Some Reflections on the Publishing of Spalding Gray’s Journals

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Experiences, On Beauty, On Compassion
Tags: , , , , ,

In the next few hours, (well, FedEx really) will be delivering my copy of the “Journals of Spalding Gray”, which is being released today. I find it touching, in an odd sort of way, that my wife does not want me to read it. She’s worried that I’ll get some ideas about why it would be a good idea to jump off a New York ferry when things get too tough. I disagree. I already know how to jump off a boat and drown myself; and the book won’t teach me any new techniques. The good news is that, whiner that I am, I don’t really have any desire to do that. Even in a crappy economy, even when I’m in a bad mood, even when I’m pissed off at a CEO or two, there are far too many cool reasons to stick around. Most notably, of course, is that the wife who doesn’t want me to read Spalding’s journals has been my best friend for 22 years and makes all the rest of the shit worthwhile. So there, Patt, you’re safe. You are stuck with me!

Of course that does not answer the bigger issue; which is why I want to read the book in the first place.

First, the obvious benefit that comes from reading the journals of a brilliant man who was profoundly disturbed is the simple realization that things are actually pretty darn good in MY life. We all have ups and downs, and mine might be a little wider range than some. But compared to some really troubled folks, I’m just your typical “normal neurotic”. So, that’s good. Maybe a little selfish and narcissistic – but good.

But there is more to it than just comparative narcissism. There is the fact that I’m truly, honestly, fascinated by Spalding Gray. I have been ever since I saw “A Personal History of the American Theater” on PBS. I have been ever since I read “Swimming to Cambodia”. I have been ever since I met him in person at the Mark Taper Forum in 1987. And I have been ever since I took Conley Falk’s “Inner Theater” class in Los Angeles and came to understand just how profoundly work in the theater can boost your confidence and self-esteem. It’s that last item that brings me such sadness in remembering Spalding.

You see, in my new age-ish world of the 1980’s, theater was supposed to be transformative. I studied theater games and improv with Conley Falk to make me a better, more solid, more confident person. Even today, 30 years after that, my uncle Mel still reminds me just how much I changed from that experience. So, if a little class worked so well for me, imagine what an amazingly solid sense of self should exist for a guy like Spalding! But it seems not to have worked that way. The more amazing Spalding’s work became, the more disturbed he got. So, either theater isn’t so transformative, or something else is at work.

I think that the “something else” is what I call the “Plath and Sexton Syndrome”. I think that when you keep peeling away layer after layer of your psyche – like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did with their poetry – and like Spalding did with his monologues – you risk opening yourself up so much that everything just falls out. When you do that for the public, we benefit, but you lose. So, perhaps Spalding (Like Plath and Sexton, and other creative geniuses) killed himself because he opened himself up too far in an uncontrolled environment. You can do that with your psychotherapist but maybe you can’t do it with an audience.

This is why I’m so excited about reading Spalding’s Journals. I want to know more about what happened as he lived his life; integrated all of our lives with it; and turned it into tearful, touching, and simultaneously hilariously funny personal theater. Other people, for example Julia Sweeney, do amazing monologue work with personal stories. But no one has opened themselves up to the public like Spalding has. Because I love his work, I want to know. Because I met him once and in that 5 minutes he made me feel like a brother, I want to know. Because I laughed and cried at the stories of his life, every time he came to a city where I lived, for 15 or 20 years, I want to know. Mostly, because I think I can learn something about the effects and risks of creativity, I want to know.

Sitting on a single shelf in my living room – interestingly, right next to a bookcase full of poetry that includes every book by Plath and Sexton – is my row of books by Spalding Gray. Hanging in my office is a signed program from my 1987 meeting with him. I remember seeing him in many films, my favorite one being David Byrne’s film “True Stories” where he plays a father at a pretty surreal family dinner. Now, added to that collection of “Spud-isms” will be something that I’ll never have signed and I’ll never see performed. “The Journals of Spalding Gray” will sit among his other books. He’ll never see it. But, hopefully, those of us who love his work will, through it, come to love him even more.

  1. Good post. Yeah, I remember when theatre was supposed to be transformative, too!

    Now I wonder if art is more an act of “witnessing?” But then — for who?

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