Inspired by my son Dan, the artist who designed this web site , I decided to try writing an artist's statement of my own - something about how I started writing and why I keep at it. Then I remembered that I'd already published an article that summed up my ideas about what I do. It was a brief homage I paid to Tennessee Williams, an artist who was enormously important to me many years ago. I hope my own writing will always have some of the luminous compassion and the sense of wonder that I first discovered in his work.
When I was fifteen, a film of one of Tennessee Williams' plays changed my life.
I wanted to be like everybody else then, and was tormented because I wasn't popular. With persistence, I managed to get a date with the most sought-after girl in school and go to the Wednesday afternoon movie, not only with her but with the two most popular couples in the ninth grade. They were the sons and daughters of corporation executives who, like my father, owned some of the biggest homes in my colorless and odorless suburban town. Fortified by zoning laws and high hedges around their lawns, the townspeople had put their struggling paths behind them and, in middle age, had decreed that no Unpleasantness of any sort was to penetrate their sanctuary. Unpleasantness not only included poverty or dirt, but any strong human emotions expressed directly: exhilaration or despair, love or loneliness. Only the middle range of feelings was permitted. The executives commuted on the train past the tenements of Harlem on their way to work every day; they rode the bus through the raucous canyons surrounding Grand Central Station, but when they came home every evening, they seemed determinedly untouched by the lives they had seen out their windows. Theirs was a world of beach club dances, church building drives, historical society meetings, and catered cocktail parties on the terrace. It was a clean, cheerful, purposeful world, one that I had been trained from infancy to take my place in. I had only just begun to notice that I hated it.
But on the Wednesday afternoon of the movie, I had finally been accepted by the in-crowd. My date was daffodil-pretty: blonde, wide-eyed, well brought up to be quietly amused by the banter of ninth grade boys. The film I took her to was Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo.
For the first few minutes inside the theater, I concentrated on edging close enough to my date to drape my arm around her shoulder. Then I stopped edging. I watched the screen. While the other two boys made clever comments that got their girlfriends giggling, I sat with my mouth half-open throughout The Rose Tattoo. I had never seen anything like it. I was amazed. And I stayed amazed.
Afterwards, we walked along a wide, tree-lined street toward my date's house. I couldn't speak. My new friends were still making amusing comments about the film-they'd thought it boring and "grungy." I told them they were wrong.
"You mean you liked that sweaty guy with the tattoo?" they asked. "You liked that big woman who was always moaning and walking around in her slip?"
"Yes," I told them. "Yes - I thought they were great." I had no other word to express what I felt, and if I had, I would have kept it to myself. I was in love with Anna Magnani. I was in love with art.
I dawdled along behind the others now, and when my date turned around to ask what was wrong with me, I just stared at her. Beside Anna Magnani, she looked vapid and soulless to me, a blonde ghost who would never walk around her house in a slip, who would never have those beautiful lines in her face, who would never wring her hands over anything more than a messy table-setting.
I knew then, that afternoon, that I was not like her or her friends, that I would never be, and that it was a waste of my time trying to be. When they made funny remarks about my strange behavior, I simply didn't care. I didn't go to my date's house to play records, as was the Wednesday afternoon custom. I said I didn't feel like it, and just kept walking.
I wandered all over town. For the first time in my life, I knew I belonged somewhere-in the world of my imagination. I was not the only one there, as I had previously thought. I had company. Others, like the man who had written The Rose Tattoo, had explored their own murky feelings and had made something wonderful out of them with words. It was all right now to feel that my private world was realer than the one that surrounded me. It was all right to think up people I preferred to my friends and my parents, and to imagine these characters laughing and shouting and grieving and touching each others' lives intimately. It was all right to be the kind of person I was. I was happy. I began to write dramas of my own.
Tennessee Williams was not famous for making people happy, and yet he was an immensely popular playwright. His haunted vision touched millions of lives. When his lonely and wounded characters spoke, they reached behind the masks we wore and awoke those parts of us that were most vulnerable, delicate, fearful, and gave us permission to experience them in hopes of finding something much more alive and sustaining than the masks we thought protected us.
He was accused of writing about only of the extremes of human nature-the pathologically sad, the sexually driven, the obsessed-but in fact he wrote about the infinite capacity of the human heart to feel everything and to feel a kinship with others who have also allowed themselves this freedom.
