For those without a clue, the celebration of Bloomsday comes from the great literary novel, Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve never read it. For the same reason I’ve never read Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. Too afraid the material is beyond my intellectual scope as a reader. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve often thought about giving it a go. I’m neither the naïve person or writer I was when the novel first crossed my path in college. And even if I don’t get all the symbolism and parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, my guess is I’ll appreciate it more than my former boss whose response to my asking if he’d ever gotten through Ulysses was, “I read all the words.”
Jump back to my summer stock days. Fresh out of college. Eager to storm lickety-split towards Broadway and a Tony, then slip effortlessly into films for an Oscar or two. Crazy ridiculous dreamer me. But I wouldn’t trade that default for anything. If it weren’t for that ability I might not be here. Unfortunately, great dreams, like great expectations, lead to colossal disappointment. After being cast as the lead or primary secondary character in every play I auditioned for in college, imagine my surprise when my name was missing from the principle cast lists during that first summer stock year. But then along came the musical and my confidence was bolstered from rave reviews for my dancing in South Pacific.
Another boost to my ego came from informal readings of a new play the playwright and director held in order to finetune the script. I sat in on every one, and to my delight was consistently asked to read the part of the female lead. The playwright and I got along so famously, there were times when I sensed he was actually reshaping the role for my strengths as a performer. Auditions arrived. Everyone in the company believed I was a shoo-in. So much so, a few actresses didn’t bother reading. The following night the cast list went up and my name was missing. The actress who was currently playing Liat in South Pacific and who was cast as the lead in the previous plays of the summer landed the role. My only consolation was that no one else in the company understood the director’s casting, including the actress who was cast. She encouraged me to talk to the director.
The following night, I accidentally on-purpose crossed paths with the director between the matinee and the evening’s performances of South Pacific. We sat at the base of one of the palm trees, which actually cast a shadow thanks to the dim houselights. My insides quivered like a spastic hula dancer, but I found the gumption to ask why, after all the nights of choosing me to read the lead, he decided to go with the other actress. “You know I can play the part.”
“You can. But not as well as you will ten years from now.” Are you fricking kidding me? “You’re talented. But you don’t have enough experience to carry this role.” And how am I supposed to get the experience if no one casts me? “The experience needed doesn’t come from the number of roles on your resume. It comes from living your life. You have to keep auditioning and performing, but the depth of your work grows best from the life you live in conjunction with that.”
It was not the answer I hoped for, and yet, it was exactly what was needed. That director was the first one to tell me, without telling me, to stop “striving,” swallow my ego, and focus on the moment. It wasn’t easy, but slowly, over time— a long time— I realized he was right. In order to make a living as a performer, you have to keep putting yourself out there and perform. But it’s the times you don’t get cast that serve you the best. Each time you lose, another chunk of ego chips away. Less ego gives you more heart to share. More heart means greater awareness and deeper empathy and before you know it, there are no more “characters” to play, only roles that allow you to expose the secret vulnerable areas of yourself. These are the roles where the audience believes you have “become” another.
Slide into my writing life. When the wild idea to write a novel came to me, I never imagined the time frame between beginning and publication would tip towards two decades, so this marathon writing in the trenches warfare has been damn frustrating. Can’t tell you how often I beat myself up for not getting an MFA in Creative Writing, for surely that would’ve led me to publish faster. Truth is, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Well, maybe a smidge. My toolbox would’ve been stocked faster. But an MFA would’ve done nothing to chip away at the armor that stood between my heart and the page. That phenomenon only occurred after I stopped striving and focused only on the moment on the page before me— the moment where I moved out of the way to allow the character to rise and bring forth the secret vulnerabilities within my heart.
Anyone can write a novel just like anyone can “read all the words” in Ulysses. I wrote all the words for Kaitlyn’s story for nineteen years. But it wasn’t until this last draft that I finally allowed myself to live them. And that, my dear friends, readers and voyeurs is exactly why I know one of these days, sooner rather than later, I’m going to not only read James Joyce’s masterpiece, but I’m also going to fall in love with it.
The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring— James Joyce, Ulysses