A Better Answer

A fresh look at a playwright’s urge to create.

“Why do you want to be a writer?”

Because I enjoy it.

Because I’m good at it.

Because it’s better than teaching. The only self-absorbed adolescents I have to deal with are fictional ones.

But, no, none of those answers sound right. They’re just flip. And sometimes, someone pulls out the lovely “Why do you write?” and pushes past polite chit-chat about a career choice, nudging open a whole new philosophical can of worms.

Why do I write?

Because I’m good at it.

Because I enjoy it.

Because if I didn’t, I’d spend a lot more money on video games, because I’d finally have the time to play them.

But, no, none of those responses are right, either — just a way of avoiding a question that requires soul searching. I have problems even finding my sunglasses in the morning. Who has time to go hunting for a soul?

I should know this answer. I should. Even if no one ever asks it, I should know it. If I’ve consciously made the choice to make writing for the stage my life’s work, I should at least know why. Does it afford me pleasure? Sure. But so does photography; so does going to the movies; so does pizza. But maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s a good enough answer.

I used to think it was. I didn’t feel the need for a better one. I write plays because I enjoy it.

Then I met Erik Ehn.

Ehn is a professor at CalArts, and an avant-garde playwright who is very much on the opposite of the theatrical spectrum from mainstream theater. He writes plays with stage directions like, “Mary produces a sword and uses it to inject phenol into the priest’s neck.” So, yes, weird, wacky, truly wonderful stuff.

Ehn is a devout Catholic whose spirituality is intrinsically intertwined with his artistic life. The act of creation and the act of devotion are for him, he told us, synonymous. This intersection is apparent in his work, most notably his series of Saint Plays, in which he is writing one play for each of the four gazillion saints recognized by the Catholic Church.

I met Ehn when one of my fellow directing graduate students managed to wrangle him for a weekend of workshops. He looks and feels like a monk — compact, centered, fluid, plus a shaved head. But, really, he’s better described as a missionary. Ehn recounted an annual journey he makes, essentially a tour of places in the world impacted by genocide, most prominently Rwanda. Each year, he takes more and more students with him.

What does theater have to do with genocide? Maybe the same things that religion does — becoming a way to instruct some, a way to heal others. And maybe, most of all, a way to talk about the unspeakable. Ehn’s play Maria Kizito focuses on a Catholic nun who aided the Hutus in the mass murder of Tutsis seeking sanctuary in her convent. As a Catholic, he explained, he felt moved to try and understand how this could have happened.

Art, Ehn explained, is supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to lead us far from the safe path. And the farther into metaphor it goes, the more it becomes art. The worst kind of theater, he said, is when somebody’s merely pretending to be somebody else standing on stage pretending that it’s somewhere else.

All art, Ehn explained, is metaphor. It’s a way of talking about/thinking about things we don’t have words for. Things we don’t even have brains evolved enough to understand. Religion serves the same purpose. That, and as a scorecard for figuring out which elevator you’re getting on after you croak.

Having grown up in a devoutly Christian household, I understand the need for religion, even though I don’t feel that need myself. And I’ve never been one to describe myself as “a spiritual person.” Really, I don’t even understand what that means.

But the way Ehn described his need to write — to create theater as a way of working through the unworkable, the unexplainable, the truly terribly hard questions that mankind is faced with — that spoke to me.

The idea that art can serve the same purpose for the artist as religion or spirituality is a concept that appeals to me on a very visceral level. And it provides a perfect and succinct answer to that frequently-asked question: “Why do you write?”

I write for the same reason that other people pray.

I can speak those terrible, wonderful, inconceivable questions into the void in the hopes of receiving an answer.

Or, at the very least, applause.

Article © 2008 by Steve Spotswood