Writing Fetish

We were watching an early West Wing episode and Jordana said, “God, this show really fetishizes writers”. And then she did that thing where you rub the area just in front of your nipples slowly and moan a word (the word in this case was “ooooh wriiitttiiiiing…), but I’m not gonna tell you about that because it isn’t the point.

They do fetishize writers, but nowhere near as much as we do in general. The more I see the great political divide open up in front of me, the more I feel like people who like to talk are liberals and the people who don’t like it when people talk are conservatives. It’s as if we’re being liberal with the spoken word, whereas they are being conservative with it. Whatever, that’s not the point either.

There’s a song by the Mountain Goats called ‘No Children” that is among my favorite songs ever. It is bitter to the point of hilarity. There are lyrics like “In my life, I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife. And I hope you die. I hope we both die.” The song starts with…

I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us/
I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot to piss off the dumb few who forgave us/
I hope the fences we mended, fall down beneath their own weight/
And I hope we hang on past the last exit, I hope it’s already too late/

This song is funny as hell. He describes an indisputable set of ways that he and this woman he hates but is caught with can both die and be destroyed to the point where their relationship will no longer even haunt the world as a possibility.

Now, here’s the amazing thing. My friend Deb, who was trained as an actor heard the song and hung on to one line. In the middle of the myriad possible disasters, the singers talks about them going to hell, dragging each other “hand in unlovable hand”. And that one phrase, that one beautifully drawn moment, meant the world to her. She argued that it was a love song.

I didn’t dismiss the argument, and I didn’t argue with her. At all. I laughed about it, I’m sure I made a public spectacle of her by pointing out that every single moment in the song, including the one she mentioned, very strictly make this a song of total despair, but in the back of my mind, I was totally convinced. Yeah. This is a love song.

Why would someone bother putting enormous effort into creating a song about someone they despise. And why would the effort be so pointed, so poignant, why would the language be so powerful. “Our friends all say it’s darkest just before the sun rises, we’re pretty sure they’re all wrong. I hope it stays dark forever, I hope the worst isn’t over, I hope you blink before I do…” I knew she was right.

The power of interpretation. That’s what we’re doing, in case you are wondering, during all those long hours of rehearsal. It isn’t ass-sniffing, it’s a cosmic wrestling match, it is a battle of wills, with you, as the actor, pitted against the director and the playwright and the audience and the other actors, with shifting allegiances and petty frustrations. We switch sides a hundred times, we use the lines and we work against the lines, we set up trust funds with other actors and then we raid them.

It’s alarming. You look into someone’s eyes and you tell them something, and then the scene is over and you look into their eyes and tell them something else. You look at someone and say, as your character, “You cannot be trusted” and then you look at them twenty seconds later and say, as yourself, “I trust you.” It’s torturous and inhuman.

What do the words mean? I mean, that’s the stupidest question because the only reasonable next step is to clarify, what do they mean to whom? If I’m Sean, playing Charlie, and I’m talking to Matthew, playing Marcus, then who am I talking to, and who am I talking about? And are these words mine, Charlie’s or the playwright’s? And don’t they actually belong to the director and, ultimately, don’t they only mean what the audience is able to understand? What if Deb is listening, what if she’s listening with a special kind of hearing where the words are symbols and the cadence and the intention is all she hears?

It’s torturous. It’s unpleasant. And maybe the worst is when you’ve gone through the torture of writing it, the torture of producing it and the torture of watching it being rehearsed and in the end, like they said to Prufrock, all you hear is “that is not what I meant at all, that is not it, at all”, and to know that, when you are done talking, that too is a love song. It’s inhuman, exhausting, each moment like a little death. And, ultimately, it’s the only thing I ever do that feels like this.