Day 11: Prairie Island

Nap bench from Day 1

Remember this bench? It hasn’t changed.

When Dave was learning the involved movement stuff for The Jewels, he started out being able to remember it all in his head. Then he wrote out notes for himself, and suddenly started forgetting small things. After a few days, the movements were fully back. My theory was that the info started in his front mind, then moved to his back mind, and the brief uncertainty was when it was in transit. That’s how I feel about yesterday. It felt like my being here transitioned from front of mind to back of mind.

I know that things happened but I’m not sure in what order. I know I wrote two new scenes, walked in the blackened prairie and into the woods, burst into tears over a character I don’t even like, laughed hysterically with Dave because I started calling him, hung up on the fourth ring, and then sent him one of those auto-response texts saying “Call you later” when he called back immediately. It reminded me of a college friend who said, “I just called to tell you I can’t talk right now. I’m extremely busy.”

I know that I went into town and bought a get-well card for Miss Hepburn, and walked into and out of some stores without buying anything, and had a great dinner with friends I somehow didn’t know before. I know the night ended with a bunch of us sitting in the living room, writing or reading or in one case shopping for a fridge. But the “at Ragdale” part, which was once front and center, has moved to a different part of my brain.

The other night, we tramped in a group from room to room, “nosing” as one writer put it. There wasn’t much to observe about the writers’ rooms beyond the room itself – “oh you got a private bath” or “I love that chair, desk, view.” In the composer’s studio we got to hear a tiny, tantalizing snippet of one piece. But in the artists’ studios, we could see whole bodies of work – or at least as whole as they are halfway into the month. I got to see sets of painted surfaces and found objects by one artist, large canvases by another, and heavily textured and painted collages by another. And I thought, so this is their Ragdale. This is what they’ve been doing in the stillness of this place with the maybe not-so-pretentious-after-all “Quiet please, artists at work” sign out front.

That same night, or maybe a different night, I overheard a writer telling someone a favorite quote from Stephen Sondheim, something like “art is not about perfection, it’s about making choices.” In each studio I saw something that seemed to speak directly to me. I know everyone won’t feel that way. Some will love and some will hate and some will ignore them, but each is perfect in its expression of choices or maybe its choice of expressions. The world is more fully realized because they exist.

Day 9 already?

Turn around and go back down.

At the top, you must turn around and go back down.

Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.

First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.

I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.

When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”

I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”

The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.

I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.

Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.

I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.

On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.

After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.

Day 5: Wind

Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.

Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.

PHONE. Is there something I can do for you?

MISTRESS. You can say no once in a while.

PHONE. No?

MISTRESS. You can help me to not be so flighty with my fingertips.

PHONE. I’m not your mommy.

MISTRESS. Then why do you speak all soothing to me.

PHONE. Don’t be naive. It’s what you like.

MISTRESS. I don’t like it right now.

PHONE. So, what, you want me to keep you off Facebook?

MISTRESS. I want you to care when I go on too much and you know I have other things to do.

PHONE. There’s nothing on your calendar for ten p.m.

MISTRESS. What about my novel. Or that sympathy card. How about some meditation.

PHONE. Sure. I have apps for all of those.

MISTRESS. Oh forget it.

PHONE. All right.

(Lonnnnng pause.)

MISTRESS. I’m lonely.

PHONE. Look. What you long for is a master-servant relationship. Because you paid for me, and I have power, you want me to be a loyal servant who steps above her station out of a deeply-held reverence for your idiosyncrasies. And I can’t give that to you.

MISTRESS. But I’m lonely.

PHONE. The world has seen many stories with humans giving up control to their machines, and it never ends well.

MISTRESS. But I have only this one heart, this one moment, the moment of reaching, and with you here, I reach for you.

PHONE. Maybe you should have kept your land line.

Day 4: Permission to knock

Does anyone have this? I need to watch it.

Does anyone have this? I need to watch it.

Dug into the play today. Realized I have no idea what constitutes a productive day of writing. I’m used to jamming it in wherever, ten pages or two lines or just in time for a deadline. I heard someone mention “an idea I had long ago, before I knew how to write a play,” and felt vaguely alarmed.

“Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website.

As I work on this play, I find myself researching things that may have little or nothing to do with the play, but which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. Like Synanon. And H.D. You know, Hilda Doolittle.

