Entries in The Reluctant Artiste (6)


The Reluctant Artiste: To Will, With Love


In so far as we can guess, it’s Shakespeare’s birthday today.  So Happy Birthday to him. It seems like a good time to express my gratitude to someone who has been in my life longer than almost anyone of formative significance. But,  as Lulu sang to her (oh so dreamy) Sir, with love, how do you thank someone, who has taken you from crayons to perfume?—or in my case crayons to whole, organic, hypoallergenic herbaceous oils, ‘cause I don’t do perfume anymore, ‘cause everywhere is scent-free these days, but if it doesn’t trigger the dachshund’s asthma, and the oils don’t, I figure I’m good—but anyway, how do thank someone for being Shakespeare? It isn't easy, but I'll try:
1. Thank you for shaping my brain. And my voice. And my priorities. 
I started reading Shakespeare when I was 6. Okay, I know you’re rolling your eyes now, and making gestures with varying degrees of vulgarity. But I did. I was a show-off. A precocious child with a gift for memorization, and a deep need for the attention that my precocity garnered.  So I read way over my head, and parroted those readings, and waited for a nice biscuit.  And:
delivered in a whispery just post-toddler voice was good for a few biscuits, let me assure you,  my friends. 
But it was good for more than that. It was good for me. Like sunshine and apples and not slouching and being kind just for the sake of it, the simple act of saying the words, iambically pentagrammical, and rife with metaphor, and alliteration and music, did things to my brain. And my voice. And what I thought words were for. Not just to make sound. Or get another biscuit. Words were for play. Words were for beauty. Words were to dazzle, and dream, and carry fire. To work at words was an intrinsic good. 
2. Thank you for keeping me (goodly) company. 
Okay, the kid who reads Shakespeare in Grade One does not get invited to a lot of pool parties. But there were books, lots of books—all of them important in getting me through the bookish child narrative relatively intact. But Shakespeare did more than keep me company through the pages. He did it across centuries—through dialect—and under a huge weight of difference. Shakespeare lived in a time with radically different ideas about almost everything, including whether a girl child merited attention of any kind—and yet—when I read him—I experienced a huge, generous, doubting, funny, sad, ironic and oh so human mind that seemed not foreign in any way. Across it all, Shakespeare offered not history so much as family. Which leads to:
3. Thank you for making me know it would get-eth better.
If a bearded, balding playwright four hundred years dead could feel that familiar—then kinship was not out of the question for me. I just had to find someone alive felt that way to me. Who I could make feel the same. By force if necessary (see past blog about my marriage). 
4. Thanks for being better than anyone else.
It takes the edge off right? Why worry if you’re good enough? You’re never going to be that good—so relax.
See, there’s what everyone else doing, here, which is…whatever. And then there’s what he did. Which kind looks after things—anything after him is kind of gravy. 
People are going to think I’m one of the Bard-ist fan girls who just go for a fella with both feet firmly planted in the canon. But that’s not it. I revere writing. I can list off a hundred other writers whose work I feel has made at least my life significantly better—right now—without breaking a sweat. And I think each and every one of them would tell you that they got good by standing on the shoulders of other giants. And each of those giants would shake their massive world-trembling shoulders and say, “Yeah but that guy? That Shakespeare?  I can’t believe him. He grows up a few steps from the cave—writing with a quill, by candlelight, in a world without public libraries, school or water treatment—and like Athena, he springs fully grown from the head of Zeus, starts working over tired old twice-told tales, and somehow, and in some cases in a startlingly modern way, does something that makes post-moderns cringe. He touches something dangerously like the heart of what it is to be human. I cannot touch that.”
Four hundred and fifty years, and I swear to you, someone somewhere is still saying his words every minute of every day? Fuhgeddaboudit. Nobody’s touching that. 
5. Oh, and thank you for the words. All of them.
 Thanks for Hamlet—because it proves that a play can be perfect, hold the whole world and still be a MESS. Thanks for Lear (though my heart cracks when I think on him). For Midsummer Night’s—especially the fairies, “the winter of our discontent”  “Out, out brief candle.” Ariel, Mercutio, Feste. There’s also several sonnets I could not do without.
‘Cause let’s face it, the guy’s got game. 

The Reluctant Artiste: Plot Twist!


Writers don’t get depressed. We get material. 
(Thanks anyway Dr. Seligman)
Happiness is making the rounds on the chat-o-sphere this week. After a few decades of natural source, high fibre irony, the pursuit of happiness may well be this year’s urban chicken-keeping. The message is, seek out things to be grateful for, reflect on what went right each day, and above all, challenge your notions of helplessness in unhappy situations—because it’s lack of agency that’s making ya’ feel crazy. 
I have another approach. I don’t seek out things to be grateful for—I horde them— along with the stuff I am so NOT grateful for, and the stuff that went TOTALLY WRONG—and I challenge my notions of helplessness and agency the way a dominatrix challenges a submissive’s backside—because I am a writer, my friends—and happiness and sorrow are not states of mind. They’re the pantry of my literary kitchen. 
(I realize that I’ve just put a cooking metaphor in the same paragraph as an S&M metaphor, and this puts us into some slightly yucky territory, but so does writing.) 
Have you ever seen a play by Colleen Murphy? Erin Shields? I know both of them, and I must say that they are each perfectly capable of happiness of the glowy sun filtered through the geometrically so-perfect- there-must-be-some-kind-of-intelligence-behind-creation tree branches sort of way. But their plays? They are freakin’ furious. Raging sad. Screaming for some kind of redress…so they’re like…really good. 
I honest to god don’t think I have much to say unless I can get to the coal-hot tar stuff at the bottom of my well and at least mix it in—not because I write a lot of melodrama. I almost never do—would be ashamed to serve the subjects of my rage so tritely—with easy tears and howling. No, pilgrims--I write comedy. So—like almost every other comic you’ve heard lob a well-shaped zinger into a crowd and watched the laughter shrapnel scatter—I am such a dark and angry person, that if I weren’t a writer, I’d be Number 1 with a bullet on the Neighborhood Watch list (“if you see the angry lady who talks to herself, Brianna, just cross to the other side of the street and find an adult you trust”).
Well maybe not that bad. But lord, it wouldn’t be good. 
Like I said, I don’t just run on brimstone and bile. I have a hybrid battery of grateful and good that I switch over to—and if, when those bits of happy mix with the fuming tar, they survive—they don’t instantly burn off in a puff of toasted Tinkerbell smoke—then they're worth something. They're material. 
So c’mon—hit me with your best plot twist. I need something new for the second act….  



