October 21, 2013
I said yes to doing this speech tonight for three reasons. The first is, of course, because the emergence of writers of talent, integrity, distinction, wit, vision and imagination is always a cause for celebration, and in these dark times, no opportunity to celebrate should be allowed to slip by. I didn’t give a commencement speech last spring – I figured after writing Lincoln I would be a hot number on the commencement speaker circuit, it’s practically the reason I wrote Lincoln, I love doing commencement speeches, for the contact high, but go figure, for the first time in like 18 years, no one asked me. So I’m here to mooch a little contingent, continguous joy for myself by participating in this celebration of your work, to accept the pleasant task of informing you, on behalf of the Whiting Foundation and all those here assembled and everyone who loves writing, with what happiness, relief and gratitude we greet your talents and your books, the clarity, complexity and beauty you’ve delivered and the promise you bring of a future abundance of pleasure and of meaning.
The second reason is that I felt I was long overdue to repay this organization for its great kindness 23 years ago, when I got the news that the Whiting Foundation, of which I’d never heard – I’m a playwright, a play writer, not a writer-writer, a novelist or poet or essayist, and I didn’t know much about the literary awards terrain – had decided that I was an Emerging Writer – a Writer, mind you, not an Emerging Playwright, and even better, an Emerging Writer worthy of a very handsome check. Uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t tell anyone I was a Whiting Foundation Emerging Writer until the news was published in the New York Times. Before that announcement, the Award was a magic penny I kept in my pocket to rub several times a day, its potency in making me feel noticed, singular and hopeful augmented, somehow, by remaining private, something almost exclusively mine.
I suppose, in a way, the validation was too much. I wanted success so acutely, so painfully back then – which is not to suggest that in the 23 years between then and now I’ve outgrown that ache. But in 1991, my first professionally produced play had opened to critics’ mild curiosity tinged with mild disappointment in San Francisco, thence to more strident disappointment in Chicago, across the Atlantic to blistering British contempt in London’s 876 newspapers, and finally, a couple of weeks after the Whiting Awards were announced, it opened to the kind of violent newsprint-gauntlet drubbing no longer available to American playwrights since most of New York’s many newspapers have folded. The newspaper in whose auditorium we convene tonight was a lusty participant in that gauntlet, by the way; in fact, it was among the most displeased. I’ve come to say thanks, but, you know, I’m not Emerging, I’m not even really Mid-career anymore, I’m Old and Bitter, so as I say thanks, why not gracelessly throw in a little “thanks-a-lot” in the process?
Perhaps I kept the news of the Whiting Award hidden because, as I was saying, the future success that the Award hinted at but by no means ensured was too unlikely, too remote, a thing too sharply desired to share with others without feeling exposed and embarrassed. As often happens with exposure and embarrassment, you get used to it, and so I want to thank the Whiting Foundation. Your Award did for me what I assume it’s meant to do: I felt encouraged, valued, affirmed by the recognition, by the affiliation, by the swanky company of my fellow Emergers, by the handsome check – I felt protected, at the start of what clearly was going to be a rough and bumpy ride.
The third reason I agreed to do this is that I wanted to try to write a speech about writing, which is ostensibly among my assignments tonight. Wanting to try to write about writing is different from wanting to write about writing, or actually writing about it. At 57 years of age, having made my living as a playwright, I feel I ought to be able to write about writing. I’ve tried on several previous occasions, and I’ve always failed, sometimes at great length. I’m about to fail again. Here goes:
I’m a playwright – I believe I’ve mentioned that – a playwright who supports himself and gets his health insurance by writing screenplays. With the exception of Virginia Grise, also a playwright, the other writers being honored tonight are writer-writers – essayists, novelists, short story writers, and most intimidating of all, poets. What am I, a playwright, supposed to say to you writer-writers? Ms. Grise and I could talk over coffee, or martinis about our strange, amphibious craft; we could talk about the very specific problems attendant upon writing for the crossed purposes of literary readers, readers for the purpose of production, and for the non-reading, watching and listening people sitting nightly in the dark. We’d probably talk about health insurance as well – nothing unusual there, playwrights share financial insecurity with writers of every kind. But playwrights like me and Ms. Grise – and Ms. Grise, I’m sorry to enlist you to keep me company like this and to describe you out of the vocation you probably arrived believing you shared with the other nine Awardees. But a playwright is something else.
I’ve been working for the past few years on a screenplay and an opera libretto about Eugene O’Neill, and a while back I came across Bernard DeVoto, writing in the Saturday Review in 1936, dismissing Strange Interlude and any misapprehension that O’Neill was a great writer. DeVoto is insistent upon the difference between writing and playwriting.
It’s not that DeVoto is entirely right; he’s as wrong as can be about the audience being less intelligent than before it gathers or after it atomizes, for one thing, and there’s much besides with which to take serious issue. But he’s right about theater, and the people who write for it, being shaped by and in pursuit of “something else.” Regrettably, content to having put it in its subordinate place, DeVoto stops before attempting to expand upon the nature of the Something Else the theater is in pursuit of, leaving those of us who don’t accept theater’s difference as a mark of its deficiency to posit that DeVoto’s Something Else is another name for what Shakespeare describes, that “thing of great constancy, but howsoever strange and admirable” – the alarming, frustrating and profoundly human momentariness, the transparently doubled and dialectical condition that that gravity-bound and yet aloft, hung-on-a-hook Peter Pan attains. Ms. Grise and I get to play generative games with that kind of fantastically phony fairy, and I for one, and perhaps Ms. Grise for another, wouldn’t trade it for anything. That said, playwrights aren’t like other writers, and I admire but am not competent at doing the kind of writing that aims at permanent truth and permanent illumination. Like other playwrights, I aim at Something Else.
