Things No One Has Ever Said To Me

“You make it look so easy.”

“Could you tell us another piece of trivia?”

“Eyes were bigger than your stomach, eh?”

“What should I invest in?”

“But you dance so beautifully!”

“You have a mind like Aristotle’s, only funnier”

“Please, just ONE more song!”

“Your eyes…I can’t describe them precisely, but have you ever been on Diamond Head Beach at Sunrise? That’s the closest I can come”

“Why yes, I’d love to read your poetry!”

“Your take on contemporary issues is so fresh”

“I don’t find your near-pathological need to correct the grammar of sports announcers during the games even vaguely annoying”

“Nor, for that manner, do I find your use of ‘whom’ conversationally the least bit pretentious”

“I think it’s great when you call stuff that you’ve done as being ‘part of my journey.’”

“Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me maybe”

“You’re right: I was listening to my favorite musicians incorrectly. I no longer like them!”

“Dear Lord, you’re graceful”

“I’d gladly loan you money”

“Thanks for acting out whole scenes verbatim from ‘The Godfather’ that time I simply asked if you’d seen it before”

“My God, you’ve really hit upon something: the books IS often better than the movie!”

“I never thought quoting Monty Python was sexy, but then I met you.”

“Your empathy is an example to us all.”

“I have a quick question about car repair I want to run by you”

“Also, when you get a minute, I’d like your thoughts on the color pallet for my house”

“Yes, my rejection of your request to date me has haunted me daily ever since”

“You’ve talked me out of believing in astrology. Thank you.”

“You’ve talked me into believing in astrology. Thank you.”

“It’s incredible – you seem to never make a typo.”

“You always know what to say to make things not creepy and awkward at all!”

“Christmas just isn’t Christmas without your one man, three hour ‘A Christmas Carol!’”

“I took your advice at the end of your posts and followed you on Instagram and Twitter!”

Thank God the world of technology has caught up with my narcissistic needs! Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jackcanfora

Nothing is Nice (In a Good Way)

Trigger Warning: this post has no content. Not literally, obviously. I mean, the very words “this post has no content” proves that there IS content. I mean, there’s nothing in this post in terms of, well, anything. It’s a blank canvass, minus the blankness and the canvass. This piece is pure Zen, but without the Zen part. It’s, for all intents and purposes, Zenless.

That should be clear at this point. But I don’t mean “nothing” in the smoking cigarettes in a Paris cafe and romanticizing the vacuum that we all must face. Well, maybe a bit. But that’s not its central thrust. I come not to bury nothingness, but to praise it. Full disclosure: you can’t bury emptiness. Which, just taken on its own terms, sounds vaguely profound. But I’m here to reassure you it isn’t. It is, in fact, nothing.

As usual, The Beatles were right: “Nothing is real.”

Don’t get me wrong: too much of nothing, assuming there can be too much of something that doesn’t exist, is problematic. Paradoxically, I’ve found when I have nothing to do for too long, that nothing corrodes into an interiority which is quite unpleasant. So too much nothing becomes something if you’re not careful.

But, just the right amount of nothing, which is something I find, well, hard to find (hard to find being one of nothing’s primary characteristics) is a wonderful tonic for the soul (assuming the soul is something). Today, for no reason I can think of, the relentless inner monologue that normally pinballs around my head has taken a brief intermission. For the sheer disquietude of that I can only liken it to a snake eating its own tail in a documentary narrated by Gilbert Gottfried. By the way, there is a word for a snake eating its own tail: ouroboros. Isn’t that something?

But not today. Today the vast presence of absence fills me with calm, or, more accurately I guess, drains me of uncalm. Which I don’t think is a thing. Not for nothing, but I know what you’re thinking (I think). You may be thinking: “But Jack, you ruggedly handsome thing, this whole post is so achingly self-conscious, the idea that nothing is happening in your head is ridiculous. Nothing worthwhile? Sure. But surely something’s going on up there.”

