The Perpetual Scrub…

—From EF—

Tomorrow there’s a party, Sunday, and I’m getting ready. Got lotsa good stuff for antipasto, check, marinated and cut into chunks and spiced, yes. Cleaned the bathrooms, OK on that front. Kitchen will wait for tomorrow, after doing the prep cooking. CB has run around with the Webster, removing the diligence of the last half-year’s spiders. Stuff that needs cooking, the spicy drumettes and the Italian roasted potatoes, that will wait for tomorrow.

So here I am on my knees in the dining room, with six or seven scrubbing tools, trying to remove the ground-in remnants of clay from the sculpture of the King Lear puppets. CB spread layers of newspaper on the floor to contain the debris, but his sculpture station at the far end of the dining table found ways to burrow.

Our floor in that room is big terra-cotta tiles, and in the summer it’s a godsend because the chill of the night remains through the day. But the terra-cotta tiles are not a smooth surface, and I suspect that the terra-uncotta crumbs felt a mission to join their cotta tiles in perpetuity. I have been scrubbing that floor for three years, and the clay crumbs and stains are as ground-in as ever.

I am of the opinion that party guests are not going to be staring at the floor. This is not exactly a survival priority, to get the tiles clean. But it’s something that has been bugging me for a long time, and so this work is a birthday gift to myself. I am going to reclaim the goddamn floor.

After two hip replacements, I am finally good with going down onto my knees. I have assembled a dishpan of PineSol, a big metal scrub-brush, a small metal brush, a huge wiping sponge, and some sort of space-age scrubber that actually doesn’t do shit.

After a series of failed attacks, I find what combination seems to work, and I get the acne-ridden area clear. A bonus is that it replaced the gym session I skipped this morning.

The take-away is that I gave myself a gift, righting a wrong, balancing an imbalance. I hated sweeping and mopping the dining room and still seeing a big area of schmutz. Now I accept my gift, and see a clear floor of beautiful big tiles, and say thank you.

—From CB—

Some writers have distinct styles, others a nexus of themes around which they do the hokey-pokey or a war dance. I’ve never been able to do that. Our work is all over the map, always has been.

Partly, perhaps, as it was born in theatre, first with adaptations of classics, then scripting short sketches for our touring ensemble, only much later writing in the realistic mode most actors are trained in. And of course working in collaboration with my mate, a creature of many personae, has its effect. I’m hijacked by stories, sometimes characters, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and as far as I can tell, there’s not much in common, thematically, between Sir Francis Drake or Marie Antoinette at one extreme, and the taxi driver who wants to start a steel mill at the other. Except perhaps for their human capacity for vision and self-deception—but that’s like saying I write specifically about human beings who breathe.

Moving into prose fiction hasn’t brought unity to our endeavors. It’s only multiplied the multiplicity—perhaps because with a short story we don’t have to memorize the lines and assemble props and sell tickets, we just type it and send it out to a concentration camp, a.k.a. literary journal. You just crank’em out and plead for somebody to read’em.

Right now, the projects include: (a) next draft of a short story about a Shakespeare festival atop an underground conflagration; a novella on a sit-com morphing into a horror show; a flash-fiction about standing in line; a novel about the imminent death of the human race (granted, a tiresome subject); and a clown show about survival—our only theatre piece in process. The only thing linking all this stuff is that it’s obsessing me, plus maybe some laughs and quirks of phrase here and there. These will all be completed: I can’t bring a character into the world and leave him sprawled on the keyboard. He’s got to get up, brush off the metaphors, and finish doing the dishes.

I wonder sometimes if birthing these babies is a way to avoid the imperative Know Thyself. In fact I know a lot about myself, especially the stuff I dislike, and it worms its way into the writing. For me, I guess, writing isn’t “self-expression”—whatever personal elements are there, it’s getting outside the strait jacket of self, trying to wrap my arms around the rest of the human race and crow, “Brother in folly, sister in hope, cousin in mortality!”

Sometimes I get there.

