The honeymoon period after finishing the first draft of a brand new play is one of the finest rewards of writing. It’s a delicious breakfast-in-bed-on-the-balcony champagne-and-chocolate-strawberries first-scene-of-Barefoot-in-the-Park-the-movie-version mashup wall of euphoria.
This period is flush with all kinds of wonder. First there’s the wonder of sudden weightlessness. “I’m done, I’m done!” is all I need say, and the tightness lifts from my shoulders, just as it did when I pushed away from my desk after typing “End play.”
It actually takes a few tries, every few hours, at saying “I’m done!” before it feels true. Each time, I re-investigate the feeling of not having this thing to write. I examine the new spaciousness between my ears, and give myself permission to feel giddy. “I’m done!”
Then there’s the wonder of leisure. I can go to a play or go have a drink or do whatever I want without seeing the unfinished script waiting, lurking, threatening to disappear if the head and tail don’t get sewn on soon.
During this time, the play is perfect. No one has said “I don’t get it” or “I like where it’s going” or “Have you read such-and-such? You should, it’s very similar.” No one’s said they want to know more about x or less about y, or smiled in a manner that says this is exactly the kind of play I tend to write. As if it’s any easier to write the kind of play a person tends to write than any other kind.
In these first few days, I physically feel the wonder of something brand new existing in the world. I imagine other parts of the invisible world shifting to make room. The world didn’t ask for this. If asked, it might say the last thing it needed was another new play. We bring the world our offerings, these detailed instructions for performance that are somewhere between blueprint and poetry, for reasons I’m still not clear on.
The fact that I’m even thinking about this means it’s time to pack my things, maybe take one selfie on the balcony, and check out of the luxury hotel. I might have stolen a washcloth, so I need to walk quickly in case the maids notice something’s amiss and call down to the front desk, but they wouldn’t do that would they? Would they? For one washcloth? Okay fine it was a hand towel but whatever. What kind of cheapshit hotel is this where they’re like counting washcloths? No way am I leaving the four stars. It’s a slight relief: The honeymoon is over.
On January 1 of last year, Toots and I started a writing game. We’d spent most of New Year’s Eve watching Slings & Arrows, which is not a prerequisite for the game, but it helps.
Materials needed: phones, notebooks or laptops, a timer (see phones)
We could have spent the day watching Season 3, but unspoken between us was the knowledge that watching TV, no matter how good, was not the way we wanted 2015 to start. Django and I walked Toots to the train, and New Years festivities were officially over.
Either player can start the game. Toss a coin maybe.
After the dog walk, I wanted to lay on the couch and read. Instead, I got my notebook and a timer, and decided to write for 20 minutes, using the word “Frame” as a prompt.
Player 1 chooses a word and texts it to Player 2.
Set your timer for 20 minutes.
Write the word at the top of the page.
Continue writing anything at all until the timer goes off.
When you’re finished, text “Done” to your partner.
When your partner is finished, they text “Done” to you.
After both players have texted “Done,” Player 2 chooses the next day’s word and texts it to you.
When I was finished, I texted Toots to tell her how my new year was going. She liked “Frame” and wrote for 20 minutes too.
“Want to do this again tomorrow” she asked.
“O-okay,” I said.
So she texted me a word for the next day: “Challenge.”
Rules and Advisements:
Wait your turn: Don’t text your partner the next day’s word, even if YOU’RE done, until they’re done too. With the exception of…
Doubling down: If you absolutely cannot write on a given day, you may “Double down” the next day. Text this to your partner, and send or receive the next day’s word. On the next day, write for 20 minutes per word.
Tripling Down: See above. You’re getting into dangerous territory, but it is possible to get back on track. Don’t give up.
On a dog walk yesterday, I lamented to Dave about how much I miss this game. Not that I wasn’t relieved for it to be over – a whole year of doing this has its ups and downs, and it’s nice to be able to freely journal again, without the word “Level” (Jan 22) or “Arriviste” (July 19) or “Cope” (Nov 11) staring at you from the top of the page. But I loved sharing the ups and downs with Toots. And completing 365 days of shared words felt amazing.
Set your phone on silent if you don’t like getting texts at 3am.