Ouch. First of all, stop objectifying me. And…you may well be right. However, today, where I live, it’s gloriously sunny and warm, but not hot, and the leaves are starting to put on a show, and I, for once, am content to just watch them fall softly to the ground. And I’m happy, at least for the moment, to be contented with that.

And that’s not nothing.

What’s The Point?

By Jack Canfora

This evening, I will have a (virtual) table read of a new play of mine. I think it has promise, but for me, and I think I’m not alone in this among playwrights, until I hear it out loud, I can’t be sure. Reading it is different from hearing. Unlike, say, novels or poetry, the text is not the event, although it’s main event in a reading. It’s what they call a “two-hander,” as it has only two characters. To me, more times than not, it would seem the phrase “four-hander” would be more accurate, but I don’t have the kind of pull to make everyone change that idiom. I just don’t. 

The two actors who are doing the reading this evening aren’t good: they are absurdly gifted. This is double-edged sword when hearing a play for the first time. On the one hand, they’ll do your text justice, but on the other hand, they’re both so good, that their talent might wallpaper over some cracks in the wall you’ve built (that’s obviously a metaphor. I wouldn’t have the first clue about how to build a wall, other than an emotional one). Actually, that’s two hands. Huh.

Anyway, by rights, both of these actors – professional, working actors – should be household names. They are simply as good as it gets. And hopefully they yet become so, but as of now, they aren’t. Watching the sublimely gifted face the same cruelties and randomness endemic in all the arts fills me with both grief and a certain degree of thankfulness. Don’t get me wrong – I wish these actors, who are also my friends, every success in the world – but it also reaffirms that very randomness I’ve just mentioned. But they actors, they dedicated their lives to the that craft, and have become masters at it. That’s really the only thing in their control. I tell myself the same thing re: my creative endeavors (I’m not saying I’m as gifted as they are): do the work as best you possibly can, always look to improve it, and, if you feel you’ve done something of some merit, that’s it. That’s the ballgame. That’s the whole point. It’s all you can ask of yourself, which is hard enough, you can’t also expect the world to come to your door by chance. 

Sure, you do the business-like activities that a life in the arts demands, and you push and hope for the best. But all you can control is what you can control. So when you get a chance to spend some time with gifted artists willing to give some of their time and talent to you, there’s a degree to which it would be greedy to expect or even want more out of your creative life than that. Don’t get me wrong; I’m greedy. But at least I know I am. And no matter the outcome of this evening, short-term or long-term, I’ll know that tonight, I was lucky. I got to spend time doing what I love with people who are doing what they love. And, I think, that’s the point.

Parenting: The Little I’ve Learned in Over 20 Years

In my younger and (seemingly) more vulnerable years as a parent, I had assumed that taking care of a child through their infancy and youth would be the most demanding part of parenting. I certainly expected some bumps in adolescence and in between, but I felt confident there would reach a point at which I could sit back and, having tried to do my best (with varying degrees of success), I could feel less worried, less vigilant and beholden.

Unsurprisingly, I was an idiot.

The challenges merely shift. Today my daughter left for Berlin to study for the semester. Though I’m sure she’ll face challenges, it will ultimately be among the more defining and transformative periods of her life. It also solidifies, for me, that she is essentially and irrevocably an adult.

All of this is good; it is, in fact, wonderful. It’s a true blessing. If I were so inclined and had the emotional and physical flexibility, I might even be tempted to give myself (and her mother, of course), a pat on the back. It means we’ve done our job; she is now an independent, adventurous, and forward-thinking adult.

But here’s the big surprise: there will one day reach a point when you realize you need your children more than they need you.

That’s healthy, natural, and heart-shreddingly sad.

What I wish for my children, and what I’m confident will happen, is that they will continue to grow away from us and towards themselves – always feeling close to us and loving us, I hope – but experiencing life fully as and for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hope to a live a fulfilling life with friends and purpose.

