Knowing Nothing Means Knowing Something: Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl is a busy woman. She’s a prolific, award-winning playwright, a poet, and now an unintentional essayist. The mother of three found herself searching for artistic inspiration—and the answer came in the short but thoughtful essays she wrote in her spare time that now make up 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater. The title might be a mouthful, but the essays themselves are poignant examinations of imagination, the artistic life, mothering, and performance. She covers an impressive amount of topics in a book that is perfectly suited towards the attention deficit society we now live in. The essays range from “Dogs and children on stage” to “Archaeology and erasers” to  “Why I hate the word whimsy. And why I hate the word quirky.” The short format is deceptive; much like poetry, the reader occasionally comes across a few lines that say more than an entire chapter of a book. In the first essay, for instance, Ruhl points out how important it is to live one’s life in order to write about it. “At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

It’s “life” in all of its complexities and nuances that allowed Ruhl to write her book—and she has been hard at work for years now. Two of her plays (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play and The Clean House) have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the most prestigious prizes in the country. The first Pulitzer for Drama was awarded almost 100 years ago, in 1918.  

Her latest play will be performed at Lincoln Center this fall. The Oldest Boy is about a “young American boy who is believed to be a reincarnation of a high Buddhist teacher.”

I spoke to Ruhl in August, at a café in Brooklyn Heights. The writer is soft-spoken yet  a presence in the room—jovial but serious, attentive and thoughtful. “We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences,” she says in ‘The age of commentary.’ “We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over.” That may be true, but as I was reminded from talking to her, we all have a lot to learn—and experiences are what shape us.  – Michele Filgate

The Barnes & Noble Review: What made you want to write a book of essays? 

SR: The idea came upon me in stages, I guess, because I never envisioned making a book until I had about fifty essays. After I had three kids, the twins in particular, I was having a hard time finding a rhythm writing. I thought, well I’ll just write one little essay at a time. I didn’t think of them as essays necessarily at that point, I just thought they were thoughts, and if I could write them down, it would be a kind of victory over the inertia and chaos that was my life. So I just started writing them so that I would be writing when I wasn’t writing a play, and then there were 50 and I thought, oh, maybe I can add them as an addendum to a book of plays. And then there were 75 and I thought this seems to be a book, somehow, and I kept going until 100.

BNR: Were you intending on publishing them when you first started writing them, or were they more just for yourself?

SR: No, they were for my own sanity.

BNR: You talk about this in the book a little bit, but what made you want to become a playwright instead of a poet?

SR: I think truly the reason [I became a playwright] was that Paula Vogel showed such faith in me. If a poet had showed such faith in me at the same generative time, I might have become inured to the pain of rejection and keep going. … It was like an inoculation. Somehow with poetry I felt so vulnerable. I did make a little chapbook, like a manuscript, that had a letterpress cover for my husband for our fourteenth anniversary, and part of the gift of it was that I made extras so I could give it to people because he thinks it’s bad of me that I don’t share my poetry.

BNR: At one point in your book, you talk about how you’re writing words, but some people see plays and remember the visual aspects of it. So how do you feel about that, when you’re the one who’s writing it?

SR: I feel really good about it. It’s like the direct indirectness about it. I think good, I’m glad you remember something that I’m not directly responsible for!

BNR: In a bunch of these essays you talk about the changing state of the world that we’re living in, and what that means for theatergoers and professionals who work in the theater. In one essay you talk about looking around at the Tony awards and noticing that everyone is texting. Does this age of distraction impact the way you write both your essays and your plays?

SR: That’s really interesting. Well, maybe this is a side step, but I was always suspicious of the word blog, and I wasn’t sure about blogs. They seemed to have no filtration process. And so I posted some of my essays on my website but I clearly labeled them essays, not a blog, because I wanted it to be clear that they had been through some distillation. You could argue that these essays are a kind of blog, they are written with that attention span in mind, at a time when I had the attention span of–what would I compare my attention span to–almost out of my mind with exhaustion. So in a sense I would recommend the essays for distracted people who want to read something between one thing and another. The theater’s not that way at all. You have to go, you have to turn your cell phone off, you have to be committed, you have to watch, you have to be in that space for hours.

