I think I do obsession pretty well. Not that I would recommend it over Vitamin C, but it can be helpful to keep you on track. At times it can squeeze the life out of life, but if carefully nurtured I can be convinced, however rational I pretend to be, that life has actual meaning— its function being to nurture my obsessions.
The earliest I can recall was a get-rich scheme when I was about four years old. I lived with my mom in a two-room shack—outdoor privy, outdoor pump, coal stove but mostly heated by the rats—and I was pretty conscious that money, what with the cost of child care while she worked, was a rare commodity. I was an economics prodigy. I knew about dollars. We didn’t have any.
But Mama got me a box of sparklers for the Fourth of July, and I ran around enjoying my little minutes of sparks, waving them, tracing the air with loops of afterglow. You wound up with eight inches of sintered wire, maybe a dozen strands.
Thus proceeded my first attempt at art (unless you count coloring Jesus purple in a Sunday School coloring book): I would make jewelry. My mom had a couple of rings and bracelets, so I could copy them, twisting rings and bracelets from the leftover wire, sell them, and we’d be brimming with cash. Even then I knew cash was God.
In retrospect, it was truly creative thinking. I applied myself with vigor and wound up with a vintage collection—rings, bracelets and other squiggly wires you’d have to find someplace to stick, maybe lay on the windowsill—to be sold for a nickel each. My mom must have made me a sales sign, as I hadn’t learned to write.
Granted, I had done very little market research, and there wasn’t much high-end retail in our ratty little slum of a ratty Iowa town. But I sat on the sidewalk most of an afternoon with my designer collection. Cars went by, and maybe a couple of kids, I don’t remember, but they would have said, “What’s that?” and I’d have replied, “Stuff.” I hadn’t learned to fine-tune my message.
Nothing got sold, of course. It launched no entrepreneurial career. But I see now—yike, I haven’t thought of this for decades—that it may have been my first small spurt of obsession. I had an objective. I had a plan. I had a dozen wires. I discovered a hidden talent. Though it flopped.
Why didn’t that utter fiasco end it there? Instead, it went on through collecting stamps, collecting bugs, collecting Cub Scout and Boy Scout badges, finding the madness of theatre, the maelstrom of Elizabeth, the jump from secure academia to the weird zigzag journey of forty-seven years as itinerant artists of squiggly wirework.
And now, in my mid-70s, weaving those little artifacts of sintered wire, calling them novels, hoping someone might walk past and think, hey, what genius, it’s worth a nickel—though I still haven’t really done my market research.
But it keeps me sane and heaven-blest.
Check out our newest obsession, GALAHAD’S FOOL.
Creating a solo show is a unique process. I’ve done two before Survival, and each was very different. The first was huge, a staging of Pamela White Hadas’ book of character poems, Beside Herself: Pocahontas to Patty Hearst, involving eleven separate portraits of women both historical and fictional. That was first produced in Lancaster PA, 1990/91, and I can’t clearly remember what the length was, but I think it was about two hours. Lotta lines to memorize, and eleven different characters to embody—a marathon. My best compliment was that two audience members got into a hot quarrel over post-show drinks, one claiming that there had been several performers, the other insisting that there was only one.
The second solo outing was Dream House in 2006/7, after we’d moved to Sebastopol. It was seven characters, maybe 80 minutes, and unlike Beside Herself it was our own writing. I let my alternate personalities out of the bag, using my incompetent clown self Bozo as the ringmaster. That felt scary as hell at first, but then it got to be honey and wine. I miss it.
Now I have another Bozo, the inner child clown self within a tough, wry small-town woman named Lou, who has been invited to do a talk on survival. The seven sisters of Dream House were all very familiar to me, since they were me, and all I had to do was focus on one at a time. Lou and Bozo are more distant cousins, so to speak, and I am just now beginning to fit them comfortably into my own skin.
And that’s a strange process. I’ve never before been so aware of how characters mature and ripen in rehearsal and performance, how they become like old comfortable clothes that can almost be felt by the body, warm and welcome. We expect to do Survival for a long time, and I look forward to surviving.
It’s a truism among writing instructors: Kill your darlings. Meaning the phrase or passage you love so much that you’ll go to any length to preserve it, even though it stands like a speed-bump that rips off the wheels of your story. Not that Shakespeare should have excised “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Just that, unless it serves a vital function besides advertising what a genius the author is, you’d maybe better cut to the chase.