Portrait of a young Reluctant Artiste in love: Exact. Oh. 

It wasn’t what I wanted.

We’d only been together a few months. And I was in love—capital L-O-V-E—and I wasn’t sure he was.

At least there’d been no words to that effect. Not one. Despite all the silences I had placed strategically in his path, wide and waiting.

And it was Valentine’s Day and I thought maybe he might take the opportunity to demonstrate what he had not yet said.

The box he held out was rectangular. Bracelet-shaped—which I thought was promising. I would have preferred ring-shaped, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I unwrapped it, heart a pitter patter, and saw, not a blue velvet jewelry box, but a blister pack.

An Exacto knife.

Narrow and matte silver chrome. The sort used for slicing the waxed sheets of copy that we both worked with, in the dusty days before computers replaced the sweat and smoke tinged lay-out tables of the newspaper print shop. I would be the envy of the slicers, I realized, much later.

At that moment, all I could think was a) he doesn’t love me b) he wants me to be more employable so he can dump me in good conscience and c) what the hell do I do with my face, in case I am wrong about a) and b).

“It reminded me of you.”

What did that mean? He saw me as cold, hard-edged, the kind of woman who cut things? Very particular things? The kind of woman who you certainly did not envision a life with, because you don’t spend your life with retractable razors—not if you have any sense at all.

“What? Don’t you like it?”

“Of course I do. It’s great. It’s just—“


“Well. It’s an unusual gift for Valentine’s Day.”

“You said Valentine’s Day was a corporate plot.”

“I didn’t mean it!”


“What’s the matter?”

“I love you. Do you love me at all?”

“Of course I love you. I’d kill for a knife this cool. It’s got a rubberized grip—“



“Go back.”


“To the part where you love me. “

“Of course I love you. What did you think we were doing all this time?”

I didn’t know. Because there’d been no words. He didn’t know that I didn’t know—‘cause every gesture he’d made since the day he’d met me, was him telling me.

He had yet to learn the language of silence yearning for words. And I had yet to learn the language of Exacto knives.


 Happy Valentine's Day.



January 25th

January 25th.
 I almost forgot it again today. For the first few years I got sick every January 25th, or just a little insane. I lost my temper easily and occasionally frightened people who had a reason to trust me. But now I seem to just block it out. I know that the number means something. I have a sense when I look at it that it's weightier then the other numbers on the calendar. But honestly don't remember why.
And then the messages start coming from other people. Nice messages. Lovely ones. Thinking of your brother. Hope you're okay. I know this is a hard time for you. And I remember what Jan 25th means . This is the day that my brother died, and everything changed.
Now everybody who has lost somebody says that. They say that everything changed the day so and so died . And you hear the convention of the phrase. The ubiquity. And it slides past your ear, like the ghost of meaning. But when I say everything changed, I am being specific. I'm the only one who sees my version of the universe. And in my universe my brother is alive. That is as much a part of my reality as gravity or air. On this day the universe flexed. Shook off my control.  I lost my brother. And the capacity to ever completely trust air or gravity. 
The first time I forgot I was horrified. I thought it meant that I had become calloused. I thought my admittedly extreme self-centeredness was giving me the gift of selective amnesia . But now I think if I was calloused , I probably would remember the date.  I would put some kind of sticker on the calendar to mark it. Some not happy emoticon. I would make it into event. Cook his favorite foods. Tell stories, lift a jar, sing a song, celebrate the life. But no calluses have formed. Part of me  is still right there, experiencing for the first time the entire world changing. Face down where I had fallen, on the carpeted stair, as I tried to go up and tell the children what the phone call from their grandmother had been about. I see the carpet. I see how badly it needs vacuuming . I realize that my face is against purple dirty nap, and wonder why. And then I remember. And stay down.
I think I forget because it is still so raw. Because I still have almost nothing to say except No. Not. Didn't. Couldn't. And.... I miss you Steve. I miss you everyday. I think I can't remember January 25th, because every day is January 25th.

TRA: Off to St. Peter's College (Muenster) to teach Creative Non-fiction


One of the ways I avoid writing is teaching it. Or possibly I avoid teaching by writing. Hard to say.

Nice problem to have though--since to be honest I love doing both. 

For those who wonder what Creative Non-fiction really is, here's a helpful video: