Thursday, August 07, 2003


August: when the world of words takes vacations. Hereabouts, the university folks take their vacations in July, since classes start again in late August. July is when I was supposed to be interviewing university folks for my alumni magazine article, so there were some problems. But that's all over now. The piece is done, and it's August.

August is when book editors take their vacations. I sent out book proposals for Skills of Peace to three editors in late July. The two I sent by email were answered within hours, pretty unusual, since I'm still getting replies on queries I sent out for another project in March. One of those editors expressed interest. Then she disappeared. August.

Almost everything in prospect has ground to a halt. But I am keeping busy by doing something insane. Please don't call the sanity police when you read this admission. But I am writing a play.

These days it is insane for even known playwrights to spend much of their time writing plays. They can't make a living that way. A more or less successfully produced play in some noticeable venue is really only successful when it leads to offers to write screenplays. That's the income source: screenplays, regardless of whether they are produced or not. As long as they pay you. Most playwrights, as most literary writers, teach for a living. Teaching pays better and certainly more consistently than playwrighting, but then so does creative stacking of shelves at Wal-Mart.

Add that to the fact that I am not a known playwright. That's not my niche, my rep, my handle, my gig, what I'm branded for. (If you figure out what that is, however, please send it to me.) On the other hand, the first writing I did was a play. But most playwrights don't list their third grade productions on their bios. (My big year was actually fourth grade, when I had a rep company---otherwise known as my Cub Scout den---that put on my latest script every month, at the pack meeting.)

I had a few productions in college, too, including one which I discovered (from a student doing an archeological dig into the late 60s) was talked about for some years afterward. Legendary, in fact, for awhile.

The last time I pursued this particular muse was in Pittsburgh about a decade ago. One theatre did a staged reading of a play I'd written some years before, and I was hooked. Ten minute play festivals were suddenly the rage, and two of mine were produced (the second was longer than 10 minutes but not quite the length of a one-act.) A one act won a secondary award in the Pittsburgh Playwrights Festival (and, I happened to overhear, would have won a full production had all the participating theaters seen the script.) But for a number of apparently practical and interpersonal reasons, I pretty much gave it up after that.

I pursued other avenues of writing that were potentially more lucrative, and usually judged marginally sane activities. They turned out to be not terribly lucrative and certainly not consistently so. Given a choice of writing grants for free or a play for no good reason, the latter has definite attractions.

Anyway, it's August. That enters in another way as well. I happened to see a call for plays by a theatre in Michigan---a contest really---with a specific subject in mind, having to do with evolution and ancestral voices. The deadline for full length plays is August 31.

The subject happens to be one that comes up often in research and writing I've been doing for other marginally insane projects. It's something I think about, and something several people I've become particularly interested in thought about. What I hadn't thought about before was putting a particular two of them together. When I had this thought, I had the idea for a play.

The premise of this play is a conversation between H.G. Wells and Carl Jung. Those are two of the three main elements. The third is an American Indian point of view. I've been reading about Jung and Wells separately, but I did note that they had met. There wasn't much obvious information about it, but a fictional meeting between them had great possibilities.

So that's what I'm doing, writing this play. I've got about three weeks to finish it, get it into binders, send it off. This includes a week in which life around here will get chaotic, as we must move everything out of several rooms, move ourselves out of the house for several days, then move everything back. Floors are being finished, with nasty chemicals. Enforced vacation time.

Besides circumstances and fallout from my "creative" moods, I fight off the doubts: about the sanity of attempting this, and the half dozen very good reasons I can give you for why my play doesn't stand a chance in this competition. However, I am currently gripped by the delusion that I'm pretty good at this. It feels good. I seem to know what I'm doing, building a bridge twixt conscious and unconscious. This makes a bit of sense, since I have continued to think about and read about dramatic construction, and in fact constructing drama and narrative is part of everything I write. Even grant proposals. Emotionally it also makes some sense, as in preparing my old magazine article about the O'Neill playwrights (see I realized how rapturous my memories were of that experience.

Because I work alone and am decidedly an introverted type, some people have a hard time thinking of me as being happy in a collaborative framework. It's true that I have found participating in theatre to be emotionally exhausting at times. But it is also as close to an ideal situation as I can imagine. I have a strong streak of wanting to participate, to work with people in a collaborative way, on a project I can care about, that makes use of whatever talents I possess that are more or less central to who I am. I can't imagine another venue where this is possible other than a theatrical one. Even more than being an editor, which was as closest as I've come in my working life.

Anyway, there's no collaboration at this point in the process, at least with people I can see. What keeps me going, besides the writerly motivations of expression and solving the puzzles, is that an awful lot is simply falling into place. I challenged my concept by testing it against reality-could or would Wells and Jung have met where and when I wanted them to? In my play they meet in New Mexico in 1940. Wells was in fact in America at that time. Jung was not. It would have been difficult for him to get out of Switzerland during the war, but not impossible. His last visit to America was 1937. Could he have any reason to be where I wanted him to be, going where I wanted him to go? Yes. I immediately found the perfect reason, both for verisimilitude and in support of concepts in the play.

Tucked in books and magazines here and there, I've found more and more about the actual relationship of Wells and Jung, which was more extensive than is generally known. And as I've written, such information comes to me at the right moment. At times I'm not sure whether I've guessed right and had it confirmed, or I'd come across the information before and forgotten that I had. Sometimes it is a literal coming in. I found out about a book of Jung's interviews and encounters I hadn't known about. I found a copy, cheap, on the Internet, sent for it, and it arrived with astonishing speed, on the very day it proved useful in shaping a scene.

In some ways this play is making use of just about everything I've learned and been involved with and obsessed with on my own since I came to California. So the process of writing it is almost poetic in receiving what I've apparently already learned. As well as hearing the voices of Wells and Jung. (Jung's actual voice is somewhat familiar from docu tapes, but Wells I've heard only in a brief and consciously forgotten newsreel clip). Even the process of creating fictional American Indian characters has been aided by coincidences. It's also the first time I've felt fairly comfortable daring to write such characters. I can hear them.

So this is my August delusion. Though it is warmer than usual hereabouts, and we've had actual thunderstorms (in the past six years, I can remember two before this year. We've had three this past week) I can't blame it on the heat.

It's not the craziest thing I could do. I could join the crowd and run for governor.

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