In the Agony and the Ecstasy, Leon Uris describes Michelango’s feelings of jealousy about Raphael’s artistic process. Michelango says that for Raphael, art is a walk through a garden on a soft path surrounded by flowers. But for himself, its riding rough water . And you regularly get bounced against the surrounding canyon walls.
I write this from memory, nearly 45 years after I read the book, and before I fell totally out of love with Uris’ prose, which today I can’t read.
I knew then, as a preteen, that I was more like Michelango than Raphael. In fact, I knew that nothing in my life was like walking through a garden on a soft path. Every single thing ached with misery and longing. With an inchoate passion and even more inchoate pain. Otherwise known as agony.
I went on to be called high drama, difficult, or, when people teased me, trouble walking into the room. I went on to speak out, struggle, name, help, protest, create, protect. I went on. If we don’t kill ourselves, that is what we do.
Reading the Agony and the Ecstasy, I wanted, as Uris obviously intended, to be Michelangelo. I wanted to pour out my pain and understanding onto a ceiling or into a block of marble. I wanted my canvas to be huge. I wanted, not knowing anything else to want, to be a troubled passionate artist.
* * *
For over a quarter of a century I’ve taught acting and writing, one or the other, sometimes both. Eventually I came to teach my students that art happened in the context of a life, and could not take the place of having a life. I taught artists how to be gentle with themselves, while still, hopefully, aiming high. I taught them to move past blocks, to listen to their intuition, to find their voices. I taught them to find truth.
I taught what I’d learned, which was mostly, a little at a time, how to clear trauma from the process of making. I’d had to learn this process, because in my life, trauma has infected everything I do, feel, or say, everything I think, every intention, every relationship. It is as if I were made of trauma—and with the unrelenting violence of the first 20 years of my life, this was almost true.
* * *
I am seven. Or eight. I walk the green 2 by 4 top of the chain link fence that borders the houses along the side of our neighborhood. I have amazing balance—it’s not a tightrope. For me, it’s an unbounded feeling of joy, like flying. I don’t have to concentrate with my whole mind to walk so high, and because of this I feel the Ohio sun beat down on my striped T-shirt, I feel the wood beneath the thin soles of my sneakers, I see the bright green of the grass and weeds, the white puffs of dandelions, the blue sky like a ceiling I could touch if I just grew tall enough. And I am every adventurer, I am a girl hero, and I have a story, in which this sun, this day, these feet, walk into another world. I begin to imagine what that world will be.
Once the fevered passion of my “on” writing phases stop, once I no longer wake in the middle of the night to scribble pages that litter the dorm floor at the YWCA where I live, once I’m not pounding on my electric typewriter for hours every afternoon, I go dead. I have no words, no voice. I move home, see my much younger sisters every day, teach them aerobics, make them laugh. I forget who I am. I forget both the girl on the fence and the one sobbing under her bed. I am voiceless.
I need to travel 10,000 miles away to begin to hear myself again. I write a novel about a novelist who keeps creating the truth about other people’s lives, strangers, who she only meets after her books are published. When she finally writes the truth about her own life, her husband tries to kill her.
I had no idea what I was attempting to tell myself. What danger I felt was imminent for a writer who told the truth.
So I focused on learning to even out the manic writing and the deadness. It took five years, but with great attention and even greater effort, I learned to write any time I wanted, night or day. I broke the pattern of repeating voicelessness. And then I taught it.
Not coincidentally, I stopped seeing my siblings.
And my parents.
* * *
I am a tortured artist. Mercifully, not in the process, but absolutely in the content. I write about homophobia and violence against women. Sometimes I write about mothers who abuse. I write about the double bind of trying to protect the parent who hates you from the parent who doesn’t. I write about losing your sister to their power over both your lives. Nothing I write is autobiographical in the details. But the emotions? The emotions are mine.
* * *
Sometimes, when I was little, I climbed trees, as high as I could go. And I would lie amongst the leaves, staring at them, at the glimpses of sky when a breeze pulled aside the curtain they made. I felt my body, its pure athletic grace and strength, and I loved being alive. Just for a quarter of an hour, sometimes, I knew it was possible to feel such things.
