September 26, 2016 Writing from an airplane Clouds underneath me
Tone tone tone tone tone.
At the beginning of a script, you’re both making up the rules of the game and trying to play it. I find I have to hammer exactly the right words into place in the first ten to fifteen pages, if I want to lose myself in the process after that.
Sometimes that means I have to get really really quiet.
And listen to myself.
And listen to words.
And pull apart words. And listen carefully to nothing.
I’m almost there.
Found these little figurines at an antiques store just outside of Oxford, PA, during a weekend with my family. Felt such a visual, sensual thrill while browsing that store and its tchotchkes. I’m not typically one to connect deeply with antiquing – in most antique stores I’ve felt once removed, as if performing the enjoyment of browsing. As if walking through an advertisement of someone else’s good time. In this store, though, things got personal. They had light up Hess trucks, just like the ones my grandparents used to send me for Christmas. Beer steins, from the region of Germany I grew up in, made of glass and metal and painted inscriptions; drinking apparatuses to last a lifetime. There were train sets (a little pricey – alas)… one of them a freight car from the New Haven line, where I went to grad school. I slid the small door open. Closed. Open.
I thought: I want toys. Why don’t I have more toys? I am not a grown up. I am a writer. I want things to play with. My least favorite part of being a writer is the anti-sensuousness of laptops.
So I bought little people and a house and a cow and a sheep. Those are all the characters in my play.
They also had a miniature version of the 1964 Worlds Fair fountain in Queens. I broke my toe playing in that fountain. So I bought that too.
Every morning Gunter Grass kick-started his daily word ablutions with rolling on the ground. Arms extended, he would propel himself violently from side to side on his Persian carpet, yelling “huppah!” Early in his career, he also found Diet Coke to be an effective lozenge for his creative juices; later he preferred cookies with milk. Grass took great pains to never be distracted by the outside world when doing the difficult and dangerous work of writing. To this end, he would keep the blinds on his window drawn. Eventually, he took this six steps further, and blinded himself.
Susan Sontag held herself to an exacting writing routine. She would get up at 4.5 am, dance around to the Bangles in her Hello Kitty night shirt, get amped on several bowls of sugar cereal, do some acroyoga, and then sit quietly at her desk and get to it. She preferred no distractions. If a bird whistled outside, she would send her pitbull to eat it.
Hildegaard von Bingen was a self-professed flaneuse and carouser, who did her best to take the “writing” out of writing routine. She would begin her day by checking Facebook (sometimes upwards of several times a day), 5 a.m. dialing former flames who were in new relationships, and tweeting transcriptions of actual birdsong. She tried to honor a daily word goal of 25 words. Sometimes those were just Words With Friends. Between sex, drugs, drinking, and long walks in the woods, it’s a divine mystery how she got anything written ever.
I’m considering titling my play DIONYSUS WAS A VERY NICE MAN.
Bright Brooklyn sunshine, illuminating bare arms with flower tattoos on stylishly dressed freelance writer women
I am writing this play now. I started writing scenes a couple days ago and I forgot some things about how this tends to go at first. The writing so far (I can’t believe I’m telling you this) has the quaint but useless quality of twirling aimlessly in a field while hoping lightening will strike.
And don’t get me wrong, the lightening god sees what you’re doing. It is lying up there on a cloud, bored to the nines, waiting just waiting for some worthwhile mortal to light with bottomless curiosity about the great electric mystery. It sizes up your twirling. It thinks: meh? The lightening god is not going to summon all its power to bless the meh dancer.
You have to rise to meet it. You have to rev yourself up. You have to call yourself out on your shit when you are just half-writing at one-quarter strength.
You think writing a play is easy? No. You have to put all your attention, intelligence, and life force into it. And the only way to do that, I find, is by killing your censor.
I have the dumbest thoughts, most every day. Bla bla bla who are you to think you can do this bla bla bla other writers already exist bla bla bla you need a haircut bla bla Gunter Grass was a novelist and sculptor and illustrator and playwright and won the Nobel Prize what have you ever done?
To which I reply.
HEY, LIGHTENING GOD! HEY!
