General 2-2-2005

Wright on Writing

Acclaimed dramatist and Six Feet Under staff writer Craig Wright on being a scribe for for the stage, for the screen, and for his own sanity

Craig Wright

I started writing in fifth grade when my English teacher gave me a copy of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slapstick. Reading it, I was immediately seduced by the playful, easy quality of Vonnegut’s prose and the outlandishly funny and heartbreaking story he had to tell. Vonnegut made writing look easy, so I decided to give it a try. (I’m sure there are some writers out there who were first inspired by authors who made it look extremely hard. To them, I say: rock on.)

My admiration for Vonnegut aside, my first attempts at writing were not stories but plays. This had mostly to do with the fact that I had recently seen Pippin at the Kennedy Center and was marked for life by Bob Fosse’s glitteringly theatrical cynicism. As with Vonnegut’s trademark fatalistic flourishes—“So it goes” – “Hi ho”—Fosse’s steel-shiny, charming-as-hell, bumping-and-grinding negations were a perfect fit for a young man trying to write out his anger against a dead mother, an awful father, and the most cruel and homely harem of stepmothers ever formed by the clumsy hands of Fate.

Armed with nothing but anger and an admiration for a certain kind of coy and clever despair, I began to write to let everyone know how unhappy I was; I wrote to save myself. Predictably, the results were derivative and bad. My first play ended with my father being hung while a Pippin-esque chorus sardonically sang and tap-danced. Almost ten years later, things had still not gotten much better. My one-act musical about the delivery of a Miss America pageant finalist into the hands of a generic Dark Figure—terribly titled Myth America—was just one more in a long line of cartoon ritualized nuclear-family explosions.

Of course, writing those awful plays got me through hard times; but were they any good, any good at all? Of course not. My conclusion: for me, writing to save the self was not a recipe for writing well.

By the age of 32, I had met and married my wife Lorraine; we’d had a son, Louis; I’d written several plays, gotten some productions and a few grants. Some of my reasons for writing had changed, but I was still writing to save myself—from life as an actor, from boredom and despair, from destitution. (It was, I have to admit, mostly just a vague fear of destitution, since Lorraine supported us all, financially and otherwise. But the fear was powerful, and my ego took it quite seriously.)

The thing was, all the time I’d been writing plays, I’d also been writing songs with Peter Lawton. During the ’80s and ’90s, Peter and I performed around the Twin Cities as the Tropicals and had a loyal following of about thirty people. Luckily, five of them were critics. And the lyrics I wrote for Tropicals songs were something altogether different from my plays. The Tropicals’ lyrics were (mostly) celebrations, effusive shouts of joy designed to call attention to the beauty of the world. They weren’t saving anything, let alone me. They were fanfares. Here’s an example.


She is a constellation.

She is defined

by several points unrelated

except in my mind:

fire and dangerous things,

moonstones and mood rings,

a sundress in spring…

And all the world is her big idea.

She dreamed it up just to make it clear

that she is a constellation,

word into flesh;

a complex concatenation

of dye job and dress;

common, and yet so unique,

a kiss on the cheek,

and she sneaks her away…

While all the world is her big idea.

She dreamed it up, just to make it clear.

This was a far cry from the sophomorically bleak nihilism of my early plays.

(By the way, I happened upon the Tropicals’ way of seeing and saying one afternoon while I was rocking my newborn son, Louis. That seems noteworthy.)

Compared to my Tropicals lyrics, my playwriting looked small, snide, pale and, again, derivative. Certainly, the Tropicals had their antecedents–Jonathan Richman and Charles Ives, to name two–but the songs had an organic liveliness and clarity of intent my plays lacked. It never occurred to me to try and integrate my affirmative, language-juggling Tropical self into my dourly critical playwriting self until I became acquainted with the poet James Merrill.

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