there’s countless ways of doing it. More diversity, yes, 100 times yes, but above all else, let’s use that diversity to show us, despite the uniqueness of our struggles and disparities of our histories, the commonality of our natures.
We may be on the fringes. But we have to start somewhere. And we have the perfect instrument with which to do it.
Having Zipped Through Act One Of My New Play, Time to Let My Subconcisous Catch Its Breath Before Writing More, Maybe
So, the last couple of weeks, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing a new play. The good news, having finished the first act, I have yet to reach the inevitable phase of crippling self-doubt and loathing about my work as a writer or worth as a mammal that has usually come along well before this point. This may be a or good or bad sign; it’s most likely it’s no sign at all.
As I mentioned earlier, I wrote it with specific actors in mind (a thing I seldom do): three, to be precise. One has written back very encouragingly about the first (draft) of the first act. The other two haven’t, but they’re both taking care of small children, living seemingly fulfilling lives, and sitting down to read an entire act requires time and solitude – something neither woman has much excess of these days, I’m guessing. So, I’m in no way worried or upset about that.
“That’s Not Writing, That’s Typing.”
That’s what Truman Capote said when he heard how fluidly and quickly Jack Kerouac penned (or, more literally, typed, On The Road). Point taken. Just because it’s coming quickly, almost unconsciously, means it’s any good (Not to disparage Kerouac’s famous work). I’ve certainly gone over and and over and over what I write as I write it, and am forever cutting, altering or adding things (a decided advantage of writing on computer), so it’s a little disingenuous to call it purely a first draft.
Besides, Edward Albee allegedly wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfin a weekend. A freaking weekend. Maybe it was like President’s Day Weekend, but still. And Arthur Miller started and finished Death of a Salesman in roughly six weeks. So, speed is clearly not always a bad thing.
I’m up in Maine, at my girlfriend’s cottage (it’s technically a camp, she informs me, and she should know, but it feels cottage-like to me), away for about a week to get some much needed escape from my more or less self-isolating apartment I’ve spent the better part of six months in (an earlier illness of my father’s more or less kept me there since December). I’m trying hard to relax, an oxymoron, I know. But I’m partially succeeding (relaxation always feeling unintuitive to me).
A Cottage/Camp/Cabin/Building In Maine On A Lake! What A Delightfully Cliched And Pretentious Way To Spend Some Time Writing!
I assumed I would, in addition to spending some quality time with my smart and lovely girlfriend (a writer herself), spend many happy hours clicking away on the keyboard, trying to suss out Act II. The thing is, I haven’t felt the urge to write a thing since I’ve arrived. I mean, I’m been thinking about the play, though not nearly as often as I usually do when I’m working one, and even then only fleetingly and vaguely.
Instead I’ve gone on walks, read by the lake, and just tried with all my might to relax (again, I know, a potentially self-defeating approach to relaxation. I’m working it). I read a short and brilliant new novel by Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible, and it’s one of those books that’s so good, so multi-faceted, I can’t speak intelligently about it all yet. I need a lot of time to gather my emotions and thoughts on it. It’s that good, I think.
Anyway, what I realize is that, when I’m writing at my best, it’s seldom, if ever, an intellectual process. I don’t do too much plotting (just enough to see a little bit ahead, and get a vague feeling about what might happen). What I think is, I’ve basically written everything I know about the story so far. The non-thinking part of my brain needs a little while to catch up and give me some intuition. I’ve decided to allow myself to be OK with that.
Besides, Sadly, There’s No Existential Rush.
I mean, who knows when theater will get back on its feet? Ugh. Let’s not even focus on the for the moment. The truth is, like many writers, I don’t write because I like to or necessarily even want to. It’s simply that I find I have a hard time not doing so for an extended period of time.
Anyway, The Point Is, I’m Trying To TeachMyself It’s OK, Maybe Even Good, To Step Away For Brief Interludes.
This is so self-evident, it’s axiomatic. But, to paraphrase Orwell, to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle. I’m learning to have confidence that, though I’m a firm believer of not stopping to getting in your own way when things are humming, it’s OK to try to recognize when that hum diminishes, and to have faith that it will come back when its ready to.
In the meantime, I am going relax and de-stress if it kills me.
The Long, Slow, Learning Curve Of A Man Who Thought He Was Reasonably Enlightened
Let’s get this out of the way – I’m a White, straight, cis-gender man. And let me state something else fairly obvious to most of us- I TOTALLY pull it off. I’m also lucky in that my parents taught me that racism (or any sort of prejudice), was an absolute moral abomination. That the world is an often confusing, nuanced place, but racism was a non-negotiable evil. And I’ve always tried my best to live my life with that at the forefront of my mind.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also increasingly tried to become aware of my inherited privilege: inherited not just through my parents’ hard work, sacrifice, and love (though I was privileged by that, too), but by a society – hell, a WORLD – that has been set up for millennia to give me advantages so varied and numerous, it’s impossible for me to even be aware of them all. Even now, if I tried to write out a list naming every indignity I’ve been spared or advantage I’ve been given, I know there’d be a not inconsiderable litany of items I wouldn’t even be aware of that I’d left off.
