This is absurd, to say the least. Some background is required. There has probably not been a day in my life, since the age of fifteen, that I haven’t felt the urge to write. And I’ve done so: forty produced plays, hundreds of sketches, nine novels, three radio series, dozens of short stories, not to mention grant applications and press releases by the score. The plays have made us a living, the fiction not remotely.
Finishing the last novel, I resolved not to do this again. Millions of novels flow daily from the Earth’s population, and few ever make it through the Pearly Gates. I’ve had well over a thousand rejections of my hard-wrung words.
I resolved to fill my day with writing flash fiction, stories under a thousand words, bonsai stories—two volumes of these to date. I’ve often said that most full-length plays should be one-acts, most one-acts ten minutes, and the same goes for serious novels—anything readers don’t want to lose themselves in—an overnight trip, not a cruise.
So now, in collaboration with Elizabeth, I’m writing a new novel. God help me—or a shot of vodka. I’m 80, and I don’t need another goddamn novel, but so it goes.
In 1974, in the first show of our new two-person theatre ensemble, we presented a four-minute monolog, based on some interviews I’d heard on TV with women who’d had children removed for physical abuse. Coming near the end of what was otherwise a comedy revue, the piece was a lightning bolt.
Next season, we expanded it into a one-act play. Its premiere was a disaster: surely the most depressing thing we’ve ever written. But miraculously we sensed what was needed: a structured discussion to follow directly on its heels.
Over the next nine years, we presented DESSIE well over four hundred times throughout the USA and for a memorable showing in Jerusalem, for social workers, cops, prison inmates, society women, conferences, churches, for theatre audiences and for those who asked at the door, “Is this where the movie is?”
Finally we put it to bed when we were too old to play it. In 1984, we wrote a sequel, Smitty’s News, that picked up the central character fifteen years later. It was staged at a major festival in Louisville KY and it died, perhaps deservedly.
Taking my afternoon nap, I asked myself, What if the double suicide at the end of the sequel doesn’t happen? What if a woman with no desire to live still lives? What if the first play gets novelized, and then the second, and then a third where Dessie in her sixties faces something new—something that’s been lying there since we conceived it in 1975?
So that’s the start. At age 80, my partner in crime 82, it’s absurd. How do we bring alive on the page something we brought to life on the stage nearly fifty years ago? I suppose it’s only possible if we cling to a theme that was nowhere in the first manifestation but came clear as we aged: survival.
Or maybe it was there and we didn’t know it. At the end of the first play, Dessie goes berserk, pounding her pregnant belly to induce an abortion. She checks herself: “No. She’s okay. She’s too little.” And then, “See what there is for supper.”
It’s taken us many years to see the hope in “See what there is for supper.” Now we have to find 80,000 words to do it.