The Timeliness (and Timelessness) of Books

My friend Jenny says, a book comes into your life at the appropriate time.  She, mother of three-year-old twins, is reading Moby Dick.


This summer I rode down (or is it up?) the Nile with Cleopatra and Caesar, paying homage to Isis and sacred crocodiles. I sailed across the Mediterranean with my retinue of ships laden with gifts for Rome, including a giraffe and golden cutlery. I partied in the ancient city of Tarsus, reveling in excess, and I explored fabled Alexandria with its Canopic walkway lined with colonnades and wide enough for six chariots to ride abreast. At the end of this stretch I saw The Great Lighthouse in all its giganticness.

Before I embarked on this journey I knew nothing of Cleopatra, apart from a vague sense of her beauty. I hadn’t bothered to absorb any of the floating rumors because Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, hadn’t yet fallen into my hands. So I didn’t know that, as a young woman, she disguised herself and wrapped herself in papyrus to sneak into her palace, under siege by Rome. I didn’t know that she bore children to both Caesar and Mark Anthony. And I didn’t know her fate, though I had forebodings. So for me, the book was a fabulous page-turner, a delight, a chance to embody a time and place lost, and celebrate a woman who lived and loved in epic proportions.


Leaving for an early morning flight to Bozeman, Montana, I grab a book off my shelf. The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It’s an odd book, a series of soliloquies, and the cast – Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, Louis –  start off as children, then in a few pages, come of age and embark on youthful pursuits. I’m en route to Montana State University, to see my son launch himself. The book reads like a post-modern opera, with each character declaring their perspective in a rush of poetic intonation. It’s mesmerizing, incantatory. I tremble, I quiver, like the leaf in the hedge, as I sit dangling my feet, on the edge of the bed, with a new day to break open. I have fifty years, I have sixty years to spend. I have not yet broken into my hoard. This is the beginning.

Was I waiting until this precise moment to crack open this tome, to let these words spill over me in this transformational moment, with a new set of realities beckoning, hurtling me into the unknown? How did Woolf anticipate my state of mind?


Another early journey, this time to ride various conveyances (train, ferry, bus), to meet my mom and dad at a meeting with a heart specialist. For my commute I grab A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I know everyone’s read this book long ago, when they were children, or seen the movie with Oprah. Well, not me! I remember, as a child, feeling that this was an important book, but being exceedingly stubborn (like Meg, the protagonist), I refused to open it, despite loving books, because my sister, Beth, had read it and enjoyed it, and because it had something to do with science, or, at least, space, and I wanted to make a statement (to myself, to the book fairies who keep track of such things?) that I would not be so easily pulled over to the other side.

Recalling all this as if it were yesterday, I open the book (it is my sole selection) and read. I’m sucked in instantly. Amazing how 40 years of resistance can be broken: It was a dark and stormy night. I turn pages, emboldened. Would my life have been different if I’d read this book as a child? Would it have helped to see my own father as fallible, to not feel betrayed by him? Would Meg’s anger have released my own rage, so that I didn’t have to hold it in?  She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. . . She was frozen and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the seesaw of love and hate.

Or is this short minded of me? Is it better to focus on the themes: the parent/child dynamic (I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple. / But I wanted to do it for you, that’s what every parent wants.) ; fate vs. self-determination (You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.) ; and love as the ultimate answer – themes that resonate with me at this particular point in time? There is never a wrong time to wander into the worldly, wondrous pages of a well-worn and ever-patient book.




Two Forms of Memoir

Today I’m inspired by Adrienne Kennedy’s book people who led to my plays.  Her headings: Chekhov and my brother; Marlon Brando; Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER show that any person (or event or object) can be a place marker for one’s interior revelations. I think up my own place markers: Seattle rain; A Trip to Russia; Ibsen’s A Woman From the Sea. This selection process allows the writer to spin a vast personal mythology.AdrienneK.JPG


At the same time, I’m following Marie Konde’s transformative approach to the magic of tidying-up, starting, as she suggests, with clothing and gathering everything into collections: tops, pants, skirts, sweaters, coats, etc,. I had to fetch myriad coats from the basement to ensure that they were all accounted for. Each piece of clothing is held so that I can hear its story – past, present and future – and then release it to fulfill its unique destiny.



On Procrastination and Discovery



Despite the luxury of twofold renewal (totaling a span of 9 weeks!), today I found these two books unmistakably due. With no reprieve in sight I did what any laggard bookworm would do – I opened them!

Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, is a practical gem. In Part I, she urges aspiring writers to write every day without fail for 15 minutes; the value of staying in touch with one’s writerly obsessions is priceless. One can use daily exercise to work on sense observation, or to start on a draft. I liked her tips such as labeling journal entries for future gleanings, and making a point to type out a handwritten draft right away for potential revision. How often do superb first-takes languish between the pages of a journal until some impossibly late date? She also champions a healthy balance between free writing and writing into a specific structure to create a finished piece. She promises that in the course of her book, she will help the aspiring writer develop a strategy to find structures for his or her work.

In my other neglected tome, The Theater of Maria Irene Fornes, edited by Marc Robinson, the first essay opens with a story of Irene and her roommate Susan. The girls are at a cafe in Greenwich Village in Spring of 1961. They plan to hang around and see if anyone invites them to a party. Then Susan discloses that she is bummed because she hasn’t been able to start on the book she wants to write. Irene says, you just need to sit down and start writing! Then, determined to encourage her friend, she turns down a party invitation and insists they go back to their apartment and commence writing. The procrastinating writer is no other than Susan Sontag and her helpful friend, Maria Irene Fornes, changes course that afternoon from painting to playwriting. “I might never have even thought of writing if I hadn’t pretended I was going to show Susan how easy it was.”