###

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Intensity…

—From EF—

Greetings, Mr. Warner –

In a little over a week, I’ll have my 77th birthday, a lucky number in some traditions. While you know me only as a file, # 156-40-304978, you’ve been very kind in providing me with facts that the law allows me to know. When you have a minute, let me tell you some things that aren’t in the file …

I wrote this letter to the man in the NY State Dept. of Health who helps those adopted in New York State find what the law permits them to know about their bloodlines and their heritage. Most adoptions are done through licensed agencies, and there is a lot available about the parents’ ethnicity, age, health, occupation, marital status, etc. By law, adoptees are entitled to everything that is “non-identifying information.” This rules out names, addresses, and anything that might help you search, but there’s usually a lot left over.

It was my misfortune to have been adopted and handed over through private channels, arranged before my birth, and my file doesn’t have much in it. Mr. Warner had to tussle with the Brooklyn judge in charge for years before he, as a state official, could have access to my records, but he fought the good fight.

It’s long been a mystery to me how a childless couple living in Chicago, later in the Indiana countryside, connected with Mary Fuller to negotiate adopting the baby she would have, given that I was born in Brooklyn. I know, that doesn’t necessarily mean begotten in Brooklyn, but it’s a place to start. In a letter from my dad to my mom, while Mary was still carrying me, he said, “Dearest do what you like about sending the check to the New York minister. I think it is very important however that you take no chances on this girl finding out who you are.” I gather that a church must have played some part.

 I’d assumed Mary was a teenager, but I found that she was actually 23 when I was born, and that her lover was 29. That’s absolutely all I know about them.

I was always told I should be grateful to Nurse Larson, “who found you.” M. Burneice Larson ran a very prestigious medical placement agency in the Chicago Loop, five blocks from where my adoptive father worked as an executive for the American Meat Institute. I can’t imagine what circumstance caused their paths to cross, but obviously they did. She was of their age cohort, born in 1895 (my mother, 1892, father 1899). By coincidence, possibly meaningless, Mabel Burneice (odd spelling) was born in the Michigan UP, as was my mother. Scandinavians stick together.

I’ve been searching for decades, and a few years ago I thought I came up lucky. I found an English/Irish immigrant family in Manhattan—two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I always thought Mary must have had an important Elizabeth in her life, because she went against the norm in giving me a first name before giving me up. By custom, I would have been “baby girl Fuller,” but the Brooklyn register put it right out there, “Elizabeth Fuller.” I dug like a demon and found out a whole lot about the Fullers, probably some things their living descendants were unaware of. I thought I’d found my folks. When I made contact, they said, “Sorry. No way.” Then I had a DNA test.

My DNA ancestry test reveals me to be primarily French and German, with only small amounts of British, Irish, and Scandinavian. Then I remembered a very vivid past dream of looking at a map of Europe, specifically where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet. On the map I saw a dot labeled “Fuller’s Earth,” but since I’d not yet had my DNA test I paid little attention, other than to giggle at the pun (fuller’s earth is a type of clay used in processing wool).

 That made it easier for me to let this family go. No, I’m not 50/50 English/Irish. But I came from somewhere.

 Where did I get my music, which started leaking from my pores at an early age? How about my unusual memory, my tinker’s mechanical gifts, and the quirk that had me reading when I was three or four? Those things aren’t evident in Conrad’s background, but some of it passed on to our kids.

 I’d like to find my tribe, and I’d like to have my kids know the hidden stories of their inner selves. I’m still looking. But in the meantime I’m giving thanks to Mr. Warner.

—From CB—

I’m butt ignorant when it comes to music. I know only enough to know how much I don’t know. I even have a hard time listening intently for more then thirty seconds unless I’m dancing or waving my arms around: I have to do something with it. Maybe that’s why people become conductors: they’re the only ones in the symphony hall allowed to wave and hop around.

All of which is preface to reporting that this week I listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony twice—in separate movements while walking home, at the gym, or baking muffins. I found it intensely moving. Commemorating the 1906 revolution, it’s very programmatic—quiet protest, slaughter, grieving, outbreak—and one critic called it “film music without the film,” pretty accurate, I guess. But it’s one helluva film.