After listening to me alternately whine about missing the game and celebrate the fact that I never again have to write about “Suppository” (Dec 30), Dave decided that he wanted to play this game. He called a friend who said, “Sure.” They had to double down immediately to catch up to properly start from January 1st, but they’re on track now to do it COMPLETELY WRONG. They’re writing too much. They’re texting each other every twenty minutes with a new word. I think they’re on like Word 4 and it’s only January third. They’re going to burn out! But I’m keeping my mouth shut. It’s none of my business.
Look up the word before setting your timer. Even if it’s a simple word. You might learn something.
Type if you don’t want to write. Any technology is fine.
But why a pencil? Who would write for twenty minutes with a pencil?
On today’s dog walk, Dave told me a bunch of interesting things about “Sewer.” Apparently it’s related to “Sewing” and “Serving,” which connects to “Steward.”
I might choose “Steward” today if I were still playing with Toots. But our game is complete.
All the guests came. Even Press-n-Seal, though she worried that her presence might be more hurtful than supportive. “Not that we serve the same purpose,” she half-apologized as we gathered in the darkened living room, “but if he sees me next to Cling Wrap—”
“He’ll be fine,” Cling asserted.
“I’m not saying there’s a parallel…”
“Of course there’s a parallel,” said Cling. “That’s why I want him looking straight in my eyes when we say ‘Surprise.’”
“Maybe I’ll stand farther back.”
“You’re sticking with me.”
“I don’t want to embarrass him.”
“It will bring him hope. Here’s you all bright and mega-sized, and here’s me. Standing tall. Still in the drawer.”
“Amen,” called Holiday Baggie, fiddling with a lamp near the couch.
“But how often are you out of the drawer,” I wanted to ask. But I’m new here, and although most higher-end kitchens have made a place for my double-sided parchment-foil promise, I haven’t exactly earned bragging rights.
“It’s going to be a great party,” said Aluminum Foil brightly. “Wax Paper is going to be amazed at the new opportunities out there, in crafting alone—”
“Sh-h!” hissed a Twist Tie from the window. “He just parked!”
We all froze in place, and stared at the front door. No one moved. The mantel clock ticked steadily, calmly, the quiet heartbeat of a gentler era, when spaces between seconds lasted a full, round second, when kitchen drawers held three simple things: foil, cling wrap, wax paper.
At last, the jingle of keys, the satisfying hardness of one key going into one lock for which it had been fitted. A turn, and a click, the door opening, figure hunched slightly in the light from the hall, and in all of us—surely the others felt it too?—an instant realization that we were invading, that we had no right, that he should be allowed to leave the drawer in his own way, privately if that’s how he wanted, that he deserved his privacy if nothing else, but suddenly—
Holiday Baggie switched on the lamp, and someone else found the too-bright fluorescent ceiling light, starting the fan too though it was the middle of winter, and Wax’s face was flooded with light while his thinning hair ruffled in the breeze.
He gasped, and broke into a shocked smile, which I suspected—something in the eyes—was not truly spontaneous. “Well, for the love of Pete,” he drawled, yes, far too casual to be genuine, “Who let you bums in here?”
When we bought our 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI, our fond hope was that we would have it for at least ten years. That’s one of the great things about diesel engines, Dave told me after much research. They can go forever. And a diesel that was also clean-burning? At last, technology and principles aligning! Then some stuff happened.
I brought home new coffee from the co-op. I cut open the top, hoping it would smell like Peet’s. It smelled good, but not as good as Peet’s.
“This smells good,” I said, shoving the bag at Dave and hoping he would say it smelled as good as Peet’s.
“Mm,” he nodded appreciatively. “But not as good as Peet’s.”
“Nothing smells as good as Peet’s,” I allowed, tossing the fair trade, people-supported, beautifully-designed packaging, perfectly good-smelling co-op coffee under the bus.
BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THE VOLKSWAGON SCANDAL HAS CHANGED ME. NO. IT’S WORSE.
“It’s a certain sweetness,” Dave mused.
“They all have it…” I added, looking for the right sweetness identifier.
“…But I can tell them all apart,” Dave clarified.
