Friday, December 3, 2010

That Damned Seagull

In order to support the Chicago 2010-2011 Soviet humanities festival, the Soviet Arts Experience, I saw Chekhov’s play, the Seagull, at the Goodman Theater the other night. (No matter that Chekhov pre-dates the Soviet era; the Goodman obviously had nothing to lose by including the play in the festival’s billings).

It’s not my favorite Chekhov play: I’ll take Uncle Vanya or the Cherry Orchard any day of the week. Maybe if I could figure out what the seabird represented things would be different.

I do sympathize with the leading character, the young man who struggles to write something beautiful but ultimately fails to do so. I remember a time in graduate school when I was faced with the prospect of writing a master’s thesis. For as long as I could remember I had considered myself to be a good writer. But then suddenly I was confronted with my first genuine opportunity to prove my worth as a writer and I couldn’t produce more than a single paragraph. I remained glued to my computer for weeks at a time. I’d read my single paragraph over and over again, sometimes softly, sometimes out load. I’d rearrange a few words, change an adjective, and then put things back the way they were. Sometimes I’d leave my desk to grab a bottle of Peach Snapple at the local convenience store, only to return to my project a half an hour later.

The introductory paragraph remained largely untouched as the weeks turned into months. Over time, I came to believe that I was having an almost mystical experience with my solitary paragraph. I felt that by devoting so many countless hours to crafting the perfect paragraph I was coming into contact with some dark, mysterious essence of human communication. The words themselves seemed to break free from their superficial meaning. Like the Sanskrit sounds of the Rg Veda, my paragraph was magical chant, a window onto eternity. I suppose it didn’t help that when I wasn’t staring at my eight lines of text, I was reading the beat prose of modern Sufis such as Celine, Genet, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg. At one point I picked up a copy of Camus’ The Plague where, as I now only vaguely recall, another writer was at work on a masterpiece as the city succumbed to quarantine and apocalypse. In the end, they discovered his text and, unless my own experience with words has perverted my memory of the Plague, it consisted of only a few lines.

I’m reminded of what Fran Leibowitz said about a period in her life when she failed to produce anything substantive. She said that she hadn’t really suffered from writer’s block at all. Rather she had been a victim of writer’s blockade. Lynda Barry has something to say on the subject as well. She says that writer’s block occurs when one fails to recognize the seriousness of play. Barry says that we misremember childhood. Play isn’t necessarily light-hearted fun: it’s deadly serious. Children arrange their toys with purpose and serious intent. At any rate, writing requires playfulness. It’s just that playfulness isn’t always, or perhaps isn’t usually, much fun.

This blog is the flip side of my dwarf master’s thesis. Where once I struggled to fit the entire universe of meaning, the whole of my earthly experience, into a single page of prose, now I write out everything, no matter how insignificant, and could deposit 1000 master’s theses. Surely Chekhov’s protagonist wouldn’t have shot himself had he lived in the age of blogs.

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