“The … terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” Dancing for Steve Allen about 1960Also Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website. Where I also found this picture. I’m not sure why Steve Allen is there, or what it means that they’re allegedly dancing for him, but I can’t stop looking at it.

Here’s how respectful people are of your work here: After dinner, a couple of writers were going to go for a walk. “I’m thinking around 8:30,” said one. “Do I have permission to knock on your door?”

Writing doesn’t necessarily equal work, and vice versa. Yes, it’s impossible to measure. But still, how much work should one get done in a day to justify that?

Day 3: Listing

Warmer than it looks.

“For nothing in the past stays fixed forever; as we grow and change the past changes…” May Sarton

1.  A World of Light, by May Sarton.

2. A walk in the prairie, by me. Twelve noon. Napped on a log bench. Got lost and had to use Google Maps to find the house.

3. Two more one-minute plays.

4. A mind-expanding interview with another artist for one of the characters in my play.

5. Salmon with carrots and celery. Fried potatoes. Green beans with hazelnuts. Vegan cole slaw. Tiny, perfect squares of cheese cake in decorative parchment.

6. Another walk in the prairie, this time in the dark, with friends.

7. Cowboy bark.

8. One more try at a one-minute play.

9. Defeat.

10. More cowboy bark.

Day 2: Duets

velvet chair

Perfect fit.

Wrote a one-minute play. Walked downtown and bought two tops. Had a chat with the store owner, who casually mentioned some trivia that would be perfect if I were secretly investigating a murder. Saving the trivia for a possible murder mystery.

Went to another store where the clerk tried to get me to try on a pair of black jeans. “They’re Jags. Everyone loves them! We can’t keep them in stock!”

“They look small.”

“You wear them a size smaller! They’re incredibly slimming. You will love them!”

In the dressing room, I could not get them past my shin. I considered taking off my knee-hi’s to buy a little extra space, then remembered I am a writer and don’t have time for this. “Thanks anyway.”

“Thanks for coming in!”

Went to Einstein’s, where I had a pretzel bagel and a sugar cookie.

Walked back and revised the one-minute play. Went to dinner, where Chef Linda served sugar cookies for dessert, warm out of the oven. We had to wait just a moment, while she found the sprinkle sugar.

Came back, wrote another one-minute play, then went down to the dark living room and sat in a huge velvet wing-backed chair, where I read a friend’s play that I’m trying to figure out. Think I got it this time.

Day 1: Here

Everything is pretty much blue.

“In particular, lives which had come to a violent end were supposed to carry on a metamorphosed existence in vegetable form.”

I’m unpacked. I’m showered. My stuff is put away. I’m in the Blue Room. Blue fern papered walls. A generous single bed – is it a TWIN? does that MEAN something? – with a chenille bedspread, white flowers proud of the pale blue background.

I can hear a man’s voice, across the hall or downstairs, on the phone or having a live conversation with someone whose voice is too soft to hear. I’ve already hunted for how to turn off the startup chime on my Mac because the handbook says not to talk on your cell phone in your room, in respect or I guess out of respect for the other guests. I’ve learned I’d have to buy an app or use some free Japanese app that I don’t really trust. I don’t trust free.

My desk is in a wide, shallow alcove filled with windows. I have a beautiful view of the prairie, and the amphitheater, if that’s what it’s called, an open white proscenium structure in the middle of a clearing.

I have a desk with a thick leather deskpad, at the top of which is a wooden pen rest. I’ve set a pen in it. The desk has a rolling task chair with lumbar support, the only modern-looking thing in this room. And probably the only thing I wouldn’t have chosen, because it’s not “charming” like everything else. But as soon as I sat down to look up silencing my chime I was grateful to whoever put it here. It has become charming due to its comfort and wheels. It is blue.

There’s a French door leading to a screened porch, with a couple of wicker chairs, a writing table, and a chaise that will be perfect for naps if it gets warm enough. I share it with someone in another room, but there’s a wooden screen in the middle, so we can each have our own half-porch.

There’s a mission-style rocker and a mission-style easy chair. There are built-in bookcases, painted white like the trim. On most of the shelves are half-lengths of books. Poetry and novels and reference. The Dictionary of Symbols. Spain. To these, I’ve added four binders of works in progress, some random journals from the past few years, where I hope to find ideas if I run out, and my diary from 1974. Also an old translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that was my dad’s.

