I think this is a good barometer of how much a writer you are – if there are degrees of it at all, which there aren’t. If you should be asleep, if you know that your morning will be much more difficult and strenuous as a result of it, but you decide to keep writing anyway; or even moreso, to begin writing at all that particular moment (as I am doing now) – that’s when you know you were meant to be a writer. Nothing that I am writing could not have been written tomorrow. I will not even post this for a few days. But I FEEL like I have to write it now. That somehow it won’t be the same if I write it tomorrow, although that might only mean that my thoughts are more processed and clear. Sometimes the urgency contained in a mess of words is more important than their clarity. Or sometimes you spend an entire paragraph writing about writing about the thing you want to write about, instead of just writing about the thing you want to write about. And what I want to write about now, finally, is writing.
I’ve been a fan of Martin McDonagh’s ever since I read The Lonesome West and saw his short film, “Six Shooter” which won the Oscar that year for Best Short Film. I just finished reading his play The Pillowman. It is one of the best plays I’ve ever read. It is remarkably simple and entirely theatrical. It would make a terrible film, but a wonder to behold on the stage (I presume). It is about a writer named Katurian, whose stories, all but one of which are not even published, have inspired some gruesome murders. The police are questioning his own involvement, since the murder seems like a re-enactment of his published story. At this point, you may be waiting for me to say that Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd debuted the play on Broadway. But this is not some cornball thriller or a who-dunnit. It takes place entirely inside the police station, in 3 simple scenes. Well, simple may be the wrong word.
Katurian is interrogated by two cops in absurdist fashion, the kind of interrogation where the questions are asked simply so that their answers can be deliberately misinterpreted, so as to make the accused feel more and more trapped. The scenes require little movement from the actors physically, but multitudes in terms of thought and mood and character. It is brilliant writing.
One of the best things the play does is it allows recitations of many of Katurian’s stories, not unlike the constant telling of stories in David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System. Want more eeriness? The most heartbreaking of Katurian’s stories is the play’s namesake, “The Pillowman,” about a man made of pillows whose task in life is to find suicide victims, then go back in time and convince them to kill themselves as children in order to spare themselves a life of impending misery. I note in passing that McDonagh is Irish.
Katurian’s brother is involved, and it gets complicated and I won’t take the time, just read the play. But here comes a spoiler, but not one that gives away too too much – Katurian, who is told he will be executed – agrees to confess to everything under one condition: That his stories are not destroyed, but kept for 50 years, sealed, and then released to the public – the implication being that perhaps his infamy will result in his stories being read at that time. And Katurian is fine with this, he is content. He just wants his stories to survive. “I thought that if I tied myself into all of it, like you wanted me to, at least I’d be able to save my stories. At least I’d have that. (Pause.) At least I’d have that.”
I won’t tell you what happens. I’ve had this play for about 4 months (stole it from a friend) and I knew it was about writing, but I knew not at all to what extent. And since I have two writing projects on my plate for myself, which I’ll discuss another time, I wanted to read some dialogue, some good dialogue. Hence, McDonagh. What I found was an exploration of what it means to be a writer, to have impact in unimaginable ways, and to ask yourself, what is more important? Me, or my writing? And maybe because of the similarities of storytelling and death and the question of what we’re left with when any artist passes on, but I could not help but link my reading of this play to David Foster Wallace. And more specifically, to John’s comment on that blog (which you can read if you scroll down a bit) about this very subject. And I agree with him… mostly. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was all alone and killed myself and left people only my writing. Would I feel empty because I had no one – would that be the reason I chose suicide? Or is it too simplistic to link the only two articles of information I have about a writer who kills himself? Who’s to say his art influenced his decision at all? I know Wallace taught some writing classes and really loved working with young writers. So he was no recluse. He had a girlfriend, I think, too, and other writers he was friends with. But even if he was a recluse. At his level – published that is, a successful known, read writer – if that was me and that’s all I had, wouldn’t that constitute some sort of meaningful relationship? Between sole author and mass readership? Couldn’t my death be for other reasons?
I’m not even sure where I’m going with this, other than to say, and I’m sorry if this sounds morbid, but I’ve thought a lot about death recently. Actually, more about my funeral. What I want it to be like. The tone. The music to be played – a mix of all my favorites – selections of writings that I would want to be read – not that life-affirming, “he was a son, brother, friend…” junk, I mean some good literature – and what writing of my own I would want to have read. I’ve considered writing some bits about the people in my life, sortof “Final Words From the Grave of the Deceased” sortof thing. Something unique, hopefully funny. And it all ties in with the question, what would I leave behind? I know where I’m going, I know what’s ahead of me. I do not know what I’ve done, and by the time that hindsight is available, I may well be gone. So I’m trying to jump the shark of perspective here while I’m alive, and it’s a silly task, I admit, but… what will be left of me? Unpublished, unread stories, essays, plays, screenplays – all in need of new drafts and serious revisions? It’s these unknowable things that rattle around in the head at night, that prompt someone to write about it for far too long. So, here’s the deal. For now, just read the play I mentioned. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll have something for people to read. Hopefully nothing that inspires actual killing, but at the same time, I’ll take what I can get.