Spotlight: White Girls by Hilton Als

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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?”
#72

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.