Tag Archives: hope

The Writing Life

Long stretches of your work involve doing nothing. This is hard to explain to others, who think you’re goofing off. Sometimes you are, but goofing off is part of the job. It may look like you’re just sipping coffee, listening to music, and staring into the middle distance, but, in actuality, scenes play in your head. Characters speak, laugh, argue, die. Whole worlds appear and disappear. A pen moves across paper. The paper gets crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. All this in your head. Your family worries about you. You’ve just been sitting there for hours….

A routine helps. You carve out this little chunk of life dedicated to sitting quietly and appearing to do nothing. Often, that’s what gets done. Failure makes up a large component of what you do, but you have to keep trying and keep failing to make anything happen. When things are dead and nothing comes, it’s blindingly frustrating, painfully boring. Your words are colorless, inert. Repulsive. You want to get up, walk away, do anything else. When it’s completely hopeless, that’s about all you can do, but you keep at it anyway. You hate what you’re doing. You curse that you ever got into this thing. You’re never going to have another idea, never going to write a decent word.

Then something happens, a glimmer…and suddenly it’s four hours later, your hand’s cramping, and you feel like you’ve been tripping your brains out as you flip through a dozen pages and wonder where they’ve come from.

The mail carrier is not your friend. Most of the time, he or she brings you envelopes you’ve typed and stamped yourself, and, though their contents may vary in form, language, and tone, they usually more or less say: no. You teach yourself not to care, but you do, and any writer who says they don’t care about rejections is lying to you or themselves. You do learn to keep going; there’s no choice, really. But once in a while, you’ll let your guard down and let yourself hope–really hope. This movie begins to play about how this’ll happen, and then that, and then another thing. How the doors are about to burst open and welcome you in.

Then the rejection comes, and it hurts the hell out of you. You have go sit by yourself, unable to be with people. Sometimes, frankly, you just fucking cry. A tiny part of you wants to die and be done with it all. Sometimes it takes a couple days to get over, sometimes a couple of weeks (occasionally, never…though the intensity lessens with time); and, all the while, you have to deal with the voices that tell you: you’re wasting your time, you suck, it’s pointless, nothing’s ever going to be produced or published again. This is not a condition solely of beginners; your favorite author faces the same thing because there’s always another level to rise to and, usuallly, fall short of.

Other times, the bounce comes, you shrug, move on. There’s no telling how you’ll feel. Sometimes, the big ones have no effect. Sometimes, the little ones snap your bones.

Perversely, you have to hope. When you drop an envelope in the mail or click “send” on an e-mail, there’s one part of you urging “yes, yes, yes…this time” and another going “forget it, no way, never happen.” The “yes” keeps you going; the “no” keeps you armored. The only thing that stops the strobing between poles is more writing, more submissions. Like planting a perennial, submitting a manuscript is an affirmation that there will be a tomorrow. And, like a perennial, those manuscripts have a way of coming back year after year. Submission means you’re in the game; being in the game means, most of the time, you lose.

When it gets really bad, you’ll go the files and take out old reviews, thumb through production photos, wonder if you’re ever going to sit in the audience and see your work again or walk into a bookstore or library and see your name on a book’s spine. When it gets really, really bad, it’s time to take a break, pull weeds, play the guitar, do some art you don’t have to be good at, see a movie, get together with friends and listen to problems refreshingly different from yours…if they are, because artists have a way of flocking together in solidarity. And, yeah, sometimes we pour a glass or flick a lighter or swallow a pill because, for a little while, it turns you into someone else–someone with a window between themselves and their self-inflicted suffering.

You learn humility, and not for show, at the same time you have to carry an ego sufficiently outsized to believe what you’re doing matters and will somehow pay off. That people will actually come to see your play or buy your book, and that, incredibly, they’ll like it…or at least remember it.

When success comes, it’s surreal. You disconnect, not quite believing it’s happening. And, in a strange way, you don’t because you still have to protect yourself, and, when it’s over, you realize you’ve missed part of the experience due to your wariness.

Truth? It’s gets incredibly dark sometimes. Grim. Your own personal cloud follows you, and rains continually while the rest of the world basks in sun. On the other hand, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world, and you can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else.

In other words, you’re a complete lunatic: a writer.

Around the Sun

A week of 2008 remains, and, if this year has taught us anything, surprises are possible. Still, the media’s trotting out theri Top 10 lists; so I’m giving it my shot. In many ways, it’s been an incredibly tough year for me. Though I’ve studiously avoided writing about it here, I spent much of the year adjusting to being an orphan after my mother’s death on December 18, 2007. I had a small but heartfelt production fall through. I put my production company to bed. And I wrapped up the year with my back going out spectactularly (and my doctor clapping me on the shoulder and helpfully saying, “We’re getting old, buddy”).

It’s also been a year of amazing, sometimes poignant highs. Here are some of them in ascending order.

10. Dead of Winter
After a long hiatus, Pavement Productions geared up to do a production we’d wanted to do for a long time: Dead of Winter, a trio of ghost stories I’d written. We had the good fortune to team up with Portland’s The Bluestockings, pulled together an excellent cast and crew, but the production spiraled into a truly eerie space as death seemed to stalk everyone involved, with nearly all of us suffering a personal loss and one cast member having to drop out. We finally got the damned thing launched, had hit and miss and reviews, and though we stuggled on weeknights and toughed it through some lousy weather and nearly every production company in town putting up a show at the same time, we had solid weekends and sold out all our Saturdays. Plus the show was fun as hell, and audiences were hugely appreciative. Then, midway through the run, Lisa L. Abbott, the director I’ve collaborated with since 1995 (and who has been the primary interpreter of my work) won a tenured teaching position in Savannah, which was wonderful for her, but meant she and her husband, Sean DeVine (Pavement’s technical director) would be leaving Portland. Shortly afterwards, Buffy Rogers, The Bluestockings’ artistic director, moved back to New Orleans. A bittersweet ride and, ultimately, Pavement’s last full production. Group highlight: the cast and crew spending an unnerving evening in Portland’s haunted White Eagle Tavern.

