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.” Also 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. Start from the basic tenet, Everything happens for a reason and it’s all for the best. This is not so much a Pollyanna thumbs-up as an acknowledgement that I can’t see the big picture from here.
2. Given #1, remove, “Oh I hope I didn’t/I hope I wasn’t” from your vocabulary. You either did or didn’t, were or weren’t Everything happens for a reason, so if you think you did or wish you weren’t, decide it was just what was needed in the moment. Move on.
3. Write every day. Thanks to Jerry Seinfeld, this will start the third year I’ve kept a small calendar that I use only to mark off the days I write. The days without an X are few but they come in clumps. One day of not doing the thing you love leads to another, and worse, corrupts your precious time with excuses and projections and doubts. So do the thing you love a little every day, and make your X on the calendar.
4. Don’t get fixated on the calendar. It’s not going to win you any prizes, unless you have your own private awards ceremony for yourself. “And now, in the category of Best Supporting Month in Consecutive X’s, the winner is June!”
5. Why not? Go ahead and have your own private awards ceremony for yourself. You’ve earned it. Include speeches, music, a new outfit, and an after-party. Do this privately, not out of embarrassment or shame, but to see if you have the sand to honor yourself without requiring any outside acknowledgement.
6. Don’t go telling people you had your own private awards ceremony for yourself, or you’ll ruin the whole thing.
7. Everything happens for a reason. If you find yourself babbling to people about your own private awards ceremony and showing them pictures (why did you even take pictures? Didn’t you realize you were already sabotaging yourself with the picture of your hors d’ouvres platter – “Look! I decided to do all healthy foods out of respect for me!”), know that you did it for a reason and it’s all for the best.
8. Trust your instincts.
9. Remember that every list doesn’t have to end at 10.
The weird thing about rehearsal every night and rewrites plus regular work every day is that when it’s over I feel like, What do I do now? Yesterday I woke up all headachy from celebrating the night before. The script is done. There are things that could be clearer, yes, but I don’t want to collapse the flower, press each petal under glass. I want some push and pull.
It’s like The Tell-Tale Heart, which Dave recites to me periodically as he memorizes it for a show. In a typical talkback, someone inevitably would ask Edgar Allan Poe, “Okay so is the old man his landlord? I assumed that, but I don’t know that I actually know that. Maybe he’s a relative, an uncle or something–”
“Okay, thanks for your comment–”
“Or if it’s the old man who is the lodger, and the narrator is actually the landlord, that would change the dynamic for me.” So, Edgar will have her pen and notebook on Monday. She will write down every comment. Then she will set it on the sideboard and forget it for a week or a month. Pick it up after Halloween and see what jumps out.
I’m already preparing myself for the let-down after the performances. It’s a double let-down. The event is past, and so there’s the classic post-vacation, post-party, post-partum funk. Then there’s also the disappointment I’ve felt before with the readings or the festivals I do, where I feel like I’ve written something good and the world was supposed to come knocking so they could produce it at Kennedy Center. When they don’t, I go through the typical artist’s hell, the flip-flopping between “I’m not good enough” and “how come nobody thinks I’m good enough,” a dog chasing its tail as these two meaningless extremes circle ‘round and ‘round.
But I’m prepared for that. Maybe I can sidestep it. And I have slightly different reasons for wanting this play out there. I’m angry about that boy. I know the play is not his story. I don’t know what his story was. But that just makes me angrier. At last, I feel the thing Fred Gaines talked about as his reason for writing plays. That it’s a social call. I still don’t exactly understand it or know if it will happen in that way again, but I wish Fred were still around so I could at least say, “I finally get it.”
Yesterday’s headache finally faded last night when we saw Chris Smither at Old Town. Fern and Frank called, last minute, to invite us. They had what is perhaps the best four-top at Old Town, table Z. It’s at the back, stage right, at the perfect sightline. The only one possibly better is right next to it—I meant to check but forgot. Perhaps it’s table Y? It has the advantage of being on the aisle, so there’s even more legroom.
Somehow I hadn’t appreciated Chris Smither before. I knew and liked a couple of his songs, but of course I’d never spent an evening with him. And to be sitting there with Fern, who is negotiating her sentence with such grace and wisdom and humor, it almost makes me jealous. No, it makes me feel I’ve got an example, a role model to follow if and when the C-bomb drops just when I’m planning a whole other set of adventures for myself and my best friend.
