Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes it's hard to be a . . . well, you know. . .

Admit it.  We don't get no respect.

I used to think we were overlooked because we couldn't write about sex the way the boys do.

We don't seem free enough with violent images.  Our prose is, a little (how shall I put this?) wimpy.

We write like girls.  That's what I used to think.

Then came Dominique Adair, Denise Agnew and of course, Anne Rice.

Overnight, all bets were off.

Back in the 1980's, when I was studying the craft, writing my fanny off and getting published one-in-three times, the rule of the jungle was this; successful women writers wrote about small animals, little children and the agony of living without a man.

There were no vampire slayers in those days.  Mary Tyler Moore was about as liberated as the media and the publishing industry wanted their chicks. 

Those of us who had anything to say were careful how we said it.

When my marriage fell apart and I wrote an essay about the consequences of male depression on the American family, my editor refused to publish it.

"Why write about something so upsetting?" he asked.  "It's much easier to understand women's depression.  Let's keep this whole thing simple."

Lucky for me I found another market for the essay.

Luckier still that, as my life opened following my divorce, the market opened as well.

 Women writing about loss, desire, anger and remorse is no longer seen as demonstrative of mental instability.  Unlike Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, we needn't kill ourselves to be true to our art.

Still - respect?  Nah.  Not that.

Several months ago I attended a poetry reading at a local pub near my tiny cottage.  The readers were, by and large, women.  However, three men lined up, eager to share their words.

One after another, the women rose and read well crafted concoctions of their perspectives on love, death, community and loneliness. The applause was modest and polite.

At the close of the evening, the men rose, one by one, and read.  To a man, their work was filthy and disparaging of all the elements held dear by the women.  The "C" word, the "F" word, and many iterations of   urine, defecation and perverse sexuality were outlined in raw, ugly detail.

The room emptied as they read.  One-by-one, the women and their partners rose and left until the room was empty.

I approached the final poet.

"Tell me," I asked, "why you chose to read what you did tonight.  Did you notice the room was dominated by women?  Did you think about your audience?  Did you consider how we might have heard your poetry?"

He scratched his beard with a grimy index finger and looked into my eyes.  He was not a young man; fifty-something at least.  He knew better.

"Women?" he chucked.  "There were women here?  I didn't see anything worth paying attention to to.  Except my buddies.  And so I read what I did for them."  He stretched, reaching to the ceiling, his hands landing on his round, beer-extended belly.  "None of us are much for emasculating literature."

Anne,Dominique and Denise aren't emasculating much of anything these days.

Me?  I think that might be my mission.

Watch me write an entire play and never use an obscene word.  Watch me craft an entire theatrical production without denigrating a woman, humiliating a child, or limiting the emotional range of the men in my production.

Watch me.  And when the curtain drops, the lights go black, and the lesson is learned, join me as I leave the theatre, imagining a better world.

That's what I'm up to these days.

And that, my friend, is worthy of respect.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weeping in the playtime of others

It all started in the cheap seats.

Once upon a time admission to the movies (we called them "movies") was a dime.  Disney movies?  Twenty five cents.

And for that little piece of silver, a girl got a few decent cartoons (featuring anyone from Mickey to Buggs), a newsreel (the equivalent of a contemporary "public service announcement") and a few hours in the dark with a box of Dotts and a bag of popcorn.

Movie stars were more beautiful than anyone else; the men were stronger, the women blonder than anyone we knew. 

Even so - we came for the stories.

The struggle of virtue over seduction, valor over greed - we loved to watch the good guys win. When one of our heroes was slapped back by despair or discouragement, we held fast to our arm rests, knowing that, if all were as it is supposed to be, everything would be all right in the end.

Somewhere, lost in the magic, I began to write my own stories.

The hero was always a woman - - no, let me state that again.  The hero was always a girl.

An innocent; a sweet thing - a creature wretched with hope and eternal in her belief that the world is, always and foremost,  a  wonderful place.

Like every girl, however, she faces terrible limits.  A cruel father,  a classmate who hates her without reason, a sibling with a personality dipped in evil and roasted in sadism.

Early in elementary school, I gained a reputation as a writer.  My first grade teacher suggested I try a stage play.  The cast would be my playmates; the plot could be my choosing.

Elizabeth Taylor (left) as Helen in the 1944 version of Jane Eyre
When ever this opportunity was offered, I jumped.   In first grade, I wrote the Thanksgiving play.  Second through fourth - a play for Halloween.

My fifth grade teacher,  Miss Leonard, sought me out on the playground one cold January morning.  

I was in my usual place, hidden behind an empty propane tank, watching the pretty girls hold each other; their angora mittens and matching caps tiny against the fierce St. Paul wind.