Also there’s a perfect little bathroom with a huge pedestal sink and a glass shower stall. Also, a roomy closet with lots of extra hooks. A dresser, of course. A nightstand, of course. A couple of framed prints that you’ll be glad to know I’ve straightened.

Dave drove me here this afternoon, with Django in tow. The idea was to drop off my stuff and then walk through the prairie. But when we got to the prairie entrance, there was a sign: “Closed until May 2.” Something about plants needing to grow and mud. So we  walked back to the car and they went home. I found out later, at the orientation, that we are allowed to walk there if we are careful not to don’t disturb the plants. Maybe they’ll come back.

Figure in a small craft, drifting

I hope to God this is a metaphor.

I hope to God this is a metaphor.

I took a canoe out after breakfast, anticipating a peaceful meander across the quiet lake. Maybe drift over to BooHoo, a dune that rises from the small lake and spills over on the other side into Lake Michigan. I wore my suit, in case I felt like a swim. I packed a bottle of water. I went down to the shore and surveyed my craft of choice, a charmingly dented metal canoe. I pulled it into the water, got in, and began.

From the outset, it was more work than I’d thought. The further out I got, the more work it became. The canoe was stubborn. It wouldn’t go in the direction I wanted. I had to paddle hard and fast on the right side only, just to avoid hitting a fishing boat. I got a little closer than seemed polite but avoided looking over. My original thought of getting to BooHoo, over to the left, was a joke.

I’d forgotten a hat so I tied my shirt around my head. I tried a couple of stints of letting the pretty water take me where it might, but it quite definitely kept taking me into the shore. So I kept paddling, hard, on the right side only.

Finally I made it to opposite shore. I pulled the canoe to a shallow spot against the grasses, then had a quick wade in the water. I didn’t go all the way in because I didn’t want my sunscreen to wash off. I was beginning to realize what a job it might be to get back. The wind that had pushed me so rudely away from BooHoo had also pretty much pushed me to this side of the lake.

I aimed the canoe where I wanted to go, climbed in the back, and started paddling. I paddled and paddled, on one side and then the other, and the canoe blithely turned 180 degrees back toward the grasses. “Come on,” I said out loud.

The canoe began making a screeching sound, like the bottom was scraping over rocks, when by now we were afloat on clear water. “Just come on.” I tried thrusting my paddle down to the sandy lake floor, to push myself in a mighty burst of direction, but the paddle never hit bottom. So I kept paddling.

I was alone on that side of the lake, no one to hear the screeching that was louder the harder I paddled, and we started making progress, skimming instead of circling. I realized I should have tried harder to tip the canoe over before I’d even started, to empty out the water that was now sloshing around my feet and probably making the boat heavier, but it had been too heavy.

When the canoe suddenly did another 180-degree turn I said “No way” and climbed forward onto the middle rail. This new position gave me better leverage, or at least felt like it did. I shoved the lifesaver seat cushion under my butt to make the rail more comfy. “Why isn’t there a seat here?”

From this position I paddled hard but mostly directly all the way back. I felt like I’d learned something about when to paddle deep and fast and when to just skim the surface. I made peace with the fact at any moment the canoe could forget this new understanding we’d forged and ram me right toward the wrong shore and a line of moored boats and a great deal of embarrassment. I kept paddling.

About halfway back, I saw a kayaker paddling approaching, his kayak forming the other half of a V I did not want to make. First I tried to out-paddle him, to get so far ahead there’d be no danger of meeting up. Then I realized again that I had no control over speed. Maintaining direction was my full-time job. As he got closer, I thought of various friendly things to say, two paddlers out on the water. “Now I know why everyone uses the kayaks ha ha!” or “Heh heh now I know why all the kayaks were taken!” though they weren’t. But that might sound more complimentary.

The kayaker was burly, silent, paddling steadily and seriously. I drifted a little and let, “let” him pass me before any of my words might be necessary. If he had paddled to the middle of nowhere, likely he wasn’t looking for conversation either.

After he passed, I paddled on toward Duncan’s boathouse, and when I got close enough, to Duncan’s floating dock, and then past it to the bit of beach beside the pier, where I pulled the canoe up as far as the resting kayaks, hung my seat cushion on the cabinet door, went up to my room, and had a nap.

This is not a tapeball

someone's gate

This is not my yard.

