Saturday, December 13, 2014

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, by Sara Ruhl

The title of this book and its subtitle, On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parade and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (as well as a brief write-up I'd seen about the book), led me to believe this was going to be a humorous collection of short essays on lighthearted domestic topics. While the essays are short, humor is present, and one section does address some domestic topics, overall the book is a rather serious examination of writing, the theater, acting, and art. An example: One essay is titled "Don't send your characters to reform school," which sounds rather light--but the first sentence is "Sometimes I think that American dramaturgy is based not on Aristotle's Poetics but instead on The Pilgrim's Progress . . . that is to say, what has your character learned, how has she changed, what is her journey?" The essay is only four paragraphs but it examines a serious question about the relationship of the morality play to realism.

Among the other questions Ruhl (a playwright and MacArthur "genius" award winner--she's a smart one, no doubt!) explores in her brief essays are the importance of small powerful words, how the current obsession with subtext has robbed writers of the drama of the sentence, color-blind casting, whether play-writing is teachable (one of the longest essays in the book), and non-adverbial acting (an intriguing concept). She does write about her family but even these pieces are meant not merely to entertain but to elucidate. Even when she ruminates for only a paragraph, about, for example, her son's remarking that ballet is beautiful but he doesn't like it, the reader is challenged to think more deeply.

Although I got this book from the library, it's the kind of book that I can imagine picking up and rereading essays at random just to challenge myself to think about something not often on my mind. Definitely worth reading.

P.S. Due to a couple of busy weeks, I have gotten behind on my posting, so I'll likely be throwing up several posts tonight and tomorrow.

Favorite passages:
Small, forthright words, used in the service of condensing experience, might have an idea buried in them as large as the most expansive work that wears its intellectualism on its sleeve. The unshed tears of the deeply felt are akin to the unused large words in the service of a thought.

. . . a writer's special purview and intimate power is how a world follows a word.

Being dead is the most airtight defense of one's own aesthetic.  [Yes, she is both smart and funny.]

It [playwriting] is as teachable as any other art form, in which we are dependent on a shared history and on our teachers for a sense of form, inspiration, and example; but we are dependent on ourselves alone for our subject matter, our private discipline, our wild fancies, our dreams. The question of whether playwriting is teachable begets other questions, like: is devotion teachable? Is listening teachable? Is a love of art and a willingness to give your life over to art teachable? I believe that these things are teachable mostly by example, and in great silences.

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