You wanna fight? Then get down here
With me In the ring
I will punch you in the nutsack if you try to talk to me like that I will teach you how to talk to a writer There are other snails, does that mean there should be no more snails? Oh, schoolboy logic, snap
I will school you on words, Jimmy You’re nothing without me
I made you
And I can call you Jimmy I’ve unmade bigger fish than you
I’ve unmade narwhals
And by the way Gunter Grass was in the Waffen SS when he was young AKA an elite Nazi And he didn’t admit it for 60 years
SO MAYBE SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE LIGHTENING GOD
BRING IT ON
IF YOU DARE
My journal often disintegrates into stuff like the above.
I find it tremendously useful and freeing. I need somewhere to be a lunatic.
I’d rather be unfettered than tentative.
Break down the self. The self is shallow, polite, and masking deep hostility and fear and inappropriate aggression and confusion and desire and longing and hope.
Watching the clouds. There’s a tuft of a puffy one that is separating, like a bit of thin, still-cooking egg white. The clouds give off an air of stillness except for this.
Saw a hummingbird this morning. Fireflies last night. The air is warm. It carries the choir of living things, which includes the yells of victorious corn hole players. The stars are brighter here than most places.
I often listen to music when I write, but these sounds are better.
I wish I was writing this week – this is a great place to write, this farm I’m at with my writer’s group. But I didn’t meet my research goals last week at the O’Neill. Some of the books couldn’t get there in time. This is also a great place to read, of course, and to stare at sheep.
I got to chat with Alan, who looks after them. These sheep don’t earn their keep. No birthing, no shearing, no hay rolling, no bringing the lambs to the slaughter. They’re more like pets. Alan talks at length with very little questioning, because he loves his subject. I lean against the fence and enjoy the sound of his voice. Three of the sheep are curious and venture closer, the rest are skittish. Later, I watched YouTube videos of more sheep, faraway sheep in Northern England, very well groomed and attractive sheep on attractive hills divided by attractive stone walls. What do I need to figure out before I write like my inner life depends on it? I think, just this: What season is my setting?
Oh no. It’s raining. Big unexpected drops.
I made a little tent for my laptop and me, out of my sweater. Let’s see how long this lasts.
I for a little while had a fantasy of being a completely seasonal writer, who writes things set in spring only during spring, etc. Maybe when I’m old and become Wendell Berry. Can playwrights become Wendell Berry? The calm of a naturalist’s mind is so different from the playwright’s, which is engaged in the design of conflict bombs. Skill as a dramatist is in large part just the skill of dragging any situation from good to worst.
Farmland: such interesting space, in between humans and wilderness. It’s the pastoral vase onto which we paint our dreams of leisure and self-sufficiency. It is also where I am pondering immortality, alcoholism, home, and the eternal philosophical / psychological problem of desire.
Ok, it is really raining now. The clouds cracked open. I tried hiding under a small wooden table but no dice.
I’m not sure any of these blog posts should be about anything more than being alive.
I’m in Connecticut, in residence at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference this month. This means several things. I am enveloped in a thick fog. Every morning I wake up and can smell the ocean. And: The totality of my energy is going toward working on my plays.
How much actual writing should you be doing as a playwright? Here are two wisdoms I’ve been handed down. From Sarah Ruhl: Write a play a year. From Paula Vogel: Work on two plays at a time. Have one in an early stage and the other in a late stage, so you’re using different muscles.
I have found these to be helpful cairns in my life. I’d like to offer a third wisdom, hard won.
Q: How much research should you be doing as a playwright?
A: Only as much as you schedule.
Guilt free research comes from setting aside time for it, and then honoring the time limits you’ve set. Don’t let research deceive you. Here are its lies: “I just want to help.” “You just need to read one more book.” Research has the ability to shapeshift at will into a black hole. So decide in advance how much time you will give it. I am setting aside some time this month for Wilma Commission reading. For me this means: A full week where I dig my heels into the sand and make reading my first priority. I may read one book per week in the weeks beyond that.
I asked the Literary Office at the O’Neill to find me a heaping list of books from the local libraries. I’ll only share the titles I’m most excited about with you:
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
Henry IV 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V by William Shakespeare
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
The Scapegoat by Rene Girard
Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides and Anne Carson
Do you now know exactly what I’m making?
I also need to schedule a visit to a sheep farm in August.
