Excerpt from my memoir Look Her in the Eye
I am sitting at my typewriter in an empty theatre, on the edge of the playing area. This building was once a gymnasium, and I can barely see the ceiling, the warm brown rafters blurring beyond the stage lights. It is 5 a.m. I have been typing all night, and I have come to an ending for my play, which will be performed in this makeshift theatre-in-the-round space in a few weeks. The acoustics are terrible, but a certain intimacy is possible within the four sets of risers set in a square to delineate the stage. I feel a lifting up as my typewriter clicks out my last line and I come to the end of my story.
I am writing about my best friend, far away in Japan with her new baby, and how we became close over time and distance. I don’t really understand how long distance phone calls work. This is pre-internet and I imagine miles and miles of telephone poles, circling the globe across oceans and mountains, from Iowa to Kyoto, our voices chiming together on steel thin as thread. I am enamored of this image, steel thin as thread, and use it for the title of this draft of the play, the third title and fifth or sixth draft so far. I think of my friend, late afternoon in Japan, wearing her baby on her front as she chops scallions for miso soup.
I imprint this blissful moment on my memory: the satisfaction of coming to the end of a story, the feeling that I’ve captured something delicate with a lovely metaphor. All night I have been alone in this theatre, shooting out page after page of dialogue, my typewriter perched on a prop table, plugged into an extension cord winding down the aisle between two sets of risers. I stare at the last page in my hands, fresh from the typewriter, and smile to myself. I believe in my story. Even in that moment of belief, I know that I will inevitably waver and doubt, but for now, I love my characters and my metaphor.
I make copies of my new draft and distribute them at rehearsal the next day, giddy from lack of sleep and from that delicious feeling of completion. My director, Keiko, is enthusiastic and gets right to work putting the actors into new configurations around my words. I see slight frowns on the faces of some of the actors as they consider the revised story. I slump against the wall in exhaustion, leaving it to Keiko to guide the actors through.
A few days later, I sit in the basement office of the director of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, Bob. He stares down at my draft, doesn’t speak or look at me, and my anxiety mounts. I feel a churning inside, rising sour heat. From the future, I want to reach in and grab my 24-year-old self and get her out of there.
Bob finally speaks. “What is happening in this play? Two girls make friends, and one of them moves to Japan. That isn’t a story.”
At first, I sit in shock. What is he saying? I struggle to keep my voice calm. “I’m exploring different kinds of relationships. The two friends travel together and meet the Somali woman and her Irish boyfriend. Ellie talks to a Geisha in Japan about pleasing men. It’s about women—“
“It isn’t about anything. This isn’t a play, it’s a journal entry.”
“I don’t think you understand my aesthetic—“
“You have to give them some conflict. Why aren’t they lovers? Then the Japan one, Elaine or whatever, her moving away will have some bite.”
“I’m writing about friendship, not a love relationship.”
“That’s just not a very dramatic premise. Take all those international characters they meet and do something with them. A coup or something. Your poetic language won’t work on the stage. You don’t seem to get it.”
Tears come to my eyes, to my horror. I shouldn’t speak, but I do anyway. “You don’t seem to get it. You aren’t even trying to understand what I’m trying to do.” My voice breaks, and the tears escape. I can feel my eyes swelling, which makes me furious, which makes me cry more. Bob still hasn’t made eye contact with me. He sits at his desk, leafing through the pages of my manuscript, waving them in the air.
“This isn’t a play. There’s no action. You can’t rely on these sweet, intimate feelings between these two girls to keep your audience interested.”
I long ago gave up correcting him when he called my characters “girls” instead of “women.” I choke on my sobs, intent only on getting out of Bob’s office as soon as possible. Bob continues his critique, his slight begrudging tone the only acknowledgment that I am crying in his presence. I murmur something and am finally released. In the hallway, I sob freely.
After a while, I wipe my eyes and prepare to leave. One of my fellow playwrights, a British man named Gordon, comes by. He says sympathetically, “Crying in Bob’s office, eh.”
