The Action Figures Collection

by Joan Frank

June 2015

In an essay for American Theater magazine, playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) described finding himself, some years ago, in the middle of a kind of personal renaissance, having just received a wonderful award.

Lucas had been given the Greenfield Prize. That meant a $30,000 stipend and a writing residence at a place called the Hermitage, in Englewood, Florida. His life, he cheerfully admitted, was a mess at the time: his marriage done, his work dead-ended. Though he'd overcome alcoholism and addiction, he wasn't sure, at 60, "what kind of character I wanted to play in my third act."

The retreat and cash prize gave him what every writer craves: time, space, financial stability. He could sort himself out and make new work. In what feels like a report or evaluation of this windfall experience, his essay tries to convey "the one big surprising thing I learned in my year of reading, contemplation and conversations with the Hermitage staff and fellow artists."

I re-read his essay several times, struggling to summarize for myself that "one big surprising thing." I sensed that Lucas had written the piece in a heightened state. That is to say, he was quite high—a recognizable art colony high, that supremely fertile, alert, all-pores-open period when the very air seems to vibrate and the imagination with it. During that time, delicious possibilities rise to the surface like glistening golden carp, promising to coalesce into something brilliant—if we can just string together the words to finesse the job.

Lucas was high on the exquisite freedom and peace of a solitude that's supported and protected by like-minded others, not impinged upon by interruptions and demands. He felt he was glimpsing, during that high, What It All Means, and he tries in this essay to tell us: "Self-knowledge ... Trust in others, time, process ... Humility and gratitude [are key] in gaining mastery ... I can't afford the luxuries of self-pity and resentment, privileging me and my work over others."

Bad reviews, he adds, "are like weather ... a permanent condition of being an artist." (Lucas had been receiving unfavorable notices for the work that followed Prelude.) In fact, he declared, bad reviews have freed him "to write what I might otherwise have feared to say."

"Art models freedom," he notes, "but you must choose it—and keep choosing it."

That got my attention.

"We are what we do, not what we say, feel, or intend," he adds. (Italics are mine.)

Lucas sensed that the constant trick of making art is to resist being dragged under by "gossip and schadenfreude." Act in aggressive opposition to those reflexes, he suggests. Better art will follow.

When I read this essay, it both touched and bothered me. I understood its circumstances and admired its earnestness. Lucas's urgency, surely hard-earned, was inspiring. Yet from experience I know how that foamy, effervescent high in artistic retreat (with all its passionate revelations) can evaporate as we return to the daily, as we resume trying to fit writing in amid the chores and obligations of life—ducking the slings and arrows.

I also recognize that art that matters—rather, art that winds up mattering, since time is the only real arbiter of that—can come from awful people. The books we write are not us, finally—for better and occasionally for worse.

But lately I've begun to suspect that Lucas, and others like him, may be onto something—something almost chemical—about giving back, "contributing to the common good" and "acting in opposition" to mean or petty reflexes.

Believe me, I'm the last person I'd expect to hear saying this.

After more time in the life than I like to concede, I've only recently started to figure out (slow learner) that crabby, covetous fretting hasn't done much to help my work's success. My work has helped my work's success (combined with rabid determination to send it out to as many pairs of eyes as may be willing to glance at it), as has the unstinting generosity of several generations of superb teachers and writing mentors.

Increasingly, in fact, a habitually gloomy attitude strikes me as stale, boring, cumbersome, and—most interestingly—completely irrelevant. Of no use at all.

At the same time, we've all noticed over the years that there are writers out there whose generosity and kindness are so notorious as to form a legendary piece of their identities. Certain names stand out as synonymous with "amazing goodness." Their graciousness seems to so shockingly transcend (even disprove) the street-level grit and grime of the writing life—the thousand-and-one frustrations and jealousies, the scraping and scrabbling—that we remember them for it.

You've doubtless met some of the people I'm talking about. The encounter always feels astonishing. They look you in the eye. They offer clear, sensible words of encouragement, and they appear to mean it. They follow through with the help they pledged, the referral, the recommendation letter, the blurb. They cheer for you when good things happen for your work. And they seem to manage all this without visible strain, guilt-mongering, or similar complexities—whatever else they may be juggling in their own lives—year after year.

In short, their integrity seems real.

Lucas grasped, I think, that this mind-set (and behavior) works as an antidote to almost everything that can discourage us about the writing life—everything that can make us waste precious time questioning ourselves, and it.

Therefore, I want to be like those writers. Or at least bear them in mind, talismanically.

Something along the lines of a mental bumpersticker: What would (name inserted here) do?

What if it helped us, as artists, to keep a sort of private roll-call of these exemplars in the backs of our minds—like a collection of those action figures we used to play with as kids, hopping them around on furniture, giving them voices (though of course the mortal models for these figures have well-established voices), telling stories with them?

The writers I'm thinking of are in no way, let me hasten to add, Pollyannas. They know the game. They've seen all the trends and cycles. They've wished for the same things we've wished for, that the life parses out so grudgingly: recognition, critical approval, a bit of money. They've even encountered rejection―imagine!

So when I propose this, I don't mean to candy-coat the difficulties and random weirdnesses of the life. Also, I do not imagine I can fool the universe into thinking I'm a nice person. The universe is very likely smarter than that―and being a nice person, as noted earlier, doesn't automatically make good art. (Jane Smiley quipped recently, in a list of writing tips, that "you cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.")

What I have in mind is re-routing a reflex. Even if those stellar models have been faking it all this time, something gets sparked by that. Function follows form, to a stupendous degree; spirit follows letter. We are what we do. So whether inside or outside of the haven of an artistic retreat, no matter how my inner curmudgeon protests, I'll try more, in days ahead, to emulate the words and above all, the deeds of my action figures collection.

I, too, am curious about how that third act turns out.

Joan FrankComment