BNR: In “Wabi-sabi” you talk about the theater being “one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.” In this way, there’s something holy and religious, it seems, and transformative about being in the theater. Why do you think people are even more awake and alive while watching a play as opposed to watching a movie or TV show?

SR: There’s real people there. You’re watching those people, and I think that brings you back to the sense of ritual. And there’s something about the digitizing process that takes a little bit of that sense of ritual away. You don’t have that sense of presence… there’s no potential for embarrassment or something going wildly wrong.

BNR: That makes me think of one of the essays where you talk about a fire alarm that went off during a performance, and how you went outside and the actors kept going and improvising despite the circumstances they found themselves in and how you almost wish they had stayed outside and kept performing.

SR: That was one of my favorite nights of the theater, ever. It was so beautiful, and the kind of childlike faith they placed in the play by being willing to be that exposed, and not necessarily know if the company would join in. That they all joined one by one, that’s wonderful.

BNR: A lot of this book is about your experience as a mother of three and the correlations between being an artist and a mother. How has being a parent transformed your work?

SR:  I don’t know how yet. I’m a little weary of trying to look at my own work objectively and parse out how it has changed. In an objective way, I have a play coming up at Lincoln Center that’s about a mother and a boy.

BNR: One of the things I was intrigued by was your essay on mothers on stage, and how a lot of playwrights don’t write fully fleshed out mother characters. Why do you think that is, and also something I’m personally curious about–do you think that childless women are treated the same way, as in they also don’t get a lot of attention, or are portrayed in clichéd ways?

SR: I mean, I think they are really underrepresented. Childless women of a certain age. I think that will change.

BNR: While reading that particular essay about how mothers are stereotyped, I thought about how you only get the surface, you don’t get the complexities. It’s also the same for childless women. So is this just a uniform issue for female characters, where there’s a lot of surface instead of depth?

SR: I would just say that the more you have women writing, the more you’ll get of all of those stories. People have speculated about that Disney movie Frozen, why it’s such a watershed for girls, and I think it’s because it was the first Disney movie to have shown female subjectivity from the inside out, and that’s why I think it’s such a big deal. And it’s a female lyricist who wrote “Let It Go,” and so instead of seeing the outside of the princess, you actually see subjective nuance, a princess with some subjectivity. So I think if you can get it in a Disney movie, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be across the broad spectrum of the culture.

BNR: Absolutely, how do you feel about that as a mother? Are your kids into Frozen right now?

SR: Oh my God. They’ve seen it too many times.

BNR: My niece and nephew are obsessed. How do you feel about the current world in which your children are being raised in, with art and the potential for art?

SR: I think it’s great. My daughter Anna–I should write an essay about this. She said recently while going to school, she put on something for school and she looked nice. I said, “You look pretty, Anna.” She said “Mom, I don’t go to school to look pretty. I go to school to learn.” Very matter of fact.

BNR: How old is she?

SR: She’s 8. I want to make a T-shirt saying that.

BNR: [Laughs] That would be a great T-shirt, actually. In “Speech acts and the imagination” you talk about how five-year-olds understand “that language invents worlds” but that audiences of adults don’t normally get that concept. Why is it that we lose our imaginative capabilities? How do you try to overcome that obstacle in your own work—and how can playwrights do that?

SR: We just get scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed. It’s hard to retain that. Even in the theater where you’d think the bulk of people in the theater would be non-literal, how often you’ll get (confusion about metaphor.) Not from the audience, but from like the props department. Well, just not automatically thinking in a metaphor. I don’t think we have a very literal culture, do you?

BNR: I think a lot of people think in metaphors, but there are people who can’t seem to think in metaphors.

SR: Well that’s true, and thank god we have both kinds of people.

BNR: You reference Virginia Woolf a number of times in this book, and you adapted Orlando for the stage. What draws you to Woolf’s work?