When I Find Myself In Times Of Trouble, Tobey Maguire Comes To Me
Now, if I learned anything from the first Spiderman movie (And I like to think I did), it’s that 1) the idea that spiders, no matter how much you irradiate them, can give you superpowers is, tragically, NOT TRUE, and, 2) with much power comes much responsibility. And, through no doing of mine (Lord knows, no doing of mine), simply because I am a White, straight, cisgender man, I am endowed with certain powers. The power to not be looked at with suspicion by strangers on a subway platform, or routinely followed by store security while shopping. The power of not being called slurs by strangers (any insults I’ve been given were totally earned on my own, thank you very much). Etc., etc., etc. And that’s only some of the relatively minor stuff. Everyone knows this.
My point is, every time I think I’ve got my sense of White, straight privilege correctly calibrated, a situation or a friend will point out to me I really haven’t. I have to fully accept I won’t ever be able to fully grasp it. But I do know that I have a moral obligation to try to keep learning, and to try my best, in my absolutely unimpressive and microscopic way, to make the world less like that before I check out. I need to read more, watch more, listen more. I need to interrogate myself for any unconscious acts of prejudice I’ve committed (and I have). In other words, I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Do I Think That, As A Writer, I Have A Special Responsibility To Address These Issues?
I think my responsibility as a writer is to write as truthfully (“truthful” here meaning keeping as near to the fundamental truth of a subject rather than a documentary-like repetition of and fidelity to facts) and engagingly as I know how. I try to write characters who, in many cases, need not be a specific race. When I do write a character whom I feel must be a BIPOC, I tread extra carefully, because I’m aware that while, fundamentally, I believe people are people, of course, I’d be an idiot not to recognize such characters have experienced the world through a markedly different lens than I have.
Now, this may be true for White, straight, cis-gender male characters, too, and like any half-way decent writer, I try to be mindful of that, too (Hell, we all see the world through slightly different lenses; Hence, drama), but I go the extra yard when dealing with any character who doesn’t fit those parameters. I have smart people I depend on to check in with to see if my writing feels right to them, and I always try to be highly sensitive and open to suggestions from the actors who portray them. This is not only the ethically right thing to do, it would be artistic suicide not to do so.
Defeated, Not For The First Time, By Math
There’s a mathematical term, “asymptotic,” which describes the concept of lines approaching ever closer but never touching. That describes my approach to writing: knowing I’ll never quite get it right, at best. However, I’ve only recently come to think of my understanding of these issues that way. I’m sure I’ll never get there, but I can at least try to get nearer. So, to those of you not White, and/or straight, and/or cisgender, and/or male, I will try to be a better ally and friend. I will try to be better, period.
I’m Far Too Depressed To Write A Blog Post This Week, So I’m Writing This Instead.
Thursday was a minimum movement day. Grudging forays out of my bed were rare, unimpressive in scale and ambition, and deeply resented. Was there a reason for my depression commandeering my life with such force on Thursday? Yes and no.
I received some bad news. Let me be clear: the news was bad: not earth-shattering, not terrible, not irrecoverable, and not, by any stretch of the imagination, tragic. But it was enough to strip away the tissue-paper thin patina of performative normalcy that I often rely on to fool people (including myself) that I am, for lack of a better phrase, functionally functional.
Who Are You, And How Did You Get Into My Brain?
One of the most insidious elements of my depression is that, when I am in its clutches, it convinces me that this is the real me: the truest expression of my essence. Honestly, my depression has done such a good job over the years on that score, that I believe that to be essentially true regardless if I’m in the throes of an episode or not. The part of me that is capable of joy, or even basic even-keeledness, is sham, and a pretty transparent one at that.
I’m working on that bit. Because, I’m assured by smart people, that’s actually not true.
For me, my only way out of it, besides the fact that, as the noted philosopher/musician George Harrison observed, “All Things Must Pass,” is to actively separate myself from my depression. Sometimes I can only pry myself from it by a few inches (centimeters, actually, but like all Americans, the Metric System makes me uneasy), but it’s essential for me to do that. To look at it as an observer would. And, as much as I can muster, with some clinical detachment: “Ah yes, I am experiencing depression right now.”
We Are Stardust, We Are Golden, And, In My Case, About 14% Cupcakes
My depression is always going to be hanging around me in my life; it is the party guest who will never get the hint and leave (ironically, that’s very often me, too). But it’s important for me to remember it’s my depression, and that it, therefore, belongs to me – not the other way round.
Separation is key. Yes, it’s a part of me, but so is my eerie ability to quote from Monty Python verbatim (women LOVE when I do that, I’ve found. Hell, everyone does), my Yankee fandom (I don’t want to hear your hate about that. Donnie Baseball forever!), my poor math skills, my inability to ever spell bureaucracy correctly (auto-correct did that for me), and my potent, raw sexual charisma (well, let’s be honest: that actually does largely define me).
It’s just one thread in the multi-colored, slightly chunkier than I’d like to be these days tapestry that is me. In fact, I’m going to give it its own name: Edgar (after another depressive writer; but it’s also the sort of name the damn thing deserves). “I am vast,” as Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” It’s OK that it’s part of me. In fact, I know it’s given me a lot of the things I like about myself. But that’s for another post; I’m still too annoyed with Edgar to give him any props today.