If you are reading this close to when I write it, you know that forty-nine people were just killed at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Another fifty-three were injured. Everyone I know is grieving and in pain. The persons attacked were mostly young, and latinx; it was a gay nightclub and undoubtedly a hate crime. Recent news reports suggest the shooter might have been struggling to accept his own natural proclivities (he had previously attended Pulse with entirely different intentions). He was likely consumed by self-loathing and shame.
It’s been a tremendously bad week in the news. I was already struggling with the injustice of the sentencing in the Stanford rape case, and with reports of twenty years of abuse toward women at Profiles Theater in Chicago. Talking about the former brought about a panic attack.
We are porous creatures, and on the regular we have to process large scale tragedies. They enter our bloodstreams. Between the news and the internet, everything that happens anywhere can feel immediately, viscerally present. We end up wrestling with fear, confusion, shock, anxiety – especially if we identify with the victims. This part is also true for all Americans: When I kiss my person good night, it is with the knowledge that anyone could walk into a nearby public space tomorrow, with a gun, and end one of our lives. For any reason. For no reason.
When I last saw Walter, he was searching for speakers on the subject of environmental activism in the age of the anthropocene. He mentioned there’s an idea circulating, among concerned agitators, that our next phase of activism on this matter might be mourning. A mourning that does not preclude further actions, but which does acknowledge this big picture: we might have already lost.
I can’t type that last sentence without feeling anger, resentment, frustration, despair, disgust, and disappointment.
So, what to do?
Emotions are built to lead us to action.
This can lead to great, modest, or terrible behavior.
There will always be people struggling with negative emotions.
They will naturally want to take some sort of action to express those emotions.
We make it really easy for that action to be legally purchasing a military grade assault rifle.
Here’s my own personal Quick and Handy Guide to Activism:
1. Take Care Of Yourself
2. Love and Be Loved
3. Determine What You Want To Do (as always, set Smart, Actionable Goals)
4. Do That
You can’t skip steps 1 or 2.
Sending my love to every queer person everywhere.
“Hungarian folkdance is very sexy and dangerous,” says Blanka.
I have been thinking about feet lately.
Now I am observing Csaba Horvath’s feet. He has launched right into the dance steps, without preamble. He calls it “a kind of tap dance.” It goes: One and two and three three three. Tap and tap and foot hits calf.
In short order, the company of Wilma HotHouse actors becomes a footloose Hungarian village, inhabiting the world of Blood Wedding. This is a Monday, and like most Mondays, the HotHouse has gathered to host guest artists and try out new ideas from practitioners who delve into the physical. Csaba will be working with them all week. No one really knew what he was going to do. “ We have no idea what he is going to do,” says Blanka, happily, in her introduction. It is a testament to the courage and trust in this community that everyone jumps right in, regardless.
There is downward and upward force to the movement. Strength is culled from the ground.
Someone told me Csaba Horvath used to terrorize students at A.R.T. so I was expecting a temperamental beast. In actuality, he has jetlag, a quiet sense of humor, and a gentle but focused monk-like demeanor. He is in an all gray outfit, with overly long, loose dance pants that were either mosquito bitten into frayed ends or destroyed by regular devotions of stomping.
It would be such a thrill to put a whole village onstage. To have them dance like that. If I weren’t a playwright I’d want to be a dancer. Or a journalist. Or a painter. Theater is of course, all of those professions. I watch the actors, jot down potential constellations for casting. I think about diversity and pairings. I ponder economics. I wonder if I could sneak some village dance scenes into my play. Could the Wilma afford that? Would the play ever get produced elsewhere? I have no conclusions.
Except for maybe this one: No shoes. No shoes for actors.
You know how we live in a culture where clothing and behavior is gendered, and women have been assigned high heels? I lament this. Choice here is a joke. Yes, standing on tiptoe can be fun – I have enjoyed starry nights in college, wearing heels while riding my trusty bicycle. Hard femme. Stilts are also nice, have you tried stilts? I just ask: what happens when you mistake the costume for your self?
Heels are still an expectation. Women were turned away at Cannes when they didn’t wear heels. At the cinema, a woman in heels tried to outrun a dinosaur.
Being grounded. Having both feet on the ground. If someone wanted to maim female power I can’t think of a better way than by expecting we all stand on tiptoe and balance on a stick. Perhaps we could strap dead fish to our feet. Perhaps that would be worse. But no, dead fish are cool and soft.
