Guest Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: On Eugene O’Neill’s Love Of Silence

Joy LanzendorferI’m standing in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s office when the tour guide says he wants to show us how quiet the room can get. “For the next 60 seconds, no one say anything,” he says. “Just listen.”

The silence is indeed engulfing. Out the window I can see the freeway across the California hills, but I can’t even hear a bird singing. When O’Neill built this house in 1937—now part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site—his office was designed for quiet. To even enter it, you have to walk through two empty rooms first. The house is located on top of a mountain that at the time was only accessible by private road. O’Neill was not exactly a people person.

I’m relieved when the tour guide begins talking again. Being in this room for too long would make me nervous. Like many people who grew up immersed in technology, I’m uncomfortable with silence. For years, I’ve struggled with the fact that writing requires concentration, patience, and contemplation, things that work best in a quiet room. This office, with the plays written in it—most notably Long Day’s Journey Into The Night—can attest to that fact easily enough.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of O’Neill’s death. Today it’s easy to forget how he revolutionized American theater in the early 20th century. Before him, theater was all melodrama and vaudeville. O’Neill presented the first American tragedies, plays with realistic characters dealing with social issues and grappling with forces beyond their control. His work sobered the American theater in the 1920s, a decade not without similarities to today’s obsession with celebrity and money. He challenged the theater of his day to grow up, and over time, it did.

Even his furniture indicates a devotion to focus and work. The office has two large oak desks, each designated for a different work-in-progress. O’Neill would sit between the desks so that if he got stuck on one play, he could swing around to work on the other. When he moved to this house, he planned to write an 11-play cycle that would follow an American family through 175 years of history. He had the plays mapped out and had even written some drafts when he developed a Parkinson’s-like tremor in his hand that made it difficult to put pen to paper. Soon it became clear that O’Neill was losing his ability to write.

When he realized he was running out of time, O’Neill abruptly abandoned the 11-play project and turned his attention to a different subject: his past. In this house, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, about his dissipated youth, A Moon for the Misbegotten, about his alcoholic brother, and Long Day’s Journey into the Night, based on his dysfunctional childhood. The play follows the Tyrone family through a day in the life, exploring issues of alcoholism, illness, and cruelty against the ominous background of the mother’s morphine addiction. It’s a remarkable play, laying equal blame and forgiveness on all the Tyrones, including Edmund, O’Neill’s stand-in for himself.

The tour guide shows us a Xeroxed page from one of O’Neill’s drafts. It’s a testament to determination: hundreds of tiny words are jammed on the page, the lines of each letter crooked from a shaking hand. It would take a magnifying glass to decipher it all. There was emotional toll in writing this highly personal work, too. Carlotta, O’Neill’s wife, said of that period, “He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked ten years older than when he went in in the morning.”

For the last decade of his life, O’Neill was unable to write. His mind was sharp, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. For a man who built everything, even his house, around writing, this must have been devastating.

As the shuttle takes me away from the park, I find myself envying O’Neill’s focus and creative confidence. He said in an interview in 1930: “The playwright must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it–the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new [answer] for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort one’s fears of death.” This is surely the root of O’Neill’s monastic creative life: he had a spiritual seriousness toward art that feels refreshing to me, a writer working today, as it was when it was new.

And I’m sobered too. While I have been conditioned to distrust and avoid silence, O’Neill sought it out at all costs. It provided the peace that allowed him to work despite health problems, mental illness, and alcoholism. Most strikingly, it was silence that helped him push the last plays out before he was forced to stop writing altogether. Compared to that, my difficulty focusing seems childish by comparison. The truth is, it’s too easy to blame my perpetual distraction on technology. It’s simply more comfortable to flail along the surface of ideas with a lot of noise to distract me than it is to summon the rigor necessary to take on issues like the ones O’Neill was talking about. And what, I think as the gate of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site closes behind me, would be different for me as a writer if I learned to love silence the way O’Neill did?

Guest Blog Post, Peter Makuck: Fact and Fiction, Experience and Truth

Peter MakuckOnce at a writer’s conference, over drinks, I was talking to several poets about scuba diving, about some things I had recently seen on a wreck dive.  A few weeks later, I had a phone call from one of them.  He had never been diving but wanted to write a poem about it, and asked me lots of questions.  Fine, I thought, but why not use your own experience instead of mine?  The chances are greater that your passion or enthusiasm for what you are writing about will be more contagious, more convincing, and register more deeply with a reader if it comes from your own life.

The impulse to write, for me, has always been to find meaning in experience, to give that experience imaginative life, and to share it with a reader.  I tend to set stories and poems in places where I’ve lived—Maine, West Virginia, Ohio, Utah, West Virginia, Quebec, France, coastal North Carolina.  Why bother to invent, make up stuff, if you have promising raw material at your disposal?  There is nothing wrong with using your own life.  The family, for example, has always been a primal source for fiction and theater.  Take the work of Philip Roth or Eugene O’Neill, to name but two of hundreds.  Long Day’s Journey into Night, set in my home town and arguably the best play of the 20th century, is so autobiographically close to the bone that O’Neill mandated in his will that it not be staged or published until twenty-five years after his death.  Fortunately for us his executor saw things differently.

At a college reunion last month, I read a story from Allegiance and Betrayal (Syracuse University Press), published earlier this year.  The story is set in a French-Canadian enclave in Maine where I went to school, where just about everyone spoke French (sadly no more).  After the reading, classmates came up and told me that the off-campus store described in my story wasn’t owned by French Canadians.  And nobody seemed to remember a boy with Downs syndrome who was always barefoot, in pyjamas, and spent much of his time in a junk car next to the store.  These remarks pleased me because the boy, among many other things, was invented for a recognition scene toward the end of the narrative.

A cousin once told me he knew where one of my short stories came from, then proceeded to recall the bit of drama from a family cook-out I had in mind.  I told him he was right.  Then he said, “But it didn’t happen the way you write about it.”  I told him that’s why we call it fiction.  He protested.  I asked what was more interesting and engaging, the way it happened, or my imagined version of events?  He smiled but repeated that it didn’t happen that way.  Fine, I said, how about them Red Sox.

Once, however, I took something from the family, but didn’t use enough imagination to outfit the characters with disguises, and got myself into trouble with my mother who, in a roundabout way, got hold of the journal in which the story appeared.  It was my first published story.  I had no intention of showing it to the family because I must have suspected some people would be hurt or offended.  This was a real learning experience.  I promised myself, and my mother, that it would never happen again.  Now the innocent and the guilty in my fiction would be hard put to recognize themselves.  I hope.

After readings, during Q & A sessions, I’m often asked how autobiographical my work is.  First response is to quote Giambattista Vico, the 17th century Italian philosopher, who said that memory and imagination are the same thing.  I don’t know if I’d go that far, but memory is faulty, and revises itself over time.  Just compare with a friend the memory of an event you experienced together, and the two versions of that event will usually vary.  My second response is that there are degrees of fictiveness, and that the percentage of autobiography to imagination varies from story to story: 30-70; 40-60; 50-50.  Poems, on the other hand, remember and magnify moments that are much closer to the way things were, for me at least.  But even with poems, my allegiance is to the work in progress, and not to what really happened.

Bottomline: never let truth stand in the way of a good story or poem.  Or as Picasso put it: “All art is a lie that makes you see the truth.”