What The Hell Does This Have To Do With Writing?
Actually, that’s a rather complicated question, but I take your point. This post isn’t about writing. In fact, as I said at the top, in French (because that’s how bad it was), it isn’t even a blog post. The weird thing is, I’ve been writing like crazy recently. It’s actually not so weird – it’s a chance to take a vacation from myself. I highly recommend it: being away from myself is lovely this time of year.
Anyway, it’s a lovely day, so I’m going venture outside. I hope you’re all feeling outraged by the world, but good about yourselves.
Over the course of my weekly play reading group, two actors for whom I have the utmost respect but were previously unknown to one another, have hit it off particularly well. So, in the middle of the night the other night, the idea occurred to me about how much fun it would be to see them in a play together, and that I should try to write one. Only problem was, I had no ideas for a play, and coming up with something to write about is what I suck the most at. I’d just finished a play this spring, and it seemed awfully soon for another idea to come down the pipeline.
I mentioned this desire to my friend (one of the two actors I had in in mind), and she responded enthusiastically. A little while later, apropos of nothing, she sent me a picture of the ultra-aweseome Prime Minister of New Zealand, and (half, I suspect, maybe less than half, if I’m honest) jokingly requested that her character be like her. Because, who wouldn’t want to be?
Well, I Reasoned, Maybe That’s At Least A Start.
A few hours later, out of seemingly nowhere, an idea popped itself into my head. Actually, idea is the wrong word, because, to be honest, I have no clue what that idea actually is. Still. Actually, it’s better described as more of a nebulous intuition, a vague scenario that seemed to present itself with a dramatic arc and interesting characters. It has, by the way, as those down under might themselves might say, “Fuck all” to do with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s impressive P.M.. At least, not directly. Or more appropriately, yet.
It’s simply a private, fancy hospital suite with an unseen man hooked up to a myriad of life-support equipment, and a wife waiting patiently at his bedside to for him to die. After a moment of this, a daughter of the couple comes blazing in, obviously annoyed at…something. Dialogue then ensues.
It generally takes me 6-10 pages to figure out if I’ve got a play. The most clear sign is that the characters appear more or less fully formed, and that they seem to know a lot of important things about themselves and their present crisis that, if I’m patient, they will eventually be willing to reveal to me and thus, the audience.
Wait A Minute – That Sounds Nauseatingly New Age-y And Ridiculously “Mystical.” Yuck
I can’t honestly say that I disagree. But what can I say? In my experience, there’s a lot you have control over as a writer. That’s the craft part, and it’s vital. But the inspiration, the “spark” of something out of seemingly nowhere that gives you the courage to take a Kierkergaardian leap of faith, isn’t a part I understand intellectually. And not only am I OK with that, I’m grateful for it.
This way, unlike almost everything else in my life, I can’t get in my own way. I realize this may sound a little precious and eye-rollingly twee and mystical. But to be honest, that’s usually how it works for me.
So, I’m Now 10 Pages Into This, And You Now Know More Or Less Everything I Do about What This Play May Be
All I know is that, as of now, it appears to be a play-like thing. It may not be a very worthy one in the end, but one must always trick oneself into believing you’re writing the next Long Day’s Journey Into Night. There’ll be plenty of time for the inevitable disappointment that it isn’t in the editing, readings, and if you’re very lucky, production.
Anyway, writing for me, is always an exercise in hope. You have to start out with that hope and cling to it throughout the inevitable periods of doubt. Hope is the key. And hope, these days, let’s face it, is a rare and necessary thing.
I’d love to hear from other writers how they start writing a new work. In the meantime, stay safe, and be heard.
An Experiment:To See, If, On The Cusp Of What Feels Like An Imminent Deep Plunge Into Depression And Emotional Paralysis, I Can Mitigate Any Of It By Writing About It
Let’s face it: 2020 has been a great year for a small but no doubt real niche of face-mask enthusiasts, but a soul-fuckingly stressful one for the rest of us. For those of us who always struggle to keep our darker, more hopeless thoughts from commandeering the narrative in our heads, this has been a true crucible for our emotional health.
I always find it useful to look around at my circumstances and see what emotional response my environs objectively warrant. This way, I can decide if my depression/anxiety/despair/German-word-of-your-own-choice-that-combines-elements-of all-of-the-above is a rational response, or simply me spiraling downward because of lack of serotonin/unique, perhaps unconscious psychological triggers, like I’ve done so often and, if I may say so, so expertly my whole life.
The Answer, In This Case, Is An Unambiguous “Yes” To Both
If you can look at the state of our world and not feel at least occasionally overwhelmed by sadness and anger, then, with all due respect, shame on you. Of course, I refer to the worldwide pandemic, but just as depressing to me is our ability to make it a politically divisive issue. If we couldn’t acknowledge for months the obvious fact that the Coronavirus was even a threat, and then, once that became untenable, that taking sensible measures to slow its spread was considered partisan in nature, even I, no mere amateur cynic, couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
So, yes, that. And now, the unspeakable horror of the brutal ad hoc execution of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis thrusts in the face of the world the undeniable and seemingly intractable systemic racism and cruelty infecting our institutions once more. The guilt and shame I feel that such a ubiquitous fact of American life needs a murder rendered in hi-def digital quality to put it in the forefront of my mind, as opposed to the quiet little corner of my brain where I, as one of the “privileged,” can easily afford to store it, is real and maddening and disempowering.