Even if I don’t make it past the first essay in either of these books, my take-away is huge. The secret of becoming and remaining a writer is spelled out as clear as day. Write! I wonder what else lies in wait for me to discover in the final moments as my time for exploration runs out?

My personal library, or the meritoriousness of due-dates (courtesy of the public library)


I love my personal library because it is always being refreshed and it is informed by the blurbs I read in magazines and books and blogs and the performances I attend. If a work or artist is mentioned which I am unfamiliar with, but intrigued by, it is brilliantly easy to place a hold, which means at some point in the future, that book will enter my stacks. From there it’s up to fate, whether I’ll open its spine to peruse its contents or not, though one factor increasing probability is what’s commonly known as the due-date.

Due-dates are desirable, because we’re all procrastinators, right? The due-date is the secret to life, or at least the key to busting open those musty volumes to see what’s inside. Every 3 weeks the bell tolls; and although there’s a superb chance of renewing, especially the more obscure tomes, it serves as a reminder that the clock is ticking and that one’s reading window is finite. Of course, there is infinite grace here; if a book simply must be returned before one’s time with it is complete, one can place a new hold on it as soon as it’s been put back into circulation. This is a perfect closed circuit, in which books are constantly placed in new hands along with the desire that accompanies an experience which is terminable.

Spotlight: White Girls by Hilton Als


Whenever I read excellently penned memoirs, I entertain the idea that my own life could be written in a similarly hypnotic vein. Then I remember, being more mouse than girl, that I shy away from trend-setters and starlets; on the whole I have avoided more often than collided with life. But then Hilton Als, in his essay, Tristes Tropiques, describes himself as “half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing it”, and I think aha! just watch me!

My raison d’être is to be where no one notices me like in a bookstore on a saturday night just before closing. Which is where I was when I saw White Girls with its capitalized title, defiant and oddly familiar. Not being able to pinpoint the arc of his story – messy, contradictory, and addled with cultural references – I was drawn to it.

From Tristes Tropiques, “what is grace but the desire to forget one’s body, or share it with others?” Als describes a need, a craving for love which transcends ownership, or even, at times, touch; our search for a “we” or a “I” that acts like a mirror, reflecting back our double, or twin.

He describes a white girl (one of many in the book) he calls Mrs. Vreeland because “she was stylish, and everything she wore was unfussy and the opposite of fashion and what did the first Mrs. Vreeland say about style? ‘It helps you get down the stairs’.”

These days, I yearn for the time to write the essays, poems, plays whose bits rattle about in my brain. When I was young and had the time and money I worked grunt jobs instead of pursuing my craft; I felt that I had no right to write, I had to live first.

Now, I try to imagine what this new ideal would look like. If I wrote all day, would I dress up my limbs and paint my face to go out to the bars and cafes at night?

Because writing often flits between subjective and objective desire. We are so much in our own heads, we have to feel the world’s eyes on us in return, to feel desirable, and to make the isolation of the work worthwhile. When Hilton Al’s muse says, “what readers crave most, what fills them up, is the story of love, and how it ends,” she speaks for all of us who are watching our lives and loves take root and unravel, while simultaneously putting it all down on paper.

Spotlight: Sarah Ruhl’s 100 essays I don’t have time to write

I’m up before dawn, on a Sunday! The milk for my tea is hovering just this side of sour & it’s starting to clot before my bleary eyes. Nonetheless, I have to run to my desk, now, to write a review of Sarah Ruhl’s 100 essays I don’t have time to write on umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater. Because I love this book! It contains so much that is of value! Sarah Ruhl reminds us that art comes from life – messy, imperfect life- and that we humans screw things up with our uber-seriousness. “Where are the jugglers? The fire-eaters?” she asks. Refusing to idealize or disparage motherhood, she aligns it with the primary urge to make theater, and claims that both require the DIY ability of turning junk into treasure.

Sarah Ruhl packs so much hilarity and profundity in her prose. In essay #35, just 25 words in to it she has restored our creative potential; stating what comes naturally to 5 year olds, and Shakespeare – “By speaking it [a palace, the woods, an evil tower], we make it so.”

Notwithstanding her playful tone, Sarah Ruhl touches upon various isms.

Sexism “A male artist following his whims is daring, manly, and original. A woman artist following her whims is womanly, capricious, and trivial.” #61
Racism“Color-blind casting; or, why are there so many white people on stage?” #41
Elitism“Do we all need a master’s degree to put up a play? Whatever happened to the garage, to the basement?” #38
Ageism“Botox has become our new version of the Greek mask.” #29
Celebrity worship “Everyone is famous in a parade.” #36
Technology fixation – “If waiting is lost, then will all the unconscious processes that take place during waiting get lost? And then might we see the death of the unconscious, and the death of culture?”

Her nuggets are the sort of pearls one scribbles on the back of a napkin (or, in my case, index cards); not precious, scooped from the chaos of life. For me, the message I treasure is to plunge more madly into the mess. “More failure! More demand for failure! More bad plays! Less perfection! More ugliness! More grace!” she belts in essay #56, as if she is competing with a jackhammer and a wired toddler (or both).

I still have 22 essays to go in the book, but I had to pen this review without delay! It couldn’t wait! I want to savor the remaining essays, and, besides, when I do finish, I’ll probably start it over at the beginning.