Randy’s Conversation

Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O’Neill

Okay. I have a confession to make. I’m seven six years old, officially a senior. Struggle is normal for me. I’m not a whiz. I look up to most serious writers, of any ilk, particularly those who started writing at an early age, marathoners like me, who remain clueless as to where their original drive to write came from.

I wrote for attention. I liked to be in the center of a circle and shock girls (with off –colored dialogue), but I couldn’t read well or write anything properly. I grew up in a “he-don’t” home; my mother couldn’t spell or even compose a sentence, consequently to this day my grammar is less than perfect. And I struggled when I read and turned to reading plays because I thought plays were easier to read than anything else. I liked O’Neill and because of him I’ve the wife I have, one son and two grandchildren.

I graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio (twice). I wouldn’t have applied, if it hadn’t been for O’Neill and the stupidity of Baylor University when they closed Long Days Journey Into Night my sophomore year. Some Baptist minister complained about the play and the president of the university exercised his prerogative, causing the whole drama department to resign. (Censorship, another topic) There we were on NBC Evening News. We sat in front of our TV sets, hunched over and worried about what we were going to do next (glued to the set much in the same way we viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis)   At least I was. To leave Baylor or not and to go to Trinity, a school my parents couldn’t afford.   I had never been scholarship material. I think Long Days Journey Into Night is one of the few American classics that we have. It stands with Death Of A SalesmanWhose Afraid of Virginia Who, and The OddCouple. (Alas, maybe here is something we can debate: you have your list and I have mine.)

I have had the same drama mentors for most of my life: Paul Baker and Eugene McKinney. They served me well. Integration of Abilities was the required introductory drama class at Baylor, Trinity University, and the Dallas Theater Center (at the time a graduate theater program of Trinity University). The course was given by Mr. Baker (he earned his Doctorate from Yale’s Drama School. We affectionately called him “Prof”).

The course was always open to all students of the universities. To participate was to step into a process of creativity. It didn’t matter who you were. The idea was that the potential was always there. For me it was a life-changing experience.

We sat in the theater and heard Prof lecture (with his glasses in hand to make a point) about Frank Lloyd Wright having said the creative process takes a combination of “the hand, the heart, and the mind.” Among many other things, he also stressed the importance of overcoming “resistance to work” and, most importantly, about how even me (Randy Ford from a he-don’t family) could become a very creative person. More than his lectures, Mr. Baker’s exercises provided a method of work that allowed one to explore an unlimited number of possibilities.

I first attended a play writing class at the Dallas Theater Center as a high school student. Then every semester of undergraduate and graduate school I also attended Mr. McKinney’s class. This forced me to write a play a semester. (I believe in being forced.)

My first year at Baylor, a Dean told me I wouldn’t make. In those days they flunked students out of school for the smallest English infraction. And there wasn’t a way I knew that my brand of English was substandard. To this day I don’t know how I didn’t flunk when not everyone made it.

Sources: Integration of Abilities: Exercises For Creative Growth by Paul Baker Photography by Diane Koos Genity (Trinity University Press San Antonio, Texas 1972 ) and Paul Baker and the Integration of Abilities edited by Robert Flynn and Eugene McKinney (TCU Press Fort Worth, Texas 2003).      ”

“Irritating, arrogant, nuts…and a genius” was what Charles Laughton said of Paul Baker. “Paul Baker is one the most important minds in world theater today. He seems to have invented new ways of doing things, and I think something big will come out of it.” ” (Forgive me while I yield to temptation and tell the world Paul Baker directed one of my plays at the Dallas Theater Center. R. U. Hungry short orders. I was young then and didn’t fully recognize the significance of that. Productions, for the majority of playwrights, are so rare that any playwright is a fool if he or she doesn’t cherish the moment. It’s like racing through a virgin forest without stopping to enjoy the sighting of a Greater Horn-bill; an event like that truly may never come again. This is true no matter how successful you are or how minor the production may seem.)     