You Should Know, As If You Had Any Doubts, I’ve Got Zilch In Terms of About How To Solve This
In a triumph of prose stating the incredibly obvious, this a self-evidently scary, pivotal time. So, yes, I think it’s OK to feel anxious. I think it’s OK to feel depressed. I think it’s OK to feel rage, even. Maybe especially. In fact, I think it’s a sign of emotional and ethical health. It shows you’re morally awake.
But the one thing I’m feeling that I don’t think is acceptable to do is to settle into paralysis. To be honest, this is often my M.O. And for some of us, it requires what feels like a super-human effort to overcome it. Just getting off the couch seems herculean. But that won’t do. The deeper I sink into my couch cushions, the further I delve down into my old, toxic, familiar mental rabbit-holes.
If I can find a way to muster the energy to propel myself into what little, little action I can to do something, no matter how microscopic it may be amid the vastness of the maelstrom, my sense is I’ll feel better. Getting out of my head and trying to do something constructive usually does.
Far, far more importantly, I won’t be sitting totally idle as world, literally, burns.
I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s feeling that way these days. And for the few who may see this, if this speaks to you in any way, then maybe that’s a good thing: a reassurance that we aren’t alone in our feeling of helplessness and aloneness. And, if I can offer any note of optimism about what we’re all watching around us, it’s that yes, there is violence and opportunists and brutes. But it looks to me like they’re outnumbered. And that’s a thought to fling in the face of the inner despair you may feel creeping up in you, as it does in many of us.
Writing In An Age In Which The World Seems To Be Ripping Itself Apart
No thinking person has to be persuaded of the power of words to sway hearts, minds, and even history. “We declare these truths to be self-evident…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “I have a dream…” “Leggo my Eggo.” These phrases still give me goosebumps.
No, I come not bury words, but to ask the age old question of what, if any, responsibility, do writers have to address the political and social ills of a given period? Who knows, Neil Simon may have had a brilliant social satire in him if he’d been so inclined, but by all indications, he seems not to have been. Yet that doesn’t lessen his “worthiness” in my estimation. For others, like Brecht, Ibsen, Miller, Kushner, Lori-Parks, Hare, and so many more, their work is inextricable from their politics. Ditto the late Larry Kramer, whose work did a very rare thing: helped to shift the culture in a new direction, and inspire legions of others to build on his foundations.
Write What You Know (You Care About)
I’m a person of rather strong political views, as anyone on my Twitter feed (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) will quickly learn. And I’ve written a couple of plays that could be considered political in nature. My play Fellow Travelers, for example, ran in 2018 at the Bay Street Theater, and concerned the complicated relationship between (among?) Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, and Marilyn Monroe. It dealt in great detail about the perils of McCarthyism, and how the different paths Kazan and Miller chose in dealing with those pressures forever altered their close friendship and their work.
Most people seemed to enjoy the play, which was very gratifying, and would often corner me afterwards in a bar (an experience with a wide degree of pleasantness) and remark to me with a knowing look and lowered voice how “timely” a play it was.
I suppose that’s true (my guess is in American life, reminding people about political paranoia rarely isn’t timely). And although I think it’s clear ultimately where my sympathies lie, the story was not written with a political agenda in mind or moral to teach. In fact, I went to lengths to try to give both Miller and Kazan equally compelling arguments for their choices. I wasn’t interested writing a play that was instructive or prescriptive in any way. I just wanted to write about smart, complex people under the greatest stress of their lives.
Because, And This May Be Just Me, But It’s Just Me
While I have confidence in a great many things (Beatles trivia, Yankees stats…the list thins out considerably from there), I also think of myself as having been absent the day at school the day they taught “How To Live Successfully As An Adult.” It’s taken me years to realize that, there was no class (at least not at my public school). Despite the desperate appearances many people project, in the words of the great William Goldman, “No one knows anything.”
We’re all winging it, to a certain extent, every day. It’s a realization that, depending on my mood, brings me great comfort and/or great despair. I do not always (read: often) have the answers as to how I should act and behave in the world, let alone feel I can tell others how to. I have a distinct sense that trying to be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt plays a big part, but beyond that, I can’t say too much with any sense of authority. But that’s my job as a person: to try to continually work at figuring that stuff out better. And sure, my writing, I believe, can help me with that.
But I believe my job as a writer is to tell a story in as truthful and entertaining way as I can muster.
Now, entertaining, to me, is a very elastic word. The Iceman Cometh I find highly entertaining. Ditto A View From The Bridge and King Lear. But also Noises Off, Barefoot in the Park andMonty Python and the Holy Grail. I tend to write dramas that deal with very hard and sad things, but are hopefully a lot of laughs along the way. That’s just how it’s worked out so far. But, I confess, I don’t think there are many writers who can pull off being angry about something, or being desperate to instruct us about something, at the expense of making us emotionally invest in the characters, in a way I find satisfying.
