They wanted me to come to a high school in Glenview, Illinois, to lecture about my writing and they paid me very well, so I did it. Last Thursday. There was a time when I might have commanded more, but this was something like 250 dollars a minute for an hour or so. A lot of that time I just read from my work, or recycled old stories about myself, and it was a good cause, so why not. Of course there was the other part, the reception afterward, where you have to sign books, personalize them for people who paid extra for the privilege and let them have their picture taken standing near you, as if you were Mount Rushmore or, God forbid, their best friend. That part could make you throw up but it only lasts half an hour if you’re lucky and then you can escape and there’s enough money to help out with the foundation or for a nice little trip to Paris or someplace else where you can forget it ever happened.
The introductions are always embarrassing. They applaud the underwriters before they applaud you. Then you have to step out to the podium with the floral arrangement in front of it and let them look you over. I wore a gray jacket and dark tie and I know they were thinking well, he’s an ordinary enough twerp–preppy, even at his age. More like a nice English professor than the enfant terrible of 20th-century American theater. They wanted me to talk about how I write, as if I would share that, my black magic, so I made a joke out of it. There are three topics you must avoid when talking about creative writing, I said: why you write, how you write, and where your ideas come from. They laughed. I write because I’m a writer, I said. And then I told them the truth–I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know how to write who could be taught. And something else: When I am sitting at my desk, writing a play, I see it and I hear it performed in front of me. I wrote a three-act sex farce when I was 12, I said. My knowledge of farce was academic, and my knowledge of sex was singular. They laughed again.
The audience was full of middle-aged women, affluent suburban women, some of them not that different from my adoptive mother. I mentioned the new biography of me, how I don’t like the way it ties every bit of my work to actual events in my life, as though I lacked a creative imagination. I told them my work, any writer’s work, is fact made into fiction and fiction made into fact, and the only limit on what writers can use, the only determining factor, is whether we find it useful for our art. At its best, I said, a play is an act of aggression against the status quo. And just when they were feeling comfortable, as if they were safe with me, I pulled out a script and began reading from my work. I am a superb reader. I did the bit about the man who didn’t recognize his mother at a cocktail party. Fact or fiction? I asked them. And then another piece that clearly didn’t happen to me. And then: “Here’s something my adoptive mother told me about her past,” I said, and I started to read from Three Tall Women about how my parents came home from a party and my mother took off all her clothes but was still wearing her jewelry and my father came in as she sat at her dressing table:
“And in he walked, naked as a jaybird….I have something for you, he said….And I raised my eyes…and his…his pee-pee was all hard, and…and hanging on it was a new bracelet….He came close and I thought it was the most beautiful bracelet I’d ever seen….Do you want it? he said. Yes, yes! I said. Oh, goodness, yes! And he came closer, and his pee-pee touched my shoulder….And he poked me with it, with his pee-pee, and I turned….And he moved closer, to my face, and Do you want it? I thought you might like it. And I said, No! I can’t do that! You know I can’t do that!”
They were pretty quiet after that, but they applauded. And I read something else, something about Lillian Gish at a party after she had lost her hearing and her marbles, and something that happened to me, the surprise of old age, and then I was done. There were the usual questions, “I missed your play in London,” that sort, till we adjourned to the reception, where a dozen women, a goddam club or something, piled around me for a group photo that had to be taken a dozen times so each would have it on her own camera. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. And I couldn’t say, “No! I can’t do that! You know I can’t do that!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.