In those days we were not allowed to wear pants to school  When we were outdoors in below zero weather, we hugged each other to stay warm. 

Or rather, they did.  Hug each other, I mean.  The pretty girls.  No one hugged me.  I preferred to hide behind the propane and pretend to be a real person.

And so it came to pass that Miss Leonard approached me with a grand proposition. 

Would I, she wondered, write a play for Valentine's Day?

Of course I would.

The story had been brewing for years; beautiful Judy Snyder would be my heroine, bad-boy Dick Nestle would be my villain. 

And the hero would be Scott Strecker.  Oh, my goodness, yes. Scott Strecker.

The awful truth behind all fiction and play writing is this  - the writer yearns for all the good things that come to her characters. 

Somewhere deep in my fifth-grade imagination I knew that I would love Scott Strecker until the day I die. But if I was ever to have a happy ending with him, I would have to write it and give it to Judy Snyder.

I knew Judy loved Scott.  She told me herself.

Before my front teeth came in crooked, before my forehead began to break out in tiny white heads and before we both noticed that Judy's mother was thin and my mom was - - well, a mom - - - before all that, Judy and I were best  friends.

The teeth, white heads and my overweight mom changed all that.  By fifth grade, Judy Snyder no longer spoke to me.

Childhood is accommodating.  It never occurred to me that Judy might be a shallow, inconsiderate snob.  No.  Judy was beautiful and I was Kristine Holmgren.

And I knew that Judy's solid gold circle pin, the pink poodle on her pale blue felt skirt and her perfect pony tail. .  . all these things endowed her to be Scott's own true love.

Me?  Chopped liver.  No, seriously.  I mean it.  Honest to Pete liver.  Chopped.

And so I wrote a wonderful Valentine's day play where Judy, misunderstood, almost loses Scott's frail attention.   The plot, as I recall, was a little Doris Day and Rock Hudson with some Jane Eyre thrown in for good measure.

The lead character, inspired by Scott,  finds himself failing fifth grade.  He thinks, fool that he is, that his hope is in Judy Snyder.  Brilliant Judy, he believes,  who will fall for any little flirtation, will save him.

All he has to do is ask, and Judy will do all his school work.  Of course she will.  She's a girl, isn't she?

At the close of Act I, we get an inside look at the pressure upon our darling Scott.  Motherless, raised by a drunken, cruel sot of a man, Scott's one salvation is his position on the football team.  He's the quarterback - the hero.

But when his bully father sees his January report card, Scott faces real fear. Better grades, screams his miscreant father, or no more football.   And he means it!

Our adorable anti-hero never doubts that Judy will save him.  His mother abandoned him - he knows she left because his father was such a loser.  But Scott was quarterback.  If his mom was around, she'd be so proud.  And this girl, this Judy - how could she resist him?   He approaches her.

Will she, please - oh please will she finish is math notebook?  Football takes up so much time, and he needs to win the big game.  He loves her eyes.  He knows by her smile that she likes him too. Will she please help him?  Please?

At the close of Act II our heroine Judy, torn because of her reckless love for Scott, stand strong.  That's right - she resists.  She does the right thing.

Scott flunks arithmetic.  His father beats the bejeezus out of him.  And he loses his quarterback position with the team. 

And this is a  happy ending.

Because - as in all my plays - in the end,  the male lead realizes  how wise and good is our heroine.

Judy's inability to deny her high ground teaches him a lesson. Goodness is uncompromising.  Scott's mother, who left him with his cruel, awful dad, is not a good person.

Judy, however, is.  And so Scott falls madly, deeply and wildly. And Judy gets to  keep it all - her virtue, her reputation, her multiplication skill and the love of the cutest boy in fifth grade.

The love of the cutest boy in fifth grade.
Me?  I didn't have a "date" until my senior year of high school.

Maybe that's why playwrights and fiction writers talk about the loneliness of the craft.

Not because we do it alone, although of course we do.

Not because we're often rejected, although of course we are.

Rather, because we write of lives we know but do not live.  Listen to what we say when you hear us interviewed on public radio.  We talk about the emotional depth of our characters - the fierce challenges faced by our leading men, the vulnerabilities of the female leads, and the soft, quiet decency of every one of our imagined people.

Seldom do we speak of our own experience.

Memoir is the land of narcissism.  Nonfiction is the terrain of intelligence and confrontation.  Fiction and theatre are the lonely territories of the outsider, populated by a strange, curious creature who weeps easily, loves deeply, and hides in the corner of the playground, waiting for another opportunity to watch her characters embrace.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hanging with my homies. . .

Writers don't affiliate like other people.
Normally, I don't consider myself a "family" person. 