Another Thing I Feel Passionately Unsure About
There’s a more pragmatic reason that plays redolent with a MESSAGE tend to make me itchy inside. This doesn’t apply as much to television writing (where it’s less rare to begin with) as the theater. I mean, aren’t the vast bulk of theater artists (artists in general) at least vaguely singing from the same hymnal? I’m sure there’s some exceptions to this, but in Fellow Travelers, for example, at no point did I feel the need to show that The Red Scare was a bad thing. I don’t think anyone interested in coming to see this play was likely to be on the fence about that.
Saints and devils bore the hell out of me, and, I think most audiences, too. I was very lucky to meet and briefly talk on Opening Night to Jules Feiffer, who lived through that era and both knew and loathed Kazan for his actions. Mr. Feiffer sought me out afterwards, and was very kind to me when he saw the play, which I was obviously quite nervous about, especially because I go to pains to show Kazan’s existential struggle was every bit as real as Miller’s. But, being a great writer, he understood what I was at least attempting to do – to create three dimensional, often contradictory characters struggling with their uncertainty and self-interest. He could appreciate the portrayal without abandoning his core convictions that Kazan was in the wrong.
When I Was Younger, So Much Younger Than Today (Actually, I Hadn’t Been Born Yet)
Way back when, Broadway was an essentially democratic institution, or at least had the patina of it. Middle class people could go to see plays on Broadway with a fair amount of regularity. It had some cultural currency. Playwrights used to make the cover of Time. I mean. Things have changed, no?
And while these audiences expected to be diverted, they also expected to be challenged on occasion. There’s the possibly apocryphal story of the owner of Macy’s, on opening night of Death of a Salesman, turning to his wife after the curtain call and vowing to write a memo to his managers forbidding the firing of salesmen because of age.
It’s certainly pretty to think so. But today, Broadway, and increasingly, Off-Broadway, have often become destinations out of reach to all but the obviously privileged. And I get the cynical suspicion that many audiences today go to so called “serious” plays, in part, at least sometimes, as a salve to their consciences, or perhaps worse, just to have something to chat about with their peers. “Yes, that is a terrible thing that’s happening to those [fill in the blank],” they say as they impatiently wait for their Uber. “I’ll definitely have to mention it at brunch next weekend.”
And maybe that helps. I’m sure it can and does, in fact. And maybe it’s always been thus. Probably. I guess I’m just saying, if being a social justice warrior is your bag, I’m with you! However, if I saw something going on that I felt a burning need to address, there are few less direct or effective ways of doing so than writing a play about it. I mean, 1) if I get it produced, it’s possible it will be like five years after I wanted to address the issue and 2) I’m likely preaching to people who agree with me already.
Before I Start To Sound Too Cynical, Let Me Add A Little More
I attended a theater conference last year, which I was excited about: meet seem people, make some connections and friends, perhaps unleash my killer karaoke version of “Caribbean Queen” to a grateful throng. I was expecting workshops and panels on the nuts and bolts of getting your plays done and how to improve your work as an artist. Instead, I found it all a bit alienating. Like a Woke Olympics – with literally more safe spaces than play readings.
Now, I’m White, straight, and a man, so I get that I even though I think I get oppression and systemic marginalization, I know I don’t really. I try to be vigilant about this: I sometimes succeed, and surely many times fail. I believe it’s long past time to hear more voices in theater from oppressed and marginalized communities (how brave of me). I think, in fact, it’s vital for whatever culture relevance theater has left.
I’m just ultimately of the opinion that most – if not every great work of literature, even if overtly political – is successful based on how well we empathize with the characters on a human, non-political level. For all the brilliant political insight of Orwell‘s 1984,it’s the moment when Winston, the rats inches from his face, screams, “Do it to Julia!” that still hits me in the gut most.
That unquestionable masterpiece, Angels in America, written by Brecht acolyte Tony Kushner, employs many of Brecht’s techniques in the two plays. Yet, I would argue, it’s when Kushner breaks free, and even contradicts some of Brecht’s edicts, that make the plays scorch the minds and souls of its audiences. Kushner’s ability to make us feel for his indelible characters gives this two play cycle its rightful place in the Pantheon. If we don’t feel Prior’s fear and bravery, soften to the initially implacable Hannah, respect and fall in love with Belize – hell, if we aren’t moved, in spite of all logic, by Ethel Rosenberg and Louis saying Kaddish for the hateful Roy Cohn, the plays don’t work. But work they do.
Wait: Scratch That, Reverse It
But then there’s the late, great Larry Kramer, whose work as a writer and activist, as I said earlier, truly shook our culture. If it didn’t remove the scales from mainstream America’s eyes about the AIDS crisis all by itself (and it did more than its share), it paved the way for others to carry the message into the mainstream. Anyone who cares about playwriting, or theater, or the power of activism, or simply human empathy should mourn his loss. Because, despite his palpable rage – maybe because of it – he never lost his power to move with words, and to make clear the issues he was passionate about were deeply human.
I guess, in the end, that’s all I’m after as a writer. To try to make what I write about feel recognizably human. I think that’s our only non-negotiable job. Even with the characters we don’t like or agree with.
