A Short Meditation on the Dramatic End of a Playwright
I’m not sure what I think of the expression “writer’s block.” A block is something solid, whether it’s the hard chest of a football player or something you chop vegetables on or the wooden building elements that captivated children until Legos and computer games came along.
In any case, it’s something I had managed to stay far away from. It’s like a disease, isn’t it? You don’t want to catch it. And there is always the fear, if you are superstitious like I am (and you probably are) that you might will it into existence. There’s really only one symptom—not being able to write—and if there were a therapist in the world who could cure it, well, that therapist would be a millionaire.
In late September of 2012, I sat at my kitchen table in Berlin (exactly where I sit now) in the best possible spirits. I had just finished a second draft of my latest play and felt very happy with it, convinced I had written my best work yet. The play flowed out of me. I was soon heading to London to care for my father while my mother went in for hip surgery. I looked forward to spending time with the man I adored beyond all others and had thought up small adventures we might embark upon. Instead, I received news that he had landed in the hospital, and I’d be heading over to care for both of them. My trip to London was the start of a four-month odyssey that ended in my father’s death. These four months in which I witnessed his final decline and protracted dying were the worst in my life.
My father’s death was bad enough, but losing Stanley was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The bedrock split open, and I dropped into a space I’d only read about in novels. Some call it an abyss, others grief. Its manifestation, however, was writer’s block.
Thankfully, my mother proved stronger than I could ever have imagined, which allowed me to fly to the women writers’ retreat Hedgebrook in Washington state, where I was lucky to have won, in a kind of lottery, an alumni’s two-week return stay. While there, I met funny, brilliant women writers who made me laugh and helped me heal—though my writing output was meagre, to say the least. A sentimental poem of six lines and a few jotted notes about my recent hospice experience. But still, my father had just died. No one, including me, expected more of me in the way of productivity.
On my way home, I took the chance to visit with my mentor and beloved friend, Stanley Kauffmann, in New York, and then flew on to London to check on my mother, helping her transition from caretaker to widow. That September, back in Berlin, I finally sat down at my kitchen table bursting with the ambition to write again. And then the email arrived. Stanley was very ill and given that he was then ninety-seven years old, no one could say for sure what would happen. I got on a plane and spent two weeks by his bedside. Somehow, he seemed to be recovering, and I convinced myself that he had miraculously beaten death and that I would see him again. I flew home. A few days later he died.
So within the space of a year, I had sat at the bedsides of two very old men and watched them dying. These men—one a poet, the other a critic—were charming, elegant, and learned. They were witty and wise. They also happened, and not incidentally, to be two of the most important people in my creative life. They urged me on and took my writing very seriously, and I loved them ferociously for it. I’d sworn allegiance to them both and now they’d left me in the lurch—jumped ship. My father’s death was bad enough, but losing Stanley was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The bedrock split open, and I dropped into a space I’d only read about in novels. Some call it an abyss, others grief. Its manifestation, however, was writer’s block.
From the time I began writing plays something like twenty years ago, I’d written, on average, a play a year. Writing a play had never been a problem. It was more like a sacred ritual, or part of the natural rhythm of life, like planting seeds in the spring or reaping the harvest. I always had a new idea, which, whether it involved research or not, began in a burst of inspiration and ended, after invigorating work was done, with a pile of filled pages. The tortuous path toward production, the near-constant rejection and resulting despair, my revulsion at the bad behavior of too many in our profession, had never, and I repeat, never, stopped me from writing the next play. Something I look back on now with wonder.
Goddess knows, there’s fodder for a thousand dramas out there in the world (and in my cupboard of ideas). But set off by that most awful of years and lasting right through to this present moment, I stopped being a writer. I stopped being a writer because I stopped writing plays and plays are all I had ever written (apart from an occasional essay, which isn’t the same). This was a momentous turn of events, which caught me by surprise, and because it has now been two and half years, is no longer an event but a continuous state of affairs. And the fact is, it’s not a sure thing that I will ever write a sustained creative work again.
My father and Stanley would be aghast to learn they’d left me with a case of writer’s block. But in the end, it’s not such a mystery. As French feminists have been writing since the dawn of the ’90s, daughters seek to please their fathers at a cost. Mine was a textbook case: my father and Stanley were my two patriarchs. They were the giant winged-bulls with human faces at the Assyrian gates, now shattered. Yes, I needed their approval and support, and they protected me. It was I who did the work and took the blows, of course, but they supplied the reason to go on. Or so it seems. Because any faith I may have had in my work flew out the window with their deaths. And all of us in the theatre know that losing faith in yourself in this profession is quite fatal, because there’s not a lot out there to sustain you without it.
So why am I writing this, you might ask? Because in the past year as the writing has receded further and further, I’ve observed the lives of playwrights and the theatre from a particularly odd and not unpleasant distance, as if it were a town I once lived in and never expect to visit again. I’ve watched with awe as people I love keep on doing it. And my conclusion is that playwrights are very brave people. And though even the bravest among us might need and deserve it, protection is an illusion.
And I’ve realized that the compulsion to write is very like an addiction and lasts far longer than the last written word. We all want the uplifting ending, and I sort of have one. I’m finally sitting at the kitchen table again allowing myself to imagine that words might come.