We started watching Lonesome Dove last night. Amazingly, Angie has never seen it. I've read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it is based on three times, I think. Larry McMurtry's best work as far as I'm concerned. And that's a lot of work. My buddy, Jeff Wood, turned me onto it. It's one of those novels that I couldn't wait to start reading again whenever I put it down.
Call and Gus are great literary figures of the twentieth century. Played in the mini-series by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall respectively. In fact, I remember when it came out, late eighties, I was down in Morgantown, West Virginia, visiting my then girlfriend, Venice, and we got back to her place a bit late after having dinner out and we turned on the TV and started watching the show. I knew nothing of the casting and I actually thought Jones was Kenny Rogers for a second. I turned to Venice and said, "This is the best work I've ever seen Kenny Rogers do. Who would have guessed?"
But the novel. My God, what a great piece of writing. It stands among my favorite contemporary novels; A Prayer for Owen Meany, Life of Pi, Shogun and Watership Down. It is truly epic writing.
Books have always been my salvation. Not movies, not TV, not even theatre, but books. My mother is responsible for that. When I was very young, maybe ten or eleven, my parents bought a liquor store in the midwest. They struggled mightily to make it work. The store was open twenty hours a day, six a.m until two a.m., every day but Sunday. My dad would work twelve hours and my mom the other eight. I would go along with her at night and when I got sleepy, simply lay down behind the counter. To keep me from getting antsy she would often read to me. And one night, I remember with remarkable clarity, she started reading The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. I was captivated. It is to that very moment I can trace my fascination with reading. Later she read A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and many others. She taught me to transport myself.
Today when I hear people say "I'm not a reader," I am astonished. How can anyone not read? How do they get by? Later, in high school, I discovered Hemingway and Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. I lived a double life. The class clown, always in trouble, and the secret reader, always living someone else's beautifully drawn life. Every weekend I was dragged, against my will, to The Lake of the Ozarks to spend time on our houseboat. I, of course, wanted to be back home playing with my friends. So I learned to take books with me and, much to the chagrin of my father, spent those weekends in another world. Reading non-stop while everyone else swam and water-skied and frolicked.
Novels have taken me to moments so sublime in my life it would be impossible to describe here. I am often asked by students what they should do. How do I become a better actor every single day, they sometimes ask. My answer is always to read. Read everything, anything, I don't care, just read, transport yourself, live someone else's life, be someone else, read cereal boxes, sports articles, magazines, non-fiction, anything, just read.
A by-product of this has been an unusual grasp of trivia. Angie is always asking me, "how do you KNOW that?" And I always say, "I read."
I can re-live moments in novels that even today make me shudder with delight. Gandalf meeting the balrog in Lord of the Rings, Gus dying in Lonesome Dove ("Quite a party, Woodrow, quite a party."), Zooey telling Franny the meaning of life ("Ah, Zooey, don't you realize the fat lady is Jesus Christ himself?"), Bigwig refusing to budge in the tunnel ("My chief told me to hold this tunnel."), Jake refusing to go to bed with his lover in For Whom the Bell Tolls ("Wouldn't it be pretty if it were true."), Owen Meany dying ("Oh, Lord, I shall keep asking you - Give him back!"), Pickett telling Lee in Killer Angels, "I have no division, sir."
What wonderful moments when those lines are read for the first time.
I was recently at the theatre, breaking for lunch between rehearsals, and saw a young man sitting at Starbucks with a copy of Look Homeward, Angel. I said, "God, how I envy you." Because I knew what a great journey he was about to take. He smiled. He got it.
More than any other form of creation I admire novelists the most. I am in awe. The great ones can paint a picture that lasts forever. Yes, I'm told writing plays is the hardest kind of writing. Well, not for me. And it's interesting because it seems prose writers always want to write plays and playwrights always want to write novels. But neither are very good at it. It's kind of like Michael Jordan wanting to play baseball. It's just not his gift. Mailer wanted desperately to be a playwright. Tennesee Williams wanted to be known for his poetry. And on and on. I think this is because they don't respect the gift they were given. It came too easy. For example, I know what I do well. I know I can write dialogue especially well. I know that. But I'm always fascinated with other ways to express myself. Singing, playing my sax, writing a short story. I do all of this on occasion but the truth is I'm not very good at it. It's hard for me. I have to struggle. It's work. Writing dialogue? It's easy, it flows, it comes quick.
I don't "know" John Malkovich, but because of my Chicago background we've met a few times and hung out. He once told me he takes very little joy in acting anymore. What he really wants to do is design clothes. Brando once said if it weren't for the money he would have stopped acting decades ago...what he really wanted to do was study ecology. Johnny Depp says he'd rather be a rock star. Acting bores him. Mick Jagger says he always wanted to be an actor. I completely understand all of that. The original gift comes too easy. People, artists especially, want to "work" at something. Churchill wanted to be a great impressionist. Truman wanted to be a farmer. And Picasso wanted to sing sad, French ballads in cafes all day long.
And I want to be a novelist. I want to write prose all day, sit quietly and alone and write great sentences and paragraphs, tell life-changing stories, invent people, paint joy and pain with words. Problem is I'm not very good at it. What I'm good at is writing plays. I can "see" that, I can "hear" that, I can be inside that. And, for better or worse, it's easy for me.
Eventually, of course, truly great artists realize it's not even about what they do. It's about something even larger. It's about loving your wife, or your children. It's about being good to other people. It's about enjoying life without suffering. It's about living everyday to the fullest without causing anyone else pain or consternation. It's about deflating the ego and finding a personal God that can bring solace. It's about something so much larger than the pursuit of art. With age small things get bigger and big things get smaller.
I'm about to get married later this year and I understand somewhere deep down that an era of self-obsession is about to end. Time to think of someone else first now. Time to make sure someone else is comfortable before I seek comfort for myself. Some time back that thought would have seemed tedious and unnecessary to me. Now, today, however, it gives me great pleasure.
When I'm on my deathbed, minutes, maybe moments left in this great adventure, I doubt I'll regret not writing one more play, I doubt I'll regret not acting one more role, I doubt I'll regret not being seen by one more audience. No. I'll regret not loving harder, not living easier, not caring more, not thinking of someone else's happiness first. I'll regret not being a better human being.
See you tomorrow.