I’ve seen several folk dances now that make use of bare, stomping feet as a way of awakening lower body energy and strength. I surmise: Rooted feet -> stronger awareness of one’s own needs -> greater assertiveness -> less self-objectification -> listening to your body -> better female orgasms -> happier village all around.
Stomp stomp stomp.
Cobblers, feel free to come up with new options for fancy female footwear, and I’ll scheme about how to sneak some dancing into my play.
May 22, 2016
Mostly recovered from bronchitis.
Weather: rain, still rain. I am so tired of the rain.
I thought this yesterday, while lying in bed.
(plucking apart a flower)
He loves me
He loves me not
He loves me
He loves me not
I walk by here everyday
And find you sitting on this rock
Beheading the hollyhocks.
Who has captured your heart so?
I just want to know
If He has forsaken me.
She plucks another petal.
I don’t like sitting down to write a play until I have too much material. Until I’ve crammed my internal organs with enough matter for several plays. Generally for me this is a combination of reading and life experience. The reading keeps it about more than myopia, while the life experience makes me tell it like it’s personal. Sometimes, of course, it is personal. Sometimes I think a good playwright is just a diarist and a liar.
Of course, if you slip into something too personal it becomes nearly impossible to tell. You need some emotional distance to keep the thing a game. Metaphor helps. Writing very fast helps too.
So I gather and I gather and I stew and then when the time is right, I write very fast.
I already know some things about the play I will write for the Wilma because it has been stewing in me for some time. I wrote a first draft of a first act a couple years ago. It was wrong. The language was wrong, the story was wrong; I wasn’t ready and writing it was like pulling my own teeth. I probably won’t look at that draft again.
But memory has a way of telling you what was important, and there are images, which I remember, that were right. There was an angry father. There were isolated shepherds. There was the countryside. There was Oedipus, and questions of belonging brought up by foundlings. There was drinking, partying, loving life, self-destruction, self-destruction masked as loving life, anger, and family.
Do you like plays about families? That’s kind of the American playwright’s specialty. I really think we overdo it. We’re always writing those, as well as plays about two couples sorting out some big problem over drinks in a living room. Why is that? Why do we privilege these forms?
I sometimes wonder if literary managers read things in this shape and then think, unconsciously, “Oh yes that looks like what plays have looked like for a while so it must be a good play, let’s do it.” Or maybe they just truly adore those plays. Or they think their audiences do. I don’t know – but these are the plays that get done the most and it can feel like pressure to conform. For people who fall outside mainstream conventions, it can also feel like a way to package your story in a non-threatening way, and/or to reassure yourself you too are normal.
It is possible, of course, that I just don’t want to write about family, not directly, because it scares me and is too painful and personal. It is possible that I don’t want to write plays set in living rooms because I have a built-in aversion to the domestic. Touché, realists. But also, guys, look at what happened to O’Neill. He was not ok.
In any event, I have reconciled myself to this American obsession with “the family play” by using the family as a metaphor for talking about the American political system. I did that with THUNDERBODIES and I’ll probably do it again with this play. The hierarchies and struggles for power that exist on the national scale are ones that play themselves out in our private homes, too. They also manifest themselves in our religious imaginations.
The Rise of Trump makes me reflect, urgently, on democracy and tyranny, force and manhood.
I never write charismatic, dominant men. I think it’s time I do.
Yesterday at Happy Laundromat, coming out of the rain and into a conversation with my beau, I was blasted by an extraordinary gust of lover’s fear. My hands were shaking. My heart was a drunken bee. I worked hard to appear: fine. To anyone not wielding the microscope of intimacy, I appeared: fine. But if you peered at my innards, you would know that in that little moment, I was a terrible opera.
Beware the enormity of love.
I did not understand my feeling. I went home and tried to “sit with it,” as they say, on the Great Advice Column that is The Internet. So I did nothing, for a very long while. I pressed my hand against my heart. I waited. I prayed. (To whom or what, I don’t know. That’s another matter.) I watched the light on the wall. Eventually, a tiny misunderstanding was unearthed. Eventually the feeling transformed. Eventually it passed back into the territory of pleasure. While I endured it, however, it felt relentless.
