Post image for Artistic Innovation Essay

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

All my characters are trying to wrestle the narrative away from each other right now. When it first happened, when I was working on “True Story,” it was disconcerting, kind of shocking and violent, really, but I went with it. And I doubted myself, because… well, who doesn’t, but I trusted the voices and followed them out into the deep, dark places, because I’ve really begun to understand, these last few years, that that’s the only way to do it.

It’s been a nice couple of years. I got a fellowship, and then another fellowship, so I quit my sensible day job and moved across the country, far away from everything I know, and my family, to New Jersey (!), and have been writing full time. And it’s been nice. It’s been… Madeleine L’Engle used this word “deepening” in one of her books, and that’s how I’ve felt, like I’ve been deepening, finding my true voice in a way that I’ve never–

(How am I going to pay the rent this month?)

–come so close to doing before. And I’ve been writing so much more than I ever ever have. New full lengths, and short plays, and a one-man show that cut so close to the bone I pretty much had a panic attack when we read it in workshop. Maybe not a full panic attack. I don’t know, I’ve never had one before. But all of a sudden my heart started pounding so loud I couldn’t hear Stephen reading anymore. But then I could hear again after a while, and I stayed really quiet there in my chair, and I don’t think anybody noticed. You’re not supposed to talk during the response period anyway, so I–

(don’t know how I’m going to keep doing this. I’m 42 years old, and what the fuck do I have to show for it? no husband, no kids, no house, no — is this a mid-life crisis? How fucking trite that would be. Jesus.)

[why is my internal voice so profane when I never swear?]

–shut up and listened. Is it a good sign when you give yourself a panic attack from something you wrote? It’s probably not a sign at all. But it was a hard play to write. It’s about guns and gun control.

Not really.

It’s about me and my husband, and how he died.

Which makes it really no different from any of my plays, which are all about me and my husband and how he died, except the rest of them cleverly call all the characters by different names and are set in different places, so I don’t think people realize that they’re all about us, that I’ve been writing about us all this time.

It’s called “The Gun Show.” It’s the first thing I’ve written in first person in a long time. It’s written for a guy to read, but he’s playing me, and at a couple points during the play, he points a flashlight at me, picking me out of the audience so they know I’m there and they can identify the guilty party, the one who wrote this thing, the one who… I took out the puppet. There used to be a puppet, and I used to have lines, talking back to the actor who is playing me, but I took them out, because it was already in there, in the text, everything I needed. And I put a clause in the notes about some time, maybe, I’ll be brave enough to read it myself, but that’s probably bullshit. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do it. Maybe I want to wrestle the narrative away from my actors and claim my own words. Maybe I want to confess my sins.

(maybe I should move back home to the farm in Oregon)

[you're gonna have to do something if you can't pay your rent this month]

Into the woods. It’s a good metaphor. It was good back in fairy tale days, with all the romance and darkness, and it’s even better after Mr. Sondheim mucked about with it, because he added the complicatedness that we’ve all run up against, and said, “Yeah, the woods is that, too.” I just saw the show the other day, over at the McCarter, and the lyrics have been sounding in my head like a bell.

“Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood.”

(Yeah.)

“Nothing’s quite so clear, now. Feel you’ve lost your way?”

(Yeah.)

But I’m getting closer to something as an artist, I think.

(Is that bullshit? That sounds dangerously close to–)

Those terrible true things. The small personal true things and the larger global true things. I feel like I’m getting closer–

(But how do you ever know? Some people like my plays, I’ve had some productions and such, but how do I know if any of this means anything? If it’s the right path? Maybe I should have–)

[--been a helicopter nurse. I know that sounds like a radical notion, but there was a moment, back when I was at Chemeketa Community College, when I was nineteen, when I seriously considered it. Flying around and saving people. What's not to like?)

(--done something different with my life, gone down a surer path.)

[What's surer?]

{Accounting?}

[I'd be a terrible accountant. I can't event calculate the tip properly.]

(There has to be something surer than this.)

[Is that even a word? Surer?]

I could die tomorrow.

(I really could. It’s been ages since I had health insurance. Looking both ways at the intersections only gets you so far.)

At a certain point… at this point, I guess… you start to ask yourself, is it worthwhile, what I’ve done with my life, what I’m doing with my life? What do I have to show for my life?

(The job hunt hasn’t been going well. I don’t need much, but I need something. I’ll mow lawns. I’ll wash windows. I’m not too proud to do anything, but I can’t even get a call back on most of the jobs I’m applying for. What am I doing wrong? Or does the economy still just suck this bad? Maybe it’s just that nobody wants me.)

[Fuck 'em. Fuck 'em all. You're a playwright, goddamn it, you shouldn't be washing fucking windows, you should be writing plays.]