SR: What doesn’t? . . . Once a century you get a Mozart or a Virginia Woolf–at what personal cost, too, that she arrived. I love her language, I love how she created her own form. I think all of her books are really beautiful. So when I wrote the adaptation, it was pretty close to the book, but I don’t really write an adaptation unless I think that the writer is better than me and I can bow down to the writer and learn from them.

BNR: So what was it like to interact with Woolf’s text?

SR: I was young. I was too young to be too intimidated. I was intimidated, but I had bravery, I guess. I was 22 or 23 when I wrote it.

BNR: And your first play was about dogs, right?

SR: Yeah, it’s a little bitty play.

BNR: Did writing that free you in some way?

SR: It was really important, and the reason it was important for me was because so it was an assignment from Paula Vogel. At the time my father had just died, and I was about 20 and I just couldn’t write very much in general. And she said why don’t you write a play with a dog as the protagonist? That was the assignment, and I did. It was this huge lesson about approaching a thing indirectly, and how you can write about things you didn’t think you could write about if you approach them directly.

BNR: In essays you’re writing about things directly, but with plays you connect what you’re trying to get at through fictional characters. So how do you deal with that, if you’re trying to write things that are truthful in both mediums? In the essay form, does that ever hold you back from saying things because it’s so revealing?

SR: It’s so interesting. I think it must have felt in some ways liberating for me, to use a form that you could be really direct in. I think there were some things I felt like saying directly that I would never have put into a play, and I felt really uninterested in writing a play about. Maybe in ten years I’ll feel differently–why did I reveal that?

BNR: What are the themes that you’re most obsessed with as a writer?

SR: It’s such a cliché, but I don’t know what to write about but love and death. Those are the big ones.

BNR: In your essay “On knowing,” you say “the importance of knowing nothing is underrated.” Why is it underrated, and what can not knowing teach us?

SR: I don’t know if I mentioned this in the essays, but Mac Wellman, who is my former teacher, used to say “Sometimes it’s good to be really, really dumb when you’re a writer, just dumb.” And I think that’s related to knowing nothing. We’re in an age when knowing stuff seems to be a good thing, but I think there’s an innocence when you approach a blank page, and if you’re too intrigued by your own cleverness, it’s hard to know how to begin.

BNR: So it’s really about the writer’s ego in a lot of ways.

SR: I guess it is.

BNR: Do you usually map out what your play is going to be?

SR: Never. An image, a premise, a line, a dialogue?

BNR: Do the characters ever come to you first?

SR: Sometimes, or oddly enough how the characters speak come to me first, and then the character comes out through how the character speaks.

BNR: In the beginning of your book, you say: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.” Are you against the idea of an artist locking themselves in their room and not engaging with the world?

SR: I’m not against it, I just don’t know how to do it.

BNR: It seems like your life is influencing your work. Your children are such a part of the book.

SR: [Laughs] My daughter wanted to come to the interview.

BNR: How old are your twins?

SR: They’re four now.

BNR: How do they feel about being in a book?

SR: They don’t know. The twins don’t know. Anna’s really happy to have her name in the acknowledgements.

BNR: What are you currently working on?

SR: The Lincoln Center play is called The Oldest Boy. I’m working on another play that’s a commission for Actors Theater of Louisville, and it’s called For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, and it’s a play for my mom, to play Peter Pan. It’s about aging.

BNR: Are you trying to really flesh out the mother character, and taking the opportunity here?

SR: In order to write it, I had to reorient my idea in it being about her. Because she’s alive, and I wanted it to be a gift for her, and it’s a gift for her 70th birthday. I was just trying to think about how you represent mothers on stage. Somehow by orienting it for the mother as opposed to about “the mother,” makes a difference.

BNR: How so?

SR: I guess I feel like this spurious activity, of writing about the family, about the mother–it’s not something I wanted to do. I don’t even know if what I wrote is properly called a play, but more of a document. But–I guess I’m not interested in objectifying my family in that classic . . . scribbling down secrets about the family.

BNR: Do you feel a lot of writers do that?

SR: I think they do. And maybe I do in other ways and I’m just not aware of it. But I couldn’t consciously do it.