9. Angels+Demons
I continued my Angels+Demons photo project through ’08, with some terrific results as Janet Price signed on as the project’s makeup artist, my finding a sort of “sweet spot” in the lighting design, and the models bringing wonderful ideas and looks to the project. I’m not done yet–more A+D in ’09, and eventually, I hope, a show.

8. Burning Time
As a JAW alumnus, I was invited back to Portland Center Stage for the 10th anniversary of JAW to participate in Commission!Commission!, an absolutely mad gig where patrons bid for a playwright’s services, give them an idea to write about, and then the writers have a half hour to write and the director and cast have a half hour to pull a show together. Edge City, and, this year for the first time, open to the public. Ah. More ways to fail. But my patron fed me a marvelous idea about a father who takes his kids to Burning Man while their mother falls apart at home. It practically wrote itself, and Sharonlee MacLean took the mother’s role and burned the house down. Good times. (I’m exhausted just thinking about it.)

7. Next of Kin
A tough, gritty drama (though laced with gallows humor) I wrote about a trio of siblings coming together as the family patriarch’s death approaches. Written as I knew my mom was coming to end of her run. I loved the play, but reactions from some of my most trusted collaborators were cool at best, and I suffered a crisis in self-confidence. Then Andrew Golla and the fine folks at Portland Theatre Works chose it for a reading. The show was well attended, and the audience was absolutely wonderful and engaged with piece. In short: it worked. An emotional trial–a personal triumph. The play needs revisons, but I came away reassured.

6. Spies
Bond came back with Casino Royale, but Quantum of Solace was hugely entertaining and fed into a new play idea I’d been wrestling with for almost a year. Then my sister-in-law sent me John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which proved to be the first piece of fiction I’d been able to get into in years (I mostly read non-fiction as research), and suddenly the threads began to pull together. More research to do, but, as Pete Townsend wrote: you can get up off the floor tonight/you have something to write

5. Liberation goes to press/Flynn returns
My two big war plays came back with a vengance: Liberation was published by Original Works Publishing and Waiting on Sean Flynn was produced by Neanderthal Acting Company in Detroit, where it played to 500 people in a weekend. Two of my favorite plays, back again, with renewed interest elsewhere.

4. End of the Pavement
Where to begin? Lisa and I had contracted with the Back Door Theatre for a June slot to stage a revival of a rewritten version of my 1991 Oregon Book Finalist Bombardment, and then Lisa got the Savannah gig, and the writing was on the wall for Pavement. We decided a full production was out of the question; so we decided to go out the way Pavement began, presenting readings of new plays, and we ended up producing a four-week mini new play festival, with readings of new plays by Nick Zagone, Matt Zrebski, and myself, and wrapping up with a classic Pavement “anthology” show of short plays inspired by Ubu Roi. It was a hell of a ride, and we so completely sold out the final night that we had to turn people away. When it was all over, Deb and I sat alone in the theatre where Waiting on Sean Flynn and Delusion of Darkness had premiered and felt one era end and another begin as the Stones sang Mixed Emotions, a song Lisa and I had picked out to wrap it up: Let’s grab the world/By the scruff of the neck/And drink it down deeply/Let’s love it to death/So button your lip, baby/And button your coat/Let’s go out dancing/Let’s rock n roll

3. Blue Nights/Red Days
My theatre gone, I was feeling both a little lost and liberated, and then idea a play idea came from where all the best ideas come–out of nowhere, and the next thing I knew, I was working on Bluer Than Midnight, a really strange little play about Blues music, the Civil Rights Movement, and…the afterlife. I’m hoping for a private reading of it this year, and I’ll see what happens next, but no matter where the play goes, it’s given me a terrific gift in that, for research, I bought a battered old red Fender Stratocaster and learned to play the Blues (badly). After years of music in my life as a listener, I again have it in my hands.

2. Oregon Book Awards
What can I say except Lost Wavelengths won the Oregon Book Award? It was an incredible high, made even better by being nominated among such distinguished company. Sometimes things really do happen at just the right time.

1. Obama
Among all the theatre and personal strum and drang, there was the election of elections. I love politics, though, for all my opinions, most of what I know about it comes from my time as a journalist and from reading Hunter S. Thompson, who, for all his quirks, was one of the sharpest political observers out there. Somehow, I locked in on Obama before Iowa, just a feeling, at a time when Hillary Clinton seemed unbeatable. Then Iowa came and it was a race. Somehow my gut told me this was the guy, though I faltered at times, worried, rode the roller coaster. But nothing prepared me for the speech at Chicago’s Hyde Park, where in ’68 police beat Vietnam War protesters senseless in a televised civil war that shattered the Democratic Party and the nation. I wept, unashamedly. Hope was, indeed, more than a slogan.

So I find myself wrapping up the year with an R.E.M. song that I clung to going into 2008, only to find the meaning has changed. We have hard times ahead, but the game isn’t over.

Here’s hoping you all have a rich, productive, and fulfilling New Year.



I want the sun to shine on me
I want the truth to set me free
I wish the followers would lead
with a voice so strong it could knock me to my knees

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

If I jumped into the ocean to believe
If I climbed a mountain would I have to reach?
Do I even dare to speak?–to dream?–believe?
Give me a voice so strong
I can question what I have seen

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

Around the sun
Around the sun
Around the sun
Let my dreams set me free.
Believe. believe.
Now now now now now now