* * *
Once, briefly, I had a therapist who grew so fascinated with these memories, she asked about them again and again. I shouldn’t have been capable of such spiritual experiences, she said; joy should have evaporated from my emotional lexicon. Because most days I would be beaten or raped (I hate the word molested, let’s call it what it is), she found it incomprehensible that I could experience light. I left her quickly, because who wants to talk to an idiot who doesn’t realize you couldn’t have survived without it?
* * *
As I write about the woman who must lose her sister in order to find herself, I sob. I tear the characters from each other, and, as I do, I learn so much about my own life, my compulsion to sacrifice and blame myself, it is as if plates of armor fall from my chest and arms. I begin to lift, to fly a little, sitting at my desk next to the futon in my tiny apartment in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Telling the absolute emotional truth turns into a kind of grace, where I almost forgive it myself for having such terrible choices, for their absolute and tragic necessity. I am a woman who had to lose her sisters to find herself. I am a woman who had to choose. And I chose myself.
* * *
The first time I see the Clenched Fist by August Rodin my hearts beat so fast all the oxygen leaves my lungs and I struggle to breathe. He has made rage beautiful, and knowing this, I start to cry.
Anything fully expressed must transform. He teaches me this. As an artist, as a human being, the lesson resonates into the bottom of my hopelessness about everything—myself, my life, the darkness of human nature, about which I know so much.
I am twenty-one years old.
* * *
I am 46. I lie across a stage coffin, and my dark ponytail caresses the recently painted wood. The bangs and sounds of voices mean that soon strike will begin, and the play will end. This play that I’ve written, about sisters who don’t know how to love, about a mother who knows even less than they do, this play that ends my dream of a theater company, my dream of an ensemble of actors who will be able to see both the girl on the fence and the girl sobbing under the bed. This play with its bad reviews, its actors who forget their lines even on closing night, with me, unable to say anything about how my life has created this story. This play. The one that finally convinces me I must stop working all hours, trying so hard to recreate what I can’t have: a family.
Every night, of its run I have stood under a single spotlight, playing Claire, a recovering alcoholic who speaks to the audience alone for two minutes, wondering if she can make it through the trials of her family without drinking. And standing there, her vulnerability echoing through my body, I know I must finally say enough to the rewriting of the past.
The writing I do next is about my own powerlessness. I don’t know it yet, but I am writing about wanting and never getting what I want, which is part of the trauma of art, because even when I get what I want—when I get scholarships, win contests, get published or produced, produce or publish myself, land leading roles—they are never enough. In my mind I disparage each gift, and usually also the giver. Nothing but rich and famous will do, and the joy along the way is as brief as 15 minutes up a tree before climbing down to face the gauntlet of days again.
Then something happens. I stop producing theater and come home to not producing theater. All the surrogate brothers and sisters disappear from my life in one fell swoop, something like leaving the originals behind. The days are empty, and I am inventing things to do, but I am also lying on my back, breathing, feeling my body on the pine floor of an apartment in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. I am looking into the light.
Something happens. I learn my nervous system has an automatic hardwiring toward trauma over which I have no control. I do a bodywork technique that helps start to change the wiring. And I write a play about women who learn how to love, and in the learning, give each other hope. It’s an autobiographical play about the nuns who took me in during high school, and the brief weeks I spent living in their convent, receiving their attention and care.
This most autobiographical play is about love, not trauma.
It seems I know something about love after all.
* * *
Off an on, throughout my writing life, sitting alone at my computer, I have sobbed. But I have also laughed, hard. I remember this now. I remember the darkness of the comedies, and the way I laughed at what hurts.
I can survive anything. How did I not know this?
* * *
I write a memoir that breaks every rule I learned in my two degrees in theater and writing at some of the best schools in the country. I laugh a lot while I’m breaking these rules, telling more of the truth, using my own many voices. Then I sob. Then I laugh even more.
After the memoir, I am free to write what I like. The process of writing has been wiped clean. I can tell my own story. Or I can write about goodness and decency, because I am rooting myself into their comfort.
Everything fully expressed must transform.
The only problem is then you probably want to share it.
Even without a theater company.
Or perhaps especially then.