Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 178: Memories

When I was writing in my morning pages yesterday and wrote down the date, July 14th, I realized it was Bastille Day.  Which instantly brought me to a memory from my childhood, when my family was in Paris on Bastille Day.  It's one of those travel memories you never forget. 

It was 1984, I was 12. it was the first time any of our family had been in Europe, and we were on one of those 23 cities-in-14-days kind of tours.  The half day we were given in Paris happened to be Bastille Day (bad planning).  In the early evening, we decided to take a boat ride on the River Seine, not knowing that we would get an extra special treat: the boat stopped in view of the Eiffel Tower to watch a spectacular fireworks display.  That was the good part.

The bad part was, we hadn't eaten dinner yet, and by the time the boat let us off, we had trouble finding any place open to eat.  (You'd think this wouldn't be an issue in France).  By the time we ate at a place that would serve us only things they already had prepped in the kitchen, like soup and salad, it was almost 2 in the morning.  We headed to the subway to return to our hotel.  Turns out on Bastille Day, Paris' normally 24-hour metro service also stops running.  By now it had also started raining.  So here we were, a bunch of clueless Americans tourists who spoke no French, stranded in the middle of Paris at 2am on Bastille Day, in the rain.  A bunch of punk teenagers (I mean that in the literal sense -- dressed in black with spiky hair and dog collars), found us highly amusing and began throwing firecrackers at us.  I was afraid my umbrella was going to catch on fire.  No taxis would stop for us, until we finally saw that the word "taxi" was painted in a square in the middle of the road: the taxi stop was in the middle of the street and you had to stand there to get picked up.  When a taxi finally stopped, the driver wouldn't let the 4 of us share a cab, insisting that the front seat was "only for dogs" (I swear that is what he said).  So we had to split up into separate taxis (which terrified me, to be separated in that situation), but finally made it back to our hotel.  That experience ruined me on big cities for many years.  Thank god I got over that.

After this memory flooded my mind yesterday morning, I was filled with a sense of sadness, thinking of how much of my life I don't remember at all.  There are these moments, these highlights, these memories that stand out that you keep reliving, leaving the other ones to languish and be forgotten completely.  I don't have a great memory for events as it is (I can memorize a 3 hour opera in a foreign language, no problem, but ask me what happened 2 weeks ago, forget it!).  For a moment, I wished there were some way to recapture all that, to sit down and watch the DVD of my life, to remember all those moments I can't remember anymore.  If I don't remember the things in my life, it's as if they didn't happen, right?  What's the point of experiencing something if you don't remember it? 

Ah, but I think not.  Living is, after all, the present moment, this exact moment you are living now.  That is the only moment that we actually have.  Whether I remember an experience or not, I experienced it in that moment; I lived it, and either enjoyed it or (hopefully) learned from it.  Even if no one is there to hear the tree fall in the forest, the tree still falls.  Those experiences, remembered or not, bring you to the moment you are living.  Memories remind you of how you got here and give you clues as to where you want (or don't want) to go in the future.  I'm guessing that most of the memories that do stick are of moments where we changed direction, however slightly.  The moments when we took that left turn at Albuquerque (or didn't), whether we chose to or it was chosen for us. The endless hours in the car going the same direction meld into one another and fade away.   The pivotal moments are the ones we remember.

How does all this relate to playwriting, you ask?  It does, I swear!  That is what theater is, a stringing together of the pivotal points in a character's story.  To quote a friend, "theater is life, with the boring parts cut out."  No one wants to watch 2 hours of people sitting in a car, sipping a soda and listening to bad songs on the radio.  We want to see when the car breaks down, or they take an exit and end up lost in a town overrun by zombies, or they miss their exit and end up driving straight into the path of an approaching tornado.  I have written a few scenes for my play that I thought were important because they showed some aspect of a character's life, gave some texture for what it was like to be that person.  But the scenes didn't work because nothing happened in them.  Each scene has to show something happening to the character, or the character changing in some way in order for it to be interesting.  (Unless, of course, you are Sam Beckett and can absolutely brilliantly break that rule, as in Waiting for Godot).  The kinds of moments people usually remember are also the moments they want to watch on stage.  Imagine that.
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