And so I don’t know what I can say to you writer-writers that’s of any value, really. It’s unsuitable for me to talk to you about success, admonishing you to turn your backs on it. Perhaps you should. I don’t think I can. Plays need audiences to work; plays inescapably are popular entertainment. I can’t advise you to go live permanently in the woods. Playwrights have had houses in the woods, but they rarely retreat into them while plausibly designated as Emerging, and only a very few retreat permanently; playwrights need interiority and insularity as much as any other kind of writer, but then the MO shifts to rehearsal rooms and theaters, and as I said, we need to be amphibious.
Even if I was another sort of writer, a writer-writer, a litwright rather than a playwright, I’d be apprehensive offering you advice about writing. I’ve read your citations, and I’ve read some of your work – I promise to read it all, I only got the list of names a few weeks ago and I’m very, very late turning in a screenplay and haven’t had time to read much that’s unrelated to not getting fired – and you seem to me to have thoroughly and rather spectacularly emerged, or at the very least you’ve nearly concluded your emerging; frankly, you’re an intimidatingly accomplished bunch. I could tell you that in an occupation the chief demand of which is to try hard to tell the truth, momentary truth or permanent, to generate meaning, one of the surest paths away from success, however you define it, and towards failure is to allow yourself knowingly, willingly, opportunistically to lie. But all of you manifestly know this already. I could exhort you to avail yourselves of the litwright’s isolationist prerogatives, but in addition to feeling hypocritical, since I get to hang out half the time with actors, who are a lot of fun, maybe you’re not the kind of writer who should go off to a cabin in the woods, maybe, instead of the wonderful books we anticipate from you, if you went off to a cabin in the woods you’d wind up writing unibomber manifestoes, maybe you’d just go crazy.
I’m utterly unsuited to the task of telling you how to live a happy, disciplined writer’s life. I’m a slow reader, a deliberate tortoise of a thinker rather than the intellectual gazelle I would like to be, I’m undisciplined and unhappy writing and expect to be until the writing stops. I find a remarkable number of things to do in a day much more compelling than writing. I could give you absolutely sterling advice how to avoid writing, how when you run out of things to do other than going to your desk and writing, when every closet is reorganized and you’ve called your oldest living relative twice in one day to see what she’s up to and there isn’t an unanswered email left on your computer or you simply can’t bear to answer another one and there is no dignity, not a drop left in any further evasion of the task at hand, namely writing, well, you can always ask your dentist for a root canal or have an accident in the bathtub instead.
Trying every day to tell the truth is hard. There are harder things, of course – arguably living with lies and meaninglessness, living in despair is harder, but it’s hardship disguised as luxury and easier perhaps to grow accustomed to, since truth is usually the enemy of custom. There are harder things than writing, being President Obama, for instance, and having to deal with House Republicans, or trying to fix the leak at the Fukushima reactor, these are harder but writing is hard. Again, something you know. If you know how to do it on a daily basis in spite of how daunting it is, and I suspect many of you do know this – you should be giving this speech and I should be taking notes. Maybe at dinner?
I have no good advice, but here’s some I gleaned from a letter Benjamin Haydon, who rarely gave him good advice, wrote to John Keats: “God bless you my dear Keats, don’t despair, collect incidents, study characters, read Shakespeare and trust in Providence.”
And sometimes, when I’m reluctant to go to my desk, when I’m too pole-axed by fears to allow myself to surmount the not-especially-formidable obstacles I’ve placed between myself and my work, I recite a couplet William Blake wrote to get himself going:
“If Blake could do this when he sat down to shite,
Think what he might do if he sat down to write.”
And sometimes that actually helps! It helps to know that even Blake needed a little prompting now and then to get to work.
Finally – and I’m almost done – I realize that I might have spoken, not about how to write, but why. Here, too, I’m held back by the probability that each of you writes for your own reasons, and all of us write to serve ambitions we hold in common. We write to negotiate our own relationships with momentariness and permanence, to speak with the dead, to bring them back to life, or try to, and of course we always fail to bring them back, and we call that failure art. Perhaps you’re like me in clinging for dear life to an uncertainty, sometimes powerful, sometimes faint, regarding the purpose and importance of what a writer or any artist does. Perhaps you share with me a reluctance to investigate that purpose and power too extensively, deeply, closely. Perhaps like me you cherish the lingering question: Is this thing that I do superfluous? Perhaps it is. And perhaps like me you agree with Bertolt Brecht when he wrote “It’s the superfluous for which we live.”
All I really know about writing is that if you’re a writer, writing is what you do. The work, intellectual, emotional, physical work, is everything – the means, the ends, the justifications and the doubts, the ignominy, acclaim, disappointment and elation, everything that can happen will happen only when and if you write. In the words of one of my favorite writer-writers, the great poet Czeslaw Milosz:
That’s the most I have to offer tonight: take up your brush, or rather your pen, or turn on your laptop, keep writing, find proper trails! That’s what this Award is saying to you: Thank you for what you’ve written, however you managed to do it and for whatever purpose, keep emerging, and keep writing. My very great thanks to Whiting Foundation for your support of writers, including this one, whose now nearly done speaking. I’ll stop after I’ve said to the writers being honored tonight, whom I’m about to call up, one by one, onstage:
“God bless you, don’t despair, collect incidents, study characters, read Shakespeare and trust in Providence.”
And a million billion mazels to you all.