Marissa Skudlarek, truer and kinder every day.
Yesterday, Ashley Cowan wrote the column I wanted to write. Damn her!
But it just so happened that both Ashley and I have had similar experiences in the last few weeks. Each of us published a piece that we considered critical but fair and honest, and each of us experienced a backlash from the people who we’d criticized. There was debate, there was drama, there was scandalized gossip, there were messages of support, there was soul-searching. And, in the end, neither of us apologized for what we’d written; neither of us backed down.
Ashley and I each went through this experience independently, yet I think we each gained strength from knowing that we were part of a community of writers, bloggers, and theater-makers here in San Francisco, and from knowing that we aren’t the first people in the world to receive blowback after publishing a piece that is honest but not totally positive. A few years ago, the experience of arguing on Facebook with an acclaimed American theater artist would have devastated me. I might have been intimidated into backing down or apologizing in order to smooth things over. I didn’t do that this time. Like Ashley, I waited to respond, and chose my words carefully. Like her, I reiterated that I had not had any nefarious motivations in publishing my piece, yet I was not going to apologize for writing it.
Heck, six months ago on this very blog, I got into an argument with my editor, Stuart Bousel, in the comments section of one of my posts. It got pretty heated and, as the argument progressed, I found myself running to the bathroom at work and crying. I say this not to cast blame on anyone, but because I feel like being honest. But I didn’t cry, this past week.
Oddly enough, my argument with Stuart centered around the way an artist’s work is received out in the world. Stuart had written, “The constant possibility of reactions beyond your control are just the nature of a life where you have elected to live big and loud over quietly tending your own garden and being satisfied with that.” And despite our quibbling over certain implications of this phrase, despite my crying in my office bathroom, you know what… I’ve come around to agree with Stuart’s point. As such, when the artist took me to task on Facebook for saying that I didn’t care for his latest play, many people commented that it was odd that he should respond in such a fashion. Didn’t he know that, when you put work out into the world, not everyone may enjoy it or understand it? Couldn’t he accept that the audience’s reaction was beyond his control?
And in the meantime, I’ve become better able to withstand negativity myself. I try to write only things that I can stand behind 100%, reminding myself that I can control the words I put down, but I can’t control the response to them.
This blog, which we’re now referring to as the San Francisco Theater Pub(lic), has been going for almost two years, but in the last few months, it feels like we’ve become an actual Thing. Just before Christmas, the regular bloggers had a meeting over sangria at our beloved Cafe Flore that has attained the status of legend. We stopped feeling like we were just a bunch of individual wordsmiths rushing to meet column deadlines, and started to realize that we were truly a tribe, a collective, a happy few, a band of brothers… (well, mostly sisters).
As bloggers, we all have our own individual voices, perspectives, and pet topics, but one of the most gratifying things about working on this blog for two years is that I can sense a larger pattern, or voice, developing that connects our disparate posts. It seems like many of our posts revolve around the idea of living an ethical life in a difficult business. (Or, hell, a difficult world; the theater may not coddle you, but life doesn’t coddle you either.) Or, as Ashley phrased it in her piece, perhaps the theme is “how to be both honest and kind.”
This theme has been especially striking in the past week, what with Will Leschber’s contention that “hating the Oscars is lazy reporting and lazy viewership,” to guest columnist John Caldon’s list of suggestions for how to deliver feedback honestly and constructively, to Ashley’s aforementioned “I’m not sorry I told my story” piece, to Claire Rice’s attempts to lay her heart open and get at the root of her writer’s block. (Freudian slip alert: I originally typed “writer’s blog” there just now. True story.) All of us are pushing ourselves to be more honest, more courageous, and more compassionate, both as writers and as human beings. Which means that we’re all pushing each other forward, as well; a rising tide lifts all boats. I’ve always dreamed of being part of a group like this, but thought that they only existed in stories. Now I know that it’s within my power — our power — to make it a reality.
I want you to keep pushing me to be a better writer and a better person. I want you to continue writing pieces that make me say, “damn, I wish I’d written that.”
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.
Every day I struggle to fold in more “kind” with my “honest.” Sometimes it’s like folding fruit into plain yogurt to improve the palatability; other times it’s like hiding the grenade behind the ever-more-forced smile. I have faced heat for my opinions (in other forums) which I can take without a single sob Yet here’s the thing: many out there in the blogosphere are the of the opinion that they are privileged to speak their minds more openly than all others, or at least they appoint themselves the arbiters of who has earned the privilege, and who has not. (No one who contributes to this site fits that description) Yes, I gripe; yes, I seem resentful; someone asked why and it took me awhile to form an answer: it is because I firmly believe I bring a hell of a lot to the table, and it still seems all I do is bang against the thick door because I don’t have the right credential or I can’t decipher the magic password, or someone just looks at me and adjudges that I plain don’t fit in. Since I’m not going to quietly slink over to the Island of Misfit Artists, I often feel that the only way to get through that door is by unhinging it.
I’ve always been perplexed by those who embark upon an artistic career without a thick skin, for whom criticism of any stripe is taken as a personal affront. As an actor, I NEED feedback; if I don’t receive it, how can I improve? My characters do not have an existence apart from the audience; any truthfulness or realism in my work is reflected in the mirror of their belief, not just merely my own.
I’m with you Marissa, in that I don’t enjoy heated arguments; I had plenty with my ex and with my children. One of my pet laments is the decline of civil, reasoned discourse on all subjects, especially my beloved theater.