As I get older and fustier, I also become thirstier for strong emotion in art. I don’t mean the display of emotion; I mean taking the risk of evoking real feeling, whether it’s tragic empathy or horror or belly laughs. The creation whose function mainly is “innovation” or to “make people think” leaves me cold. I might well appreciate its gourmet skill, its tonal colors, its good intentions or its snark, but that’s like being served sushi when you really want chicken & dumplings. Not that I always want chicken & dumplings, but in the years that still remain to me, I want strong tastes.

Sometimes conceptualism or minimalism or abstraction will do that. If the level of obsession is high enough, as with Steve Reich’s endless progression through time with the slightest variations, it can be very moving. Part of our audiences’ intense response to our King Lear, I imagine, comes simply from the spectacle of two old actors riding the Brahma bull for a hundred minutes without perishing.

For me, it’s not a matter of going for emotion per se. It’s emotion that’s intense and honest. It’s not novelty or political relevance or hipness that makes the minutes or hours spent with Shakespeare or Rembrandt or William Kentridge or Bruce Connor worth expending, in their presence, my brief time on Earth: it’s their deepening my gut feeling of what it is to be human.

###

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Aquifers & Expectations. . .

—From EF—

Aquifers

Last night I performed four poems from memory as part of the lavish annual event known as “Rumi’s Caravan” and it was a fraught but joyous experience. Fraught, because I am not yet fully recovered from a nasty bronchial episode that involves a lot of disgusting and noisy hacking up of goo, and also because in my typical fashion I only chose and started memorizing texts a week ago.

Lavish, because people with seemingly unlimited access to gorgeous fabrics, oriental rugs, batik tablecloths, and Middle-Eastern-styled attire began work at 8 AM to transform the stage at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts into a gorgeous mystical feast for a large and appreciative audience.

There was an introductory invocation via the most extraordinary huge gong I’ve ever heard, coaxed into multiple heavenly voices (think whales and angels) by the man who knows its soul, and it was as ecstatic as the best “trip” I’ve ever had.

Then came the poetry, five of us for each act, done in the style of Quaker meeting — unscheduled, spontaneous, each responding to its predecessor after a brief silence for absorption. An amazingly sensitive duo of tabla and hybrid guitar-sitar provided a responsive and supportive musical underlay to the spoken words. Memory and breath control didn’t fail me while I spoke, and the audience response was fulsome.

We’ve had steady rain here in NorCal for a while, and except for the violent storms a month ago, it’s been gentle and good for the aquifers. I can almost hear a humming of satisfaction from Gaia, as her thirst is slaked. Rumi’s Caravan did a similar thing for what I call my Aquifer of Joy. It’s suffered a lot of drought recently, and I’m grateful for this filling.

I think there’s a difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure greens the grass and fills the streams and then runs out to the sea. Joy sinks deep into the earth and fills the unseen reservoirs. I am grateful for this replenishment.

—From CB—

Expectations. I’ve said that my chronic low expectations of the human race have stood me in good stead. Whatever shit happens, I could have imagined something worse; when something good, it’s like an unexpected legacy. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Other heads work differently. Envision what you desire, some friends will say. I can’t argue with that, though envisioning and expecting are two different things. I don’t believe that envisioning the best brings it about, nor does envisioning the worst. It’s action that feeds the dog or hangs it.

Some of our plays have been dark and horrible, others comedies, and some of the comedies evoke a grim laughter. To me, there are always more than two sides to an issue. I see two guys fighting on the corner, then a truck jumps the curb and hits them both. Life is a high-risk investment.

If the above doesn’t quite track for metaphorical consistency, ah well. Its spur: to explore my own reaction to the Election and what’s followed. I can’t say expected it, but I wasn’t surprised. Years ago, a performance artist smeared chocolate on herself while spouting hot polemic. The question then was, “Was it Art?” and “Should the government fund it?” The same might be asked of our current performance artist.

Yet while I intellectually share the horror of my fellow humanists, I can’t feel the Armageddon lure that moves me to a therefore. As in, Therefore, I won’t eat or drink or work or love until he’s impeached, or Therefore, I’ll never acknowledge the validity of our electoral system by casting a vote, or Therefore, let’s screw the Democrats. I’m a radical in my head, but I’d be a drag on anyone’s crusade.

I’ll continue envisioning manna on the meadows, but I’ll expect cat shit on the patio. Anything in between is a plus.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Timing. . .

