When I was a freshman in high school, my parents decided I was overscheduled, and took actions to remedy this. They made me write out a list of all of the activities I was taking part in (the school play, piano lessons, a local youth choir, etc.) and estimate how many hours per week each activity took — then told me I had to quit at least two of these activities, no ifs, ands, or buts. They were trying to teach me a valuable life lesson, but I remember the experience as highly traumatic. Especially because the activity I most wanted to quit was going to church at 10:30 AM every Sunday — but my parents told me that that was the one thing I couldn’t give up.
Despite my parents’ efforts, the lesson didn’t sink in: I still persist in my willful, adolescent belief that I should keep as busy as possible. I should fill my days with exciting, intellectually stimulating, and challenging activities — and should leave an hour at the end of each day to write about it in my journal, filling the pages with witty and profound observations. Moreover, I should be able to live the life of a would-be girl-about-town while also getting eight hours of sleep per night, cooking myself nutritious meals, and keeping my house clean and my clothes in good repair. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that I have a nine-to-five day job that demands my diligent attention. And the thought that I might not be physically able to do this — that there might not be enough hours in the day to live my ideal life — fills me with the same stubborn resistance that I had back when my parents told me I was overscheduled and forced me to quit some of my activities. “I am smart and capable,” I say, “so I should be able to do everything, solve everything, care about everything, and make the most of my brief time on planet Earth. Carpe diem!”
But then, you know what I do when I have a day off? I sleep in, I laze around in bed, I take a walk, phone my parents, write in my journal, and then berate myself for not having done more. And sometimes, when I have a column to write for Theater Pub’s blog, you know what happens? I rack my brain, but draw a blank — and then I end up writing any old kind of tosh, which might not even have much to do with theater and perhaps would be better saved for my journal. So where does that leave my expectation that, because I am a writer, I should be able to come up with eloquent sentences, well-organized paragraphs, and brilliant insights on command?
But I persist in writing about this topic, because I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. In moods like these, I recall a section from Claire Rice’s play-in-progress, English for Beginners, which she is posting on her blog. The play is somewhat of a roman à clef (pièce à clef?), as it deals with a group of playwrights on a writing retreat in the Marin Headlands. There’s also an interlude where all of the characters describe their writing routines and, if you’re a playwright, I guarantee that you’ll recognize yourself in at least one of these monologues. Mostly, I find myself thinking about the following speech, which perfectly describes the tension I feel between the vision I have of my Ideal Self and my overscheduled, neurotic, messy, exhausted Real Self.
JULIA: I need a routine. I’m not a good writer. And I don’t mean that what I end up writing isn’t good and I’m not fishing for compliments. I mean, I feel like good writers do have a routine. I feel like there is a version of my perfect self out there and if I can just get to it I will be a good writer. The perfect version of myself wakes up early and writes and then goes running and then takes a shower and does her hair. Then she writes some more. Then she spends the afternoon submitting or emailing theatres and artistic directors and directors and making connections. Then, my perfect self writes some more or reads and then she has a salad and soup for dinner. Then she goes to a show. She introduces herself to everyone. Then my perfect self goes out for one beer. Just one beer. And then she goes home and writes some more. And then my perfect self reads herself to bed. And she’s perfectly happy being alone. And then she sleeps all night and wakes up as fresh as a daisy and does it all over again. Yes. That sounds nice. Then I would be a perfect writer. A good writer.
I cringed in recognition when I read this monologue. (And I remember having conversations like this with Claire on the N Judah, coming home from Theater Pub late at night. Well, I told you this is a roman à clef.) I know that she is gently mocking the character of Julia for her delusions, and I know that that’s the right thing to do… but then my adolescent stubbornness rears its head, demanding “Why can’t I be my Perfect Self? Why can’t I float through life with both elegance and diligence?”
As a writer, I know that limits can be paradoxically freeing. That’s why things like Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Plays are so popular and successful — it’s easier to respond to the assignment “Write a 10-minute play that takes place in a bar” than “Write a play of any length about anything you want.” And yet, in my own life, I chafe against the limitations imposed by the 24-hour day, by the commitments I have previously made, by how long I can go without fainting from exhaustion. They say that to be a good writer, you need to gain as much life experience as possible, and to write as much as possible — so why can’t the day be twice as long?
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud. (Her Ideal Self writes twice as many blog posts and has twice as many Twitter followers.)