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“The Write Time of Life”

The Write Time of Life

Cynthia’s Column Oct 2007

Every writer has his/her best time to write.  This is true of daily cycles, yearly cycles and life cycles.  We all know writers who are best and smartest in the mornings.  I am one of those.  There is a measurable difference in my IQ between 9 am and 9 pm.  If you want to beat me at Scrabble, make it a night game.  My sister Laura (whose second novel for Houghton Mifflin will be out in the fall of ’08) will get up after watching a movie on DVD after dinner and announce that she’s going to go write.  This is at a time when I can barely read.  Jean Auel is a night writer.  The Clan of the Cave Bear was written entirely between dark and dawn on her kitchen table.

Seasonally some of us are better at some times than others.  When it gets over 100 degrees, many of us are intellectually incapacitated.  This is only one of the many good reasons I relocated to the Northwest years ago.  Neil Simon would write for seven months every year beginning in the fall, and take five months off including the summers.  His entire career he held to this schedule absolutely.

But what about times of life?  At what age are our talents sharpest?  This too is not the same for all writers.  I’ve talked about late bloomers like Norman Maclean who wrote his first novel after retiring at the age of 72 and it turned out to be A River Runs Through It. (By the way this is my favorite last paragraph of any book anywhere.)

A few months ago I wrote a column about deciding to read 30 plays in 30 days to retrain myself as a playwright.  After extending it to 60, then 90 plays/days I went ahead and declared this the Year of the Play and committed to reading 365 plays in 2007.  I am now up to #283.  It is a fascinating and enlightening process.

I am focusing on 20th Century American Playwrights at first and the three giants on that stage are of course Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.  Looking at their life’s works brought my attention to thinking about how talent blooms or fades.

Eugene O’Neill started writing in his thirties and some of the early stuff is long winded and somewhat of a bore.  His early plays include lengthy historical melodramas with HUGE casts and elaborate sets about Marco Polo (Marco Millions), Lazarus (Lazarus Laughed) and Ponce de Leon (The Fountain.)  These are hard to read, old- fashioned and stilted.  He also wrote a series of sea faring plays that seem like his way of dealing with traumatic events from his youth when he was a sailor.  These also have huge casts and elaborate sets, even if they are only ten or twenty pages long.

He was successful right away at 32, when his first produced play Beyond the Horizon won the Pulitzer Prize (one of his four Pulitzers, plus the Nobel Prize.  I mean if we’re picking role models, right?)

Then he hit his stride and started writing powerful plays, some of them great.  Some of them don’t stand the test of time.  Strange Interlude was an experiment that failed, in my opinion.  Having people interact, then turn and tell the audience what they are thinking is awful.  Nothing is left to the actors or the audience.

He hit his stride and wrote great work through middle age.  After the age of fifty, Eugene O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, A Touch of the Poet, and More Stately Mansions. This makes me happy.  Does this make you happy?  No?  You baby!  To the end of his life, while grappling with alcoholism and a severe Parkinson’s-like tremor, O’Neill was at the top of his game.  In his later, pain-filled years he wrote possibly the greatest American play of the century, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

Which brings us to Tennessee Williams.  TW started out strong, and hit his stride in his thirties.  From the age of 33 to 50 he wrote all his great plays.  The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Period of Adjustment and Night of the Iguana. And then it vanished overnight.  He lived another 22 years, writing the whole time, but after Iguana it all turned to dust.  The sixteen plays he wrote after the age of 50 are virtually unreadable.

The cause of this rapid artistic deterioration is generally thought to be a combination of drugs and alcohol.  Since it was the sixties, my guess is it was mostly drugs.  And if you read these plays, (and I’m reading them all) they are incoherent in a way I recognize from coming of age during the drug revolution of the sixties.  It doesn’t feel like the ramblings of alcohol. More like the complete mess of a drug-addled brain.  And many alcoholic playwrights have managed to do great work from Marlowe, to well, O’Neill.  (One story about Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was that the theatre owner would lock him in a room and deny him drink until he slid the finished pages under the door.)

But when Tennessee Williams was good, he was the greatest.

Arthur Miller had his creative peak in his thirties and forties.  He All My Sons at 32, Death of a Salesman (34), The Crucible (38), A View from the Bridge (40).  Then he seemed to hit a creative downhill slope.  In the next 15 years, only three works are worthy of the early Miller.  After the Fall, (at 49) the screenplay for The Misfits (at 46) and The Price (53).  From the age of 53 to his death at 89, for me the only exciting piece of work was the television movie Playing for Time starring Vanessa Redgrave.

So what happened to Miller?  Did his life take over his work?  If you look at his schedule, he was constantly traveling.  He wrote several books that his last wife, photographer Inge Morath, illustrated with her photographs.  In 1966 he had a son, Daniel, born with Downs Syndrome.  The baby was institutionalized, and while Inge visited him weekly, Miller did not.  His son is not mentioned once in his autobiography.

One theory is that after this tragedy and this difficult choice, Miller shut down some part of his creative heart where the work was born.  Some have compared him to Truman Capote, who after betraying Perry Smith in the creation of his masterpiece In Cold Blood, never finished another book in his lifetime.

I don’t know the answer.  Miller was just as sharp and productive in his fifties and sixties.  But as a playwright he was past greatness.  G.B. Shaw was writing plays up to 1949, and he was born in 1856!  Which made him 93.

Here’s the good news.  We are in the middle of our writing lives.  Whatever age you are today, your great works can still be before you.  Shift your perspective.  Step above yourself and try to see your creative life as a whole continuum.  What do you want to create in the decades you have left?  Good.  I get it.  You can do it.  What you conceive, you can achieve.  The time to begin is now.  Today.  Take yourself seriously as a writer.  Do the work.

What is the next step on the next project for you?  Take it.  Any small step that moves it forward.  Just take it today.  Start a new computer file.  Find that file folder of research material gathering dust.  Google the research you need.  Take a notebook to lunch and spend an hour making notes.

They may write of you in your obituary that you hit your creative peak in your fifties and sixties.  Your first Pulitzer was awarded at sixty-three and your Nobel at seventy-five.  All of this is possible.  Create it.

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