100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write

From The Star.
From The Star.

Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’

The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:

The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —

Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.

She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.

In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.

Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:

…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.

It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?

museumI love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:

The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?

This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.

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21 thoughts on “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write”

  1. Oh, this sounds like a wonderful read, Marina Sofia! And although my daughter is now grown and on her own, I remember those interruptions all too well! And I still get interruptions – they’re just different. So I completely relate to this. And that last bit about social media and just..experiencing life? Completely on point!

    1. That last bit is a bugbear of mine! I’m carefully mentioning no names, but I have one member of our family constantly searching for WiFi spots wherever we may be: on a mountain, at a family meal in a dream location, next to world-famous monuments…

    1. Now if only I could find a way to get rid of the guilt when I don’t respond to the children’s needs… or find a sane way to deal with the pressure of getting enough work done when they are not around…

  2. This sounds wonderful – I’ve never heard of her. The first half of your review made me think of Cyril Connolly’s famous quote about the pram in the hall! With my two JUST out of their teens, I’m now – as I’ve mentioned – trying to nudge my daughter (she was always a reader, like me; my son was always outdoors) away from the iPhone and back to books. I know, I’ve got my work cut out for me…

    1. Dare I say it, many women will identify with this? The men of my acquaintance seem to do a much better job of shutting the world out when they are on their gadgets…

  3. I’ve heard good things about this book and now you have made me want to read it even more! But I think I might need a list of 100 books I don’t have time to read.

  4. You talk about such fine authors it would seem trite to mention I can identify. Except that intrusions may hog you in many shapes and forms, and in formless shapes. That was a refreshing read, as usual.

    1. Not trite at all – that’s surely the mark of a good writer/poet/essayist, that they can extract that kernel of the universal from the specifics of their daily circumstances. Glad you enjoyed it!

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