Brockton Writers Series kicks off its July event at 6:30 with Bänoo Zan’s talk, “Poetry, Politics and Performance,” followed at 7:00 by four amazing writers selected for our annual Queer Night: Lydia Perović, Brian Francis and Shani Mootoo join Rose Cullis, author of the guest post below.
I teach creative writing (which is a little strange, because I’m entirely self-taught) but one thing I teach my students is that ambivalence is rich. Ambivalence toward something or someone creates the space for a starting point.
I feel ambivalent about my writing. On one hand I want to escape the burden of myself by creating something fictional, something that I can use to siphon off some of my intensity and confusion about who and what I am. On the other hand, my work always presents my own obsessions and passions – and sometimes it’s pretty frankly autobiographical. It just seems like there’s no escaping the tyranny of me.
Recently, I came across this quote from visual artist Barnett Newman: “The self, terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting.” It’s gorgeous, and maybe even a little hilarious because his work is so abstract. (It was Newman’s painting, Voice of Fire, that caused a great uproar when it was purchased by the National Gallery years ago.) It’s also a quote that gives me great comfort.
A couple of years ago I was at a party and I met a woman who knew a former lover of mine. When she found out my name she exclaimed, “Wow! I know you! You’re the one that got revenge on your ex-girlfriend by writing a play about her!” A group of smashed partiers surrounded us and patted me on the back and said: “Way to go! That’s the ultimate revenge!”
It was a great idea, but it wasn’t exactly true. I’d written a play about characters that were fictional, and I’d drawn on my own experiences to help animate them, but there was no character in that play that “stood in” for the person I had been (briefly, painfully, catalytically) involved with. Some of the themes in the play certainly invoke aspects of that relationship, but there are so many other things going on! The play isn’t strictly about me or about her or about anyone other than the characters themselves. In fact, mid-way through writing of the play, the most cathartic moment (for me) happened when the characters seemed to switch roles as I was writing, and I suddenly found myself identifying with the Other. It was a thrill, and I remember that liberating sense of a figure/ground reversal very clearly. Also, while I was writing it, I was involved with a new girlfriend, and she gave some memorable moments to the so-called “revenge play,” including one line I love: “Shut your mouth or I’ll kick you so hard you’ll be picking your balls out of your teeth with a toothpick!”
She was a wild thing, and somehow we ended up being with each other for about 10 years. During that time I wrote a play that was very clearly about her and only her. I called it The Dinner Party (I can name the play here, because that woman is still one of my dearest friends and is fine with it), and it features some word-for-word conversations that we had together. She had been a high-performance athlete, and she regretted quitting the national team when she did. The play opens with her line (very much her line): “That’s it! I’m never going to regret anything, anymore.” She spends the rest of the play tormented by regret. I wrote the play with her in mind; I thought maybe she could play herself – and get some of the thrill of performing in front of a crowd that she enjoyed and missed so much. She’s high energy and can be very “on” (when she isn’t off), but, as it turned out, she’s not an actor – even though at parties (and in this play) she’s very entertaining.
The Dinner Party is a two-hander; the premise is simple and the style is realistic: two women waiting for guests to arrive for a dinner party have an identity crisis. I thought it was affectionate and hilarious. I called it a love story and a comedy. I sent it around to various people I respected and they responded by saying, “It’s tragic!” or “Are these two in love or in need?” (I’m still not sure what that means.) I was mystified.
Then, my girlfriend of 10 years broke up with me. For me, it was all very sudden and surprising. I felt like I had absolutely no warning, and I was devastated. That year – the year following our break-up – I presented The Dinner Party at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Rhubarb Festival. When we went into rehearsal, the director and actors said, “Well, it’s clear what this character wants in the relationship: she wants out!” I was amazed: “What!? What do you mean!?” I’d written the thing, but had absolutely no idea what I was writing.
They also said, “It’s not as clear what the other character wants,” — that one was me — and ended up deciding that “I” wanted “the status quo at all costs.” Finally, the director came to me and said, “You didn’t know she wanted to break up with you, but in the play, we need this character to realize it. That will shape the play and provide some sort of climax.” I did it. I changed it. My ex-girlfriend came to the play and bawled her eyes out. Then she realized that everyone loved her character the most – they laughed and laughed at her quips and jokes – and she started feeling proud of herself. A man in the audience shouted, “She’s so ego-centric!” and my ex turned around and said, “Yeah? Well, if it was your life onstage we’d all be sleeping right now!”
The Happy Woman, my latest play, is less explicitly drawn from my life, but it’s all about my life. It concerns a young woman’s efforts to speak openly and honestly with her lovable, implacable, and willfully happy mother two years after the death of her father. It took me years to write it, and while I was working on it, my own father – with whom I had had a troubled relationship – died.
In my teen years I acted out and acted mad; it was such a fine performance that I was given shock therapy and anti-psychotics. I have no idea who signed the papers but it was all very dramatic. On some level it was clearly a betrayal of me as a young woman, but it’s not simple. I definitely sought the diagnosis with my wildly extravagant behaviour, and I thought going mad was part of my responsibility as an artist.
Recently, and not for the first time, my mother told me I have a lot of my father in me. It’s a comment that always annoys me because it implies I was generating the whole mess way back when, rather than responding to it. I guess it’s partly true. But my tormented and complicated father is also one of my richest sources for material. My ambivalence toward him is fueled by fascination, by a sense there is “no bottom” – only worlds and worlds and worlds that I can take a whole lifetime to find and create and understand.
I believe that the work has its own life and its own demands, and when I write, I try to engage in a “call and response” relationship with what emerges. Ideally, I have a sense of channeling characters, of getting out of the way and listening to what they need and want and desire; in reality, I’m always frustrated by the way my writing derives from my own obsessions and anxieties. I feel like a bad listener, a bad lover. Barnett Newman’s quote about the “terrible and constant self” helps me make some peace with the demands my own life places on the practice of making something new.