by Michelle Carter
Part I: What We Want
Wake well-rested. Grains, fruit, wheat toast, no butter. Floss with
confidence. Feel good about yourself and others will feel good about
The phone rings, the new email tone sounds, the Google Alert
notification pops. The energy of the world rushes through the ether to
you and you receive.
The coveted award. The lucrative grant. The blog rave. The review
to die for. The top of the top ten list (alphabetical, but still). And with
each, a flattering photo!
Has it happened? In this moment? Yes. Now.
You have arrived.
The greater the success, the closer it verges upon failure. —Robert Bresson
A good friend called yesterday, elated over a rave review of his play. “She
has given me my life,” he said of the critic.
I don’t trust people until I know what they love. If they cannot admit to what
they love, or in fact love nothing, I cannot take even their smartest criticisms
seriously. —Stephen Dunn
Part II: What We Get
It’s a quiet joy, arrival. A quiet thrill. You once were “I will be” but suddenly, now:
“I am.” I am good.
The moment stretches. Becomes another moment. What is this
feeling? A surge of—what? Fear? Fear of disappearing?
How long has it been since you wrote the award-winning, blog-
celebrated play? You have ideas for another. Pages of notes. You are
between projects, that’s all.
Every second, somewhere, an is is silently becoming a was.
What now? Where to turn?
Awards have three things to offer: cash, confidence, and bric-a-brac…The
confidence-boosters have a temporary strengthening effect but, like good
reviews, are dangerous: they lead the recipient to overestimate himself, and
make him vulnerable to the disappointments which inevitably follow. —Stephen Sondheim
9:30 a.m.: A great day to write. You will write. Why shouldn’t you?
10:15 a.m.: This stuff is ridiculous. Bland. Slack. No energy, no
tension, no subtext, no pressure. Whatever gave you the idea that you
could write dialogue?
11:05 a.m.: Some inspiration—yes. Reread Churchill’s Far Away.
Dialogue with tension, subtext, pressure, and so forth.
12:30 p.m.: It’s hopeless. You could never write dialogue that
begins to approach the energy, tension, subtext, and so forth of Caryl
Churchill’s. You could never write a play that begins to approach the
genius of Far Away.
2:25 p.m.: Remember how good _________ said you were at that
thing you do? And that other thing you do? Do those things. Do those
things a lot.
4:10 p.m.: Yes. School the people. Open their eyes. Tell them true
things about being alive in diction so accurate, syntax so seductive,
sentences so beguiling, rhythms so stirring that no one could doubt your mojo,
your chops, your unmistakable badassness. They will hear your words and know…
what do you want them to know? That you are really good at this. Isn’t that the best
any writer could hope for?
Part III: What We Do
Post the links on Facebook: the awards, the reviews, the blogs, the
top ten lists.
I am honored and, above all, humbled.
What about friends who aren’t on Facebook? Send an email blast.
What of the colleagues of acquaintances who have kind of heard of you
a little? Ask friends to post your website link to their Google+ circles.
The “Like” buttons click. The congratulations cascade. You are
so well-liked that no one even pauses to wonder: What is this behavior
evidence of? An absence of self-regard, or an excess of it?
“I am” becomes I am seen. The Recording Angel has you in his
But what has he written?
An acquaintance, a playwright, attends every performance of her own
play. As each performance ends, she waits in the shadows of a bottleneck
through which each audience member must pass to exit. She has made
note of everyone she knows in the house and when each approaches the
exit, she sets upon him like Cato ambushing Inspector Clouseau.
What do you think?
What do I think? You wonder what you’re being asked to respond
to: the performance about which you’re currently not feeling analytical,
absorbed as you are in searching your pockets for your keys? Or the
living, breathing spectacle of need before you, hoping for a benediction?
The playwright’s hunger for validation becomes a force field between
you and the work you’ve just seen.
Tomorrow you’ll try to conjure the experience of the play in your mind, but you
won’t be able to find your way back to it.
