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.

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Students working with my poems in movement class, 2011. I haven’t dared to repeat it for fear of being seen as exploiting my position as a teacher.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Chuck the reliance on approval! That is the great reward of midlife.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Denise Leith says:

    Writing is the journey and it’s never a circle. The joy of it and the feeling of complete inadequacy. So many times I feel the inadequacy, and crazy as that seems I love the inadequacy nearly more than the joy because that is what makes me keep trying. Writing brings me back to myself and takes me away again. You, Ren Powell, do not need to please the gatekeepers.
    That’s one mojito and one glass of wine talking. Such a cheap drunk. Not sure I am make any sense, but I do know that you are one of the most interesting and talented women I have had the great good fortune to know. Just do it because you can and don’t think about where it ends. It will find it’s own end. Which project is calling out your name?

    Liked by 1 person

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