July 17, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Sleeping in the River

As a writer, teacher, and lover of language, I find that reading and writing, for work and for pleasure, can sometimes tumble into one blur of time; sometimes I feel like I’m swimming in an eternal river of words. This was especially true in grad school; there were many nights when I would fall asleep under a mound of photocopied scripts, only to wake up, roll over and start writing. (I’d actually sleep with my laptop beside my bed so I could begin pounding stuff out before the real world could plant its heavy boot in my morning.) My work was deeply integrated into the warp and woof of my daily life.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with loosening this work/life tangle by making a new rule: no more working in bed. This is partly in response to the “Do’s and Don’ts” lists in colorful magazines that say it’s a bad idea to bring work to bed if you want to sleep well. Good idea, right?

With equal parts chagrin and gratitude, I must report that James Agee ruins everything.

I began reading “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, his sprawling 1941 opus about tenant farming in the depression, as research for a possible play that deals with Agee, capitalism and Charlie Chaplin. So this book began as a “work” book. Which means I would not normally allow it on my bedside table. But because I’m living in a dorm at Choate Rosemary Hall (see previous post) for July, I brought a limited supply of books with me; and thus Agee became my bedfellow.

The man is both ruining my sleep schedule and once again blurring the dim line between my down time and my work time. I can’t leave him alone. I feel enslaved by his genius–his Shakespearean ability to telescope into one image to reveal a forever unfolding constellation of new images, each singular but also connected to that root image, and to follow the elusive paths of his insight into unpredictable eddies and pools; I find myself reading one sentence over and over, not because I’m falling asleep and the words’ meanings are losing their adherence to the words themselves (which is usually the case when I’m reading before sleep (and thus is the reason I no longer allow “work” reading before bed)), but because some of his sentences are multiple-page, incredibly complex, many-celled, variegated organisms that pulse with a constantly shifting vitality.

See, now I’m trying to write like him. And what time is it? 12:26 AM. I told you, he’s ruining my life.

And, of course, in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping, as I drift in the pleasure and ardor of swimming in his river of words, my thoughts turn to work: How might I capture this streaming cadence in the medium of dramatic writing? If Agee holds our gaze upon a single static object and makes the ten-page unfolding of its every detail feel alive, how could I use the forward-moving, action-driven pulse of theatrical writing to capture that sense of stasis? And do I have any business trying? One question opens into another until I’m looking at the clock cursing Agee and wishing his damn typewriter had broken.

The fact is that any separation between work and pleasure is an artificial one for me. My work is often also a pleasure, which is a great blessing–particularly compared with the endless, tedious work of Agee’s protagonists. I love swimming in this medium. I am a river creature. A very tired river creature who both loves and hates sleeping with James Agee.