A photograph must have room in it for entrance by outsiders, so that the
photographer himself or herself hasn’t built a structure that keeps you out,
but instead has left some crack that allows you the freedom to enter. He or she
hasn’t held on too tightly. I heard a quote from Peter Mathiessen, who said
that when you climb a mountain the first rule is “Don’t cling.’” You have to
climb a mountain free, as if you’re just taking a walk on the beach. And I
think if a photograph is made by a photographer who is trying to give you
a message, you get that message but you don’t have a real experience. —Joel Meyerowitz
What other people think of me is none of my business. —Dorothy Parker
Years ago an editor from Doubleday asked me to submit a story for an
anthology. A close friend of mine was also a friend of this editor and
offered to turn in my story for me. Days later he told me that the editor
had accepted a story of his, and rejected mine.
Weeks later the phone woke me: it was the editor hoping to persuade
me to submit a story for the book. The editor said my friend had told
her I didn’t want to contribute anything. Might I reconsider?
Characters in a play are all in the dark. And in the end, they’re all not
guilty. —Alan Bennett
Hundreds of artists submitted work for a New York gallery show in
1955. Robert Rauschenberg’s submissions were chosen; the work of his
friends was not.
Rauschenberg couldn’t decide whether to go ahead with the show.
He was happy for the chance to exhibit his work but unwilling to seem
to have done so by besting his friends.
His solution: he exhibited a large “Combine,” a collage of his own
work and the work of his friends who’d been rejected.
Don’t enter awards competitions. Just don’t. It’s not good for you. —Bruce
When I was an undergraduate, my favorite professor agreed to do an
independent study with me on the novels of Muriel Spark, a writer
we both loved. I was very nervous. I’d only just changed my major to
English and I had no idea how to talk about books.
The subject of our first meeting was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
In the course of my stumbling commentary I attacked Jean Brodie’s
character, calling her a Nazi. The next time I saw the professor he seemed
cool, aloof. I asked if everything was all right. His reserve cracked and he
snapped, with disappointment and genuine anger: “I will never forgive
you for what you said about Jean Brodie.”
A flash of shame, and then: the revelation, thrilling. Jean Brodie
matters. Muriel Spark matters. Books matter. Art matters.
He forgave me in time.
You owe it to students not to praise them. With praise you are passing up an
opportunity to help them see what the goal is, to see it intellectually and to
perceive it instinctively. They realize that if I give them praise it’s a way of not
engaging them with analysis. They come to see praise as a shortcut. They
find it unserious. —Jane Smiley
I once took a demanding workshop where I was the only writer among
a gifted group of dancers, actors, and directors. The workshop had a
physically rigorous component. I’d had no movement training to speak
of and I was the oldest person in the group. I suppose I expected to be
cut a little slack.
In one exercise, we were taught a series of physical poses that were
to be copied precisely and held with great stillness. Once the postures
were learned one of the teachers slapped a bamboo stick to the floor:
with each slap we were to shift, with catlike grace, from one posture to
another. After a time I began to think: I’m getting the hang of this. I think
I’ve got it.
The leader fell silent. She rose from the floor and crossed the stage
to where I stood holding my pose.
Calmly and without inflection she said: “And you, you have failed.
And everyone can see it.”
You can’t see yourself, nor can you see your work in the context of a
practice to which I have devoted my life. I see you, your work, and what’s at
stake. You didn’t come here to be comforted.
No. I had not.
No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is
only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than others. —Martha Graham
I was sitting in the house for a performance of a play of mine at the New
York Summer Play Festival. As the performance progressed, a large man next to me
laughed, snored, laughed, snored, etc., in cyclic eruptions.
When the play was over the man applauded, turned to me, and
said, “Who would write this play?”
Gulp. “I did.”
He laughed again. “My subscribers would hate this play!”
He handed me his card: he was one of the best-known artistic
directors in America. He said some nice things about the play and told
me why he could never produce it. In that lovely, light moment, he
released each of us from the pressure of our roles. The playwright: I
should impress this man somehow. The artistic director: Better tell a
charming story so I can slip away without getting into what I think of her
play. He freed us of that mutually belittling ritual.
