Saw the film "Capote" over the weekend. It made me think about writing and it's inherent side-effects. About using life as art, and how honest we are able to be before we step over personal and private lines.
My work has lately been overly honest. In "The Great Escape" I wrote about a Mother who was remarried and her children rebel. This was during a time when my Mother remarried. In the play, the Mother's name is Susan. My mothers name is, of course, Susan.
For some reason, I couldn't find a way to change it and make it ring true. Even though I was well aware that was completely from my own perspective. The character that most closely resembled me, for example, was not named Matthew. He was Henry. Maybe it's easier to abstract oneself. Or maybe I'm just a selfish masochist.
Either way, the last time I attended a party at my mother's house, her friends made a note of telling me how hurt she was by how she was portrayed in the play. And I thought to myself that I had placed myself directly in this morally ambiguous position. I felt, on one hand, emboldened by my dedication to writing what felt true to me, and stiffening my resolve for even the most difficult things to come out about me and my family. On the other hand, I realized that my own life was not the only one affected by what I'd written.
The play does not truly resemble my family, it just uses them liberally for what I felt was the most desperate and comic effect. I found myself more easily writing from a place of painful humor when I was essentially risking a great deal. I felt that improved the play for the audience; that people can tell false from true.
In "Capote" we see Truman Capote's amazing zeal for his own work to be spectacular. He was dedicated to himself, and his work, and felt nothing stronger than the desire for a great piece of literature. "In Cold Blood" as a work of literature, holds that his sacrifice appears balanced by the result. Then again, he never completed another novel, and died an alcoholic. His cruelty to himself and those around him in service of a book might strike some as not worth the effort.
There's no easy answer to what is acceptable on the page, and what one can absorb into their life without risking some change, affection, or damage. If writing becomes so calculated ("Is what I'm doing worth the cost?") is can quickly devolve into compromised vision before it ever reaches the first draft.
How much honesty is acceptable? I'd be willing to accept that my inability to unwrite a simple name, my mother's name, may be both a failure of imagination on my part and an effort to rebel against limitations: a selfish act that says as much about me as not using my own name does. Or it could be that I simply can't find it in me to write anything that doesn't speak to me unconsciously. It felt right to falsify my name and use my mother's. It may not feel good, but it felt like the play I was writing.
Interested to hear about other's experiences with this issue. As I'm writing my new play "The Most Wonderful Love," I find the issue returning, especially as I write what is essentially an entire scene that mocks and perverts the Book of Common Prayer. Curious how my father will take to that particular scene, and if I can find any reason to shield him or myself from it.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.