{easy to say, but then maybe when you get back from that play festival in Fayetteville you find all your stuff out on the lawn and they’ve changed the locks on you, and there’s no power outlet for your laptop out on the lawn, girlie-girl.}

(Sometimes I’m terrified, sometimes I lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck I’m doing–)

[--but that's okay, because you're a writer, if you weren't fucked up what the fuck would you write about?]

{yeah, tell yourself that}

(Do you lie in the dark and wonder what the fuck you’re doing sometimes?)

Stop, already! Just stop!!!

(A moment. A Pinter pause.)

This is me, trying to take control of the narrative. The writing narrative and the life narrative. And realizing that you never can, and you always have to keep trying, and you always have to keep trying, and you never can.

There is no “surer” thing than this. Nothing is sure. And we have to figure out why we should push the rock up the hill anyway, and how, and if we can keep a roof over our heads while we’re doing it.

This essay was supposed to be about artistic innovation, but I’m writing about my rent money instead. Because they are inextricable from one another. Both require all of our courage and all of our humility.

I don’t just want to be a braver writer, after all.

I want to be a braver person.

Here’s a funny story. I got an email from someone I didn’t know the other day. The woman said that she’d come across my play “The Edge of Ross Island” on her way to Staunton, and thought it was really interesting. I emailed her back, thanking her for saying so. And I asked her where she’d “come across it,” because… that was a funny way to put it. And it turns out she’d found it on the sidewalk. Laying there on the sidewalk in Staunton, Virginia, for no apparent reason, and she bent down and picked it up, and read it, and in her second email, where she told me all this, she said that she couldn’t put it down.

Something about that whole story makes me laugh, and makes me want to keep going.

Oh, world!

Courage, I guess, is the word I’ve been looking for.

I want to keep writing more courageously and living more courageously. Whether I do that in New Jersey or Oregon, while washing windows or making plays, while voicing my own words or asking actors to do it for me.

The boldest innovations came from people who acted bravely. I want to be brave.

(“Things will come out right now. We can make it so.”)

Be brave.


EM Lewis received a 2012 Fellowship in Playwriting from the NJ Council for the Arts, the 2010‐2011 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for Song of Extinction and the Primus Prize for Heads from the American Theater Critics Association. Her plays have been produced around the world, and published by Samuel French. RecentSong of Extinction at the Guthrie and Hostos College; Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday at HotCity Theater. Upcoming: Heads at The Rep in Pittsburgh, and the world premiere of True Story at Passage Theater in Trenton. Lewis has been living in Princeton for the last three years, and is the Dramatists Guild representative for New Jersey.  She is moving back to the farm in Oregon on Friday.  www.emlewisplaywright.com
  • Stephanie Walker

    Ellen, I’ve always loved and adored you as a person. And I’ve always admired your craft… your beautiful and haunting plays. This piece is so touchingly raw and incredibly relatable. I’ve been asking myself the same questions. What *should* I have been? Is there a surer path? Why have I been so stupid as to delude myself into thinking I could make my way as a playwright? How could I have chosen a more failure-filled and infuriating path? But, I think you’re right… there is nothing surer. It helps to know we all question the same things. And to hear it coming from you … well, I’m so glad you chose this path. What you’ve given us all. Keep doing it. It’s not easy. You know this already. When we were on the edge, losing everything you were there for us.

    I just want to thank you for being so courageous in this essay. I loved reading it (it made me cry) and getting inside your head.

    I can’t wait to see The Gun Show!! Where? When? How? Come to L.A. and read it and we will support and embrace you while you do it. You know this too. We love you.

    P.S. I think all artists should read this! I’m sharing it gratuitously.

  • Claudia

    Yes, all artists should read this. How do you mix brutal honesty with compassion? Because you do. Sharing. Everywhere.

  • Isabella

    A pyschiatrist once said to me that chosing poetry as a writing form was like comtemplating suicide. He was a little bit right. The audience was so much larger for plays, I thought I was rubbing right up against sanity when I switched genres. Recently, I started writing a novel. I’ve got a huge cast and a million dollar set. I’ve been at it for five days and I’ve wracked up 6,000 words. No one asking for cuts. I am in nirvana. I quit two freelance jobs. I barely paid attention to the little voice that said…hey, Isabella…not so fast.

  • isabella

    PS. Ellen, were you at the TCG Conference? And we missed each other? Gosh.

  • peterinkansas

    I wish I had lots of money to give you. But I only have a little

  • Robert Robbins

    I wanted to be a playwright once. But instead I became a computer programmer and now I have a great job with health insurance. The theater cannot make you rich or famous or even offer you a career. So I ask you, what dream was given up when I gave up on that?

  • alex writer

    As a matter of fact, artistic innovation and your rent money are really interrelated. It is a great comparison to be used in writing. Being a freelance essay writer at cheapwritinghelp.com I have never used it. Thanks for ideas!