My wonderful friend Isaac passed this quiz along to me; I am going to try to find three people with blogs to pass it along to, and will link to their responses at the bottom. You can (and ought to) read Isaac here. He’s a director of note and writes very good, thoughtful cultural criticism about a number of forms but most vitally, theater on his blog, Parabasis (see previous link) and sometimes at The Hooded Utilitarian. He’s the senior editor at Perception.org, an anti-discrimination organization, and his memoir, “The Thousand Natural Shocks: A Father, a Family, a Crisis of Faith” is agented and looking for a publisher, which it will doubtless find with great rapidity as soon as he’s done with it. I greatly admire the man and the writing and recommend both to you unreservedly.
(1) What Am I Working On?
Quite a few things. I have two lengthy profiles of high-level entertainment executives due in the next two weeks, for consecutive covers of our magazine, “Adweek”, where I’m a staff writer, and it’s scaring me half to death. Both are worthy subjects who were incredibly cooperative and nice/interesting, but I tend to bite off more than I can chew and I’m a little disturbed that I may have done that on kind of a massive scale this time. I can always tell when I’ve overcommitted because I start to fantasize about time travel and what my two-weeks-from-now self would say to me about how the one feature was received and the other one is going. I write fast, but it’s nervewracking.
I’m also responsible for a certain amount of breaking news and traffic-getting on our website, Adweek.com, which is a very nice mix of trade-specific media and advertising news and our great blog Adfreak, where we just post funny ad- or agency-related videos and try to make people laugh enough in the copy to link to the page rather than the YouTube video. I’m constantly complaining that I’ll spend two months carefully interviewing sources and negotiating timetables with publicists, write 2,000 carefully-chosen words and then the final product will sit there like a lump for weeks with maybe 200 social hits; then I’ll spend ten minutes writing a post about screaming goats and making really dark jokes about depression and that will be at the top of the most-viewed list and people I’ve never met will put it on their Facebook pages.
Secondarily, I write short stories on my own time, which is an intensely rewarding experience despite my sending them to publishers and magazines really stingily. I’ve got one that appears to have made it past the first round at an online magazine I love but you just never know. I’ve gone from form rejection letters to detailed critiques in the last few years, which has been a real ego boost, perversely. Kind words and mild success induce me to write more quickly and well than anything else I can think of, at least as far as fiction goes. Anyway, I’ve got a short story I’m finishing this weekend and then, depending on the fate of the other story, I will either send it out somewhere or stare at it and think about all the ways it will never be good enough.
The last thing I do is write criticism—book reviews, and theater reviews as often as I can. My next book review is of a debut novel called “The Quick” by Lauren Owen—I’m starting it this weekend and greatly looking forward to it. I’m also trying to piece together some thoughts on Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses,” which is intimidating because he’s a much better writer than I am.
I also teach a writing class at my church, which is very fulfilling and tends to produce a discrete piece of writing that, while probably not saleable, is very satisfying to hold as I wend my way through a life of rolling deadlines and disposable news copy.
(2) How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre?
I’m not sure. I try to make my journalism both well-informed and fun to read, though of course there are many good writers who can do that. I have kind of a grim sense of humor and when I can get away with incorporating that into my reporting and writing, I do. If my stranger, more absurd jokes make it on the paper, they tend to get laughs and comments, which I think means that the editorial screen is working—the stuff that’s too dark or too off-the-wall or stylistically dense gets weeded out by my editors, who are all very smart people with very different sensibilities and enough respect for my writing to want the voice to stay intact.
One of the reasons my fiction writing is so hard is that it tends to try to be as high-concept as I can manage without stinting on character depth. Again, these are two really difficult things to do and I sit in awe of anybody who can do either of them well—Stephen King and P.G. Wodehouse, for example, are both such wonderful writers of character that it doesn’t much matter whether or not there’s hard science or deep folklore behind King’s scenarios, or some kind of incredible central metaphor to Wodehouse’s comic novels. China Mieville and Terry Pratchett are incredibly good at delineating really difficult ideas in profound and surprising ways, and if their characters are drawn with broad brushes, the depth of the world makes up for it. So I’m kind of trying to follow two different paths simultaneously and failing in progressively more interesting ways, at least from my own, limited perspective.