Paul Baker tells us in his Preface of The Integration of Abilities that he was “a West Texan. That means I come from sun-conquered and wind-conquered country. It is a cruel country, and the faces of the old men who have lived that all their lives show the sand, wind, heat, and dryness of it all. West Texas is also a great space. As a child I was overwhelmed by the tremendous sky and great flat land…the tremendous space. That space, bounded by very distant horizons where flat earth met the sky, seemed to me an infinity of distances. That was the first great space I knew.       “I remember the dramatic silhouette of the windmill; the windmill at a distance; the windmill, which brought water to our house, as it sat in the backyard impressed against the sky. On moonlit nights or in dust storms, barely visible, or on beautiful spring days when the weather changed from warm sunshine to a blizzard in only a few minutes, there was that windmill. Every kind of weather and wind and cloud silhouetted that windmill…lonesome, stark, friendly, grotesque. So we had space. We had that space cut with a windmill…a gigantic character etched against the sky, drawn there.”  I think what Baker does here is what we all should do as we begin our creative trip. Notice how he begins with space, defines that space, and describes (as much for himself as anyone else) how that space is cut.

Where do I stand? It was only my search for a voice that led me back to my segregated hometown in Texas.  I meant to be “honest” and at the same time didn’t expect the truth to be so ugly. (I remember the “colored only” waiting rooms and water fountains.). Back then the State Fair of Texas had its nigger day. Here is my problem. As a white writer, when can I use the N-word, if ever? Now, I understand the power of words and how words hurt and can gitcha killed. I understand the outrage when the Jacksons and Imuses slip up, but does that apply to me when I am trying to honestly portray a black period of our history in a short story. Why am I hesitating to use the word here?   By this time, though, I thought I had resolved the problem. After a long struggle I decided it was okay in an historical context and when no other word would fit or would have the impact needed for the story. That word…which was a word I often heard use and used …now cropped up repeatedly in a short story I wrote called “The Good ‘O Boys.”  

And boy oh boy, I thought at last I had found my voice.   My research placed me in the Cotton Bowl, on a specific night, during the State Fair of Texas in the 50’s.  I grew up without ever being around a black person. At this time the only black men…African American… around were in a cage on the midway and for fifty cents or quarter I could get three balls to “dunk the nigger.” There! The question is what does it make me.

Some of my pieces sound like James Joyce; others like O’Neill; for a number of years Finnegans Wake was my primmer. I don’t know how many times I have lost my way in this great book. (I actually met someone recently who told me he had read it from cover to cover.) I have a box of writing in that vein.  To the Lighthouse has served as a model. I have been known to rewrite some of Hawthorne’s short stories. (A good pun on Twice-Told Tales here would take too much effort.) These great works have been my Writers’sCompanion , maybe as useful as reading The New Fowler’s Modern Usage through. (I went through a phase when I couldn’t write a sentence without using the Thesaurus.) Oh, the writer’s plight! To know the rules, and still use an exclamation point. I should have been found out. Maybe I had. But somehow…no doubt because I have never made the best seller list, I’ve been able to avoid embarrassment.

In my mind (even though I have sometimes struggled with this), I have not been guilty of plagiarism. I don’t listen to myself, or am able to justify what I do by pointing a finger at all the great musicians and writers who learned their craft by copying mentors. I have even said, “all great writers started out copying someone.” True, or false? (At the moment I can’t think of any work that came out of thin air. Maybe that’s because I don’t want to look or ever be faced with a blank page.)   But when I go looking for my true voice why do I find myself wallowing in the insecurities of my past, when at Baylor I didn’t know “he don’t” was “bad” English. Why do I try so hard? When it comes to sitting down with “real” writers will I ever feel secure enough to claim a seat? When will I stop pretending to be someone other than myself? When will I be able to say to myself I can write and feel confident about it?   I thought with “The Goood O’ Boys” (the short story mentioned ) I was finally heading somewhere.

Here is the first paragraph of that work. (It shouldn’t get me in too much trouble. There’s no N-word.)   “Sheet, I had never seen nuthin’ like it. With their drinkin’, their kitchen countertop filled with bottles, more of ‘em empty than full, and unwasrhed glasses and the necessary jiggers and all the dishes and the pots and pans in the house, all of ‘em durty all at the same time, fillin’ the sink and counter waitin’ there for somebody to lift a gotdamn finger. That’s what ya had at Lucky’s house verses what ya had at my house. At my house everything had its place and everything out of place usually got put back immediately. Aye-yai-yai! Man!”