We live in an age where people are given permission, indeed often encouraged, by our “leaders” to view other groups of people as less than human. So, rather than aiming for a play in which everyone exits the theater chanting “Strike, strike, strike!” as they supposedly did after watching the premiere of Odets‘ Waiting For Lefty, I’d just like the audience to see a bit of themselves, or those they care about in the characters. And some humanity with those whom they they don’t agree with.
And yes, as I rather glibly stated before, in theaters we’re mostly preaching to the choir. But hearing the choir sing words you love and feel deep in your bones feels like a necessity these days.
Actually, in the America of 2020, reminding people of their common humanity is a political act. That’s what its seemingly come to.
My TV Writing Learning Curve During A Nasty Full-Frontal Assault of Depression
One of my current projects – arguably my central one these days – is working on new historically-based television series with, it’s recently been decided, a potential three season arc.
I wrote the original series, clocking in at about 11 hours or so, in a period of two and half months last summer/early autumn. I was generally pleased with the work, but I also knew this was only going be a first draft. It’s the story of famous family, whose most famous member, the one that would draw initial interest, is of the second generation. Nonetheless, as a draft, the best approach for me was write it chronologically, knowing that this was unlikely to fly in its final incarnation.
Few Things Are More Pompous And Self-Aggrandizing And Yet Totally Meaningless In This Industry Than Saying, “I Took Some Meetings.” But I Took Some Meetings.
And while there is, I’m happy to say, some interest in some quarters in the project (which I mean, come on, is there a less meaningful statement than that?), I’ve been working a bit with a smart, seasoned producer-director who has helped me rethink the series’ structure. Thus far, I’m totally on board. So I’m currently re-working the pilot to address our new direction, and what I’ve found is something everyone knows and says, something that I know and say, but I’m finally getting: there is a clear overlap between playwriting and TV writing, but they’re ultimately quite different skill sets.
The most obvious one is the one that, no matter how often I reminded myself of, is a trap I still fall into. My playwright’s instincts are to rely on language to tell my story, and in television, no matter how good you think the dialogue might be, that can get boring quickly. One needs to think visually whenever possible. I admit this a challenge for me. A challenge I’m happy to embrace, but a real one nonetheless. The result is every I time I look over my script, I hear my director’s voice saying “Why, exactly, do we need to know this? And why must it be told rather than shown through an action?” I’m astonished at how often I don’t have a good answer.
Words, Words, Words – Please Cut Them
Now, full disclosure: even as playwrights go, I’m an over-writer. I try not to be, but I’m also not too bothered by it because, I know the actors and directors will make clear to me through their work and comments what needs cutting. By the time a play gets to rehearsal, I seldom re-write very much. I am, however, forever shaving dialogue.
Of course, different writers have different voices, and some are wordier than others. I think that’s all kinds of OK. I don’t mind if my characters talk more than others’ might, as long as what they’re saying is important, entertaining, and moves the damn thing along. Now, in my TV series, it’s set in the 19th Century (a wordier era), and among people who wield language as their stock and trade. So I’ve got a little leeway.
But what I’m finding is, rather than feeling constrained by the fact I need to shed more lines and, sometimes, whole scenes, it excites me, because ultimately, it frees me up to get to even meatier stuff. For example, I wrote a perfectly entertaining scene about a character buying a ticket to see a play. Only after polishing the dialogue to a fine sheen did I realize: who the hell cares how he buys his ticket? We just need to see him in the damn theater. So, that scene become, “Cut To: Character finds his seat in the theater,” and we’re not only where we need to be, we’ve saved two pages. And pages are precious commodities.
The bottom line is, thank Buddha I have something new like this to wrestle with. Because, like many of you I’m sure, I’m finding myself more and more at the end of my tether in terms of emotional health. Maybe it’s the “Holiday Weekend” that feels, to me, nothing like a holiday, or maybe it is the accretion of maddening isolation, despair, and uncertainty that’s been the central motif of 2020, but I’m grateful to have some means of escape. It also could simply be a regular attempt by my depression to wrest the steering wheel from the backseat, as it it is wont to do. Probably a hybrid of all these things.
In any event, I’m grateful I’ve something as absorbing as learning the nuances of a craft I haven’t devoted as much time to as I have to playwriting to focus on.
No Matter How Bad A Moment It May Feel, It’s Only a Moment (Or Ten)
To be frank, It hasn’t proved enough thus far, not close to enough, but it’s something. And if 2020 has sought to prove anything, it’s that you should grab what you can get with both hands. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe out there. Have as good a holiday as you can. We’ve all earned it.
What I May Have Learned Spending The Weekend Completely Rewriting The Dialogue To This Beloved Play For My Quarantine Zoom Reading Group.
It’s a rite of passage for many young (and, in my case, not so young) playwrights: trying your hand at adapting a Chekhov play. A few summers back, just as an exercise, mind you, I wrote the first two acts of a modernized Uncle Vanya. When my then agent asked me what I was up to and I told her, she shouted into the phone: “Stop! Literally every person in New York has written an adaptation of Uncle Vanya! Cabbies. Hedge fund managers. Halal cart vendors. Every member of The New York Knicks organization. Everyone!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. I still thought it had potential value, though, seeing if I could learn anything by essentially tracing over the blueprint of a great playwright’s great play. I can’t honestly say if it was. At minimum, it saved me from enjoying nature or interacting with family members.