Writing criticism is just tremendous fun. I love art, I love digging into art to find out how it works, and I love trying to find my own ideas either in unison with or contra the author of whatever it is I’m reviewing. I try very hard to make my work discrete and pleasant to read, and I tend to eschew basing any personal authority on all the stuff I’ve seen/read/listened to, partly because I find that exhausting in other critical writing and partly because I’m insecure about being undereducated in the media I’m writing about.
(3) Why Do I Write What I Do?
Well, not to be glib, but I write journalism because I can’t quite believe they pay me to do it. It’s a different job every day and I love it a lot. Stringing together a breaking news story on my phone during a corporate event is fun; trying to slam out a pithy observation on a surprising press release before my competition gets to it is fun; gathering three or five or ten interviews into a lengthy, layered feature is probably the most fun and closest to what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing with myself.
I write fiction because I have to.
I write criticism, frequently, to figure out what I think. I’ll have a lot of different thoughts about what the world ought to be like or what the best Captain America comics are and I’ll realize that I need to organize them and set them up against one another until they resolve into a worthwhile piece of writing; most of the time I don’t even publish them. I’ve got a “memoir” that is mostly just me remembering things that happened to me from childhood forward and trying to make sense of them as an adult with some perspective. One of the interesting discoveries over the course of that project, which is entirely for my own mental health and written with absolutely no intention of publication, has been that time is not the only thing that lends perspective to an event; actually, sometimes it doesn’t lend any perspective at all and you have to wait until something else happens to take you far enough away from it to see it properly. I realize this is in the “criticism” section when most people would probably call it long-form journalism but it really is me looking critically at various events in my life, and those are the muscles I’m using.
I teach the writing class because I wanted, a little begrudgingly, to give something back to my church and found instead that it was the single most valuable thing I’d ever done for my own imaginative writing. I find church often works that way for me.
(4) How does my writing process work?
When I’m writing at home, the trick has always been to get myself into the chair. My wife and I made our second bedroom an office now that we’ve moved out practically into the Lower Bay; the commute is a schlep but it’s done wonders for my writing. As often as I can, I get up early enough to get in some writing before work; more realistically, I take my only solo day off (Saturday, when Pamela is working) and sit at my desk, with natural light coming in over my shoulder, and I write in a program called Kabikaboo for as long as I can. I used to try to use Google Docs and it was seriously the worst idea I’d ever had. My theory was that I could use it to make my work portable from computer to computer, but actually what happened was that I barely wrote anything at all. I think I wrote one story, total, in that program. The internet is really good for a lot of things but if you’re trying to write, it is The Last Enemy. Other enemies are mostly myself: I find that when I have a good idea the first time, I write in a white heat for that first sitting and try to draw said sitting out for as long as possible. When I come back to finish it, the writing becomes harder and harder until I’m adding just a few paragraphs or sentences to something I was able to cram pages into the day before. It’s frustrating, but I’m getting better about pushing through to the finish line, and I’m having more than one good idea per story, which is encouraging.
When I’m at work, I have deadlines. Deadlines are great. I sit at my desk and transcribe or pull interviews into a single file—usually in Word—and then the pressure of the shipping time for the pages just kind of works its magic. Somestimes if I can’t write a good lede, I’ll write a really absurdly long-winded or tangential one just to get into the story so I can say what I know I need to say. My saint of a features editor came back to me a few months ago and said, “This is a good story about cable affiliate fees, but I’m not crazy about the lede about the French Revolution.” And of course it was the work of ten minutes to come up with a better lede graf, because I’d used the wildly inappropriate one to weasel my way into the story and had the full weight of the completed story behind me when I was trying to craft a better opener.