—From EF—

It’s all in the timing, they say. I was watching deep ocean swells come flying to the beach to crash—yeah, all in the timing. Some would arrive with a deeply satisfying whoomp and an ornate quiff of white lace; others would, well, just arrive and gurgle for a bit.

I watched their timing. There was no predictable formula, but for each one it was clearly critical how their height, speed, and arrival time confabulated with the unseen architecture of the ocean floor to produce the visible effect. A moment sooner, a moment later, and everything would be different.

That’s how comedy works. You play a comic beat to build the laughter slowly, but you don’t give the audience the release cue until the pressure is nearly unbearable. Then you get a whopper of a belly-laugh. If you release a moment too soon or too late, you don’t get that whopper.

Or if you keep releasing too frequently, the pressure doesn’t build, and you get a series of titters or giggles. That’s friendly, but not deeply satisfying. Let’s not get into how you give the audience the “NOW” signal, that’s another riff, but we have our ways.

I look at this and realize that I’m describing how attuned lovers play each other like instruments. I’m not sure if comics make the best lovers, because so much of their work is solo, but hey, that works too.

We just went to a real movie theatre to see Moonlight and loved it. The final scene has been building for the whole film, and every fiber of my being was waiting for that final release. It held and it held and it held, and about the time I was about to go on strike, there it went. Damn, that felt good. Not all directors have the courage to push it to the limit, but when it works, it really works.

As progressive agitators, let us remember that.

—From CB—

In keeping with my fiction-writing obsession, I’ve enrolled in a five-week writing class in San Francisco, Saturdays 3-5:30pm, first session yesterday. It’s promising.

First assignment was to say three things about ourselves: two true, one false. For me it was: I’m an actor and playwright. (True.) I once broke a frozen cat in half. (True, though it might have been only the tail—third grade, long time ago, hard to remember.) I was born in Yakima, by accident. (False: I was born in Denver; the accident part was true, referring to the fact that my mother was planning to follow my father to Yakima.)

We were then asked to take any one of those statements—our own or others—as inspiration to write for three minutes. I spun out the start of a comic riff based on someone’s brief career refurbishing classic video games. I don’t expect it’ll be our next novel, but it had a few good lines and an interesting pushy brother-in-law.

A quick three minutes of writing doesn’t make a writer, but I gleaned several things from it. First, a glimpse of how writers who’ve written hundreds, maybe thousands of stories manage to do it: they start with the first thing that pops into the head and then follow where that leads. Discomfort indeed, like hopping on the first bus that comes and letting it take you where it will, perhaps to an entirely different life—to a rock concert, to a terrorist training camp, or to Kansas. And secondly, a reminder of what I already knew, that “free writing,” like theatrical improvisation or panning for gold, can produce a pile of irrelevant dreck but with luck a few nuggets you couldn’t find any other way.

Coming home, the bus was a half-hour late. I might have hopped another bus, but I wanted to get home.

###

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

St. Joan & Leon. . .

—From EF—

There are those who see things so clearly that they become visible to everyone. It beggars belief that Joan of Arc could mobilize the French and defeat the English, but she did. A teen-age peasant girl with cropped hair and limitless faith, leading men twice her size and twice her age.

We have a friend who is filming his marionette Joan, a project many years in the making. We saw some of the footage, unedited, and it is stunning. When she sees Saint Michael, you know that he’s only in her mind, but still he’s there, and you catch your breath.

Joan sees, believes, and takes us with her. Steven, her creator, has worried and gnawed and revised this story over the years, and now his own vision embraces Joan and takes us with her.

We are here in his house because today we will attend the funeral of Leon Katz, who died Tuesday at the age of 97. We had no sooner returned from our Southwest tour than we learned the news, climbed into the Prius and headed back to Los Angeles to pay respects.

Farewell? No. Joan has been ashes for centuries, but she is still real. As long as her story is told, as long as there are artists like Steven to remind us, that overpowering vision is as powerful as ever.

Leon is like that. He’s a lighthouse, tall, powerful, blazing, and the moment you close your eyes you still see the flame. He took millennia of theatre, the stories of us and of our ancestors, and made them tangible and indelible. If these words could be erased like a website, we would lose much of our soul, but Leon and Steven won’t allow that.

