For this entry, I want to talk about two things:
First, I want you to imagine me with a gigantic grin as I say that the first meeting with the Firehouse Working Group was tremendously fun. Several generous and talented people showed up to lend their voices to the first few pages of Food Clothing and Shelter, and they also had a great many wonderful ideas for the future of that piece. It was exciting and it was useful, both in concrete, specific ways, and in the harder to characterize (but no less important) sense of energizing my work.
I don’t know whether I can accurately convey the difference in chemistry between working alone and working with (or on behalf of) a group. Writing is necessarily solitary, at least at certain times. I don’t consider the actual writing “lonely” because I never feel lonely when I’m working….but there are times before or after the “working” part where loneliness can start to creep in. No matter how exciting it is to feel your fingers flying over the keyboard, no matter how richly populated one’s imagination might be, there still comes that time when the creative surge begins to ebb, and you’re still a long way from done. It’s easy, at that time, to leave yourself open to a kind of despair, a “what the hell am I doing this for?” feeling wherein the future feels so murky as to render the entire enterprise a foolhardy waste of time and hope.
The Working Group offers itself as the answer to “what the hell am I doing this for?” When people have pledged to help you, and they’re waiting for the next pages, the work takes on an entirely different energy. I’m not the first person to note that deadlines and the expectations of others make an excellent spur to work which might otherwise be much harder to get rolling. The writing no longer happens in a vacuum-- it happens as a portion of the collaborative circuit, a circuit which can’t be completed, can’t spark, without the pages folks are waiting on. Such expectation, coupled with such generous participation, takes things into an entirely different realm, and where I might have written five or ten pages, I find I’ve written thirty, and can’t wait to write thirty more.
So. Thank you, Working Group. Here’s to many more fruitful get-togethers.
The other thing on my mind is the notion of authorial intent.
My emails automatically close with a particular quote from EM Forster’s A Room With a View: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That question is, in my case, a fully accurate assessment of my condition. I think by typing. Or, when there’s no keyboard handy, by scribbling. People who know me know that I usually have a pen tucked behind my ear, and I take a certain amount of grief for that. That’s fine, because the grief is a small price to pay for feeling equipped for thinking, and leaving the pen at home feels about as likely as leaving one of my eyes.
One of the questions about which I’ve been wondering what I think, for which I’ll now see what I say, has to do with Art and Politics.
We live in politically turbulent times, and there’s plenty of fear in the streets, and one of the things that fear always seeks is a way to busy its hands and calm itself. I have read many of my fellow artists urging that now is the time to make art which grapples with the issues of the day, trumpeting truths and blazing paths. Which seems well enough, except that I feel spectacularly unqualified to blaze anyone’s path, since I’m unsure enough of my own without dragging innocent passengers along with me.
I’m not saying it can’t be done. Many splendid writers have addressed the issues of their day in their art, and done it with a deftness that leaves me applauding in admiration. Arthur Miller and Athol Fugard are the two who most quickly leap to my mind (which helps anyone trying to carbon date me get pretty close.) Indeed, I have a clear memory of a Dramatists’ Guild interview in which both of those men stated their beliefs that a playwright’s engagement with the politics of his time is essential to his creation of compelling and relevant art.
I think it’s more personal than that, and I also suspect that such prescriptions are largely unnecessary to anyone who’s honestly putting his shoulder to art’s wheel. The ultimate definition of art is something I wouldn’t dare attempt, but I’m happy to suggest that at least a portion of it hums with the frequency of truth. What truth? That’s up to the artist. In my case, I strive for human truth, as I understand it, the truths of human interactions in the midst of human striving. My understanding of those truths will necessarily be informed by who I am-- I’m a white middle class American southerner, a lapsed Catholic who yells at the TV and writes letters to the editor of his actual, printed morning newspaper. Whatever truths emerge from that set of filters will de facto be political to anyone who cares to examine them through that lens.
I would never in a million years set out to write a play about the recent “Travel Ban,” which we’re told was implemented to keep America safe from terrorists who might seek to harm us under the cover of a false refugee status. For one thing, I don’t know enough about those things. For another thing, such efforts tend to have a shelf life of seven minutes, and I’ve got bills to pay-- I can’t afford to write something in the sand between high and low tide.
On the other hand, I am writing about a Circus that finds itself stranded in middle America. Circus folk tend, by their natures, to be apart from more run of the mill populations. They’re different. They’re Other. And these particular circus folk? They’re homeless. They’re stuck. They need food. They need clothing. They need shelter.
And here’s what I think is the really cool thing: If I am respectful, and careful, and honest, and I tell the human truths about these weird outsiders who find themselves in need of barely minimal resources in a strange place that might not necessarily love the idea of their existence…. well. How is that not a play about the plight of refugees? Or the travel ban? Or whatever related topic you care to see when you look?
(Fun fact: I was sketching little scenes of what turned out to be this play back in 1992.)
Human truth will always be political. If artists address themselves to the human truths inherent in their work, the imagined obligation to think politically will already have been neatly taken care of… and as a bonus, the piece might just stay interesting for longer than seven minutes.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Working Group is waiting patiently for new pages. :)