On Friday night, I read Tony Kushner’s speech about being a writer, given at the Whiting Writers Awards, and I cry. This is not wildly out of character for me. I was raised by a woman who cries easily, and even my father has been known to tear up at particularly emotional events — you know, like the end of Sweet Home Alabama — so I’m basically genetically predisposed to tears when something moves me. And man, did Kushner’s speech move me.
In fact, one passage hit so hard that I immediately had to find pen and paper to retrace the words in my own hand and pin them up on my bedroom wall:
We write to negotiate our own relationships with momentariness and permanence, to speak with the dead, to bring them back, or try to, and of course we always fail to bring them back and we call that failure art.
On Saturday afternoon, those words still humming in my chest, I cry again. This time at a matinee of the new Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori musical Fun Home at the Public Theater.
This crying, however, was kind of remarkable. Not in that it was happening so much as in the way that it was happening. In the shoulder-heaving, body-wracking way it kept me from being able to get out of my seat for a standing ovation at the end of the show. This was a kind of crying only a few degrees south of the ugly sobbing I did the first time I saw Next to Normal. A kind of crying reserved for only the most moving pieces of art I’ve ever experienced in my life. Next to Normal. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Fun Home.
So. You can tell that Fun Home hit home for me. To say I liked it is an understatement. To find the words to describe exactly how it moved me is fruitless. I will fail.
But I will say this — Reading Kushner’s speech when I did changed my experience of Fun Home in ways I will probably never be able to measure. And I am eternally grateful to the universe for putting them in my path together, one in front of the other.
Because the memory of Kushner’s speech seemed to illuminate the fact that, on some very basic level, Fun Home is about writing. About cartoonist Alison Bechdel grappling with the weight of her memories of, and relationship to, her father and how best to trace them onto paper. As audience members we see Adult Alison in every moment. She is there, not just to remember or retrace, but to hunt for the images and words she needs to contextualize the experience of growing up beside this man. Drafting, and redrafting, and drafting again. Perhaps failing, too. Even in the moments where she comes closest to finding the right words and pictures to freeze the frame in her heart and mind, to put it to paper.
Because, like Kusher said, as writers and artists we are always failing. Especially by our own measure. Michael Cunningham described the same sensation in The Hours, with the final conversation between characters Clarissa Vaughn, an editor, and Richard Brown, a writer:
“Stop saying that. You haven’t failed.”
“I have. I’m not looking for sympathy. Not really. I just feel so sad. What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something alive and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness.”
It is inherently impossible, our endeavor to capture these things as vibrantly as they were, to make them real again for us and for our readers.
But we try.
Just as Bechdel did in Fun Home. As Tesori and Kron did in trying to bring another layer of color and light to Fun Home with their musical. And whatever their standards were, however they feel about the story they finally shared on that stage, from the audience, the work felt like a success. Perhaps most importantly because it found the language — musical and verbal and visual — to tell a very small story in a very big way. In a way that transcended its inherent boundaries to become all of our stories, as well.
That Saturday at the Public, Fun Home became the story of the father and grandfather I will likely spend my life writing about and around. And the fathers and grandfathers they spent their lives living around and through and away from. And the ways in which the people who love us make us and break us, sometimes in the same breath, and how things can be so, so messed up in the ways that real life always is — the scale is different for everyone — and yet, there is still hope that we can find context and meaning and love and forgiveness and a way to move on into our own adulthood with the past so far away and right beside us all at the same time.
Photo: Joan Marcus