Necessity (With A Dash Of Hubris) Is The Mother Of Invention
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part of a Quarantine Zoom reading group. We read a play every Thursday evening. It’s become a highlight of my week. The people on it are all supremely gifted and terrific company. It’s definitely high up there on the small list of things keeping me sane these days.
There was some clamoring for Chekhov, and so I thought: great. I thought, given our little company, The Cherry Orchard might suit us best. The problem was, there are so many iterations out there. I even looked into buying Sir Tom Stoppard‘s translation of The Cherry Orchard (Can’t go wrong with good old Sir Tom, right?), but the copies wouldn’t arrive in time. Also, and this is hard to stress enough, I’m very cheap.
So I looked online at several public domain versions of the text, of which there are no shortage. But, to be frank, I found them all stilted and well, dull. Most of them were translated around 1915, so that could be part of the problem. Plus, to be honest, I’ve always found the fact that The Cherry Orchard was explicitly labeled a “comedy” by Chekhov himself somewhat baffling. I get comedies don’t have to be knee-slappers, but still.
From Russia, With Love of Human Suffering
I’ve always had a suspicion that many Americans (read: me) aren’t getting the full scope of the man’s genius when we read Chekhov. I think it’s mostly the Shakespeare Trap: everything is too reverential, too earnest, at least when done badly (which isn’t uncommon). I once knew an American actress who grew up in Russia, and asked her what we Americans didn’t get right about Chekhov and she immediately shouted (we were in a bar), “Oh. My. God! Chekhov is hysterically funny!!”
And I thought, really?
Much of it, she explained to me, is that Russians and Americans have very different senses of humor. Russians, she claimed, were not as into witticisms (although she claimed they do enjoy a good pun. But again, those really don’t translate). They find the heartbreak and self-deception so many of his characters endure inherently comic, which, yeah, I can kinda see that, but I think we tend to lean more into the heartbreak of it all.
That conversation always stuck with me.
So, What the Hell, I Thought, I Only Have The Respect of Theater Artists I Deeply Admire To LoseForever. I’ll Give It A Whirl.
I had two main goals when I set about re-writing (actually, that’s way too pompous a term for what I did. I’d call what I did more of a rephrasing) The Cherry Orchard: not to change the plot or the characters’ natures (as I read them) one iota, and simply try to make the language sound natural coming out of American, Canadian, and Australian actors’ mouths in 2020 while still honoring the period of the piece (no cursing, for instance, or references to Zoomba. Nor does anyone at any point refer in my version to the Cherry Orchard estate as their “crib”).
Oh, and I also wanted to try, if I could, make it occasionally funny without altering any of the characters or circumstances.
Task One: I Had To Put Out Of My Mind That I Was “Re-Writing” One Of The Greatest Plays Ever Written
This became much easier for me when I realized I wasn’t re-writing Chekhov, but someone else’s version of what they thought Chekhov wrote. That was surprisingly freeing. And, as the hardest thing for me to write – by far – is plot, and that in this case the plot was taken care of for me by a Master, I found the writing went very quickly. Whether the endeavor was at all successful or a crashing failure, I won’t have a clue til Thursday, at least. Having said this, here’s a few things I noticed along the way:
Dramaturgically Speaking, The Cherry Orchard Is One Weird-Ass Play, In Terms of Construction and, Well, Other Things, Too.
The play sets up what we think is going to be the play’s central dramatic conflict – the potential loss of the Cherry Orchard – almost immediately. Pretty high stakes. It is an ancestral estate, after all. So far, so good. But, then, like two pages later, it clearly provides the solution to the great dramatic obstacle. Like, an obvious and immediate solution.
Lopahkin, almost literally on page 10, explains exactly how the family can keep its land and save its dwindling fortunes. Yes, he admits, it will necessitate chopping down the orchard and the pulling down the ancestral home, which isn’t exactly un-fraught, but the family is saved from financial ruin 15 minutes into the play!
Except, it turns out, the cherry orchard isn’t the main issue at all. Because Lubov and Gaev (the owners of the estate) refuse to listen to Lopahkin for some never explained or even broadly hinted at reason. Perhaps because he’s the son of a Serf? Or maybe they just can’t accept that their world, one way or another, is about to permanently change. At times, it’s as if they literally can’t hear him.
I firmly believe (I’m sure this isn’t an original idea), Chekhov doesn’t give a hoot about the cherry orchard; so, what does he care about? What does he want us to care about? If I had to pick one central theme (because I think there’s a few of them), I’d say that he’s most interested in people’s unwillingness/inability to adapt to inevitable change and the toll it exacts on them.
To Quote Bob Dylan, “There Was Music In The Cafes At Night, And Revolution In The Air.”
Change surrounds these characters: a vast social shift that would culminate in the Russian Revolution. The rumblings of this conflict were none too subtle to most Russians as Chekhov wrote this. And yes, Chekhov is clearly interested in commenting on this development, especially through the character of Trofimov. In characteristic Chekhovian fashion, much of what Trofimov says is prescient and true, yet he himself is such an imperfect messenger – one minute eloquent and full of ideals, the next full of idiotic notions of being “above love” and offstage pratfalls – it’s hard to take his lofty ideals too seriously.