When I feel my writing flagging—when I discover I’m having trouble finding the right word or ending sentences before the start of the tenth line, for example—I do a few things: 1) sleep 2) eat something relatively good for me 3) read P.G. Wodehouse. Your mileage may vary, but Wodehouse is for me the perfect blend of stylistic virtuosity and utter, light, reader-friendliness. Friendliness of all kinds, really—somebody said that it was impossible to be unhappy while reading Wodehouse and that is my experience, as well. It’s important to be happy, both for your own personal well-being and for your writing. There are people who contend that you have to have a terrible life or be a terrible person to be good at anything creative; we call these people “idiots.” You have to be selfish enough to claim time to write when you need it, and you have to have some life experience, but if you go through life for any length of time, you’ll suffer, and that’s a promise. Whether it makes you a terrible person is largely your own choice.
I didn’t mean to end on such a moralistic note but I think I’m going to just own it.
At the risk of starting a whole thing, I was watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine the other day and I realized I was seeing something I’d never seen on television before and it made me really, really sad.
*Love? Compassion? This is also your job to figure out.
From an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta:
GUPTA: And one of those 4,900 cases was the case of nine-year- old Hannah Polling, which has been making a lot of news lately. Luckily, we have the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Gerberding here.
We’re talking a lot about autism, as you know. I should remind people that the — my understanding is the federal government conceded that vaccines caused her autism like symptoms. First of all, is there a difference? I mean, does she have autism or autism-like symptoms? What’s the difference?
JULIE GERBERDING, DR., CDC DIRECTOR: Well, you know, I don’t have all the facts because I still haven’t been able to review the case files myself. But my understanding is that the child has a — what we think is a rare mitochondrial disorder. And children that have this disease, anything that stresses them creates a situation where their cells just can’t make enough energy to keep their brains functioning normally. Now, we all know that vaccines can occasionally cause fevers in kids. So if a child was immunized, got a fever, had other complications from the vaccines. And if you’re predisposed with the mitochondrial disorder, it can certainly set off some damage. Some of the symptoms can be symptoms that have characteristics of autism.
GUPTA: Yes, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a one-year-old as you know. And you know, you know, you think about this all the time. Are we ready to say right now as things stand that childhood vaccines do not cause autism?
GERBERDING: What we can say absolutely for sure is that we don’t really understand the causes of autism. We’ve got a long way to go before we get to the bottom of this. But there have been at least 15 very good scientific studies on the Institute of Medicine who have searched this out. And they have concluded that there really is no association between vaccines and autism.
GUPTA: Are you comfortable with everything that we know? So you talk about the…
GERBERDING: Well, I’ll never be comfortable with everything we know. I mean, I think we have to have an open mind about this. We know that there’s very little chance that it’s something related to a vaccine that’s going to cause a serious problem for a child. We also know how life saving vaccines really are.
GERBERDING: You know, something like 33,000 children a year are saved from death associated with the vaccines…
GERBERDING: …because of our immunization program. That’s a huge benefit.
GERBERDING: One of the things that concerns me is while the attention is focused on vaccines, in a sense, it means people are not looking for other causes. I mean, we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that the vaccine story has been one that’s been debated for many, many years now. We keep looking and looking and looking. And we really cannot turn up any information.
By SAM THIELMAN
The Glass Menagerie at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Set and costumes by Bob Crowley. Starring Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith.
One of the glorious problems that keeps a play from a second life as a book of poetry (or most plays; I’ll give you the Greeks and the odd, rule-proving exception like Ntozake Shange) is the little differences made by context; Tom Wingfield complains about his overbearing mother and needy sister more than once in The Glass Menagerie, but sometimes he berates Amanda to her face and sometimes he sighs over Laura behind her back, and in the third, most important sometimes, he simply, sadly tells the audience how he feels. The emotional content of these very similar expressions of frustration and resentment and exasperation varies wildly across the play’s rich emotional landscape, and that is why it sucks so often.
I told a friend I was headed up to Boston to see John Tiffany’s production of this play and he made a face I’ve only ever seen before on people who are hearing about a health code scandal at a nursing home or that time you saw a roach at their favorite restaurant. The Glass Menagerie is done badly nearly as often as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and for a lot of the same reasons; its subject matter—suffocating family relations—seems familiar; its subtext—Williams’ sad biography and Tom’s implied homosexuality—seems easy to grasp; and yet, largely because we assume those little parts are the whole of the play, its power slips away so often that we eventually come to wonder whether it was there in the first place.
