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.
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.