The truth of any good tale is the thing that makes it art. Without truth, art’s power to change the way we see things fails in the hands of the artists and remains, then, merely words on a page.
Notes for a Hypothetical Tragedy
The truth is, indeed, a fickle friend of any writer. James Baldwin, in his various essays like “Notes for a Hypothetical Tragedy” and stories like Sonny’s Blues, finds himself obsessed with the notion of truth. Baldwin is not in search of truth that is factual, truth based on a series of events, but rather, a truth that can transcend ideology, a truth that can transcend the social structures that oppress. Truth is ephemeral, fleeting, hard to pin down—Baldwin’s truth, as a writer attempting to re-member his childhood, weaving together words like jazz, riffing on established form, is unfixed and fleeting. Which leads me to believe, then, that the truth of any good tale is the thing that makes it art. That the truth lies in the complexities between the speaker and the story, the space where a reader can enter said art. Without truth, I must assume that art’s power to change the way we see things fails in the hands of the artists and remains, then, merely words on a page. In the context of the art of storytelling I started thinking about plays: texts that have shaped me along with novels and essays and the stories we tell each other to ameliorate some sense of loneliness. As I began to wonder about truth and its reverberations throughout the world of playwriting, I found myself tripping along the way. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” I’ve been told. But what, then, I began to wonder, is the difference between the kind of truth that hinders a story and the kind of truth that unites us? The kind of truth Baldwin is seeking. The kind of truth we all want to grasp, to grapple with, to grow into one day. I turn then, to my own notes, setting out to trek upon previously tread terrain, doing what Baldwin endeavored to do, all those years ago.
Let’s pretend that I want to write a tragedy concerning the people or some of the people with whom I grew up—or, to amend Baldwin’s phrase, the people who have molded me—and since we are only playing, let us pretend it is a very long tragedy. Let us pretend that this is a tragedy of a young person, a young student cloaked in black, a lover denied love due to family duty, the dreamers driven mad with the malady of never truly being free. Surely, dear reader, you notice that I am contextualizing the small tragedies of my life with those of Hamlet. This is not to say that I believe my unlived tragedy is akin to the grand proportions of Hamlet’s, but it is to say that Hamlet, as the epic hero of the Western canon embodies some very innate truth in the realm of tragedy. Shakespeare writes a tragedy of humanness. There is something universal about the truth of Hamlet. This is the truth I am always endeavoring to find.
Baldwin writes, “You know, those novels in which the novelist is looking back on herself, absolutely infatuated with herself as a child and everything in its sentimentality?”1 It is here where I must grapple with James Baldwin and his recollection of the past. As a female writer, I find that it is a particular habit of mine to romanticize childhood, to romanticize the tragedy of The Fall, grappling with the way my past has coalesced in the present. In past grapplings with truth, I have written in dialogue with Virginia Woolf and her notions of past and present to explore the classic coming-of-age-tale. Using her rhythm and her city to explore a walk of mine own, she inspired me to investigate what it means to be young, to be on the cusp of everything, to own and owe nothing, to owe and own everything. I then moved toward George Orwell, reckoning and ultimately rejecting his portrayal of childhood. For although Orwell, in Such, Such Were The Joys rejects his past, I sentimentalized my time at boarding school. I found, writing both in my response to Woolf and Orwell, that my past very much remains with me—I am haunted, then, by the stories I have been told and the stories I have shared. And so I pivot, finding myself here. Face to face with James Baldwin. And I am confronted, again, with notions of truth. For the people I am writing into being—these people—like the people of Baldwin’s past—have their own stories and their own truths. And, as I have grown as both an artist and a human, I realize that my truth is a different and disparate version of theirs. I am thus confronted with the question: “What is really the truth?” and “What do we do if that—that ephemeral, fleeting, malleable truth—is what we seek most as storytellers?”
