Of Insecurity, and the Unreliability of Memory
“Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”
– Edward Albee
Or out of her way.
When I was 26, the theater department head told me he was a friend of Susan Sontag, and he was going to send her my scripts. He invited me to stay in town the year after I graduated – he called it a New Play Festival – and I could stage my experimental plays at the university: access to actors and technicians, and a black box.
I did get to stage my work (despite a “supportive” professor who went to the dean and tried to get the whole thing shut down in order to protect me from myself). I got good reviews from the local paper, worked with talented people, and learned a lot.
Of course, my scripts never got to Sontag. And I know now how absurd the thought was, and wonder if the man had been drunk at lunch on a Wednesday when he told me he was so impressed.
I was set to apply to graduate school. But couldn’t afford the application fees.
The story I’ve been telling is that when I moved to Norway later that year (unexpectedly, because that is how love is), I contacted the theater and asked if I could do volunteer work. But the American dramaturge I spoke with told me that they didn’t use volunteers in Norwegian theater; unions were strict. But a few days later he sent me a poetry manuscript for translation – one he didn’t have time to do himself. When I balked, he explained that knowing your own language well was more important than knowing the original language well. In some ways, 20-something years (and nearly as many books of translations) later, I agree with him. And not. But that is a digression.
I worked very closely with the author of that first book. Then a second book, another author. It began a informal apprenticeship in poetry, with many excellent Norwegian writers. This lead to my own books, and my own work being translated.
I told myself I was going back to my roots. After all, I had written poetry as a child and teen (who hasn’t?), and had even taken graduate courses form a celebrated poet who humiliated me, but gave me an A;a man whose work I still admire greatly—though perhaps not so much his teaching techniques.
But this week, attending a theater festival, all these forgotten details rushed over me. I hadn’t given up that easily. I wrote four plays the first year I was in Norway. I remembered handing one full-length script to a director who weighed it in his hand, smiled and said, “You must have put a lot of work into this.”
Clearly, he had no intention of reading it.
I was never under the delusion that I was the Next Big Thing on the Great White Way, but I had enjoyed the privilege of being taken seriously.
Several times over the next twenty years, I started and stopped. There were the small excursions into performance work. The libretto that I got a grant to finish, then a grant to produce. But the composer flaked, and the producer dropped the ball. And I shelved it.
I guess it has been easier to forget those failures.
No, not the failures, but the giving-up. Because that is worse.
My sixth poetry collection is coming out just before Christmas. (I am hoping it will appeal to the middle-age market, since it is all about mid-life reckoning, and carpe diem: clearly, this is not a coincidence).
I have a first draft of a bad novel. An outline for a playtext. And I have discovered several old documents on this laptop. One-acts. Fragments.
I have a sputtering start to what is probably my fifth blog, which seems not to have a focus this time around.
I have no idea where to go from here.
This week Collin Kelly, at the Modern Confessional (a long-running blog with a clear focus) asks, “How many publications are enough?”
A part of me says it’s time to chuck genre and forms. To chuck reliance upon approval.
To write. To focus on that, and trust that I don’t need to please the gatekeepers to the Susan Sontags of this world. Not now. Have I earned that? Does one need to earn that?
Maybe it is time to see if this very long distance has just been a great big circle.