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Reeling and Writhing

Tony Kushner was speaking on the University of Chicago campus the other night.  He’s a very animated speaker, interesting to listen to, and incredibly thoughtful.  The University theater is staging his play, Illusion, in a truly riveting production.

In between listening awestruck as he delved into Shakespeare and Brecht and why universities should not offer undergraduate theater degrees, I also felt an unexpected kinship with some of his ways of thinking about writing.  “I run from things,” he said, “It slows me down.”  Half the time he spends thinking how crappy what he’s writing is.

The same thing slows me down, depression about how truly awful whatever I’m working on is.  At the same time, I do believe like Kushner that “your only obligation as a writer is to tell the truth,” to perform surgery on yourself so that you’re exposing your bone–if you can bear to cut that deep you will write the truth and then it will speak truly to other readers.  It sounds so noble, and yet so many petty fears and angers get in the way of diving deep into the soul that I sometimes wonder how I even write a coherent sentence.

Kushner says that the process of becoming an actor means taking apart your preconceptions about who you are and what you know about life and reassembling them in new ways.  An 18-year-old doesn’t know enough about herself/himself to begin the process, and by the same token, the process will either be superficial or destructive for someone that young.  At the same time, the chance to explore many ideas in depth gives you grounding for understanding great texts when the time comes to act.

A play changes every time it’s performed, and he loves the incompleteness of all plays–it’s why he loves the live theater.  I think novels are changed by readers, too, not as dramatically as a director and actor shape a text, but still, the experience a reader brings shapes the text in his or her mind.

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