But what I’m confident will happen, too, is that I will forever feel a little cavity in my soul that won’t ever be filled. In fact, I wouldn’t want it to.

It’s a piercing, unique ache that simultaneously conveys deep pride, unassailable love, and searing sorrow.

Ironically, I bet the Germans have a word for it. Hopefully, my daughter will teach me it when she returns.

George Washington: Freedom Hater

George Washington mandated his troops get small pox inoculations (he was initially hesitant, as he was afraid it would signal weakness to the British then realized the pros vastly outweighed the cons), when its efficacy wasn’t exactly peer reviewed.

He didn’t tolerate the insipid line of thinking that confuses freedom with utter self-absorption.

If you think Governors Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis know more about core American values than George Washington, you shouldn’t be allowed outdoors unaccompanied. Nor indoors, come to think of it. History will unambiguously damn these politicians and their sociopathic, enabling hucksters who play on peoples’ ignorance and heartlessly sacrifice lives to keep their bloodstained clutches on the levers of power to compensate for the gaping holes in their humanity. But shame on us for letting them.

Sorry. That’s all for now.

Who Wants Hear Me Pontificate About Monologues?*

OF COURSE YOU DO, FRANKLY, WHO COULD RESIST SUCH A GREAT TEASER?

The good news: this will be a short post. The bad news: I’ll be acting as if I know something. And I think it’s only fair to reming everyone of the late, great William Goldman wrote, “Nobody knows anything.” So, that said, let me tell you what I know. Or think I know. Or think I think I know. I think.

WAIT, SERIOUSLY, YOU’RE ACTUALLY GOING TO TALK ABOUT WRITING MONOLOGUES?

Yep. So, recently, a good friend of mine, who is among the best playwrights I personally know (her name is Julia Blauvelt, btw. Remember that name. You heard it here first) paid my a great compliment. She felt that I wrote monologues especially well (modesty forbids I repeat the full extent of what could, and indeed must, be described of her gushing to me about it. But Capitalism compels me to remind you my plays, Poetic License and Jericho are both available on Amazon and begging you to judge for yourselves whether or not she was right. For my money – or rather, yours – start with Jericho). She asked me my approach to them, which was very flattering, primarily because she assumed I had one.

But, it turns out, I think I do have one. And I offer it to you here, gratis, so you can be assured of getting your money’s worth. So, bounded in a nutshell, here it is, more or less:

OBVIOUSLY, NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO TAKE OUT YOUR NOTEBOOKS.

My personal theory on monologues is that they should be like Shakespeare’s soliloquies, or songs in a musical: they should only happen when the stakes and/or emotions are so high that regular dialogue simply won’t cut it. The should feel, at least in retrospect, inevitable. They should either reveal something frightening but necessary to articulate, or that the character feels profoundly unheard. Ideally both.

Approach them with caution, I say. Like you would, say, a dog you don’t know, or someone who ends their Facebook posts with “Just sayin'” Monologues are also – for me certainly, but I suspect I’m not alone – when a playwright is most likely to give into falling a little in love with the sound of their voice. And now you’re not articulating your characters’ issues, but your own. And you’d be amazed how less invested audiences are in your own.

Now, do I follow my own advice? Generally, I’ve found that following my own advice never ends well (e.g., “These denim shorts would look AMAZING on me). However, on this, I try to. I try to. It’s hard no to fall into this trap. And sometimes, let’s face it, it’s just easier. Because, as that insufferable dictum states, you’re now telling and not showing. Incidentally, I also believe that maxim, while a good rule of thumb, should be more of a guideline than a rule, because sometimes telling something to an audience, if done well, can, to quote Chekhov, “Fucking rock!”

SORRY, I’VE FORGOTTEN: WHY THE HELL SHOULD WE LISTEN TO YOU?