I can’t kill my darlings, but I can put them in cryonics. For every project going back to the Stone Age, I’ve kept a file of get-rid-ofs: things I like too much to cast to the worms but that just don’t fit. A few actually contain a seed that may sprout into something new, but that’s rare. Mainly, they feed the illusion that you are indeed a great writer but the world just isn’t ready for the utter irrelevancy of this passage.
At times, with our playwriting, we’ve had what we call the Flying Dutchman speech: a ghost ship that never comes into port. It’s an exquisite passage that it’s torture to cut, but it has to be. And then it finds its place in your next play—until the third rehearsal. And on and on.
These things do have a function besides exercising your typing skills. At times their presence reveals what’s really needed instead. At times, you can find a crisper way of saying it. At times, it stands as a simple monument to over-blow. But in any case, I do find that providing a homeless shelter for these frail souls does provide a way of getting them off the street.
Here are a few excisions from our forthcoming Galahad’s Fool. Roughly one page out of thirty-six.
He saw a glimmer of his long-ago pet mouse. It had escaped from its cage, and the cat left its tail on the porch as a gift. He buried the tail, making a tiny cross of popsicle sticks, though he hated Sunday School.
If vampires couldn’t see themselves in mirrors, how could they put in their contact lenses? Simple: being bats, they squeaked. Bela Lugosi emitting tiny squeaks? That was always left out of the movies.
You’re on a freeway, you want to change lanes, you signal but the car in that lane won’t let you in. You try to push faster, they go faster, faster, faster, and then . . . you give up. Amazing: they slow down and let you right in. It almost never fails. Flip on your back, your feet in the air, say “You win!” and suddenly, “Okay, cool, go ahead.” The tactic is giving up. Losing, willfully.
Galahad would encounter Merlin at a crossroads, always a crossroads, in the guise of a game-show host. Merlin would quote the poet, tell him that he, Galahad, knows the whereabouts of the Grail if only he’ll reveal it, so he should put himself to torture. Three days of water-boarding, but he won’t crack. Want us to break your fingers, the soldiers ask, or cut off your nuts? At that point Galahad decides that the poet was just a poet, wrong from the start.
One more day done, gone, with its little mouse journeys and leftover email blurbs. Today his characters had pretty much behaved themselves, just a few outcroppings like the last gopher mounds of summer. Maybe tomorrow they’d crawl to the back of the fridge behind the spaghetti and fall into hibernation. Anything to delay the onset of the Quest.
Then he saw—ye gods, he’d left the cage door open in his head—he saw his grandfather talking on his fingers, that half-formed mumble in a language never heard.
Grandpa Frank had grown up in Ohio, the son of deaf parents, so as a child he’d learned signing. He came west to work at a school for the deaf, met another teacher Lizzie, married and settled into farming. When Albert was very young, after his father split, he and his mom had lived a while on the farm, and he would watch Grandpa Frank sitting by the window in the worn armchair that smelled of old age, mumbling on his fingers. His lips moved silently, and his fingers would half-form the words. What were the words? What was the world where those words found a current of wind? Albert longed to know, but never asked. Now he was doing the same. Same search for words, and the same frustration as when Grandpa Frank cursed the old black Angus bull and whacked him on the flank to get him through the gate or railed at the crows descending to scatter the chickens away from Grandma’s slops. Something the old man had tried to tell Grandma, but when the words came she was already standing rigid at the ironing board. At last he spoke only in voiceless hieroglyphs.
The lost boy had heard voices he couldn’t understand, lines that sounded meaningful but couldn’t be deciphered. Exactly our political discourse, Albert thought. He recalled an email he’d sent once: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it may very possibly be a duck—or it might just be a walrus with a good speech writer.
The few times I tried to speak in my own true voice she’d thought it was bronchitis.
With every bad idea a seed is planted.
The endocrine system is like comedy: it’s all in the timing. The substances exuded from the adrenals, pituitary, pancreas, thyroid, this wild chemical balancing act, like juggling balls that change size and shape as you juggle. Cells that send out federal regulators, which must achieve perfect balance or your industries collapse and there is no recovery from this recession.
There are thirty-five more pages of these deletions, not counting the ones that just went up in smoke—so many darlings, so little time. Some are interesting. The book itself, it’s better.