One summer when I was about 16, I worked in an office. During the months I filed and clipped, I became friends with a savvy secretary named Georgia. Georgia never went to college, but she was smart as a whip. She and I talked about lots of things, including books and movies. One day she said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. It went something like this: “When I go to the movies or a show, I want to be entertained and enjoy myself. I don’t want too much reality or ugliness — there’s already enough of that out there in the real world.”
Over the years, I’ve thought about Georgia’s comment many times. And I have to say, I know what she means. When I go to the theater for instance, I love seeing something that’s just pure fun — that’s witty, lighthearted, and amusing. But I also enjoy being moved, taken out of myself, uplifted. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see something gritty or tragic; I’m no Pollyanna. But I want to feel I’ve received something of value after having spent two or three hours watching a performance. And when it’s over and I walk back into the world, I want to feel some glimmer of hope and some sense that I’ve been enriched, that I’ve learned something about life or myself.
Just recently, I saw a play that was very well written. The characters were well drawn the dialogue was believable, and the acting was excellent. But, there’s no other way to put this: the story was just depressing. It was almost airless. The play did toss out a few character changes at the end that seemed to offer a faint ray of light, but I didn’t really find them very convincing. I walked out feeling deflated and dispirited.
Afterward, I started thinking about having seen the musical Carousel in the same weekend. Now this is a tragic story, filled with star-crossed lovers, poverty, lost dreams, and the death of the hapless Billy Bigelow in Act I. And yet, Act II has a redemptive feeling to it. We see Billy come back to earth and try help his daughter. Though he fails at first, at the end of the show, we do believe that it’s possible, just possible, that he’s gotten through to her and to Julie, the wife he’s abandoned. And the show ends with that hymn to hope, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” When I left the theater, I felt sad, but uplifted at the same time. I’d just seen something tragic, and true, and beautiful.
Writing is never easy, but I think that writing something that’s so awash in reality that it can’t rise above itself ultimately isn’t as challenging as writing something that deals with life realistically but with sympathy and grace, with a touch of beauty and hope. Even in Romeo and Juliet, we see beauty and a glimmer of what their lives might have been. Where are you on this? I’d love to hear from you. Write on.