“What a kick in the teeth,” I remember her saying the first time we saw them after the diagnosis. I keep hearing that, as they navigate their choices and do things like treat friends to an evening of music. And now I have a whole new body of music to listen to and be inspired by.
Smither introduced one new song as “a classic blues progression that you’ve heard a thousand times. But I haven’t written one in a while, so…” That was the song that made me buy the album on iTunes this morning. There were easily a dozen that could have prompted the purchase, but this was the song I needed to hear again immediately.
It ain’t what I know that makes me blue
It’s what I thought I knew
After the concert, we waited for Fern and Frank to buy a CD and get it signed. I had on my new birthday boots and my new birthday coat and the felted wool fez I got in Dingle, back when we traveled instead of fixing up the house, and I felt the confidence of my matchiness. I saw Fern and Frank at the front of the line, talking to Smither, who had a big floppy grin on his face. What a great guy. I went up with my phone, a little late, as they started to move along for the next people in line. “Can I just get a picture?” I said, snapping away, secretly remembering the no-pictures announcement before the concert.
They all leaned in, and I got a nice shot to send my friends. “I love your hat,” said Smither. “It’s great, isn’t it?” I beamed, proud of myself for not blurting out, “I got it in Ireland!” My uncomfortable post-concert exchange with John Gorka a few months ago apparently taught me something. It’s so lovely to think that one is making progress.
Yesterday I did the first night ride of the year on my bike. I battled my fear almost the whole time. Every time I heard a car coming up behind me I would brieflyturn my head back, hoping that would help them notice me. I would hope the driver was the type of person who considered hitting me enough of a mistake or sin or inconvenience that they’d pass carefully by.
Faith had come over in the morning so Otto could play with Izzy. We watched the two dogs wrestle and I fed Django treats so she wouldn’t keep going over and breaking them up, which was amusing to me but not desirable when you’re trying to help your dog (Otto) recover from the loss of his pack leader so you set up play dates with dogs who actually play (Izzy, who’d been dropped off by Kismet on her way to work). Faith told me she rides her bike everywhere from Spring through Fall. She gave me advice on good bike streets – Damen, Wilson, Leland – and said night riding is her favorite. “Especially in the Fall, when the streets are quiet and the leaves above you are turning color…” It sounds poetic, but then there are the cars.
It’s not that I think the car wants to hurt me, it’s just that it can. It’s about status. A bike object is low status because it can be so easily hurt by a car object . But I can’t think like that. I have to remember that both are controlled by humans, who are equal status. So I rode my bike to the first rehearsal for Boy Small. The director, Emmi Hilger, let me stow my bike on her inside back porch so I didn’t even need to use my lock.
At rehearsal, Emmi had the actors read the script once, then she led a discussion of it. She has an uncanny sense for knowing what to ask and when to say nothing and how to gently guide people into speaking freely. Then she had them read the script again, with all they’d learned or confirmed or discovered. It was humbling. Because I’m already working with Emmi and one of the actors (the amazing Chris Popio) on the WTA piece, I was comfortable speaking just as myself, not trying to be what I think a playwright is supposed to be (silent and enigmatic). By telling what I am seeing in my head, I can learn how much is on the page. And I can learn what else is there that I haven’t even seen, which helps me go forward. I feel like I’ve lucked out in both these pieces, to have actors who are both powerful and nuanced performers and so insightful and articulate about character and all the little moments that connect into a play.
Faith has given me a worksheet she uses in developing a play. It forces you to state things like conflict and premise. Things I often avoid or resent because I want to work in the dark. I don’t want to commit to definites because I’m afraid either I won’t fulfill them or in fulfilling them I’ll miss an opportunity for something better. But the questions stay with me. What is the question the play is asking? How does the central character change? If I can be clear on these they will free me to ride. My power is that if this play fails I can just write another one. Try again, fail again, fail better, as Beckett said.
After rehearsal I rode home. Ainslie is another good street at night. Lots of speed bumps but not many cars. I rode over the bridge at Lawrence behind a guy on his bike, carrying a grocery bag. The only time I actually felt scared was when I realized that I’d just spent the last few moments enjoying the quiet dark and cool air so much that I’d forgotten to worry about speed bumps and cars and ambushes. I tried to make up for it by worrying harder in the moments ahead.