Monday, February 8, 2016

"You Don't Understand How Stories Get Written"

The highlight of my week last week was getting the surreal privilege of watching my 10-minute play, titled “Dia de los Muertos,” performed by actual people, in front of an actual audience.

The play was loosely inspired by my son coming home and insisting that we celebrate the Mexican holiday and remember my father in the process, and the humor and chaos that ensued from our awkward attempts at fulfilling that assignment.

Here are my three big discoveries from that expereince:

(1) It feels god-like, in a humorous rodentine kind of way, to write words that then dictate the actions and voices of a collection of free-thinking human beings who have chosen to follow your script. I wrote the words. They spoke them. They moved where they were instructed to move. They made gestures I described. There was this strange, uncomfortable feeling of power and control that flowed through me as I watched it play out.

(2) Writing a play inspired by a real event in your life exposes your soul a little bit. It’s like your soul walks out on that stage in a trenchcoat and flashes all the people sitting there in the audience, and those people wince and gasp and recoil or laugh or cry from being exposed to a nakedness they weren’t quite prepared to see before them. This wasn’t all bad, or all good. At moments it felt like a confessional. At others it felt like I’d shouted “Fire!” in the theater of my own mind with others sitting and watching me do it. But above everything else, it felt honest. Honest in dangerous ways.

(3) Plays based on truth become truth.

My play was strongly inspired by my son’s assignment. Yet it was still fiction. I removed key characters from the events. I wrote words no one ever said, or never said quite like I wrote them. I altered truths of the interactions, of people’s histories. I added other details where I thought they might make the scene funnier or more awkward or more efficiently truthful.

Yet, when it was over, my daughters noted how “scary” it was that I’d written something “so close to the truth” of what “actually” happened in our home.

And, just like that, the switch has already begun to flip. Just like that, our memories begin to adjust to create room for details not in our memories, but from the play. We begin to knit those additional fictions into the fabric of what happened. Suddenly, my mother is Archie Buniker. Suddenly, my father was far successful at expressing deep love through a single turn of phrase. Suddenly, we’re all clever or sincere in ways we don’t tend to be in real moments, not really.

It was upon realizing this that, what briefly felt god-like in a tiny way, began to feel like something else, too. Something almost a little bit like evil.

(Don’t worry. That feeling, too, has mostly passed.)


“It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why aren’t there this, that, or the other thing?’ It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written. So you have to start there and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.” -- Joel Coen

What little I know about the Coen Brothers, I love. I don’t know them in any deep or personal way, and I don’t always love their movies, but they seem to be, by most Hollywood standards, the kind of chaps who think at a different level, whose reality is based on something beyond the chase for a blockbuster or an Oscar. They’re weird. They have very particular visions, many of which I find engrossing, some of which I find unredemptively odd.

That their latest movie arrived at the perfect time to catch flack for the Academy’s current issues around race seems more like bad timing than anything else.

Yes, “Hail, Caesar” is very white. And… so the frick what?

Why should I dare apologize to anyone for my play not being “inclusive”? Why didn’t I write about the eccentricities and oddities of a minority family instead of the insensitivities of my own white background?

None of those questions are how stories get written.

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