Writers are Witches, Suzan-Lori Parks and Milk

As a writer I often feel like a spilled cup of milk – running in all directions over an uneven floor. I’ve got substance and history and nutrition to honor, and unseen sacrifices of birth and consumption, and I don’t want to waste any of it – but damn it – there’s laundry and kid doctor appointments, and insurances to update, and playwriting applications to file and upload.

I often save articles and news stories, bookmark novels and podcasts, just hoping that one day I’ll “catch up,” and steal a contemplative non-productive moment for myself. I only give myself a maximum of two hours for each of these blog posts. It keeps them imperfect and conversational, and it sets me free to just put the damn thing out there, and let it land where it lands. (Or float, really, in the sea of inter-webs.)

Two weeks ago, I stashed an article into my daily planner hoping that would help me to make time for it. I’m so glad I did. And this is my better-late-than-never uplift and consideration of this rich and grace-giving piece from the October 9th, Sunday NY Times feature entitled “Suzan-Lori Parks Is on Broadway, Off Broadway and Everywhere Else.”

These days I’m such a proud pragmatist in regards to my life as an artist, “Keep your eyes open and clear, square your shoulders, do the work.” But deep down we all still need our allowances of magic, of connection, of…what if I let more of the mystery in…? I loved this quote from the article.

“Writing, I think, is related to being kind of like a witch,” she said as she showed me around. “Writing is magical. I loved mythology, and folk tales, and I could hear them — old stories — not in a recording of something that somebody living in my presence had told me, but if you listen, you can hear organizational principles of nature, which includes the history of people, which is narrative.”

“Writing, I think, is related to being kind of like a witch.” Admittedly, this is fun for me, partly, because it feels naughty. I was raised to believe that witchcraft was VERY REAL and VERY SCARY. We weren’t allowed to dress as witches for Halloween. We weren’t even allowed to joke about witches on broomsticks or watch any “witchy” tv shows. Harry Potter might let demons into your heart like a door left ajar for ravenous thieves. Like for real. This was preached unequivocally and without a hint of irony. I was terrified as a child. Truly. Maybe more on that another day, but for now I include this because I love the quote, and its implications for writers to lean into the power and authority of historical mystery, and your connection to that mystery as a writer.

Also, “you can hear organizational principles of nature, which includes the history of people, which is narrative.” Oh wow. Just going to marinade inside this one. LOVE IT. As someone who looks at the ancient Allegheny River and obsessively thinks about its long life as a highway for indigenous people, and it’s seeming containment through the dirty city side streets of Pittsburgh, and the bloody inheritance of this city’s establishment, and that that river just keeps flowing and flowing with currents that would catch you up and shock you with their depth and detachment… and as someone who drives past every historical marker and slows to read them again (and again) as my car literally climbs mountains in just moments, mountains that were once barriers mapped out in treaty after treaty, and then broken again and again when Pittsburgh was a gateway to the west…and Johnny Appleseed was a weird fellow planting apples for whiskey and rescuing abused horses… “you can hear organizational principles of nature, which includes the history of people, which is narrative.” Suzan-Lori Parks, thank you for this affirmation of felt poetry as narrative in playwrighting.

Also this from the article:
Any policing cuts me off from hearing the spirit. Sometimes the spirit sings a song of trauma. I’m not supposed to extend my hand to that spirit that is hurting because it’s no longer marketable, or because I should be only extending my hand to the spirits who are singing a song of joy? That’s not how I want to conduct my artistic life.”

She also said she is troubled by how much anger, at the Public Theater and elsewhere, has been directed at white women. “Not to say that Karen doesn’t exist. Yes, yes, yes. But it’s interesting that on our mission to dismantle the patriarchy, we sure did go after a lot of white women. If you talk about it, it’s ‘You’re supporting white supremacy.’ No, I’m not. I’m supporting nuanced conversation. And I think a lot of that got lost, and lot of times we just stayed silent when the loudest voice in the room was talking, and the loudest voice in the room is not always the voice of wisdom.”

Here is a lived example of courage, to see and say and write. That is always a tall glass of nutrition for writers. It makes for strong bones and strong spirits. Thank you again for listening and living, and writing and telling, Suzan-Lori Parks.

Finally, all of the things that Suzan-Lori Parks is currently working on?! Wow. So inspiring.

She’s got plenty still to come — she’s still polishing “The Harder They Come,” which will feature songs by Jimmy Cliff and others, including Parks, who said the story, set in Jamaica, “really captures a beautiful people in their struggle.” She’s then hoping to turn to that second novel (a first, “Getting Mother’s Body,” was published in 2003).

She is planning a screen adaptation of “Topdog,” as well as a new segment of her Civil War drama “Father Comes Home From the Wars” (so far, three parts have been staged; she said she expects to write nine or 12). Also: she’s writing the book, music and lyrics for an Afrofuturist musical, “Jubilee,” that she’s developing with Bard College; “Jubilee,” inspired by “Treemonisha,” a Scott Joplin opera that was staged on Broadway in 1975, is about a woman who establishes a new society on the site of a former plantation.

I have to imagine that she must also sometimes feel like she is spilling out in a million directions, but for now, her honesty and these insights filled me up. I’m so grateful for her, and this article, and the time I “lost” reading and writing about it.

That’s my 2 hour mark, however, I will often be returning to these words of hers.

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