IN WHICH I DIP MY TOE INTO CHOPPY CYBER-WATERS TO SHOUT MY BARBARIC YAWP FROM THE ROOFTOPS OF THE WEB, AND ALREADY MIX MY FIRST METAPHOR!
It’s a scary time to be a person working in the theater. Let me amend that. It’s a scary time to be a person. 2020’s whole low-budget apocalypse vibe isn’t sitting well with anyone. As a recovering pessimist, I have come to hope that when the clouds lift, we’ll all be more grateful for being able to see, hug, touch, and simply bask in the presence of our fellow persons; I believe we’ll be more appreciative of the qualitative difference between being social and being on social media. So naturally, as I live in the hope we’ll all look up from our screens more often, I’ve chosen this time to start a blog. A blog about writing, coping with depression and anxiety, writing with depression and/or anxiety, being anxious about writing about depression, not writing about depression and the anxiety that entails, and being depressed about what I have or haven’t written.
So, first things first: writing. Specifically, writing in the Age of Covid-19.
I’ve heard people say (inevitably non-writers), “What a great opportunity this is for you to write!” And by now, we’ve all heard the one about Shakespeare writing King Lear during a quarantine (probably apocryphal, but whatever). A couple of things about that. 1) There’s a vast qualitative difference in mindset between being quarantined in your home, trying to stem the spread of a pandemic and, say, renting a house in Sag Harbor for a month to really focus on getting just the right ending for your play. Also, 2) Shakespeare didn’t have Netflix and Hulu to contend with.
As it so happens, I had a table read of my newest play on March 9th, just before the window on group gatherings shut. Armed with the notes I received and what I heard, I was able, within a week, to finish a second draft that I am, for now, satisfied with. Which means, for the moment, I don’t have anything to write. Zip. Nada. I know of writers who’ve literally notebooks full of play ideas. I despise these people. By far the hardest part for me is coming up with an idea, or even a spark of an idea, that will fire the neurons in my head-box (full disclosure: I didn’t do well in science) with enough electricity to delude myself I’ve got a play worth starting. I’m not using “delude” pejoratively here. For me, starting a new script is always an act of optimistic delusion.
I’ve never made a bench, which won’t surprise anyone who’s met me. But I’m guessing that once you’ve learned how to build one, each successive one gets a little easier to make. Oh sure, you can challenge yourself to make fancier benches, more elegant benches, perhaps ones with cup holders or discreetly accessible laser-cannons, but the point is, laser-cannon or no, practice will give you a fairly firm sense of the basic approach to bench building. But each time I start a new script, I have no idea where it’s going to go. I’ve tried the whole outlining thing. It works for some writers, but not for me. As Tom Stoppard once observed, “If I knew how my play was going to end, I wouldn’t have to keep writing to find out, would I?” So, and not for the first time in my life, I find myself feeling like Burgess Meredith. In this case, I feel like his character in that Twilight Zone episode in which, after a worldwide disaster, he has all the time in the world to read, only to break his glasses. I have long stretch of time to write, but am utterly bereft of ideas. In fact, my head-box is functioning in such a thickish haze, it took me a full minute to think of the word “bereft” just then.
Which leads me to my next topic: dealing with my mental health these days. In addition to feeling a little foggy, I find I’m crankier, less patient, and more apt to be snarky than I normally am. I find it hard to focus, which makes reading, one of my favorite things to do, unusually hard. Moreover, my anxiety and depression, which have always sat on my shoulders like…two anxious, depressed things (I told you my brain was foggy), have, like the rest of me, put on considerable weight. I also take naps. Long, deep naps. Naps that are medically indistinguishable from comas. So what to do?
I’m trying to exercise. Honestly. I’m making a point to reach out to friends in non-text ways. I’m in a virtual play-reading group with some amazingly talented actors, and just taking in their talents and seeing their faces last week buoyed me for a good day or two. I think we were all happy to see each other.
Ultimately, that’s what I try to keep myself focused on: how happy we’ll all be to see each other when this abates. And that day is coming. I keep telling myself that. Plus, my daughter just this second, forwarded me a tweet in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not only takes down Treasury Secretary/Evil Muppet Steve Mnuchin, she does so with an oblique Arrested Development reference. To quote another playwright, “Sometimes, there’s God, so quickly.”