More important, in some ways, she was a woman who reminded me, in her flaky interest in ALL of the arts at once, more than a little bit of myself.
I'm not sure who my book benefactor was--if it was just one person or many who left their gorgeous editions out like that in the same spot every week between the garden and the townhouses that line 1st street-- but I like imagining that a hoary, old gentleman passed them along (except for The Beauty Detox Diet-- not even as fanciful as I am, can I quite picture that.) In my imaginings, this gruff, no-nonsense, but dripping with the milk of human kindness, old man is not too dissimilar from George Bernard Shaw himself, who was thirty years senior to silly, sweet Molly Tompkins. I also like to think that the lessons my mysterious benefactor's books imparted to me were as personally meant as George's letters to Molly, filled though the letters were with an odd mixture of fatherly advice and unfatherly flirting.
I only finally sat down about a week ago to read the book, just one of many on a long summer-reading list which included Just Kids by Patti Smith (a quick read at the end of May), all of A Song of Ice and Fire (May and June), Middlemarch (July and part of August), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (two or three days in August), The House at Belle Fontaine (another day in August although I haven't finished all the gorgeous stories yet, because I don't want to the book to end), and fittingly, Labor Day (yesterday). All great reads. To a Young Actress wasn't. Molly's letters weren't included, having been lost on Shaw's end, and her son made the odd decision of publishing many of the letters without including a type-written version. Beautiful though Shaw's writing might be, it was also frequently illegible.
However, parts of the letters were, unsurprisingly, considering this is Shaw's letters we are talking about, electrifyingly good. What stayed with me the most about To a Young Actress over this past week, was Shaw's more practical advice. More than even his odd admonishment that Molly should learn to write letters beautifully in a literal not figurative sense, inspiring the fluff-brained girl to take secretarial classes (not what Shaw meant), or his heavy, obsessive emphasis on the importance of beautiful elocution, what struck me was his description of acting as a muscular exercise. Getting those emotions to translate from your own mouth across a crowded theater space was the work of practice, not perfect talent, or so Shaw claimed.
It's good advice, and words I have found to be true in one way or another, so far, of all the arts I've dabbled in: drawing, modeling, acting, and, most of all, writing. Even keeping this blog on a weekly basis improved my writing in the sense that ideas flowed faster, grueling sentence constructions untangled themselves easier, and the act of writing a 1,000 word essay became the work of hours not days or weeks. But at the beginning of the summer, I wanted to take a break, not just from this blog but from writing. An agent was interested in a proposal I'd written about an incomplete YA novel, and I sent the MS out anyway, unpolished and unready. Then I suffered endless pangs of shame and dissatisfaction. My head ached; I couldn't think very clearly. I just sensed something felt very off, and I decided I would need to do a lot of thinking and exploring before I could figure out what that was.
I think there's a voice within all of us that tells us when our foot is on the edge of an abyss; many of us choose to ignore this voice for various reasons: greed, fear, curiosity, love. I know whenever I have not heeded that voice, I've made the dumbest mistakes of my life. Sometimes, it's because I'm not sure what it's saying, this voice I'm hearing in my own head and not outside myself, thankfully. That voice was warning me now, but, because of one thing and another-- grief over my aunt's sudden death, a move to a new town, motherhood-- it was almost as if the voice was too far away, left back behind in Brooklyn, forgotten in a box, and I couldn't make out the words from the great distance between us. Cheesy as it might sound, I knew I had to find my way back to myself. I owed it to myself, but I also owe that to my baby.