Tiffany’s most interesting work thus far in a brilliant career is Black Watch, a bitter, elegiac show about Scotland’s answer to the SAS and the SEALS. I say “show” because it was so filled with dance and song that you couldn’t have properly called it a play, but it didn’t conform to the rules of musical theater well enough to belong in that category, either. When the characters needed to sing, they sang, when they needed to dance, they danced; when they needed to die, they died.
A Brit, Tiffany’s muscular approach to Williams’s first masterpiece makes all of the context physical. When Amanda (Cherry Jones) dresses her disabled, cripplingly shy daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger) to meet a friend of her wayward son Tom (Zachary Quinto) named Jim (Brian J. Smith), she takes the little glass unicorn that Laura loves so dearly (and that everyone else ignores) off the top of its display case, which is probably 18 inches high, and sticks Laura up there so she can smooth out the wrinkles in her dress and help her pad her bra. For another play, literally putting a tragic character on a pedestal would be much, much too obvious, but Tom tells us from the very beginning that we’re seeing things not as they are, but as he remembers them.
Robert Crowley’s set, easily among the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to see, makes this point beautifully. The play’s fire escape—which is also the Wingfields’ porch, since they live in a St. Louis building poor enough to have split its apartments in two, so that one opens onto the interior stairwells and hallways and another opens out the back onto the fire escape (it’s astonishing how many productions misunderstand or ignore this detail)—diminishes upward, each successive story smaller than the one below as it ascends on lines of perspective into the flys. The apartment itself, furnished as a little oasis of period-perfect naturalism, is a pair of hexagonal islands on a still pool of black water, where a curved spike of neon sticks up like a shark’s fin, stage right. The neon lights up, and the spike and its reflection, half in this world and half in the world below, make the moon.
The play and its events, a little more simply, are a burr in Tom’s beautiful memory; an imperfection made of ugly furniture and cheap curtains and bad feelings that interrupt and deform the fantastic landscape of his mind. He tells us at the play’s end that he’s tried hard and failed to tear out this part of his life by the roots, most drastically by abandoning his mother and sister to a life of poverty or worse. “Oh, Laura, Laura,” he says, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” It’s poor poetry, but its artlessness, with Tiffany’s direction and Crowley’s tangible symbolism, gives us the desperation as itself, without mediation.
Oh, yes, there’s also the actor. Zachary Quinto may be doomed to inhabit posterity wearing pointed ears and a tight blue shirt as Spock in J.J. Abrams’ slick sequel-remakes in the venerable-but-still-not-respectable Star Trek franchise, but he seems to like the theater, which is good, because it agrees with him. Quinto’s onstage specialty seems to be a complicated kind of gay self-loathing; at the Signature Theater’s revival of Tony Kushner’s meandering opus Angels in America, he played Louis, a charming man whose partner’s slow descent into torturous death from AIDS proves too much for him, and he fucks off to mutually seduce a confused, closeted, conservative Mormon man. Quinto’s performance was excellent; he was prettier than the actor playing his partner Prior and he played it that way: on the one hand, Louis had a moral duty to stay with his decaying partner; on the other, he didn’t need that kind of grief—he could find a better piece of ass in any bar in Manhattan on any night of the week.
Tom, perhaps obviously, is one of Louis’s ancestors, and Quinto plays him with the same intelligence about the inner mechanics of frustration and anger. Quinto’s Tom hates his job in the warehouse, he hates his mother and he even hates his poor helpless sister for being so fucking poor and helpless all the time. He hates himself most of all. This is a great relief. As times have complicated for gay rights and sexual liberty in general, actors and directors working on this play have tended to play down Tom’s badness, particularly since it’s taken as read that his alcoholism is a metaphor for his homosexuality. This is infuriating for all kinds of reasons—for one thing, alcoholism and homosexuality coexisted quite comfortably in the author, whose autobiography this clearly is—but far worse is what the poor-gay-Tom-can’t-be-expected-to-suffer-like-this productions have done to Amanda.