"Nothing human disgusts me, unless it's unkind, violent," Hannah in Night of the Iguana tells us. Because we have been moved by her story, her compassionate vision becomes ours. If she has survived the extremes of her loneliness, and can think of her chaste encounter with a pathetic salesman as a "love experience," then perhaps we can view our own extreme predicaments with as much sensitivity and dignity.
Like every good artist, Tennessee Williams made us see the world as a place populated with people like ourselves at our most human moments. He helped us feel a common bond with them. The moments of connection in his plays were often painful, even tragic. His characters had to work through tortured social rituals in order to reach each others' hearts, and then the exposure of their shared vulnerability was sometimes more than they could endure for long. But these brief moments of connection were always worth the suffering. As the characters' lives were transformed by them, so the lives of the audience were illuminated and given meaning.
In The Glass Menagerie, we can understand Laura's Wingfield's exhilaration and grief when she shows her glass unicorn to "the gentleman caller," a warehouseman her brother Tom has invited to dinner.
"He loves the light," she says of the unicorn. "See how the light shines through him!" But while she dances with the man in the living room-her one wild fling in life-the unicorn is knocked to the floor, its tiny horn broken.
"Now it is just like all the other horses," she says sadly, hopefully, knowing that she has at last made contact with the herd, with the world she had feared to approach and the high-school boy she had once loved from afar. For this one moment, she has allowed him to share her private, delicate life, and he has found it beautiful.
"You're pretty," he tells her, "in a different way from everyone else.... They're one hundred times one thousand. You're one times one.... You're-Blue Roses!"
"But," she says, referring to this name he had given her in high school, "blue is wrong for roses."
"It's right for you," he says. We in the audience know that this contact will be brief, and that what makes Laura special-like the unicorn's translucent horn-is too fragile to survive for long. But we also know that she is pretty not in spite of her uniqueness but because of it. What Laura comes to understand about herself, we in the audience can value about ourselves as well.
I kept writing and kept straying as far as possible from the kinds of towns where I was raised, working in Africa, England, Los Angeles, New York. I saw the plays and films of Tennessee Williams wherever I could. And finally I met him at a party in Key West, Florida, in 1981. I had recently read a story of his in a literary magazine whose editor we both knew. When I told him I'd liked it, he was very pleased; few people had admired his recent work. I didn't plan to gush, but I was as drunk as he was, and began telling him the story of how he had influenced my life at fifteen. Who can resist a fan? He was seventy then and not in good health, but that night he looked slim and tanned, dapper with his gray mustache and a fisherman's cap pulled down at a jaunty angle.
"And did you become a writer?" he asked me when I'd finished.
"Yes," I said, "for better or worse."
"Or both," he said, grinning.
During the rest of the party, I kept looking back at him as his friends introduced him around and settled him at a table. I was very glad I'd had a chance to tell him how much his writing had meant to me. I wish he hadn't died alone in a hotel room. I prefer to remember him as I saw him at that party: sitting with his arms around two friends, smiling, surrounded by his admirers-pretty but aging middle aged women and beautiful young men. They could have been characters from his plays, come back from the stage to keep him company. One of them could have been Tom's and Laura's mother out of The Glass Menagerie-or, for that matter, my mother.
I have to remember the rest of the scene, though. It was a far cry from the backwater Key West of The Rose Tattoo I had first seen on the screen many years before. The party was at a beach club on a terrace looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, a setting not all that dissimilar from the ones where my parents and their friends socialized. Most of the people here were about the same age as my parents had been when I was fifteen. So was I, now.
What was I doing here? What was Tennessee Williams doing here? Never mind, never mind, I thought-we're both still writing. At least the party guests were people to me, now, not pale ghosts. They had lives; I had learned that. Perhaps that fifteen-year-old date of mine had grown up to be a woman with beautiful lines in her face, after all; perhaps she had learned something, too.
"Nowadays the world is lit by lightning," Tom says at the end of The Glass Menagerie.
It is a fearful thing, this lightning. We have all seen it and felt its shudder pass through us. But the world is lit by a stronger light, as well, the one that shines through Laura's glass horses, the one Tennessee Williams has left behind to keep us company.