“Me too! I would totally know if I was drinking Major Dickasons versus Garuda,” I claimed, though secretly I wondered, would I?
NO, THAT’S NOT IT EITHER. IT’S DEEPER AND MORE INSIDIOUS.
“Each Peet’s blend is distinct, but they that all have that…” Dave paused.
“… something,” he finished.
It was a quiet, blissful moment that would have been otherwise unremarkable…
EXCEPT FOR WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
“We need to either get to Peet’s or go back to the subscription service, though it feels too expensive,” was what I was about to say.
BUT SUDDENLY AN IMAGE CAME INTO MY HEAD.
At the Peet’s coffee factory, during the roasting process, workers pour the requisite amount of the synthetic extract “Peets No. 7” into the vat. This chemical cocktail was developed after much market research and consultation with a French aroma company operating out of a shell corporation in China. They’ve calculated exactly how much Peets No. 7 must be added to each batch to create the proprietary brand nose-feel experience while maximizing ROI. Too much and people will suspect foul play. Too little and they won’t find it compelling–they’ll abandon Peet’s for the stuff at the Co-op. Or Folgers. Or maybe Peet’s IS Folgers with Peet’s No. 7 added. HOW DEEP DOES THIS GO?
Old, pre-Volkswagen me would scoff.
Of course Peet’s is different, the coffee itself is better, Peet’s started in Oregon and everyone is pure there. They just wouldn’t DO that.
New, post-Volkswagen me isn’t even shocked.
I just nod dismissively, “Yeah, they probably would,” and pour the co-op coffee into the canister with the rest of the Peet’s because why bother.
Ditto Trader Joe’s “Gluten Free” Waffles, So-Delicious “Vegan” Ice Cream, Room and Board “Made in America” furniture, “eco” bee thermostats, all recycling…
Dave and I spent a week up north to be in nature, see some colors, and generally relax. In the list below, can you spot the 2 things we DIDN’T do to make our vacation a success?
The first correct guesser gets a jar of Cherry Republic cherry jelly — because Donna says it’s better than jam.
When I was writing and rewriting Twin Set, it seemed to be a play about relationships. How a relationship between two sisters both serves and confines them, how their relationship with a third woman both expands and destroys them.
When I tried to interest theatre companies in the play, it became a play about 1976 Oak Park as a metaphor for change vs. resistance, as expressed by three strong female characters. As I tried harder to get artistic directors to read the script, I all but abandoned any talk about plot or conflict and focused on “great roles for women.”
Once the play was lucky enough to get a production, it became about the things that might bring in an audience: nostalgia and intrigue.
When we moved into rehearsal, it became a play about facts. What day of the week does the play start on? How long ago did their mom die? How many other siblings do they have? When was Betty born, and when was Meggy? How do you make the sign of the cross? Why do observant Catholics abstain from communion? How is their apartment laid out? Rehearsal seemed to be a process of actors absorbing facts.
Then Heather and I took on the role of costume design, and it became a play about clothing. Betty needs 9 outfits, Meggy needs 8, Marnie needs 6. How do we find clothes that are easy to take on and off, look like 1976, fit their color profiles, and sort of fit the budget? Why are there so many different days in my play? Suddenly I saw ways to rewrite it so that the characters didn’t have to change so often.
No, that wasn’t until Tech, when it became a play about transitions. How can we most effectively and efficiently shift the actors and set and lights and sound from one scene to the next? What equipment is available? How is one stage manager going to manage all the things our creative vision demands of her? (I still have no idea but she makes it work without ever suggesting it’s impossible.)
Now that it’s up and running, and I think I’ve made my peace with all these different ways to explain the play, a friend writes and asks if he can bring his 11-year-old daughter to see it. Is it appropriate? It has now become a play about: some language, a tiny bit of violence, and women kissing.
Is that inappropriate? Women kissing men is G-rated, but is same-sex kissing too mature for 11-year-olds? Somehow in my brain it seems to depend on whether the kid lives in the city or the suburbs, which makes no sense whatsoever. In any case, I describe the play in this laundry-list style and send it off.
Big relief, none of those items causes any concern. They’re planning to attend. He’d just wanted to make sure there was no nudity.