Rumi said,

“Go up on the roof at night
In the city of the soul

Let Everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!”

—From CB—

As a writer, you have to believe in the power of words. Dots on the page or puffs of air, they can give birth to the embrace of love or bombs from the sky or the interstate highway system. When it comes to the death of a friend, though, you can find that your tongue’s numb and the keys are gone mute on your laptop. Whatever comes forth, from the great need of something coming forth, sounds like baby babble.

Leon Katz is dead. He was 97. Secondarily, he was a playwright, director, dramaturg and scholar. Primarily, he was a teacher. Always, he was a friend. After an extended stay at Vassar, he said, he resolved never to remain at one school long enough for the sense of permanence to grab him, and he faithfully modeled the peripatetic. We encountered him at Stanford, where I attended his seminars, we performed in his adaptation of The Possessed, and he acted the role of Saul in my production of D.H. Lawrence’s David. His performance was unforgettable, despite a hideous struggle to learn lines—an object lesson that brilliant minds differ in their capacities.

Later, we re-encountered him in 1969 at a performance of The Living Theatre, and he brought our puppet staging of Macbeth to Pittsburgh around 1979. Since then, we’ve visited many times, most recently in L.A. a few years back, always with that odd combination of gracious hosting and instant plunge into rabid, spirited dialogue on theatre, politics, and life.

You always felt that you were a uniquely beloved friend and that your work was, above all, important to him, while you knew that you were one among a vast network of ex-students and colleagues who saw him as a unique force of … what?…exploration? His gift as a teacher was to respond vehemently to the human heart of a piece of work, whether a Greek tragedy or a melodramatic potboiler like The Castle Spectre. His lectures were those of a man who lived the literature, not as examples of a period or genre but as documents of souls struggling hard to be born.

His own plays included some of the blackest and most scatalogical I’ve ever read, though his most popular was an adaptation of the Italian commedia The Three Cuckolds—the purest delight. From conversation, one gleaned very little of the details of his life, and certainly there were some very dark ventricular alleyways in his heart. I’m sure he left some people with scars: who does not?
In his office, there was shelf upon shelf of materials of a life-long scholarly work on Gertrude Stein that, well into his nineties, he was struggling to finish. I’d be surprised if he ever did, but on our last visit, I joked that the guilt was probably keeping him alive. So in fact he may have written the final line.

A few glimmers of memory:

* His speaking of Lear as the greatest journey in literature, and saying why.
* His deep cynicism: that progressive politics were hopelessly doomed, yet avowing that if we didn’t continue the struggle as if success were possible, we were simply less than alive.
* His honesty in critique: always respectful, yet as concrete as if he himself had an equal stake in the work.
* His statement that, as a teacher, his goal was always to broaden one’s views, not to shrink them. He loved Claudel’s The Satin Slipper, despite the fact, he said, that Claudel himself was a vile bigot: in teaching it, his goal was to open students to its beauty, not to the prune soul of its author.
* His chastising me, in a seminar, for calling the text of a Greek tragedy a “script.” He was right in detecting a whiff of youthful condescension in my vocabulary, but in 50 years’ retrospect I could argue validly that the classics we read today were only the scripts of much fuller theatrical events. I wish we could have had that debate.

All this, of course, being the thoughts of an old man (75) grieving the death of an older man (97), over the basin-and-range horizon of the years. The phrase that comes to mind, amplifying Dylan Thomas:
“Rage, rage against—and wonder at—the dying of the light.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In Phoenix. . .

—From EF—

We did our final performance in Phoenix, took the set down and packed everything into the car, then had a day off. Laundry and grocery shopping beckoned. I got a recommendation that boded well for doing both things at the same location, and it was amazing.

The laundromat was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Huge, dazzlingly clean, with an amazing set of choices. Six different sized washers from single load up to truckload size, each with many clear choices of temperature and agitation, and a simple read-out of what the cost would be. My little single load, cold wash, would cost $1.25 and take 30 minutes. I fed it quarters and headed for the Rancho Market next door.