We talked about other plays in the festival. I made recommendations,
he made recommendations. He hugged me goodbye.
i require a miracle. i require the humility and faith to allow it to happen.
an army of a thousand cannot help me. it’s down to the creative spirit of
the universe and me. kicking and screaming. —Stephen Adly Guirgis,
The Labyrinth production of Our Lady of 121st Street, fifth row, my
second time. Next to me, a talkative lady who’d been brought to the
play by her daughter. The lady was visiting New York from a small town
in rural Kansas. She’d never seen a play before and she was very, very
excited. Her daughter worked for a publishing house, and it was clear
that her mother embarrassed her terribly.
Let’s see: a man with no pants, a stolen corpse, a raped and murdered
child, infidelity, drugs, a dead alcoholic nun, a lot of four-letter words,
and a whole lot of shouting. The lady from Kansas’s first play. How
would she hold up?
God, how she laughed. Those whole-body, rocking-forward-and-
back in your seat convulsing belly laughs. Foul-mouthed nasty Norca?
Hilarious. Poor Sonya gets socked in the mouth? Funniest thing ever.
And the climactic scene where Inez tells Rooftop that he took her secret
garden and dropped a fuckin’ atomic bomb on it and now it’s just
scorched earth and ashes? Tears streamed down the lady’s face. Inez’s
heart was broken, and so was hers. When the play was over, she could
This woman didn’t want to be seen, or flattered, or reassured. The
playwright didn’t want to be seen or flattered or reassured, nor did the
actors, nor the director, nor the designers, or anyone else in the building.
The world rushed through the performance to the lady from Kansas
and back to the play and the artists and back to the lady from Kansas as
each was being made more alive.
As I begin to understand and respect it, the ritual of theater involves a
transference of sensual life energy from one group of people to another. —R.
Day after day we wake again to find the world still here, waiting for us as
we play out our own small dramas with their small triumphs and terrible
heartbreaks. And then, remarkably, astonishingly, just here just ends. For me
that is the mystery. No amount of explanation, be it a ‘Theory of Everything’
or a religious theology, will reduce the power of its experience. The primitive
quality of feeling, the presence of life and its luminosity, is the mystery and I
am damn thankful for it. —Adam Frank
PART IV: What Everyone Is
Dust. Molecules. Jerks of infinity. We’d burst if we had the courage. —Richard D’Elia
San Francisco State MFA
Michelle Carter, PEN USA Literary Award in Drama (2012, 2003); Susan Glaspell Award (2010); Susan Smith Blackburn Prize nomination (2011), PEN West Award (2000); Kesselring Prize nomination (2006); Backstage West's Garland Award (2000); Kesselring Prize nomination (2006). Ground Floor Residency, Berkeley Repertory Theater (2012); Donmar Theatre residency, London (2006). Dreamspiel, a Ukulele Opera (libretto, lyrics) with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: Arcola Theatre, London (2008). Other plays produced and developed: Centenary Stage Company (NJ); Mark Taper Forum (LA); Asolo Repertory Theatre (FL); Clurman Theatre (NY); Abingdon Theatre (NY); Aurora Theatre (Berkeley, Global Age Project); Magic Theatre (SF). Women's Playwriting Festival (NJ); Unplugged Festival (FL); Summer Play Festival (NY); Grimeborn Opera Festival (London); New Work Festival (LA). Commissions: Symmetry Theatre (SF); Mark Taper Forum (LA); Magic Theatre (SF); Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (London). Dance Theater: AFTER ALL, Part I, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (Erika Chong Shuch, choreographer/director). Play publications: Hillary And Soon-Yi Shop For Ties (Dramatic Publishing), Ted Kaczynski Killed People With Bombs (Dramatic Publishing). Plays For Actresses II (Vintage). Novel published by William Morrow and Penguin Books; short stories in Playgirl, Grand Street, New American Writing, 20 Under 30 (Scribners), The New Generation (Doubleday) and other magazines and anthologies. NEA Grant in Literature; Sloan Foundation Grant; Gulf & Western Foundation Grant; residency, Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Professor, Creative Writing, San Francisco State University.
Read an interview with Michelle Carter in Fourteen Hills 18.2
by Paul Hoover
by Daniel Langton
by Camille Dungy
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