What Happens When You Wait

by Dinah Lenney

"HOW TO DO IT. How to write about the things we see, hear, read, think about? The things that move us. How to get to the bottom of why we’re moved? Don’t I open up file after file, begin essay after essay — find myself distracted, or frustrated, or simply incapable of making the connections I know are there? I do. And doesn’t that make it hard to come back, to sustain the conviction — while I’m waiting for things to land and make sense — that it matters what I think and feel?

I wanted to write about Krapp’s Last Tape, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre: how I knew I was seeing something remarkable (John Hurt as Krapp); how I was tired, and made the mistake of drinking a glass of wine before the show, during which I was therefore compelled to pinch my thighs to stay awake; how I drifted in and out in spite of my efforts, and, naturally, punished myself for drifting; how, disgusted with myself, it got so I couldn’t tell what was real, dreamed,that is, in my seat in the theater, and what was staged and acted on the proscenium below. Whose mother were we talking about? Whose birthday? Whose memories and mortality, Krapp's or mine?

Next, I planned to write about Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum. I wondered: did John Robin Baitz inadvertently stumble into the current argument about truth in nonfiction or did he invent it? In his excellent play, a writer, Brooke Wyeth, comes home for Christmas with a dangerous and damaging memoir under her arm. Her parents don’t want her to publish the work. And the book she eventually winds up writing (spoiler alert, but I’m not spoiling much) doesn’t come close to telling the facts. Which made me want to ask the playwright: does his character ultimately sell her “memoir” as fiction or nonfiction?

Then Gatz came to town andI found myself with another gate-crashing essay-in-progress, about a productionin which an acting company — New York City's Elevator Repair Service reads The Great Gatsby from beginning to end; six and a half hours of theatre (interrupted by two intermissions and a dinner break), and this time I never closed my eyes, not once. If you were there, too, and if you supposed, as some card-carrying critics did, that this was a staged adaptation of the classic — you missed the point, I think. For though it’s absolutely faithful to the text, Gatz is a not performance of Gatsby, not really. It’s a play about reading: it tells the story of what happens when a reader falls under the spell of a beautiful book.

So. A month or so ago — having convinced myself that Beckett would have approved of my misery (my experience of his play much more in keeping with his oeuvre, than if I’d been riveted, right?) — I’d made a bunch of notes towards that piece about Krapp. Which hadn’t come round for me by the time I saw the Baitz play. After which I opened another file. And same thing all over again with Gatz. And, if I hadn’t been distracted and frustrated by one piece after the other — if, even a week ago, I’d gone back to any of those essays — who’s to say whether I'd have linked them or how? Who ever knows what she's writing about before she's written? In each case, s...