Always Listen to John Cleese

In which I discuss some of his more salient points in my post re: writing advice.

John Cleese is a genius. And “genius,” like the words “avuncular,” “jazzercise,” and “zoftig,” are not words I use lightly, which is why they won’t be appearing in this post (apart from just then, obviously.) That Cleese wrote some of the most inventive, witty, and brilliant stream-of-consciousness comedy of all time, and that he could tether both the highly cerebral with the aggressively silly, often within the same sketch, is in and of itself testament to his brilliance.

That he could then go on to co-author with his wife (and then ex-wife Connie Booth) one of the most brilliantly scripted, character based, wit-driven, situational comedies ever in Fawlty Towers seems almost unfair for the sheer malleability of his comic gifts. As an actor, he has one of the greatest senses of comic timing I’ve ever witnessed (one random, and obscure example – listen to his “Bookshop Sketch” recording on Monty Python‘s Contractual Obligation album. His pause after Graham Chapman asks for “the expurgated version of Olsen’s Book of Standard British Birds” is mathematical in its precision for utmost comic effect).

But Enough About Him

But I come not praise Cleese, but to analyze something he urged me to do in his post to me last week. He gave the sage advice (no less wise because of its popularity as a dictum) to look inside myself and see what interested me. A more eloquent version of “Write what you know.” I wouldn’t dare disagree with Mr. Cleese (in addition to his legendary status, he’s also significantly taller than I am); in fact, he’s totally right. I would simply add that this is, I think, not only inevitable among most writers, but to a certain extent, impossible not to do.

Finally, On To Me

I’ve written only one overtly autobiographical play in my life (and I found it both clunky and traumatizing – too soon, as they say); my other plays range in subject matter considerably. From the early days of Beatlemania, to the checkered career of a potential Poet Laureate, to the tangled relationship between/among Mariyln Monroe, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller, to a play in part about a secular Jewish family on Long Island wresting with its son’s post 9/11 conversion to extreme Zionism.*

Yet, there is inevitably some inextricable piece of my mind and experiences embedded in each play’s DNA. It’s been pointed out to me by those who’ve seen several of my plays that, despite variety subject matter, they often tend to concern themselves with the same over-arching ideas: the search for and importance of community, the struggle for true connection with each other, and how societal forces often chafe against our better natures.

Wherever You Go, There You Are. I Hope They Have Pizza

It’s possible. I certainly never – well, seldom – set out out to write a play with a specific theme in mind. In fact, when I’m excited about a play idea, I’m often hard-pressed to articulate exactly why I am. For me, in fact, half the fun in writing a play is discovering what in fact I think and feel about a subject. But, inevitably, your mind finds you.

Do I self-consciously lift moments from my life to insert into my plays? Absolutely. But more often, for me, anyway, the more often I can stop thinking so much and plotting out in advance and let the characters lead me where they want to go, there better off I am. I’m not trying to be mystical about this at all. I just think when a writer feels as if they’re “channeling” their characters” (a term at which I instinctively lapse into a Liz Lemon worthy eye-roll), what I think is happening is that they’re merely letting their subconscious minds take the wheel.

Generalizing the habits and minds of writers is a fool’s errand, and yet, watch me: we are, wittingly or not, always absorbing the language, gestures, and behaviors of others, while simultaneously, more than often than not, trapped in our own heads, replaying incidents and moments from our lives long-since forgotten by everyone else on a loop like a psychological Zapruder film. And, at best, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether such talmudic analyses of one’s inner-self yields positive change or merely deepens the pit.

But when we write (especially dramatic narrative) it can free us from our self-concisousness. We’ve got too much else to worry about: why does a character need this particular thing (fork, liposuction, gun, Delta flight to the greater Tampa-St. Pete area) in this particular scene, why does another character need to stop her, how does this scene advance the story forward in as streamlined a way as possible, what’s a funnier word – “knish” or “kugel” (spoiler alert: it’s “kugel.” It’s inevitably “kugel”)?

In other words, when it’s working, it clears the clutter. It allows, for me, anyway, the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a term that’s a too casually tossed around these days: mindfulness. All I know is, my head is clear, and I’m focused only on the now and the now’s immediate consequence. We’ve all heard, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” And yeah, OK, for sure.

The Good Stuff, Though

But those other moments, the ones where you’re not even aware you’re in the room, that’s usually when the best stuff happens. That’s why I’ll keep writing for the rest of my life. Well, that, and all the prestige, acclaim, and financial stability that writing plays in America brings. Seriously, it’s like living in Uganda and dedicating your life to being a speed skater.

As for Mr. Cleese’s lovely citation of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” I think I have a theory on why that is, which this mass quarantine has confirmed. I can’t imagine it’s too original: it’s just not in our nature. We need others. Desperately, as it turns out, even we introverts, even when – sometimes especially when – we know it’s not good for us. As I believe these past weeks have driven home with brutal clarity.

I hope we’re finding ways to get by. For me, it’s been a roller coaster, honestly. Actually, no: roller coasters are often fun. I’m just trying to be productive and go easy on myself when I find that I haven’t.

Hang in there!

*I have Jewish ancestry, but was raised Catholic. Bebe Netenyahu’s brother attended an Off Broadway performance one night of this play, Jericho – why he was there to begin with is another, not interesting story- and sought me out loudly after the performance, embraced me to him and, tears in his eyes, exclaimed to the whole lobby with clear pride, “Only a JEW could have written this play!!” I didn’t have the heart to recite the Rosary for him)

Blogging!

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.”