Which reminds me there are several moments of women in underwear, which hadn’t occurred to me when I thought about appropriateness for 11-year-old girls. Should I write him back? Nudity isn’t the same as underwear, right? But what if nudity is implied by the underwear?
Once again, I realize I have absolutely no idea what my play is about.
So by this point, you have a completed, polished script that is quite possibly the most brilliant thing ever. Awesome! Or maybe it’s sort-of okay. Yay! Or perhaps it’s just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns, so why pay a log picker-upper to come in and clean up? Why not just leave them to soften and decay with the passing seasons, composting back into the weather and enriching it with their dormant barky-ness? It’s time to send out your work!
First, search the web for the many, many contests and festivals that feature new work by living playwrights. Remember that term: new work. It’s something you should start saying instead of a play. It sounds more important, like you’re working on a cure for something, doesn’t it?
Many contests and festivals charge a small fee. Don’t begrudge this. It costs a lot to get everything processed and reviewed and responded to. Even if the readers are volunteers, those other people who do stuff like advertise the contest usually have to be paid.
Insider tip: As a volunteer reader myself, I try to read my minimum number of submissions at the last minute, perhaps at the end of the day or when I’m completely frustrated by my actual job and need a brief distraction. “Try and hold my interest,” I tell the submission. “You’ve got fifteen seconds.” So take all you’ve learned in previous chapters about character and story arc and show-don’t-tell and pacing and stuff, and jam it all into the first half-page, because that’s probably all the time you have. As John Irving said, “try to tell the whole novel in the first line.”
What is it you want to say? Some popular themes include “Love is elusive.” “War is bad.” “Life is funny and the goofiest things can happen.” Whatever your flavor, consider shoehorning it into the first line or two of dialog, like this:
Night. A hot-air balloon. Joshua nurses his imaginary child. Gomesh helps.
Joshua: War is bad.
Gomesh: The goofiest things happen.
That way, even if your reader gives you a pass immediately, as they’re likely to do with a whole pile of submissions waiting and dinner not even started, you’ll know you are sharing your-deeply felt vision with another human soul.
Go for it!
Takeaway: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but it ends any time you plop down and turn on Netflix.
Zoe was discovered at Charlie Trotter’s. She was two and a half, and on display out front at a PAWS adoption event. “She was just watching everyone walk by,” Ruth says tonight, at the emergency vet. Ruth imitates Zoe’s confident tilt of the head. “She was so much furrier than I’d imagined.”
The emergency vet asks if Zoe has ever been here before. “Just once,” Ruth says, “twelve or thirteen years ago.” It’s hard to explain, because the vet is worried about Zoe now, suddenly weak and listless, unable to walk. Can she know how unusual that is for this particular fifteen year-old? Just yesterday she was bounding up the stairs, so inexplicably excited about every next thing she was about to do—get a treat, eat a tennis ball, walk through a doorway.
That first trip here was after one of Elaine’s first walks to the park with Zoe. She was still getting used to this bundle of energy whose name they’d changed from Daisy. The newly named Zoe bounded into the street and a car hit her. The car kept going. Zoe kept going too. Elaine walked her home, in fact, but then the sisters put her in the car and took her to the vet. “She had a little tear on one ear,” Ruth recalled. “Other than that she was fine.”
That would have been around the time Django and I met Elaine, the Katherine Hepburn of Horner Park, with her unruly dog who was so silky and beautiful and always running across the park to eat garbage. Zoe is still silky smooth, and we stroke her head as she lays on the gurney. She has a tumor on her spleen, the vet explains, and it has ruptured. “I think it’s time for you to let her go,” she says.
After the decision is made, the doctor leaves to prepare the injections. Ruth is quiet. Her family and friends try to make sense of this. We try to get Ruth to sit down, to drink some water, but she continues to stand, slight and strong in the middle of the small examination room.
A tech comes in and gently asks if Ruth would like to use the cremation service that the hospital usually works with. “Can you speak louder,” Ruth asks, “I’m hard of hearing.”
“Would you like Zoe to be cremated?” I can’t believe they’re already asking this.
“Yes,” Ruth says.
