This morning, I took Caridad Svich to the airport: we talked about her trip to Cuba during the Clinton administration, what she saw, what she taught, what she’d like to return to see. Last night I had dinner with her and Amparo Garcia-Crow, and it was my privilege to listen to these amazing playwrights, songwriters, translators, women discuss their craft, their loves, their challenges and joys. Prior to dinner, Caridad gave a brilliant talk about her work, specifically her play about the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, The Way of Water (and yes, I was a fan of the play before I heard her speak about it, simply because of the title).
My notes include from last night include:
-write outside yourself to know yourself
-write outside and inside yourself
-we have the means to tell the important stories
The third point really hit home: in this country, we have the means, the time, the latitude, the camaraderie, to delve into what really matters. For Caridad, this means an exploration of activism and artistry and the very important choice of whom we choose to put at the center of our work. In The Way of Water, two primary characters are fishermen, men raised on the Gulf, now poisoned by the spill. With no interest in leaving what has become a deep connection to the water that informs their lives, one of them faces his impending death with a clarity and insight that makes the heart break – with the true eloquence of the vernacular, the play gives us the human struggle still unfolding along the Gulf. In June 2012, a NoPassport theatre alliance international reading scheme for the play sustained 50 readings between April 3-June 4. In real time, actors and directors across the globe engaged in this work, diving into the material with a passion and a commitment, blogging regularly to sustain one another.
We have the means to tell the stories that matter, to reach inside our readers and engage the empathy muscle. I will remember this as I revise and as I teach. Storytelling matters – it’s part of us, and it might be the necessary means to weave our world together to create a more coherent narrative for all.
Amparo Garcia-Crow is the host of The Living Room: Storytime for Grownups, which takes places the first Saturday of each month at Galaxy Studios.
Gratitude and Gifts
It’s been a busy ten days – one radio interview, one delayed letter from Jayne Anne Phillips, one book reading in Austin, one book launch in Maryland, a gathering of many family and friends in both locations. And underneath it all, an incredible sense of thankfulness. It’s still such a surprise – to have By Way of Water be in the world again, to be in the company of so many fine writers published by Santa Fe Writers Project. For me, it underscores the importance of being in this writing game for the long haul, for the ways a story one believes in might have resonance across time and space. The re-printing allows me to connect in a different way to writing. There’s a room where I keep my faith in my abilities, and now the door is nudged open a little wider. I’m not saying the reprint is essential for my continued work on novels; instead, it allows a deeper, broader aspect of myself to commit to the books I know live inside me and are yet unwritten.
I think of Tim O’Brien’s final story in The Things They Carried. “The Lives of the Dead” opens with this line, “But this too is true: stories can save us.” O’Brien weaves young Timmy’s experience with death, along with older Tim’s many encounters with death in the Vietnam war, into a marvelous exploration of why stories matter. Late in the story, Timmy’s deceased girlfriend answers his question about what is it like to dead by stating that it’s like being in a book that no one is reading:
An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been
checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and
I started writing because my grandfather, my source of unconditional love, was killed by a drunk driver. I missed him and I wanted him back. Even though I didn’t have words for it at the time, I wanted to capture some of his spirit before it faded away; I wanted by some force of magic to make him live again. Again, O’Brien articulates how storytelling is the kind of magic I needed:
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream
along with you, and in this way, memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits
in the head. There is an illusion of aliveness.
Andrew Gifford and the Santa Fe Writers Project are bringing back to life so much for me –
There’s a book to be taken down from the shelf when someone has the interest, and that’s a gift in so many ways. How can I say thank you enough for allowing others to dream and imagine with me, to let the fullness of my grandfather live and breathe and climb trees and play music? In Cherokee, we say, Wado.
A Letter, 11 years later
As some of you know, By Way of Water won a cool prize in 2001. Dreux and I were on a six-week road trip, and I received notification of the prize via email. I never received the letter that Jayne Ann Phillips wrote about why she chose the work. Today, it came via the generous Andrew Gifford and the Santa Fe Writers Project.
I hope it helps all of us writers and especially us novelists have a little more faith while we toil in the landscape of narrative.
May 25, 2002
Dear Ms. Gullick,
It is a distinct pleasure to write this letter with the news that your outstanding entry, By Way of Water, has been selected as the recipient of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards 2001 grand prize.
By Way of Water stood out clearly, and with exquisite beauty. In reading your work, I was moved by your voice and your ability as an author. I congratulate you not only on excellence in writing, but on your continuing success. I look forward to seeing By Way of Water on the shelves at the end of the summer and there is no doubt in my mind that you are headed for a strong and exciting career.
The evocative realization of your characters – their voice, how you carry them – brings the reader deep into the world you have created. The pattern and flow of life is represented by the people you have brought to us and the voices you have made. Your clarity of vision let me know immediately that I was in the company of an authentic author.
The Writer’s Project prides itself on seeking out excellence in writing and your award is much deserved. You’re writing possesses a potency that was a pleasure for me to review and judge.
Again, my warmest congratulations on this success. I wish you all the best.
Jayne Anne Phillips