Songs for the Struggling Artist


If My Pen is Rockin,’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

The bulk of my writing practice is dedicated to getting myself primed to write with the most focus I can manage. The practice is dedicated to finding a kind of flow. In an ideal session of writing, I will not stop the pen. I just go. And go. I’m sure that I look busy when I’m writing. I’m 100% sure I don’t look like I want to talk with anyone. And yet. And YET.

Several times in the last few months, I have had white men, both young and old, attempt to talk with me while I was writing. One said, after watching my pen moving rapidly across the page for a while, “Can I ask you a question?” I did not stop moving my pen and said “Not right now.” But even though I kept writing, of course, it very much interrupted my flow. It took me a while to pick my thought back up.

Another one, sitting next to me on a café bench at an adjacent table where I had been sitting and writing for 40 minutes, says, almost right into my ear, “Are you journaling?” And fury passed through me as I paused to turn and tell him “No” and attempted to resume.

Why on earth does someone think a woman busy on her own, clearly engaged with a task, wants to be interrupted? Never once has a woman interrupted me to ask an invasive question or start up a conversation. Nor has any man of color. Everyone but white dudes seems to respect my personal space and engagement.

The good news is that there is literally no activity that I am more protective of than writing. I guard my time to do it. I protect it with ferocity – so if some dude happens to intrude, I don’t fall into my usual patterns of being nice or compliant. If you interrupt me, I will not be polite.

This is also the gift of aging. I do not give any fucks about making men feel alright for being assholes. Not anymore.

But it continues to astonish me that even in personal space NYC, where we all more or less leave each other alone, dudes can take me being busy doing something as an invitation.

I suppose it is the activity equivalent of wearing headphones – and lord knows, despite sending a million signals that a woman doesn’t want to be bothered, she gets bothered anyway. I’m thinking of that article about how to talk to girls with headphones on. And the answer of course is – you shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk with a really pissed off woman.

Understanding that not all space is your space is a hard one for the white boys who are used to feeling welcome everywhere. But it is essential for not getting a pen through the eye one day when I’m really in flow and pissed off that you’ve disrupted it. To avoid a pen in the eye…no talking, dude. If you absolutely must talk to me, you can pass me a note. But I’d rather you didn’t.

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Boys Behaving Badly

The drama teacher I was working with had a concept for the scene he was directing. He wanted five couples – five boys and five girls.

On the first day of his rehearsal with them, six girls showed up and three boys. One of those boys clearly had no real interest in being there but had been talked into participating, probably by the offer of extra credit. Throughout the class, he acted out, ignored directions and eventually just disappeared. Everyone else soldiered through, eager to work – but often they were distracted and derailed by the disinterested one.

The next time I turned up for this class, there were five boys and instead of just one badly behaved boy, we had two. Their behavior was distracting but their gender made them necessary and they knew it. Because their teacher needed boys for his scene, he had to tolerate their disrespectful, uncommitted and generally flaky behavior. And so did everyone else.

This precedent, set here in high school is something that I continue to see as actors get older and start to make their way into the professional world. In directing my own work, I have, just as this teacher did, tolerated some grade A shitty flaky behavior from men, just because I needed them. For their gender. I needed a king. I needed a father. And that maleness was important for the story so I put up with it.

It’s not that women aren’t shitty and flaky sometimes. Believe me, they can be. But, it’s a lot easier to call them on it, partly because it’s a lot easier to replace them and most women know this.

Starting as young as middle school, or even in elementary school, boys learn that they are valuable and that they can get away with overly entitled behavior because they are indispensable. And girls learn the opposite. Girls learn that they are interchangeable, disposable and that no amount of good behavior on their part is as valuable as simply showing up male.

In the last year or so, I’ve been working on unscripted improvised work and one of the benefits of that is that it doesn’t matter what gender anybody is. One young man who wanted to work with us failed to respond to several emails and couldn’t be at the first rehearsals and seemed shocked that I wouldn’t bend over backwards to have him. I didn’t need that sort of headache, no matter how brilliant he was reported to be.

Just like I advised the teacher I worked with to do, I now try to work with who is showing up consistently, eagerly and ready to work and allowing those who are entitled and flaky to fall by the wayside.

I don’t know yet how I will handle the imbalance of behavior when I return to scripted work. Luckily for me, I write mostly for women so I don’t tend to need a lot of men. And there are, of course, many well-behaved men who are a delight to work with. I choose them whenever I can. But you bet your boots, that I’d rather have women read the men’s parts than a badly behaved boy. I’m done reinforcing that kind of behavior – from children on up.

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