Dear lord. Ceviche, guacamole, white cheese, four different kinds of fresh tortillas (finally, a chance to get’em made with lard), an enormous wall totally devoted to cheese, another of fresh floppy sausages, a city block of fresh veggies, and all the usual stock of meats and canned goods. I was a happy Anglo floating in Hispanic heaven, surrounded by families having a very good time.

After getting a tub of the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted, a rotisserie chicken, 10 flour tortillas, a package of sliced turkey breast and a bunch of green onions (tomorrow’s provisions for a full day’s drive), I went back to the laundromat. I’ve never thought of a laundromat as a jovial community place, but live and learn. Cute kids, buxom moms, dads doing the family wash on their own, nobody squabbling or squalling. I could get used to this.

Now, a night’s sleep and then off to Albuquerque and Taos, staying with dear friends in both places, having made new dear friends in Phoenix. I won’t say it won’t be a delight to settle down before our bedroom fireplace at home and then hit the king-sized bed, but right now what we’re living is a very good life in the ever-changing present moments.

—From CB—

Touring. We’ve had years when it was extreme and intense, others, as now, when it’s confined to two to six weeks out a few times a year. I’ve always said that I liked it, but it’d be more accurate to say that I’m compelled to it. For that matter, do I really enjoy acting or writing or creating art? No. I’m compelled to it, and while there’s indeed a satisfaction in hearing response to it and in its completion, nothing ever feels complete.

There are moments in the process when I feel caught in a current that’s taking me, in my sleek kayak, where I want to go. More often, it’s a swim against the current or trapped in a squalid eddy. It’s grunt work, and you don’t do it for the enjoyment: you do it for the questionable result.

Questionable at every stage. The obvious questions of course: How do we get an audience? Who really cares? Do people understand the Edmund plot? Where did we pack the Fool’s nose? But if your show is in repertory, continuing over months or years, you seek a creative bedevilment in deeper questions, and if those questions run out, you might as well put the show down as you do a derelict dog. In that case it would be a mercy to the audience—in my view, a show that isn’t growing, when the actors are no longer discovering, is merely a prancing corpse.

The other day, a friend asked, “Why did you choose Lear?” By this time I’d answered that question dozens of times, and I trotted out two or three of the answers. But after expounding the same-old, I surprised myself by saying, “But when we started working on it, none of that was in my head.” The starting point is simply being grabbed by an obsession to take the journey. The story is the journey. The work is in the process of discovering why we’re doing the work.

Back to the starting point, namely touring, which has diverse functions. It gets us out of the gopher holes we tend to migrate into when we’re home. We see old friends, meet new ones, eat a lot, drink a lot, talk a lot. We rediscover the show. With luck, we make some money. We see mountains and rivers and clouds and in Arizona lots and lots of cactus. And we have numerous occasions to curse driving—always better than cursing politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From the Southwest. . .

—From EF—

Damn, this is a big country. We dribbled down from Sebastopol to Topanga Canyon (near Santa Monica), thence to San Diego, and are at the moment in Tucson headed for Phoenix. We were running ahead of the big rainstorm and suffered only a few minor splats as we loaded out after our first performance. It was odd to be in warm sunlight seeing Facebook photos of our home territory awash. Big problems back home, and we’d never have known but for the miracle of the internet.

Driving toward Tucson on the I-8, we were suddenly swamped by an hysterical army of crazy speeding cars sporting flashing lights and howling sirens. It appeared that every border patrol and cop car in southeastern California was needed immediately somewhere up ahead of us, and, boy, did they raise hell with the orange cones that were protecting the road workers. Talk about steroidal driving . . . and we never did find out where they went, or why.

And today there have been many mystifying reports of something to do with Trump and peeing. We are out of the wifi loop most of the time, and so far have not been able to form a coherent impression of what the hell is going on.

Meanwhile, we have been eating good food, drinking decent wine, having many soul-satisfying conversations, hugging a lot of people, and taking a gorgeous hike up Sabino Canyon. The deluge, the screaming cops, Trump’s pee, none of it has touched us directly. We’re not trying to be ignorant of the carnival, it’s just not having a tangible effect. Yet.