And I thought: I want to share that, that trial by ordeal, with an audience; I want to write a relentless scene that pulls you through a gathering storm, keeps going longer than you think you can take it, and then drops you off at the unexpected next stop, mirth.
In classical drama, we watch characters try to ply one another with rhetoric. We watch and sometimes forget – their real designs are on us, the quiet watchers.
The last time I was blasted by an attempted lover’s persuasion was watching a scene from Dominique Serrand’s Tartuffe, while the company was still in rehearsal. They rehearsed in the basement of the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis. In a cheerful room with tiny chairs and paper garlands, Tartuffe laid out, with tongue and touch, his sinister desires on Elmire, Orgon’s wife. The room was too small for that much treachery. I was among the only audience. I was intimately engaged. I wanted to reach out and stop them.
There will be lovers in my play, I can promise you that.
Their arguments and actions will be, at times, uncomfortable. I want to torture you. This is art not commerce.
I want you to sit with the scene and your feelings until some small bough inside you breaks, until your hard-earned daily resistance collapses, until you pass through who you thought you were into a glorious field. Here, all your words are being washed clean in an effervescent brook. Here, all your feelings are hanging upside down among the clouds. Here is… love.
Why do I write?
To wake us both up.
I am often sleeping.
What is Pleasure?
Is it Serious?
Where Does It Belong In A Play?
How Long Can You Sit in Discomfort, In The Dark?
Check in next fortnight; let’s talk about democracy and tyranny.
Crossing into Philly, there are rowers on the river.
I think of Thomas Eakins –
… and I’m reminded how inspiring it feels, every time, to leave a routine.
Routine is the enemy in Chris Bayes’ work. Chris was my clown and commedia dell’arte teacher at Yale.* We have two days in a basement rehearsal room with him. The lights are a little dim. Dim lights aren’t as funny as bright lights. Oh well. We can’t rehearse in the laundry room, so everyone will just have to be a little less funny today.
We stand in a circle and Blanka introduces Chris as a major influence on my work. It’s true. I proposed we kick of our process with a visit from Chris because I want to make a big, tragic & funny play for The Wilma. Something terrible and epic. I will need unabashed actors for that. Actors who inhabit their bodies fearlessly and their emotions playfully. This workshop should help me 1) begin to get to know the Wilma actors. 2) Start to build a shared artistic vocabulary with them. In addition, 3) I find new inspirations every time I physically participate in this work. I am happy to see Blanka and Walter are participating as well.
Shake out your body, find your happy body, shed your socialized self. Do not walk at that steady rhythmic pace! That pace is the walk of the bored commuter. That is the slow and steady march toward death.
This is who your clown is: You, just you, if you had never been told to behave, tone it down, or reign it in. Skipping stones along the great ocean of your feelings. Trying to match the grandeur of the cosmos with the expressive potential of your voice and leg.
Chris talks to the actors about how he is most interested in the unexplored corners of their craft. Not the parts of their talent that they lead from. Your strengths are admirable, but they are your comfort zones.
Because we have been socialized into gendered creatures, Chris pushes us outside the dull confines of ladylike and manly. If you are a woman and you come out all polite and quiet, he yells at you. “Don’t come out here like a little mouse! Be a dragon!” Or, a compliment: “That’s great, when you’re yelling at the curtain and being vaguely vulgar like that.” He also strips away at male toughness, that great defense. Underneath you’ll usually find tears, songs, and something very truthful.
Last time I did this work with Chris, I didn’t understand some of the gendered exploration. I asked myself – is that all clown is? Subverting the audience’s superficial expectations of me, based on the body I was born into?
Now I understand this exploration is just the first part of strengthening your comic muscles. Ultimately, your softness and your rudeness are both yours to claim. A great comedic actor needs access the most vulgar and most delicate sides of their self. Freedom is being able to express and own the beauty of your shyness, and that of your anger, too. We are all mice and dragons. We’ve just forgotten how to be both.
We laugh at energy, truth, and the unexpected. Be too much, we are reminded by this contact with our clown selves. It’s less easy on the rest of us, if you take up space.
*The first workshop I took with Chris was actually in 2007, at the Kennedy Center, the summer I took my vows as a playwright.