Being a mother has changed me as it never changed Molly Tompkins, whom Shaw deemed such a bad mother, he practically begged her to send her son away to a boarding school. Equilibrium is the least of what I owe my child, so this time I decided to step back and take a break until I could figure out where to safely put my feet next. I decided to do some acting again while I considered what I wanted to do with my writing, because acting has always given me a lot of energy-- the excitement of putting on lipstick and pounding the pavement, looking for work, making new connections, meeting odd new characters to people my stories later or sometimes, even better, a new friend. Then, it happened again. I shot a short film, and the work wasn't good. I played that mythical character that with my naturally sulky expression I've been frequently typecast as-- a femme fatale-- and I could barely muster up the muted enthusiasm required to pout and seduce. This time the voice clamored inside me, shrieking and moaning like a ghost haunting my head. I felt deflated. Miserable. Unable to act or to write, which to me is pretty much equivalent of a deep depression. A day spent without creating something, even something as simple as a pretty dish of strawberries and tortillas, is a flat day
"What? What is wrong?" I wanted to ask but couldn't obviously. It's very hard to have a conversation with yourself unless you're genuinely crazy, which, unfortunately for me, I'm not. Answers weren't going to be that easy. So, I read. I cared for my baby. I cleaned my house. I tried to learn to cook (also for my baby's sake.) I watched a lot of Desperate Housewives, a surprisingly clever show, which I developed a cockamamie theory about. I believe people denigrate the show, because it largely concerns issues interesting to women and not to men-- childcare, aging in an ageist society, relationships, family, balancing careers, navigating female friendships. A Happy Event, also available now on Netflix, is a French film, with a brilliant take on this dichotomy of the typically male versus female experience, pointing out that what men choose to think about is considered "deep", "unique", and "important", while what women have no choice but to think about, because it is occurring within their own female body is "silly", "predictable", and, therefore, "uninteresting". That show and that movie were as important to me this summer as reading the iconic Middlemarch was, because they all gave me permission to take my own small travails seriously. In Middlemarch, among other brilliant character portraits, Eliot paints the picture of a craven intellectual too frightened to ever do anything, to put his work out there, because at all costs he must preserve his image of himself as a misunderstood genius. In the process, he never does anything at all, let alone anything great. "Most men live lives of quiet desperation," is a Thoreau quote that's always puzzled me. I've always just done things, and I never realized before that that is enough.
I thought I also had to win acclaim. I didn't realize how heroic it is to simply manage to gather up the minutes of your day and make a daisy chain of them.
Like Molly Tompkins, a mother who threw up a somewhat brilliant acting career for a somewhat brilliant painting career, I'm still searching for the answers, but I know one of them after this summer. When you are an artist, whether you are trying to convey someone else's words to an audience or your own words to yourself, what matters is that the work is good, simply so that your mind is clear, that you can hear the working of your heart or soul or talent or whatever you call it. That is the daisy chain of my days.
This is a personal insight I don't believe I would have arrived at if I hadn't dabbled in acting again this summer, and maybe that is why I personally need acting and writing both. It seems to complete the two halves of myself so that they can have an intelligible conversation. If I hadn't started the summer doing terrible work in a terrible short film and ended it doing hard and good work in a beautiful play, I don't know if I would have arrived at this insight-- what matters, above all else, is doing good work.
"Art teaches us what it means to be human," is a sentiment my friend Rosalind Jana of Clothes, Cameras, and Coffee (see the link on my blogroll) quoted in one of her own latest and greatest blog entries here. Maybe, like young Molly, I will never be really brilliant at any particular field, master of none and dilettante of many, or maybe like wise, old George, I won't care about that, because I'll know, "We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than we have to consume wealth without producing it."
When I pursue good work, I pursue happiness.
What brings you happiness? Do you always heed that inner voice? Why do you think it's so difficult sometimes to make the right decisions? I'd love to hear about your own difficulties making time for the things that make you happy and what those things are in the comments below. What is your daisy chain made out of :)?
Speaking of shooting short films, below is a brilliant and very short film I got to work on this summer, one night in Brooklyn under the famous bridge. It ended up winning honorable mention at the CFC Film Festival in Hollywood and my co-star, the great Artan Telqiu, was nominated for Best Dramatic Actor. Also, see the poster below for information on the play I'm currently working on and will be appearing in through the month of September. The photos above are from Food Porn 3 for the NYC Food Film Fest at the Loew's Theater in Manhattan, a music video for Tora Fisher in which I get to play an acrobat and met some brilliant burlesque queens, and the play I'm currently working on at The Ridgefield Theater Barn in Connecticut, just an hour from NYC.