A fair, if somewhat needlessly aggressively question. I would say in my defense between a playwright who follows me on Twitter and myself, we have racked up a Pulitzer prize. So that’s something, maybe? I don’t know. I could be wrong about it all. I guess my best reason to offer would be that I have actually spent time on this gloriously sunny day, devoted some time to writing about it, which means I must have given it a modicum of thought. And I’m not a TOTAL idiot (those are rare). After all, I just used the word “modicum” successfully. Anyway, let me know your thoughts about this.

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. My next one: “Tank Tops: 10 Reasons Why I Should Never Wear Them.”

  • I know, I know, the picture is a speech, not really monologue. Apparently a commencement speech for a depressingly small group of students. But you, know, you get the gist.

A Sudden Glory:Thoughts On Humor

Dear God, Please Don’t Tell Us You’re Going To Try To Teach us About Comedy

For the few of you who can recall essays I have written on here, I tend to try to levin somewhat serious topics with occasional stabs at humor (some hits, some misses, to be sure). Comedy and seriousness can often make for strange bedfellows, as anyone who has tried to sleep with comedy can attest to (an S.J. Perelman homage), but I happen to think they are largely inseperable. Most of life, I contend, makes it so.

Oh God, You ARE Going To Write About Comedy. That Never Ends Well.

Anyway, I was recently asked to write a about the nature of humor, despite my conviction that talking about comedy is as useful as swimming about Keynesian economic theory. Like anything else humans are or do, humor is equally equipped to salve or savage, to poison or purify, to nurse wounds or grudges. Please, be assured I will in no way attempt to explain the nature of comedy, or what makes something “funny.” Dear Lord, nothing is less funny than that. Besides, who the hell am I to think I know?

Want an example of how awful explaining humor is? For that, let us turn to some of the great Western minds. One in particular.

Oh God, You’re Bringing In A Philosopher. It’s Gotten Worse, Somehow

If you’re ever in the mood to find nothing funny ever again, read the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For a sheer eat-your-angst-ridden- heart-out-Morrissey level of humorlessness, he is tough to beat. He tackles humor with all the sunniness of Sophie’s Choice. Like most philosophers, he makes the critical error of confusing humorlessness for seriousness.

“Observing the imperfections of other men,” he says, “causes laughter. Much Laughter is at the defects of others.” In other words, humor is sometimes cruel. When I read this, I made a roll of my eyes so strenuous I needed to be rushed to an ophthalmologist. But I challenge you, not so gentle reader, to think of many things that aren’t.


Besides, viewing humor like that is to miss the point entirely. It is like looking at the Sun and focusing entirely on the fact it causes melanoma and provides Florida with so many electoral votes. Hence Hobbes’ nihilistic gem, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”

Is There Going To Be, You Know, Any Humor In This Essay On Humor?

Yes, life can be all those things (imagine what Hobbes would have had to say about life
in the 17th Century had he been an Englishwoman). And humor is often cruel. But my God, who’d want to go a day without it? Who could? No one I’d ever trust. I believe that humor binds us because it reassures us that, despite evidence to the contrary, we’re never as alone as we think we are.

Apparently Not

The world is indeed sometimes as Hobbes described it. The world is also contains gelato, Side Two of Abbey Road, puppies, and the living poetry of great athletes. The world is home to playgrounds surrounded by green, rolling hills, as well as playgrounds with glass sharded over its asphalt like sprays of diamonds on black cloth. It’s also home to innumerable flowers struggling and blooming through cracks of that asphalt. Most importantly, the world also contains laughter.

Hobbes called laughter “A Sudden Glory,” but he was a philosopher, so I cannot assure you he meant it as a compliment. Maybe the idea of momentary joy – perhaps, in the end, the only kind of joy there is – as a pure good eluded him, as it often eludes most of us. But, every now and then, it catches itself on the ragged edge of a laugh. And that has to be enough. It is enough. We should be unashamedly greedy in our pursuit of it. Let’s try to recognize each other in our laughter. Let’s try to recognize ourselves. Those moments are our best hope of it, I believe. Such moments are indeed “sudden glories.” I wish you, and all of us, many of them.