The memory of an artist is a powerful thing. Every storyteller has the sovereignty to safely solipsize their Lolitas, to memorialize the living and to resuscitate the dead. The imagination of the tragedian has everything to do with her material. And the imagination of said tragedian comes directly from her remembrance of the past and her manipulation of story. An artist, if she is willing, can rewrite the histories that have been skewed against her favor. She can play at being God simply by telling her specific, biased version of a story. I turn, then, to an excerpt of a book I began to write two years or so ago— one in the style of a Shakespearean tragedy. Entitled The Demise of Margaret Wilson, The Girl With The One Black Eye, I examine one woman, based on my life, through the lens of the men who love her in a myriad of forms. Partly stolen from the structure of plays, partly an exploration of long-form storytelling in the shape of a novel, this has become an exercise in the kind of “very long” story Baldwin sets out to write in his preamble of “Notes Towards A Hypothetical Novel.” It is an imagining of all that is true—both the things I have made up and the things that have happened. I hope to use this chapter to illustrate that my story is not purely autobiographical, nor directly translatable from life to page. It is a mining of a past that I have alternatively romanticized and rejected, at times. A past I hope has led me to some amalgam of truth.
Margaret hangs her satchel upon a cheap, wire hanger. No wire hangers! She remembers a terrible, terrible night, eight years old, [seven] stumbling upon her mother’s bedroom, the boudoir open to reveal a small television, playing a scene from Mommy Dearest— powder and hangers and the bathroom floor. Abcdefg abcdefg abcdefg abcdefg. Margaret hears it, that song, thinking of childhood, of rocking in the dark. She thinks of doctors, touching her where she doesn’t want them to. She thinks of liking it— not wanting them to. That song, the ABCs, repeating, looping, a woman, locking her in a closet. She thinks of not wanting her to. She thinks of liking it— being locked in that closet. I’m an idiot. I am insane. I deserve to be locked up. Forever. She thinks of being captured, stolen— ripped away from her mother. Being taken, forcibly, by someone else. Stolen, like those children on the milk cartons. Wanting to be stolen. To be thrown away. All the money, gone. She imagines her fat uncles and aunts, stuffing their faces with candy and cocks and cold hard cash. She imagines the prostitutes and the penthouses and pennies, thrown to the addicts on the street. To make up for the addicts in the offices, the addicts praying over their candles at Shabbat.
She imagines those doctors, touching her, lightly. Margaret imagines their power, pulling apart her thighs. Margaret imagines their authority is so very alluring. She thinks of her helplessness. Buried beneath an inheritance. Wishing someone was here to kiss the back of her neck.
Her nightmares, flashing at times when she least expects it. Mommy Dearest and electric shock treatments and lobotomies. Cuckoo cuckoo the bird cries out. She remembers drawing a black house. She remembers not remembering anything anymore.
There is buzzing in this fluorescent room. A nude bodysuit hanging from metal racks, like a skin sheared away from a newborn baby, left here to dry. I wonder, thinks Margaret, I wonder how much that would hurt. To be skinned alive. Or hung from a hanging tree.
There will never be an answer. So long as babies and witches and women can’t talk.
Margaret packs up her things, glances into the mirror, brushes up her wild eyebrows with fingertips, painted silvery pink, bites off a bit of hangnail, and turns off the lights. She walks up the stairs, two at a time, and emerges from the depths of the dressing rooms, escapes the suffocating smell of bleach and baby flesh.
She is the very last one in the theater. The room hums with the echoes of voices past, of lives once told. She kisses her fingertips, places them on the edge of the stage—a ceremony.
She walks out, teeming with life. Margaret opens the big, wooden doors, leading into the foyer. Smothered, she makes her way through the crowd. A touch more rare subdues all pangs, all fears.
“You kicked ass.”
“Great job, Mags.”
Clamoring, voices crawl across her skin, withering at the touch of her flames, hot like scalding water from the kitchen sink, water that almost feels cold. She is wide. Too wide to fit in the overflowing room.
She kisses mother and father. Gives Benedict a squeeze, rough, trying to make up for all the lost time. He looks at her, warily. “You look beautiful, Margaret. You look happy.” He has grown. Almost as tall as me, Margaret chuckles. She remembers something like the glint of a knife.
“I’ve got to get back. The dorm will be worried. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“We love you, darling.”
Margaret has already walked away.
Outside, Margaret takes her time, doesn’t walk too fast, though she knows she’s late. The air feels like ice and with each inhalation, she, Margaret Wilson, the girl with the one black eye, can see clearer and clearer, as if the world becomes sharp and crisp, like an apple, like a knife, plunged deep into her heart. On nights like this, she can see again. Margaret is no longer blind.
It has snowed while she’s been inside. A christening. White as the skin on her ankles.
“I love you,” she says to the world, brimming with twilight.
“I love you,” she says to a life that isn’t hers after all.