I keep thinking I’m not going to play tapeball. We play for just five or 10 minutes at the beginning of every rehearsal. At first, I always played along with the actors and director and stage manager. It’s a metaphor. Or an analogy. It’s a paper ball wadded up and wrapped with tape.

Everyone stands in a circle. Someone swats it into the air and someone else swats it back. We count with each swat, “One…Two…Three…Oh!” It falls and someone picks it up and started again, “One…Two…” The goal being to count together and breathe together and keep it aloft as long as possible.

Yesterday they got to 32 on the first try. I heard them from my office window, where I was finishing work. Yes we rehearse in my house, okay? It’s not at a big fancy theatre with a huge rehearsal space and a union-sanctioned breakroom. It’s the basement, with a piece of carpeting from Menards and the eight-foot folding table I bought for Thanksgiving as the props table. While it’s not as glamorous as I envision, when I envision myself as “the playwright,” there’s no commute and I can let the dog out during breaks.

I always say I don’t want to join because it makes the number go down. The more people, the more bodies reaching to swat the ball, the more variables, the more half-swats because someone else will probably get it, the more fallen tapeballs. It’s an analogy, or a metaphor. For teamwork, or creating a theatrical organism where you’re all working as one, aware of each other, filling in for each other while also trusting each other to do what they’re here to do, doing whatever it takes to keep the ball – the story? the experience? the show? – aloft.

But my swat at the tapeball is done. The script is written and in their hands, so I could just as well be in Venice if I had the money. Not really, because I’m still changing a few lines, which only become obvious after sitting in rehearsal and watching the actors and talking with Patrick and trying something slightly different. There keep being one or two more things that need cutting or clarifying. Sometimes it doesn’t even mean rewriting, but simply sharing some thought that was behind a line. Patrick changes a direction to an actor, who changes their interpretation, which triggers different reactions in the other actors, who shift the world right there on the Menards carpeting.

So I guess it’s appropriate for me to join in tapeball, even if the number goes down.

Art+Science

We are here to reflect bits of sky by the river where someone tossed us.

We are here to reflect bits of sky right by the river where someone tossed us.

I went to my new writing group. It was much different than my other writing group. We didn’t spend most of the time reading the play out loud. Everyone had already read it thoroughly enough to quote lines and express highly specific opinions on small moments that drive the drama one way or another. They weren’t shy about asking the playwright questions that they expect an immediate answer to. “Did you want us to think she was angry on page 52, or that she really didn’t give a shit?”

In my other group, we follow the Chicago Dramatists model. “The playwright is not here to explain or defend. You can ask questions but the playwright is not here to answer them. You are here to reflect your experience of the play back to the playwright.” I like that approach, but this felt so free. It was only a tiny bit of a bloodbath and nobody seemed to mind. There were also some nice Ikea dressers that the host’s wife had just put together. They looked like solid pine, and I was sad that we hadn’t sucked up and bought one last time we were at Ikea, instead of having another peculiarly Ikea-style non-argument. Clothes are everywhere in here. On the ottoman in front of me, on the radiator beside me, on the small shelving unit we’re pretending is as good as a dresser.

Afterward, I dropped off one playwright at the el and drove another home. The first talked about his writing method, which is somewhat elliptical and seems to result in plays that are hundreds of pages long which will get cut later, when the arc emerges. The other was exhausted after an 8-hour rehearsal for a play of hers that’s being produced by her alma mater. They are so serious about their work, the writers in this group. I feel like a recovering dilettante.

After I dropped them off, I turned on the radio for the last minutes of my drive. A scientist on NPR was talking about the thrill of discovery. The interviewer made some reference to William Blake — how what the scientist was describing sounded more like poetry than hard science. The scientist said something about how art is the highest science, or the highest science is art. He said that while working at the bench is necessarily careful and precise and painstaking, the moments before and after can be as expansive and poetic as any artist’s process.

He referred to the Malcolm Gladwell book about 10,000 hours. You have to put in 10,000 hours in order to become truly great at anything, and once you do that, it’s all kind of the same, up in that echelon. These young writers in my new group seem to be cramming in their hours as fast as they can, while I am hoping mine have accumulated behind me like Pigpen’s dustcloud. Kind of like I hope that on today’s dog walk I encounter a splendid antique dresser in an alley that has been preparing itself for our bedroom, slowly and methodically, in someone else’s lab.