ONE OF THE MANY REASONS I’M NOT INVITED TO A LOT OF PARTIES

“HOW HARD IT IS TO BE SIMPLE!” – VINCENT VAN GOGH, IN A LETTER TO HIS BROTHER, THEO

I start with this quote not merely to lend my post an unearned credibility by associating it with the sentiments of a genius, but because I find it an amazingly true insight into creativity and, ugh, I’ll just get this out of the way by admitting it upfront: Life.

Last week, I posted about the necessity of being thrown out of your usual habits to grow as an artist, and for all I know, a person. I believe in that still. And yet…and yet…I come not bury that thesis, but offer some caveats, a word derived from the Latin “wimping out”.

OSCAR-WINNING CASE IN POINT

I watched Nomadland this weekend, and thought it was magnificent and deeply moving. Art with a capital ART. But rather than enthuse about its many great qualities, I’d like to focus on some of my thoughts afterwards (and even during) that film.  I loved virtually every scene in that movie, and marveled at how economically it approached the telling of its narrative.

And I kept thinking, “I would love to write like that. But it’s the mirror image of how I write.” And while last week I wrote about the necessity of setting up challenges and obstacles for yourself to whack your brain out of its well-worn grooves, I also realize there is more than one way to make art, and there is more than one kid of artist.

There’s no formula. That often becomes the antithesis of Art. A fundamental problem in making “art,” as I see it, is that your strengths are often over time transposed into your great weaknesses.

LET’S BE HONEST WITH OURSLEVES, HOWEVER TRAUMATIZING THAT MAY WELL PROVE

Am I good at pithy dialogue? A little, I think. So great! That’s a lovely skill. But lean into that too often, and I become at risk of being merely that. Writing nothjng but empry calories. Desserts. I’m missing the meal itself. I can only speak for myself. My strengths turn inevitably into my crutches. And in the immortal words of Chico Marx, “Thattsa no good, boss.” I try to be on guard about getting mired in technique and habit, both of which are invaluable by themselves but not the sum of good writing. This delineation is harder for than it sounds.

I always try to curtail the worst excesses of my many writerly indulgences. Like I said last week, I think it’s essential for artists to stretch themselves. And yes, all of these discussions on writing circle none-too-subtly around the ides that these concepts apply equally to Life.

But, in the end, there’s only so much of your tendencies and style you can change until you cease to become you. Would I love to be able to write the stark, and as I understand it, at times improvised dialogue that madeNomadland so moving? I think I would, yes. But, for better or worse, that’s no the writer I seem to be.

And while I maintain it’s important to constantly challenge yourself as a person to see if you’re approaching things critically and intellectually form a fresh perspective (hard to do), I think you can’t do that until you come to an honest understanding of who you actually are.

And this is the reason I’m convinced I’m not invited to many parties. I’m always flip-flopping. Can’t seem to stick to one set of ideas. So not matter what someone says, I’m inclined to disagree. Or agree and then immediately question that agreement. That’s got to be the reason. It’s certainly not my bringing my guitar and insist we have a singalong but make clear I will NOT be taking requests. Nor can it be my reflexive habit of referring to everyone, even lifelong friends, as “Chief.”

LORD, WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE, BT KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE”

Hemingway famously advised to write your story, and then take all the good lines out, and then and only then do you have your story. I think this is worth bearing mind as a guard against prose that’s too purple, and especially sage advice for young writers, who likely became writers because they did love the sound of their voices, would we have truly wanted Fitzgerald to take out his “good lines” in The Great Gatsby, Or Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues,” or Morrison in, well, anything?

Faulkner wasn’t Hemingway, who wasn’t Morrison, who wasn’t Fitzgerald, who wasn’t Baldwin. And while I’m all for greedily snatching up anything I can from these geniuses, I also need to realize what my basic nature is, and while honestly challenging it at times, never to go to war with it.