Writers don't affiliate like other people.  Many of us try - - we marry, have children. 
But in the end, the merging is difficult.  Writers have a difficult time following through with commitments when something creative is brewing.  We have a hard time staying loyal and true when inconsistencies interfere with our relationships.  

With the possible exception of love for off-spring, writers are conditional friends.  Mess with a writer and you might never see her/him again.  Treat a writer badly and he/she will go away. 
Every writer I know goes to the fair.
The one exception is the great Minnesota get-together; the state fair. No matter how you treat us, every writer I know goes to the fair.  Wouldn't miss it. Maybe that's because we know we won't be noticed at the fair.  Our conspicuous "people watching" is a common past time at the fair.  We're not seen as the leering, curious, often creepy voyeurs we are.  At the Minnesota State Fair writers blend in with the rest of humanity.

And there's another reason we like to go to the fair. Writers who attend the fair can fake family.  When we walk the fairgrounds, we sidle up to the elderly and pretend to belong to their clan.  We stand a little too close to a young mother cuddling her toddler.  We lean in as the sixteen-year-old tells his girlfriend that he's breaking up with her after this ride on The Old Mill.  In short, we pretend we're normal.  
Today, at the fair, I stood this close to Garrison Keillor.  I swear, if I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched him. 

I should have done so.   We're friends, you know.  Garrison and me.  Sure,  he knows me. He even gave me a compliment once.  He knows me.

But today, at the fair, I stood in the pushing crowd,  listening  to his wisdom over the loud speaker - like the rest of the fair-going Minnesotans. Like the rest of my family.

My brothers in flannel shirts, my uncles and cousins wearing dopey Twins baseball hats and carrying WCCO canvas bags - my sisters-in-law in too-big sweatshirts, white-white tennis shoes and jeans with large, rolled cuffs - - I stood among them all and listened to Mr. Keillor's every word. 

We laughed.  We snorted.  We ate our cotton candy and ignored each other. 

For one brief, glorious moment, I allowed myself the luxury of belonging to the marvelous crush of humanity.  Never mind they were noisy, inconsiderate, overweight and obnoxious. I gave myself permission to accept them; to suspend judgment.  I didn't notice the sneer, the irritated insult, the spankings and hushings.  The ugliness of Minnesota humanity disappeared, and I was washed in warm belonging. 

This is, after all, my Minnesota.  I belong here.  I was born, raised, trained, pushed, taunted, teased, tortured and tempered here. 

If I have anything to offer anyone, I want to offer it to Minnesotans. I want to give it freely to my people - to my family. 
I was born, raised, trained, pushed, taunted, teased, tortured and tempered here.

Okay, so we're a little on the obese side. We might not be the brightest or the best - we might not know how to elect a decent governor or how to make a decent flambe from scratch. 

But dammit - we're decent.  We're good to each other in a pinch. We're not to be taken lightly - and we're not to be battered and fried. 

We're home grown, hand made, straight-up and no-nonsense. 

That's my people.  My family.  Don't mess with them or you'll answer to me.  
Or my brother Russ.  He's the tall, bald one.  On the Harley.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Suffering - but still faithful

What happens when the play is finished,  the theatre has signed the contract, but the play won't premiere for another year? 

What does the playwright do with all the voices in the head - the imagined interactions - the premeditated emotions?

Life can get sticky if a writer isn't writing. 

I'm walking through the valley of that shadow these days.  The script is in the hands of the theatre; I know we'll be in the revision process soon. 

A "dramaturge" has been notified that my work is ready to move forward. 

And I'm crawling along,  losing my mind. 
I've tried starting a new play.  It is not impossible to do so; the writing is sound. 

But somewhere, out there, beyond the clear blue sky - - -someone is reading my work and thinking of me. 

Until I know what that means, life is a little stuck. 

Last week, fooling myself, I returned to my favorite cafe to write. The wait staff were thrilled to see me.  They gave me my favorite table in the corner. 

My Waterman fountain pen had a new cartridge.  My new notebook was fresh, white with potential. 

The language flowed - the dialogue was embarrassing and bright.

When I returned home three hours later, I rushed to check my messages. 

No word.  Nothing new about the play in development. 

When I was a young woman, I didn't understand how important it is to be faithful.  I never cheated on anyone I loved, mind you.  But that claim is impotent.  I never had the chance. 

At this stage of life,  my first love is writing, My faithfulness is holding me back.   I feel fickle to start a new project when the old one is not complete. 

Until I see the actors take position, the music begin and the lights rise on my stage, I sense the monogamy of my art. 

Before all this is over, I hope I learn to be more of a slut for art.  

After all, the women who are remembered are the women who were willing to move from project to project - never looking back. 

Perhaps I'll be like that before the final curtain. 

In the meantime, in the in-between time, I'm suffering here, folks. 

I mean - do they like me?  

Do they really like me? .