“And would you like a plaster cast of her paw?”
“We can do a plaster paw print.” I want to explain it in louder terms for Ruth but I can’t quite figure out what he means. Like one of those clay things we used to make of our hands in kindergarten? Would he do it while Zoe is still alive, and would that feel weird to her, sticking her paw in some clay? Or would they do it after, and what would that mean, emotionally?
“No, no,” says Ruth, shaking her head. “How ghoulish.”
We all laugh uncontrollably for too long.
The vet comes back, with two injections. She explains how the first one will relax Zoe, and then the second one will be very quick. “Yes, I know,” says Ruth. “I’ve done this before.” With Jenny, I remember, the dog they had before I met them, the perfect dog whom Zoe can thank for having landed her in their wonderful home.
Jenny probably set them up to think their next dog would also be perfect in time, would stop galloping through life with the energy and curiosity of a puppy, would become a proper adult dog suitable for two elderly ladies, and then for one of them after Katherine Hepburn passed. But if Zoe had aged appropriately, we would not all be there. Dave and I never would have met Ruth, who has become one of our finest friends. Django would not pull to go into Ruth’s gangway on our way to the park. I would not have learned how to throw the ball for Django, throw one treat into Zoe’s mouth, and then have two more treats ready when Django returned, one for her and the other for Zoe, who had completely forgotten she’d just had one a second ago.
Sometimes we’d let Zoe chase the ball too, which never resulted in fights over the ball because Zoe had learned that all she had to do was run in its general direction, dip her head slightly, and then run back and sit, and the treat would appear.
The vet does the first injection, and then the second. Zoe’s eyes close, and she goes quiet. “She’s passed,” says the vet, and then leans over to Ruth. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” says Ruth. She gathers her purse and the folder of paperwork. It’s less than two hours since she called, “I’m sorry to bother you, dear, but Zoe is on the back porch and she can’t seem to move.” Fifteen years and eight months is the age on the paperwork. From Charlie Trotters to a beautiful home to a ride in a Lexus to the emergency vet to a couple of shots and many tears. So sudden. So long. Good dog.
When Ruby saw her car again, the first thing she wanted to do was vacuum it. Also scrub and Armor All every surface, “erase the hell out of the bad ju-ju,” she said. But first she had to get it out of the impound lot and back to Wisconsin.
The CRV had been found on Medill and Belden, parked in front of a fire hydrant with a note on the windshield, and towed to the impound lot near Humboldt Park. At about 11PM on Sunday night, a week and a day after it had disappeared, Ruby and Roy got a message on their answering machine—a real, actual answering machine down on the dining room desk that you can hear from upstairs in the bedroom—from the Chicago Police. “Your car has been found. Call 9-1-1.”
911? Really? Okay.
During that week and a day, they’d bought another CRV, which oddly was missing headrests but also oddly Ruby had taken the headrests out of the old CRV the day of her trip, so they were still in the garage. Same upholstery too, so they fit perfectly in the new one.
A week ago, Ruby had decided not to fly or rent a car to get to the pig roast, but instead took an Amtrak home and then on pig roast night went to see some other friends of Slim’s and they all had a bonfire. She had adjusted. She’d emailed during the week to tell about the new CRV with 100,000 fewer miles on it, and the headrests, and the email chain agreed that it was serendipitous, and now the only real acknowledged drag was that they’d lost certain custom mix CDs that were irreplaceable.
But then they got the call, prompting joy and celebration—it’s been found! Which turned into a huge hassle of phone calls and arrangements—it’s been found and now we have to deal with it.
I have this picture in my head of how it should be when the police find your stolen car. Sargent Kielbasa calls and says, “Eh, we got yer car here,” and you drive over, and the sarge is waiting with a half-smile on her face, a little annoyed at you with being so gullible as to have left your car outside somewhere in the city of Chicago, where it could be picked up by any stranger with a master key, but whaddayou know, you’re from Wisconsin where people leave their cars outside all the time, sometimes not even locked!
