In my senior year of college, I wrote the worst English-language play ever put to paper. I have saved many things–journals, letters, college notebooks, exams in blue-books, mediocre stories and less-than mediocre poems–but I did not save that play. I am thankful for that.
Trust me on this: you would never want to read it.
This came to mind when I was reading an old journal this morning and decided it was finally time to forgive myself for that play. The the 21-year-old me reached out of that journal and told the 57-year-old me to not be too hard on myself.
I have to be honest and tell you that my 21-year-old voice frightens me. I was gripped by untreated anxiety. I was open about it in my writing, but it was clearly worse than I was admitting to myself. Everything terrorized me–school, my own writing, work, my girlfriend, my family, the world, friends, my past, my present, my future.
Then, every fifth day or so, my journal entries were full of an ecstatic me. The world was wonderful, my girlfriend was my alpha and omega, and I was headed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Was I cycling? Was it the dredges of normal teenage angst and exhilaration? It didn’t help that I was going to school, working, freelancing, and making my way between New Bedford and Boston several times a week, all without a car, to chase work. It didn’t help that I was binge drinking. It didn’t help that whatever my diagnosis, it was untreated.
In the fall of my senior year of college I took a survey class on drama and a separate playwriting class. Like all English majors, I had read Shakespeare and a sprinkling of other plays, but the survey class was modern and contemporary drama. We read everything from Ibsen and Oscar Wilde to Albee, Beckett, and O’Neill. (I still have my copy of Zoo Story in which I kept making the same marginal note, “Oh my God!”)
The one play that truly stuck with me was Krapp’s Last Tape. I was an existentialist then and fully understood that I was supposed to understand the despair of Krapp’s existence. Thank God I had a sense of humor, though. I thought the whole banana thing was hilarious.At least in my classes I was having a blast.
Then on November 2nd, my father died, and three weeks later one of my closest childhood friends was killed in an accident. My anxious, exhausted, drinking, existential self was presented with a big ball of terrifying nothingness.
My journal tells me that I left school for each of the funerals, drank heavily with the other mourners, then returned to school and bulled through the rest of the semester. I had developed the ability by then to tear through work at the end of each semester and I did. I finished all my papers, took all my finals, and finished with a 3.7, which would prove to be my best semester in my four years.
And I wrote that play.
It had a title, which I forget. It had two characters–a young man and his father’s ghost. It had no plot. I clearly had Krapp in mind because only the young man talked. Instead of Krapp’s older tapes acting as a ghost from the past, the father acted as a ghost from the present or perhaps of a ghost to come. Instead of bananas, it had alcohol.
My professor, who had the wonderful name Americus J. Cleffi, was kind in pointing out there was no plot and no character development. I think I got a B, maybe a B-, but my transcript tells me I got an A in the course, so my other work must have been OK. Oddly, Professor Cleffi reminded me of my father in some ways. They were both Italian, both city boys. Professor Cleffi was six years older than my Dad, but my Dad had lived a hard life, so they kind of looked alike.
I can see it clearly now. I was destined to write that terrible play. All the forces of my life brought me to that moment–my angst, the reading that was filling my head, my mediocre writing, the tragedies that were dropped in my lap, and Americus J. Cleffi’s Roman nose.
My minister told a story of tough love yesterday from the pulpit. She made her son deal with consequences once, and she’s never forgiven herself for how she handled it. She found a reason to apologize to him recently, and he reminded her that she had apologized for it–again and again. She spoke about Yom Kippur, its spirit of reflection and forgiveness. She decided it is time to finally forgive herself for something she did 20 years before.
I am taking her lead. Yom Kippur begins tomorrow evening. It’s time for me to forgive myself for a piece of bad writing borne out of loss and pain and youth.My 21-year-old self tells me this. It’s time.