“He’s such a dick.”
“He doesn’t understand my work at all.” I sniff, embarrassed.
“No.” Gordon considers. He’d praised the play I’d had staged the previous semester. He is an adult, in his 30’s, married with three children. He says, “I think your work might be better accepted in England.”
“Yah. This focus on realism here in the states—well, it’s got its merits, but there are a lot of ways a play can be a play.”
“Thanks for saying that.” I wipe my face. “I wish he didn’t get to me so much.”
Gordon shrugs. “He’s a bully. I’m next!”
“Good luck,” I say. Gordon will be fine. His plays are Monty Python-esque, over-the-top farces with policemen named P.C. Butts and Corporal Cunt. But it’s nice to have his support.
Later that week, at a party at Bob’s house, I drink fast. I scowl at the raucous scene, growing more and more morose. Bob sits in a winged chair, acolytes at his feet, holding forth.
Another playwright, one of Bob’s favorites, approaches me and asks, “Did you write in your diary today?”
I start. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I turn away from him and pour myself another drink.
He chortles. “Nothing, nothing. It’s just—Alice. Your play.”
My hand shakes and I grip my glass, restraining myself from tossing its contents into his face. “I don’t want to talk about my play.”
“It’s like scenes from your diary. It’s so sweet.” He pauses. “It’s just not dramatic.”
“Did you fucking talk to BOB about my fucking PLAY? Who the fuck do you think you ARE?” I scream at him, shredding my vocal chords. “BOB is talking to you about my PLAY?” I storm away, but Bob’s house is small. I am dimly aware of him looking sideways from his chair. I go outside.
I don’t want to write a play with a gun in it. All the other playwrights, even the only other woman, have guns in their plays. Violence is easy.
An actor named Phil comes out, an undergraduate, a strapping Iowa farm boy. He has a small part in my play, and has heard me talk with Keiko about my struggles. He exudes health and good will. “You okay?”
“No. I’m not.” My voice is hoarse.
“He’s an idiot.”
“It’s true. And I am very drunk.” I down the rest of my drink. “Ha! Fuck them all.”
“Let me drive you home.”
“Sure. Whatever. Could you get my coat? It’s green, on Bob’s bed.”
“I’ll be right back.” I hand him my empty glass and he returns to the house.
I wait in the cold. I long for a hot toddy to soothe my throat. Phil walks me to my car, takes my keys. His girlfriend Kira comes too. She plays the main character in my play, Lisa. Alice backwards.
“We can walk home from your house,” she says. They are too nice. I don’t want to cry. At my apartment, they park my car and walk me to my door. I give them a weak wave. “Thanks, guys.” They have already turned away. They snuggle against each other in the crisp Iowa night and head to their dorm.
Sick from alcohol, I drink long glasses of water, then the thing I’d been avoiding all night makes me breathless: maybe Bob is right. Maybe I am not really a playwright. I jump up and down and shake my hands, muttering “Nooooo!” Bob has all the power. Not only is he the only playwriting professor, he is the chair of the Theatre Department. His criticism makes me lose sight of my vision for the play. I go to bed and worry. Sleep isn’t happening, so I fling my sheets aside and get out of bed, poring over my manuscript. My own language melts me a little.
Keiko believes in my play, and we pull off a decent performance. Phil and Kira and the other actors commit themselves gamely to my poetic monologues. As the semester is winding down, Bob mentions casually that I might not be invited back for my second year at Iowa. I go into a tizzy, bouncing back and forth between wanting to leave for my own sanity and wanting to stay, to show Bob. When a letter arrives saying I can come back on a probationary status, I am relieved. But I don’t want to go back. I write a letter to Bob, a manifesto of my theatre aesthetic. I explain that Iowa is not a place that can nurture my artistic goals, and I resign from the program. I send copies of the letter to two other professors in the theatre program, so that Bob’s handling of my status is documented beyond my file in his office.
Then I move to New York City.