Coming Home to Write

Like Lazarus

Photo by Lubov Birina

A memory surfaced. What does it mean that it had been submerged, the hatch slammed shut, locked tight for years and years? Nothing? Maybe not.

The Collegeville Institute selected twelve writers for a workshop titled Writing for Mystic Activists. I was lucky to have been one of them. I don’t know that I knew how lucky until about one minute into the week. Workshop leaders Chanequa Walker-Barnes and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove opened their mouths to speak to us and I knew.

The talent of my fellow writers knocked me out of my chair … almost literally … really. People of diverse backgrounds, different races, a variety of voices. As we listened to one another’s work, we laughed together, we cried together, and we were inspired to think about issues — big ones. The plan had been to gather at a beautiful retreat center in New England, but instead, we met on Zoom. Damn you, COVID-19. Despite the distance between us, a community was born. We have vowed to continue meeting two hours a week — the plan is to alternate reading each other’s work and giving feedback one week and writing together in silence in a Zoom room the next week. As our day to day lives take hold again, and the busyness of it all presses in, I hope we’ll keep the promise made.

The writing sample I submitted was from one of my plays. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write in another genre. I tried, but when it was time to submit the application, I couldn’t help doing anything else but to offer a bit of my heart. That’s what playwriting is — my heart. If I am honest.

When the time approached for me to read from my work, I experienced an anxiousness that is rare for me. The other writers, for the most part, were working on books or essays, and their work definitely leaned more toward non-fiction than fiction. All were good storytellers for certain, but there I was, this odd-ball, reading from a play. 

I’ve known for a long, long time that I have a gift for writing plays. I keep trying to bury it, but it won’t stay in the grave. I don’t know what to do with that. So, there I was reading from one of my plays. The writers and workshop leaders responded. The response was genuine and direct. The response was positive but with no coddling. I swear I felt a bit like Lazarus emerging from the grave … or, at least, what I imagined that must have felt like. Given a new life, a new chance to resurrect my passion and get on with it.

For about a decade long, long ago, playwriting took me places and doors flew open. Then the doors began to close, one after another. I’ve never totally figured out why. It may have something to do with the fact that 90% of the work is convincing someone to perform your play and 10% of the work is writing it. I’m not too good at hustling, or the self-promotion required.

At one of the morning sessions, Chanequa and Jonathan talked about publishing. I expected to listen respectfully, but what did publishing have to do with me? Publishing a play comes as an afterthought more or less. Publishing comes after a successful run or two — publishers approached me about publishing my plays, I didn’t approach them. But … well … then again maybe this talk about publishing would apply if I finally made the leap to another genre. As I listened, I did not expect a memory, a repressed memory even, to surface. 

Jonathan began speaking about agents and it all came back. I had been a playwright in residence at a university with plays in production. I had been signed by the top literary agent for playwrights in the country, Helen Merrill. I sat stunned as I listened to Jonathan talk about agents. I had forgotten about Helen. How could I have forgotten about Helen? What did it mean that I had forgotten about Helen?

The residency at the university lasted far past the one year it was supposed to last. Two of my plays were given productions in Eastern Europe to good acclaim. Helen became my agent and scared me to death. She was tough. No nonsense. I loved her. Then she died. That same year, the funding for the residency that was to last one year came to an end after seven years. I took a break, got involved with activism, went off to save the world, and got lost. I forgot all about Helen until the workshop. So strange.

Bren back in the day

All those years ago, the mystic gave way to the activist. Maybe one needs both. Maybe I need both mystic and activist to get on with the work. Maybe in order to live, the mystic and the activist must be hand-in-hand. This workshop reminded me of that. And I felt like Lazarus walking out of the tomb ready to proclaim, “Take these grave clothes off me and let me get going.”


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