A recent, wildly overpraised staging of this show came to town with a respected actress in the role of Amanda Wingfield and it was everything you could possibly accuse the play of being: misogynist to the extent that Amanda might as well have been a man in drag, fawning in its adoration of Tom the Martyr, interesting exclusively when neither character was on stage. When Gentleman Jim came to call, Amanda was decked out in the best dress she had and did her level best to seduce an unimpressed Jim in front of her poor, smashed daughter, a scene that was horrifying in its cruelty to Laura but also horrifying in its cruelty to the actress playing Amanda, whose skills were used exclusively to make her character an aren’t-women-disGUSTing caricature. The production’s Amanda alternated between pitiable and contemptible when she wasn’t both. I’ve heard the play’s status as “a memory play” cited as an excuse for this sort of thing but it doesn’t wash. The Glass Menagerie is a play and not a fantasy novel because Tom can’t cut out the truth of it, no matter how hard he tries, and sneering misogyny is not true.
Cherry Jones is, of course, a magnificent performer, but she’s also given the chance here to play a woman in several dimensions. If you have a copy of the play, read her dialogue: it’s not wrong. Laura does need to develop marketable skills or get married; Tom is, actually, on the verge of losing his job; that job does provide every cent of their income. Jones, among the many Amandas I’ve seen, is the first to give the impression that she actually did entertain seventeen gentleman callers in a single afternoon, rather than an unspecified number that has grown in the telling. This interpretation makes so much more sense; Amanda is not Blanche Dubois. She is, in fact, the only character in this play who has honestly dealt with hard reality—her husband, whom she gave up everything for, left her, and she’s had a long time to think about that. Williams imagines her less as delusional white trash than as the deposed royalty of Blue Mountain, Mississippi, and Jones is rightly majestic.
Williams, who was also named Tom, also had a disabled sister, though her name was Rose, not Laura, and she was schizophrenic, not crippled. Their mother eventually had Rose lobotomized to “cure” her, and Williams had to live with not merely the memory of Rose’s disability but the horrible, human consequences of its drastic remedy for the rest of her long, long life. A friend of mine knew the two of them together briefly and described a day out with Tenn and Rose to me at one point. Suffice it to say that I’d drink, too. Celia Keenan-Bolger plays what is likely the least realistic and thus most sympathetic role in the play, and she seem to intuit that she has some room to test the limits of the audience’s sympathy. Like Quinto, she’s walking a knife’s edge; her character is both infuriatingly unself-conscious and endearingly fragile. It’s in the character of Laura that the true darkness of The Glass Menagerie becomes real; when Jim kisses her and leaves, she becomes “like all the other horses,” but, crucially, without any of the benefits. She still can’t type. She’s still not married. Her weakling brother is too much like his father and leaves the family. She and her mother will be women alone during the Second World War, and eventually, the real Rose will have a much more literal version of the procedure Laura invents when Jim breaks the unicorn.
“I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!” she tells Jim, who looks for a shining moment like he might take the unicorn’s place in the menagerie himself. “Now he will feel at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns.”
As the play closes, Tom observes that “time is the longest distance between two places;” yet Crowley and Tiffany tell us that this play is suspended in time, a pair of little islands on a wine-dark sea in the middle of the Loeb Theater. Above it is the past, where the light comes from but the stairs leading up are too small to climb; below is the future: a pool of black water and the other half of the crescent moon, where the only passable segment of the fire escape leads.
“I left St. Louis,” Tom confesses. “I descended the step of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space—I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”
As Tom and Amanda bicker and Laura crouches, shattered, by the edge of the little island, she gathers up the final piece of her only treasured possession—the horse that is just like all the other horses has been given away to Jim, and all that’s left is the little shard that used to be mounted on its head. And while her brother and mother shout and recriminate as though she wasn’t even in the room, she drops the broken piece of glass, or herself, or Rose Williams, into the water, or the future, where it will chase Tom until she is dead, and beyond, as soon as he next uses the fire escape.