We have work to do, places to go, words to keep writing, and eventually we’ll find out what was going on while we were doing that. In the meantime, ignorance may not be bliss, but it feels pretty nice.

—From CB—

After 47 years writing for the theatre, our new fiction-writing career is barreling ahead like an eighteen-wheeler with its brakes jammed, skidding on a frozen freeway. An overblown metaphor but fairly apt. We’ve had five stories published in tiny magazines, another twenty making the rounds; we’ve self-published one novel, with minimal sales though effusive comments from friends, and have four others out there to agents & small-press publishers, with a good start on the ton of rejections you’re supposed to get before you hit it big. Our story “Sleeves to Turkey” was named “best fiction” at last spring’s Santa Barbara Writers Conference and has currently had about 30 rejections. Right now, we’re in the early stages of a sixth novel and a twenty-sixth short story.

I’ve mentioned before that writing fiction is like playing King Lear in a huge & totally empty auditorium, hoping that in the response of a nonexistent audience there’ll be lots of word-of-mouth. Why I’m so attracted to this medium I’m not sure. Maybe it’s wanting to tell stories I don’t have the resources to do on stage. Maybe it’s wanting to prove myself as a writer in a medium that, unlike playwriting, is actually thought of as literature. Maybe it’s the bald challenge of learning a new art form and a new field of endeavor at the age of seventy-five. Maybe it’s just not wanting to have to learn lines.

The learning curve is steep, but I think we’re getting there. The last piece went through nine drafts, the next one surely more, as our dentistry becomes more vicious. The chances of publication in a way that actually gets the work in front of pairs of eyes—whether by self or by stalwart small presses or by God—are much worse than playing roulette, unless it’s the Russian mode. As the national flood of stories and novels grows exponentially—fed by MFA programs, write-a-novel months, writing-as-therapy, etc. (all worthy things in themselves)—agents and publishers face a tsunami. It seems that if your piece doesn’t have, on Page 1, at least one murder, rape, sexual epiphany, and threat of nuclear holocaust—with a strong female character—the intern charged with plowing through the slush pile won’t bother with Page 2.

Of course that’s just the standard babble of the wanna-be writer. More substantive is my concern with the distortions in the art form produced by the Market. Here I have one of those classically ambivalent Libra attitudes. Far be it from me to disdain “popular” writing. Some is plain awful in every way known to humankind; some is crafted; some has both craft and significant content; and some, at least, keeps people from watching too much TV.

But read any of the magazines or books published for the would-be writer envisioning a Career, and you get a flood of advice: Build your on-line platform. Select your genre. Study the best-sellers. Define your demographic. Refine your pitch. Develop your marketing plan before you ever write a word. And so on. After a while you might get around to writing the book.

In fact, that’s good advice if you plan to build a career. And if you have a burning obsession to plunge into the human soul and get your hands in the muck or the solid flesh or the sweet little bubbles perking up, your art will still shine through . If you’re writing how-to stuff—Surviving Death, How to Raise Cockroaches, etc.—you’ll do fine. If you have a mad love affair with Romance, True Crime, Science Fiction, etc., well, no reason to feel guilty for not being Kafka. Kafka seemed to feel pretty guilty being Kafka.

But still I feel bitchy when I face the dictates of the Market. I once wrote, frivolously, that our work has been spared from mediocrity by a lack of talent for it. And that we’ve always banged our heads on the partition between pigeonholes. Our playwriting has never fit a category: too weird to be mainstream, too straight to be “cutting-edge,” too black to be uplifting, perhaps too humane to be profound.

Still, we’ve made a living at it, and it’s given us magic. The next stage, I believe, takes inspiration from an interview I did long ago with a professional cabinetmaker. He told me—true or not, but he was serious about it—that the best work in his field was done by amateurs: those, at least, who had an absolute dedication to craft. “They can take the time it takes,” he said, a bit plaintively.

So, after forty-seven years of earning my living by writing, I’m back to amateur status. At this age, it’s hardly in the cards to build a career, yet I still want these hand-wrought cabinets to go into people’s houses, to be treasured and to be filled. An impossible paradox, but we take heart in the sense that paradox is the principle of alternating current, of baseball, and of intercourse.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment