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.

Commuter Paradise

Credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Newspapers and gadgets are props

covering the hollowed glaze of non-looks.

How to avoid searching too deep,

meaning best left formulated by others,

through shopping sprees and TV,

in front of which you fall asleep.


With pendulous lids and bags dangling on hips

they shuffle along, spilling on platforms,

thundering the footbridges with their cadences of resignation.

Sleep-flushed faces in the dank reek of stations at dawn,

they come and go,

and in their tread I detect fear

of letting down,

of being let go.

Chasing Your Dreams

When Theo got off the train in Arles,

the stink and noise hit his nostrils and ears,

in cacophonous attack on Boulevard des Lices.VanGoghCafe

‘Of course with a name like Vince you have to paint,’

He told his brother,

‘And all summer you’ve been squiggling caricatures  in the square,

when tourists come to oogle at the little that is left

of that greater misunderstood one, the one with just one ear.

But now it is November, nights are closing in.

The city is deserted, fuel costs going up.

Come home to the Midwest, brother,

forget your midlife crisis!’


Yellow House Van GoghBut Vince turned eyes on him which saw beyond alimony payments,

eyes that had wandered amongst stars,

made accomplice by the wind,

protected by history.

‘You have a duty to follow your dream,

your passion,

and mediocrity has nothing to do with it.’

Midlife, Middling

You showed me how easily

the cheesy wotsits crumbled through your fingers

sticky orange dust filling your hands

my heart pouring its molten mass onto your palms.


You hold out your hand

and laugh softly, beckoning, seducing,

wordlessly, I bend to lick off the crumbs,

nibble those long fingers,

caress my liquid heart aquiver in the scoop of your hands.

My tongue feels pure joy

electric flashes.



And then the morning-starved yell of one fat baby

pierced the thickening dawn

and that was it

dream gone

querulous mouths back demanding

running up and down those stairs

retrieving wellies and jumpers to pull on protesting limbs.


Yet that dream glow stayed with me all day

as I gave my serviceable Mum-shoes a miss

and slipped on lethal heels.

That day I felt attractive again.


We first kissed under the laden waft of Chernobyl

all that summer we were ablaze

counting the hours since our last kiss

you only knew my body in its sinewy smoothness

not the quaver softness of child-stretched flesh

you only remember hopes and ideals

not the compromises and shortfalls

I like the picture of myself in your mind’s eye

still dewy potential, spirit and energy.


But then the pale sceptre arises with rueful smile

admitting, ‘I’m tired now. I’m off to bed.’


Finish the Dream

Ominous landscape

Of late he has been having dreams that wake him bathed in

anxious dew.  Yet comfort, strangely, comes from these odd

glimpses to what might have been, ways ignored or seen

too late, people mistrusted, friends laid adrift.  So much more

real, this dreamscape, than the recurring rumble of his toothached life.


One cable at a time he tries to disentangle from the jumble of

wires that tug and wind; into rival connections he plugs in

too much, fearing yet craving overload.  He stalls, he tosses, seeks

to find the sweet cool spot on his pillow to finish his dream,

to perish the thought.