She has to admit, she kinda loves your gullibility, your faith in basic human goodwill, your promptness in showing up after a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Madison, rain all the way, and how you don’t even complain about how you had to take off work for this. You’re good people. You are the reason this thankless police job is kinda worth it, she has to admit. Hell, she opens the driver’s side door for you, and shrugs modesty as you exclaim, “The garage door remote is still here! And our CDs! And the maps in the glove compartment!”
She loves that there are people who still use maps.
She points to how the rear seats are folded down and enjoys your confusion at seeing dirt and a couple of landscaping pavers back there. Sometimes people steal cars in Chicago not for a joy ride or the chop shop, but because they need to haul something for a job. “People do what they gotta do in this town,” she observes, and heads back to her cruiser after making sure you know how to get back on the highway in the cheesehead direction. Just another day in the city that never sleeps except when it’s sleeping.
What really happened is that Sargent Kielbasa gave Ruby the address of the impound lot and hung up. Ruby and Roy got there as the rain slowed, and found the trailer where business is conducted, and waited among several unhappy people whose cars had been towed for various reasons, and when their turn came paid hundreds of dollars to get it released. How does it make sense that you have to pay money after your car gets stolen?
The car was marked up on all windows with wax penciled numbers. “You should have brought Windex,” I joked. “I did,” she said. “It had to be scraped with a razor.”
A van drove them out to the general location and they hunted it down. They then drove it through two and a half more hours of rain back to Madison. When they got there, Ruby parked it in the garage and started vacuuming.
First I wanted to walk the neighborhood, hoping I would see it, sure I would see it parked around the next corner, wheels gone or door open, but there. The thieves would have gotten in and seen the tub of caramel corn in the front passenger seat, the summer tops on hangers, and the Pig Roast or Bust travel book Ruby had made, spiral bound and including section dividers. If they’d paged through it, they would have seen one tab for Fabric Stores between Madison and Alexandria, another tab for Motels, another for Campgrounds, and a Summary page linking the likely stops with approximate travel times between them (MT & Dave’s to Yoders in Shipshewana 2½ hours, Yoders to something in Ohio 3 hours). They would have seen the first bag of fabric from a store in Crystal Lake, and they would have said, “We can’t take this lady’s car. We like the spirit of this lady and we want her to make it to the pig roast.”
But Dave and I walked the neighborhood, as soon as I’d woken him and made him understand that “Ruby’s car is gone” didn’t simply mean she’d left early. As we looked around corners for her familiar car, one we’ve seen every August for the past ten years when we meet up in Michigan for a week, it became clear that what the thieves had actually said was, “1999 CRV, it’s a chopshop favorite. Let’s go.”
The thieves couldn’t know that the pig roast was in honor of Ruby’s first boyfriend, Slim, who died earlier this year. They couldn’t know that Ruby hadn’t been able to make it back east for his funeral, or that a funeral had anyway seemed an odd thing to connect with Slim but the summer pig roast his friends always threw felt like a better place to say goodbye.
When Dave and I got home from our neighborhood search, Ruby had already talked to the police and found a 2pm train for Madison. We offered her our car to continue the trip east but she wanted to get back home and start shopping for a new CRV. I held off on vacuuming until we took her to Union Station, and then I held off again because some other friends were arriving in their rental car from Midway. I wanted to erase the event by vacuuming and then maybe also mopping, but instead I had to say to my other friends, “Did you get rental car insurance?”
When they said no, we had them put their car inside the gate, and we parked ours in front of it.
There were also three bottles of dressing in the CRV, because Ruby’s pig roast task was salads. I believe there was also a Recipes tab in Pig Roast or Bust but I can’t be sure. I only got to see Pig Roast or Bust for a minute, standing on the driveway as Ruby got an overnight bag out of her car, paging through it and marveling at how a drive to DC suddenly seemed short and fun when you looked at it in terms of 2-3 hour fabric store destinations. And marveling at Ruby, who continues to interact with daily living in a way that is unlike anyone else I know yet mostly manages to pass for normal.
I’d almost asked to hold on to Pig Roast or Bust and bring it inside to look at longer, but when Ruby reached for it I knew I’d feel terrible if she ended up forgetting to put it back in the car in the morning. Like the last conversation you don’t get to have with someone you’ve loved, I couldn’t have known there’d be no car to put it back into.