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.
Personally, Biden wasn’t my first choice for president, based on policy issues. But, as I repeatedly argued during the primaries with many of my younger friends, Biden stood the best chance of uniting the country. I still believe that.
People smarter than I am will be able to analyze this better, but I believe deeply that Joe Biden won the election not because of any policy positions. It’s because he is – agree with his views or not – a good man. He is demonstrably empathic, and that’s ultimately what stood in starkest contrast to the incumbent.
We can haggle over politics and policies later. And I hope the “better angels of out nature,” to quote Lincoln, talk us out of gloating to those who are seething and saddened by the result, as hard as that might be.
But the bottom line is, I believe from the bottom of my flawed and battered heart, and with every synapse of my admittedly limited mind, that goodness has prevailed. I’m often a critic of America BECAUSE I love it, and no doubt I’ll continue to be so, but today, I am proud of my country.
We chose goodness and empathy over cynicism and cruelty.
Decency won the day in America. Anyway, that’s what I think.