A Dish Best Served Cold

From time to time, I go to playwriting talks at the Cherry Lane Theatre‘s master class series in the West Village.  Last month, Tina Howe — author of “Coastal Disturbances” and many other plays — was excellent.  This week, A.R. Gurney, who wrote “The Dining Room,” “Love Letters,” and a number of other well-known plays, spoke.

Gurney was low-key, eloquent and very encouraging to the audience of would-be playwrights of every age.  Among the questions he answered was about my own particular bete-noire, plot.  God, I hate plots.  I often forget to include a plot, preferring to focus on really important matters like character development and dialogue.  Then, my husband or one of my other smart-alecky writer friends badgers me with picky criticisms about how nothing much is happening in my novels and I have to go back and concoct some action.  To me, plots are a necessary evil, even though I’m not entirely convinced about the “necessary” part.  Oh, whatever.

Anyway, Gurney quoted from David Mamet, urging writers to always think about what happens next on the stage.  The audience has shown up and paid their money; you need to keep them intrigued, wanting to know what happens next.  I liked that idea as a way of breaking down all this plot mystique and obsession.  What happens next!  Words to live by.

Leaving the theater, I had one of those dizzying, exhilarating wow, I’m really a part of something, I’m practically a member of the New York theater community moments.  When I have moments like that, I’m always riding for a fall.  But this never occurs to me till it’s too late.

I sailed out on the street, headed back to the Christopher Street subway stop.  Walking briskly, confidently, with a sense of purpose.  A few blocks later, I was hopelessly lost.  Evidently, someone had moved Seventh Avenue, dammit.

Well, you know how it goes.  We all have different goals about living in the Big City.  Yours might be to visit every museum in town.  Mine is not to walk around in endless circles in Greenwich Village like a deeply confused and sadly stupid sheep.  Frankly, I think going to every fucking museum in the five boroughs is a whole lot easier, but that’s just me.

Finally, after asking directions from three different strangers (I was nothing, if not completely desperate), I ended up back at the subway stop.

Walking down the stairs, I was jostled by three young, hip guys.  Creeps, low-lifes, louts.  (I thought of my friend, Pamela, who maneuvered New York for two months with her husband, who uses a walker.  One day, a yuppie mother stared at them with such unconcealed scorn that Pamela burst out with, “You know what?  You’re going to be old, too, one day.  Just see how you like it!”)  I continued my slow way down the stairs, reassuring myself that these young toughs would eventually get their comeuppance, too, even if it took, say, 40 years and I’d be cold and dead.

We were all in the same subway car.  I heard them talking about “going downtown” and stifled a grin.  Losers!  We were going uptown!  Wouldn’t they be surprised when we got to the Upper West Side, ha, ha, ha.

The subway rumbled on, stopping at the next station, carrying them farther from their destination.  I casually looked up at the next stop.  Canal Street.  We’d been going due south, straight downtown.  God, the ignominy.  I slunk off the car, pretending this was where I wanted to go.

What happens next?  I find the uptown line and go home.  You could call it a plot, I guess.  I call it my life.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about mass holiday letters

9 comments… add one
  • Having been twisted around and confused as to whereabouts in the CITY, I totally understand the frustration. I’ve also taken the subway going in the wrong direction and had to get off and turn myself around. Sigh.
    I think you’re correct; it keeps us wondering just what’s going to happen next in this life of ours; we start out the day never knowing for sure.  I like that. Sometimes.

  • Another reminder (as if I needed one) of why I’ll always miss the World Trade Center: For nearly 30 years, I could climb out of the subway anywhere in Lower Manhattan and ascertain which way was south simply by looking for the Twin Towers. Having figured out where south was, then north, west and east were a cinch. Now, with my Manhattan compass gone, I am reduced to looking for the sun, which on a sunny morning or afternoon can at least inform me of east versus west. At night, or on a cloudy or rainy day, I am lost unless I can find a familiar landmark (the Central Public Library, the Plaza Hotel, Fifth Avenue, etc.) that assures me of where I am and in which direction I currently proceed. Maybe if I actually lived there for months, I could find my way around with more certainty. But I wouldn’t bet on it.    

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I like the idea of blaming the terrorists for my getting lost.

  • Winston Link

    I like the idea of blaming the terrorists for my getting lost.
    But Ruth, aren’t you afraid such thoughts will stir your paranoia, reawakening all those “let’s get Ruth” plots on a grand scale?

  • Cindy A Link

    It’s hard to find compassionate young people these days.  Probably harder in NYC. Twenty years from now, will any civility be left?  Maybe there will be a manners revolution!  I shall cling to that hope.

  • Ellen Link

    Here, I do run across thoughtful youngsters.  Yesterday I was about to cross a slick, slushy intersection.  A young guy ahead of me bolted halfway across, then looked back to see me hesitating, and offered his hand. 

  • Thanks for the “What Happens Next” tip.  I took a course with a playwright five years ago and learned a lot about dialogue.
    On your meanderings in the New York subway, don’t feel so bad. I can remember getting on a train going in the wrong direction in Paris once, and the directions are so straightforward there that it’s really tough to mess them up!  I admire you adventuresome spirit as you explore a new city.  Not sure I would have the courage myself anymore.

  • Blame it on reading comprehension dampened by the dark time of the year and stress, but I totally did NOT see that ending coming. Ha! I’m sorry you were headed the wrong way.

  • Oh, can I relate…always lost, always wondering which way I’m headed! It’s amazing I ever get where I’m going. (Do they make compasses that look like wristwatches??)

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