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Monday, March 7, 2016

How Close Is Too Close When You're Writing From Life? Post #1

* Foot note.
So, let's say there's this young guy named Thomas Williams. Daddy is a salesman, who travels as much as possible, and drinks, both at home and on the road. 
Mama is the daughter of an Episcopal priest (read someone of high social standing) and a music teacher, miserable in her marriage. 

Edwina's parents--note their gentility.

Edwina's second child, Thomas, gets seriously ill. There she is, living with her parents her drunkard of a husband (when he's home) a slightly older toddler (daughter Rose, sixteen months older) and a kid who has come so close to dying that it takes him a year of being housebound to recover. Edwina is living with her parents throughout this time. She and Thomas' big sister devote themselves to entertaining the invalid. Along with Ozzie, his colored nurse, they make his restricted life bearable. 

Note how disassociated the nurse, Ozzie, seems from the family group. I wonder who is taking care of Ozzie's children?

Thomas is--well, there's no other way to say it--effeminate. Daddy tries to beat the nancy-boy out of him. Thomas is very close to Rose. In fact, they're more like twins, but Mama is disappointed by Rose, who, far from being vivacious is nearly crippled by shyness. 

Thomas in college
All Mama's focus, all her energy, all her love, goes into Thomas.  And because the family moves so many, many times (due to Daddy's wild behavior when he's drunk and Mama's desire to find a more socially appropriate address for her gentility,) Thomas doesn't really find a place in the world until college, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. There, he is a social maladept, but becomes the first freshman ever to receive honorable mention in a writing contest. He's found a home in writing. This matters, because 

junior year, when he's twenty-one, Tom fails a ROTC exam. Furious, his father pulls him out of school and sticks him into a job at the International Shoe Company factory. Tom hates the job, hates it, and yet--he's grown up around his mother's pressured gentility. At the factory, he has to face the reality of their lives, that they're not much better than the working class men around them, including a rough-hewn drunkard/poetic soul who, in many ways, reminds Tom of his father. 

Tom can't wait to get out of his dead-end job. Every weekend, he stays up both nights, black coffee and cigarettes fueling his efforts to write one short story a week.  By the age of twenty-four, this overwork pushes Tom to a nervous breakdown. Daddy's drinking and crazy temper leads Mama to push him out, though the two never divorce. At twenty-nine, Tom enrolls in Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and two years later, has moved on to the University of Iowa, where he finishes his uncompleted undergrad degree to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English. And all this time, he's writing stories and plays, a lot of plays. He studies at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City, co-writing a collaborative play called Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! and it's produced, in Memphis Tennessee. "The laughter enchanted me," Thomas writes later. "Then and there, the theater and I found each other, for better or for worse. I know it's the only thing that saved my life." 

Our brilliant, obsessive, effeminate Thomas comes up with a pen-name, changing Thomas to something more memorable. He works a string of jobs--as a laborer, mostly-- to support his writing, though the worst is probably that horrible stint as caretaker of a chicken ranch outside of L.A. It isn't until 1945 that his first play is a hit. It's a memory play, based on a short story called Portrait of a Girl in Glass, about big sister, Rose, but it's also about a young man named Tom who hates his work at a shoe warehouse, and a guy named Jim, who used to be a high school hero, but has gone downhill from there. Most of all, the play is about Mama Edwina, here called Amanda. In the play, Thomas pillories her. Amanda is unable to view her children as separate from herself. Just like Edwina, Amanda talks, frantically all the time, "about her gentleman callers, the DAR, salivary glands and the fine art of mastication. Her silences were worse. She had a way of looking at her children to register a deep disappointment." "She not merely talked--and talked--she had the ability to overcomes friend and adversary alike, usually leaving them limp and defenseless under the sheer weight of words."  

Amanda is still alive when the play is produced. When she comes to see herself, she is cornered by the actress Laurette Taylor who so brilliantly portrays Edwina as a tragic monster. ""Well, Mrs. Williams," asks Laurette, "How did you like yourself?"

How Amanda must have felt. 

And yet, The Glass Menagerie is an extraordinary play, a transformative play, and ultimately a loving exploration of fragile creatures struggling with mostly worthless tools. Is not Tom wrestling with his demons? Is not Amanda all too human?  How close is too close when you're writing from life? 

What do you think? 

* (please note: throughout the following, I am using the language of the times for certain minorities.) 

Note number 2: To honor Pat Conroy and Harper Lee, I plan to explore the value and ethics of this writing close to home--from real life. I would love your thoughts on it, as both writers and readers. Thanks. 

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