In this excerpt, I hastily explored the implacability of childhood trauma, the liminal space of young adulthood, and the ways in which stories do not belong to us—even the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes I wonder, as I muse upon my father and mother and the humans who have most shaped me, if there is any need at all to mine the more painful pieces of my past. Most of the time, I conclude that perhaps I’d be happier without my memories resurfacing, without this excavating of truth. I am tempted, at times, when I recognize how wounded I am, to do away with them completely. To forget father and mother and the humans who have most shaped me. For as I move from one love to another, I am tempted—not as a writer, but as a human—to do myself the good favor of forgetting those whose love does not bathe me any longer in a particularly warm light. I am tempted to focus on my present laughter, on my more immediate good fortune. To forget those who don’t love me any longer. On behalf of my sanity, I am constantly tempted to let myself fall into those who love me in this moment, in this chapter, and to forget entirely all those who have hurt me. But it would be in vain, as an artist, to lean too much into happiness. It would be much too selfish to become enraptured with those whom I love at present, and forget those whose wrought versions of love have shaped my past. For it is those who have wounded me, who have wounded us—these mothers and fathers, these lovers and friends—who occupy too large a place in our imaginations to abandon them entirely.
James Baldwin asks, “What’s the thread that unites all these peculiar and disparate lives? Because there is something that unites all of these people and places. What does it mean to be an American? What nerve is pressed in you or me when we hear this word?”2 I have not set out, in this mere seven pages, to do what Baldwin has done—find the thing that binds all Americans together on the cusp of a new decade. But now, towards the end of my hypothetical tragedy, I have come upon the realization that I might be asking, in my exploration of truth, “What does it mean to be human?” And that, dear reader, seems to be a much more hubristic task than the one James Baldwin set out on, all those years ago. And so, I shall not pretend I know the answer. I most certainly do not. But perhaps, in my grappling with what is true and what is a lie in the art of storytelling, I have found that truth is not factual. Truth is not based upon what really happened. Truth, in this new, glimmering sense, is the thread that unites us. Truth, it seems, is comprised of the reverberations of story that settle within the souls of those reading, watching and living. And even as I write, I recognize that this, to use Baldwin’s words, is an “enormous incoherence, these enormous puddings, this shapeless thing…” to try and uncover truth and humanness “and try to put that on a page.”3 Baldwin believes that it is the job of a writer to make the make believe true— to make his readers believe the rules set forth in the world of the novel. I, too, shall assert that the playwright, in her many intricacies, has an even more burdensome responsibility—that is, to make truth out of players upon a stage, to make human that which is always a lie—the art of pretending.
Might we return, then, to Hamlet, and use both Shakespeare and Baldwin to make our point known? Yes, I chuckle to myself, yes, I dare say we shall. Hamlet, in his advice to the players, says perhaps the most purple of passages in the entire canon of Western dramatic literature (save for “To be, or not to be,” of course). He remarks that the job of the theater (and, we must assume, of the tragedian) is “to hold a mirror, as it ’twere, up to life.” Baldwin, centuries later, is saying this precise thing in “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel.” And yet, we cannot be led to believe that everything written is an exact mirroring of life, a perfect rippling of human images in the great pond of reality. Truth is subjective—it always will be. Truth and falsehood are both symptoms of the same madness—that is, what it means to be human. Like Baldwin’s consideration of race, intended to unmask the false love of racism propagated both in the South and the seemingly progressive North, the artist’s job is to reveal what has been hidden. That is, what has been obfuscated beneath the reflections of those in power. She must throw a pebble into this pond; she must disrupt truth for the advancement of the few, and uncover the truth for the liberation of the many. It would be the folly of me to believe that the excerpt I have shared is, in any way, a tool for liberation. It is not innately political, nor did I set out to comment on gender, sexual assault or trauma. What resulted was a story, whether it be mine or the story of an imagined self. It is a musing. Perhaps its power lies in the fact that I am exploring both the real and the make believe, the original and the ready made. Perhaps its power lies in the fact that it is, in fact, a story. Plain and simple.
We, as a generation of young artists, have not necessarily made the world we’re living in, but we most certainly have the power to make it over, as Baldwin suggests. We have the choice to write new stories, to tell new tragedies, to share ourselves (truthful or otherwise) with those unlike us. We have the particular and privileged power to tell the kind of stories we truly need to tell. The kind of stories this world and the world to come truly need to hear.