Take out Tom Stoppard’s good lines and you’re more likely than not left with a ten minute and equivocating essay on quantum theory and the like.

So writing, and again (Jesus, we get it, you’re drawing parallels to life at large, don’t make a meal out of it), Life, seems a constant internal recalibration. Anyway, that’s one of the hardest thing so for me about writing. That and titles. And , well, everything else.

ALWAYS, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, BELIEVE IN MODERATION

As a fellow Long Islander – one who never met a line of his he seemed to dislike (feel free to correct me, Whitman scholars) – “Do I contradict myself? Very Well, I contradict myself.” As the Greeks, whose dramatists I turn to whenever I feel the need for raw human emotion or that my family isn’t truly that bad, phrased it: Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

TYING THE PROVERBIAL BOW ON THINGS

And so my cyber-comrades, yes, this is why, as the title suggests, my equivocation on supposedly deeply held below is among the reasons I’m not invited to a lot of parties. But to be clear, my schedule’s pretty open. Drop me a line, Chief.

Some Cliched Advice About Avoiding Cliches

Back in the waning days of the Coolidge Administration, I was but a young lad training to be a Shakespearean actor in London. We were taught by a man who presented himself in a way that suggested God decided to see just exactly how brilliantly quirky, quirkily brilliant and eccentrically, quintessentially ENGLISH a theater artist He could make, and then afterwards worried He may have overdone it.

Anyway, he was amazing. Among the many gnomic pronouncements he improvised one day was after an actor had performed a monologue that she obviously felt had gone horribly wrong (in all fairness, we all sorta did), one has stuck with me above all others. As he deployed the unique British super power of devastating her with impeccable manners, she began to cry. To his credit, he did a very un-British thing when faced with an embarrassing display of emotion: rather than set the premises on fire and change his identity, he looked at her with great sincerity and sympathy and said, “If it’s any consolation, I find perfection in art quite boring.” When I offered that we must be among the most fascinating actors he’s ever watched, his howls of laughter were far less gratifying to me than I would have hoped.

Anyway, at the time I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant. I think I understand it better now. Keith Jarrett, as you probably know, is a world famous pianist. I vaguely knew that, as my relationship with jazz is, at best, fraught. What I didn’t know was that his most famous album, the Koln Concert (1975), considered a masterpiece, was the result of profound imperfection. Jarrett was by all accounts quite exacting in his work environment. He would only play on a certain brand and model of piano. Due to a mix up, the piano he was given to play was the right manufacturer, but the wrong size, out of tune, especially in the higher registers, and several keys simply didn’t work. Jarrett, understandably horrified, refused to play, and walked out. The woman (a teenage girl, really) who organized the concert, chased after him in the rain and begged him to play. Looking at this poor, soaked, shivering young woman was too much for Jarrett. He relented and performed. 

Suddenly confronted with an instrument that deeply limited his musical options, he was forced to play in a style utterly out of his usual routine. It’s considered one of the great nights in jazz piano history, and cemented his reputation.

As a writer, I know I have patterns. I have a bag of tricks that I have consciously and unconsciously accrued over the years that I use in what I hope is a craftsman-like way. But that’s optimistic of me. What they do, even when they manage to work, is inhibit me, digging my grooves into ruts. As a writer, I spend most of my time banging my head against the ceiling of my limitations. What I fail to take in to account at times is that some of these limitations are self-imposed. What were once unique but hopefully interesting tics in my style have corroded into clichés. The problem is, it’s very hard to spot them on my own. The more I write, the more I risk  digging those ruts deeper and deeper. 

All of this is to say, in writing, and maybe elsewhere in life, having the occasional roadblock put in your path may have its advantages. It may force you to think differently than you have before. And as someone whose patterns of thinking haven’t always yielded boffo results anyway (for example, my choice to use the word “boffo” just now), it’s probably worth the risk on occasion.