Even with the things Chekhov clearly agrees with politically, such as the Emancipation of the Serfs, he has a few characters (former Serfs themselves, sometimes) express great ambivalence about it. This is, of course, something all great writers do: they dig into the contradictions inside our motives and the ambivalent outcomes of all human behavior and endeavor, however well-intentioned. And yeah, tip of the cap here to Chekhov for doing that as well as pretty much anyone who’s ever written drama.
But if this were a play mainly about social upheaval, I don’t think it would resonate with people as much as it does. Nor is it, I think, Chekhov’s main preoccupation. No, as I wrote earlier, in my very humble and under-read opinion, it’s about the tragedy of change, and many people’s resistance/inability to adapt to it, both in their world and within themselves. He wants to show us the folly of how we go about trying to protect ourselves from the inevitable.
Speaking Of Turn Of The Century Geniuses With Poor Health
I keep coming back to what James Joyce answered when he was asked what his short story collection, Dubliners, published a few years after The Cherry Orchard, was about: “Paralysis,” was his one word response. It is, I think, one of the most human of traits. Both men were writing about societies on the cusp of revolution. But ultimately, it’s personal paralysis they’re both more interested in. Our inability to unstick ourselves, even when we know it’s what we should do.
What else can explain Lubov and Gaev’s refusal to heed Lopahkin’s obviously sound and, believe me when I say, repeated advice? How to justify why Lopahkin, the smartest and most confident character in the play in many ways, is unable to propose to Varya, when he knows it’s not only what he wants, but he also knows it’s what she wants, too? He just has to ask the damn question!
Is it that, finally, the successful son of a Serf cannot picture himself being worthy, or happy, living with a woman whose grandparents owned his? Or is it simpler? Is it basic human shyness and interpersonal incompetence at sharing our true feelings? Maybe it’s a mixture. It’s seldom one thing in life; it’s just as rarely one thing in Chekhov.
In the same way, what else can justify Lubov’s tragic dedication to a man she knows to be a cad? And yet, though we clearly see her devotion to him is dumb and self-destructive, and even she says it’s dumb and self-destructive, who among us can’t empathize with her plight at least a little?
Chekhov portrays one of the few characters in the play who isn’t afraid of change, the faithless, socially climbing footman Yasha, as without regard for anyone else around him, including his own mother. In order to move forward unencumbered, unweighted by the past – Lubov calls her love for her unnamed scoundrel “like a stone” – do we need to be equally heartless? Are we all, ultimately, only fully committed to and, equally, trapped by, ourselves, as perhaps the last moments of the play suggest?
Remember, it’s a comedy, people.
Other Dramaturgically Odd Choices In The Play That Would Likely Earn Him A C+ And A Terse “See Me During Office Hours” If Chekhov Were In A Grad School Writing Program
Chekhov makes reference to the tragic drowning of Lubov’s young son, which prompts her leaving the cherry orchard estate to begin with. And while it may arguably hover over the play and its characters throughout (just because there’s no direct evidence of this doesn’t make it untrue), Chekhov makes barely any mention of it after the first act. That’s a big thing to leave not only unresolved, but unremarked upon.
Plus, and here’s where I get all edgy and brazenly commit theatrical sacrilege, Chekhov’s expositional writing is often so clunky, so in your face bad, I refuse to believe a writer of his genius wasn’t doing it on purpose. Though I’ve yet to figure out what’s gained by it.
On The Other Hand…
To counter my bold assertion (so typical of me, the universally acknowledged “bad boy” of playwriting blogs), actress Jill Eikenberry offers this:
“I think in those expositional speeches, they’re just trying to figure out how their lives have turned out this way. They all think of themselves as the center of the universe. They’re Russian. Also, Chehkov was in cahoots with Stanislavsky and they were all about the inner lives of the characters. It was such a new idea. When I played Yelena in Uncle Vanya at Yale, I thought too many of her speeches were filled with ennui and self-pity. I thought the audience would hate me. But at the first preview, when I finished one of my least favorite monologues and swooned onto the divan, the audience laughed hysterically. And I thought ‘Hmm. This guy might know a thing or two about playwriting.'” Touché, Jill, touché.
Although I think it would be silly to entirely discount the comedic power of swooning on divans. It’s gotten me out of more than one sticky situation, both in my plays and my life. I recommend it highly.
Oh! And He Also Does This!
He also breaks HIS OWN SUPER FAMOUS, INCREDIBLY VITAL, CLICHED, AND BASIC PLAYWRITING 101 RULE. You know the one: “If we a see a gun at the start of the play (or start of ACT II in this case), be sure it’s fired by the end.” He breaks this rule. Not once. But twice. Twice.
The beautiful (seriously, he was kinda dreamy looking – the man looked hot with a goatee – a GOATEE) bastard (actually, by most accounts, an extraordinarily nice man) gets away with it; I think he gets away with it all. There’s no getting away from the power of his characters’ sloppy, deeply relatable humanity. Maybe, in the end, to capture that, you have to be willing to write a less than “technically perfect” play. Probably doesn’t hurt to be a genius, either.
Please! Share your thoughts on Chekhov with me. Praise my insight or call me out on my stupidity! I want to hear from you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on adapting works in general! I’ll let you know how the reading goes.