A couple of weeks ago I got my feelings hurt when I approached someone—a friend—about helping me set up one of the previews of my play that I’m doing with Women’s Work Productions. This friend didn’t say no, but he circled the subject in a way that made it obvious the answer was no. I let it go, telling the reasonable part of my brain that I had to allow people to say no while the emotional part of my brain was thinking, “He doesn’t believe in me.” Or, more accurately, “He doesn’t believe in me as a writer.”
The thought that you’re not being taken seriously can be crushing and I scuffed through the shards of my self-esteem for a couple of days, then found myself thinking—hold on a minute. How many people do believe in me as a writer? Not only do I get lovely letters, e-mails and text messages from people who enjoy reading my books but I have a fabulous group of actors who have been following me around with this play, Carried by the Current, for the last nine years. Some of those same actors were the ones who came to me last summer with the idea of putting together a preview to gather support for a Seattle production of this play. I owed it to them, I thought, to keep believing in myself no matter how many rejections I got along the way.
This thought happened to coincide with us doing one of the previews at Doyle Guffie’s Rallye Auto in Burlington, Washington. I’ve know the Guffies a long time and bought a number of used vehicles from them, but I could tell that it wasn’t exactly in their comfort zone to have a group of actors descend on their auto dealership to perform three scenes from a play. But they welcomed us warmly and the more we got into our thirty-minute presentation the more they sat forward in their seats. “This was great,” Doyle’s daughter, Tanya, who also works for the business, told me afterwards. “The actors did a really good job and I liked how the scenes they presented helped me know what the play was about.”
I’d been nervous before this preview in a way that I’m not usually. I think the brisk grilling my friend gave me in his non-specific rejection rattled my confidence, which surprised me because all I have to do is think of the actors and the time they give up to be a part of these previews to know that I’m well supported in this endeavor. Sarah and Dustin Moore left their brand new baby daughter with Grandma to come and perform in the preview: Carolyn Travis, who works two jobs as a vet tech and is a leading force in Shakespeare Northwest, dashed away from her obligations to act with us: and my daughter, Annie, who gave me a quill pendant when she was only 11, “because you’re a writer, mommy,” drove two hours up to our house from Seattle to help me prepare and then turned around and drove another hour back down to Rallye Auto to perform in the preview. Tanya’s comment filled my heart with pride for the recognition she gave these actors and I walked out of the preview my confidence restored.
But I have since asked myself why I let it get to me. I mean, as an actress turned writer if there is one thing I am used to, it’s rejection. I don’t usually let it get under my skin. Maybe it was because this person was a friend, I told myself. But it wasn’t that. I think what really did it was his recommendation that we do the previews at businesses and organizations who are interested in the subject. Carried by the Current is based on the true story of a group of women from Texas who opened the first safe house for battered women back in 1870: was my friend suggesting that we only try to get support from agencies interested in domestic violence? That’s what it sounded like to me. “But they’re the people we’re trying to help by getting this play out there,” I told him. Still, his comment took the wind out of my sails and left me in the doldrums. I don’t mind people criticizing my writing because I know I still have a lot to learn in that area but my story I’m passionate about. Consequently, I hope others will be passionate about it, too. All others. Yet if my friend couldn’t see that, what did it mean for people in general? Was I wasting my time here? Should I even be bothering?
As I was worrying these questions, I also happened to be reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and I was at the place where the author describes how she had made up her mind not to write another book before finding out about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles public library. It was just too huge a commitment, she’d decided, too mammoth a task to write a book. Then she found herself losing her mother—the woman who had introduced her to libraries—to dementia. Orlean goes on to spin out the ramifications of lost memory and whether our time on this earth amounts to anything given the transitory nature of life, and says, “If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody.” Then she turns a corner in her narrative and comes back to the value of writing. “But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future.” (The Library Book, Simon and Schuster, October 2018, p93).
That was the refortification I had been looking for, right there before me on the page. I wrote a play about the Sanctified Sisters of Belton, Texas, because their story spoke to me. I found it buried in the overgrowth of men’s history and some muddying weeds that misidentified the story as one of a religious cult, but once I started to pull that away, I discovered a plant that I recognized immediately because of my childhood. And the more I cleared out around it, helped by the actors who wanted to see it grow, the more it revealed itself as a plant that others could identify with, too.
Because the truth of it is that this story of these ladies from Texas is not a story of domestic violence. For sure—staying with the plant analogy—it was domestic violence that caused these women to push up out of the soil but once they were out they grew and flourished, then grew some more. They grew partly because the leader of their group, Martha McWhirter, allowed the women to move into her house to protect them from abuse and from the town’s hostility, which rose in support of their wealthy, white husbands; but they also grew because of their no-turning-back decisiveness. From earning small amounts selling eggs, butter and cheese to pooling their resources into a common fund, they set examples for us on how to keep moving forward. And when the sun shone down on them through the windows of the hotel they built and ran amongst the townspeople who had ostracized them for so many years, they flowered magnificently, showing us that we don’t have to be defined by one part of our lives.
So to answer my own question, yes I need to be bothering. The women bothered to stand firm in the face of resistance; so should I. As it turns out, my friend did start the ball rolling on setting up a preview of the play so I don’t know if the push back I was feeling from him was just oversensitivity on my part or an informational exercise in how to address a more corporate-minded individual. And since corporations are on the list of people we want to approach with our preview, a little test of my tenacity probably wasn’t a bad thing for me. “You’re like the ladies from your story,” my friend, Greta, told me in one of our morning walks in the park. “You’re at the eggs, butter and cheese phase of your production.”
Why yes we are.