Why do you write? Not a stupid question—one that comes up endlessly in online writers’ groups—but generally one to be dodged. You can contemplate it for hours, or you can write.
I’ve always found my own answers flippant or bloated with profundity, sometimes both. But I guess my reluctance to face the question stems from the fact that I don’t want to be limited by my answer. I don’t only want to entertain or to change the world or to kill time or to express the inner Me or to get famous—from time to time I may want any of those, but in the words of that esteemed cowboy/country song, “Don’t fence me in.”
Lately, though, I’ve found myself thinking about it more. Into my 80’s, I don’t want to accumulate more clutter for my survivors, and words are pretty lightweight and easily herded. There is that, but something more. If you vowed—if you dedicated your life—to posting on Facebook every cat photo on earth, people might intuit a purpose (to amuse, to assert feline rights, etc.), but your focus would be on your task.
We sometimes take a trip out to Grass Valley to see a John McCutcheon concert. He’s a prolific songwriter and superb performer, well worth the three-hour drive each way. Now in his 70’s, he says, it’s an extremely fertile time. And I wonder, whether it’s songs or stories or cat photos, if part of the urge is simply to proclaim that we’re still alive.
Maybe it’s not much different from the kid who gouges his initials into the school desk or leaves his chewing gum stuck to the underside. We cause less damage with these assertions of existence than with mass shootings, though we garner fewer headlines.
For about the last six months, maybe more, I’ve been writing “flash fiction,” now collected in three thin volumes—seventy-four stories in all—and another thirty in process. What is flash fiction? Anything under a thousand words, the shorter the better.
It’s yet another stage of an inexplicable urge to tell stories. It began, I suppose, with a vision of being able to condense Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR to forty minutes and to convince my high school drama coach to let us do it for the state drama contest—later to do the same with Ibsen’s GHOSTS, despite the fact that plays about syphilis were rarely done by high schools in Iowa in 1959.
The urge went through multiple stages. I thought the career would be in college theatre‑teaching and directing—at the time the growth of regional theatres was only beginning—and the stories that compelled me as a director were the great playwrights—Strindberg, Wilde, Buechner, Marlowe—until a new challenge beckoned. We formed a theatre ensemble.
Our first show was a hodge-podge of five- or ten-minute plays. Most were created through improvisation, but someone needed to write the stuff, polishing and structuring, and that fell mostly to me. Jump ahead, and I’d written about twenty shows, sometimes based on improvs, sometimes out of the blue, before I ever considered myself a “playwright.”
That came when I wrote the first play I’d ever written that was not for our own production. WANNA was accepted for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and suddenly I was a playwright. That play was never produced, but it led to FULL HOOKUP, which got a fair amount of national attention, an agent for our plays, and an abominable review for an abominable staging in New York. I learned several things: very talented people could make great mistakes, and the commercial theatre wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Moves to Chicago, to Lancaster PA, to Philadelphia, to California, were an enormous shedding and redefinition of the work. The work wasn’t everything, but it was our center, the way the farm is the center of farmers. Yet always we retained and added to the short stuff: the five- and ten-minute plays that had spurred us along this path. The path added up to about forty plays and a couple hundred short pieces. Possibly the greatest challenge was when we essayed Family Snapshots, a radio series of 65 ninety-second dramas: think of the stories that you imagine from hearing a half dozen words in the supermarket line.
Moving westward involved losing all our theatrical funding and facing an utterly changed touring environment. We continued to write and produce plays—many collaborations—but eventually began to learn to write prose fiction. Nine novels later, five self-published (with scant sales), and a handful of published stories, I started to write flash fiction. It suffices. I don’t need to get famous before I get dead.
Like all the work, heavy and light, the comic and grim—I’ve described the work as “hairpin turns on the street where you live.”