Tag Archives: voice

Writing Lamentation, Writing Celebration

Close Acorn“I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,/Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,/I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,/Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.” -Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

Recently, one of my nonfiction professors mentioned that, if the tone and texture of writing can be divided into either writing of lamentation or writing of celebration, my writing style tends toward lamentation. She said, unlike Whitman’s celebratory exaltation, my writing texture is more like Emerson’s, brooding and internal.

To me, this makes sense: my writing broods. Maybe that’s why my stand-up comedy special The Writer of Lamentations has done so poorly on Netflix. It’s not that I avoid celebration. I try (and often fail) to celebrate others. I try to support my friends and praise their successes as much as possible, but this celebration rarely enters my writing. Instead, my writing fixates on losses.

More and more, I write about the environment, the west, and disparate interests like history and music, and I think my essays do, in fact, have a sense of lamentation: for places that will soon no longer be, for talents I used to have, for wars that I never fought in, and for friends who have shaped and continue to shape me, even in their absence. Despite my best efforts, friends come and go. I lament being unable to continue being shaped by them, and departure starts to feel normal and they have their lives. Thank goodness they have their lives. And still, I brood.

And what does it mean to celebrate? A friend and colleague of mine shared a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi called “The Will of Life” about embracing “the love of life,” an active, rather than passive, task. Even in the midst of what is worth lamenting, there is room for celebration. This makes me think of Prior in Angels in America refusing to be a prophet, telling the angels he wants more life: “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is modernity, it’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. . . . It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still: Bless me anyway. I want more life.”

It’s been almost a year since I saw Angels in America with friends whom I miss dearly. I will admit that I desire, and I often desire stillness. I don’t want to celebrate myself the way Whitman does, but lamentation requires life in memory, the shadow of what was and could be. It is an act of wanting, but it is always active, not passive. To lament is to recognize that life, friendship, love, the burning world will never be enough, will always be inadequate, but to want to celebrate it anyway. Can there be lamentation without celebration, even in possibility? I write for the past while stuck in the present, constantly spiraling headlong into whatever disaster the future holds, one after another.

I want more life, and I want to mourn life for all that it is, all that it isn’t, all that it used to be. Someone should. Life requires lamentation as much as celebration, but the opposite holds true. To lament is to want, but to want without striving toward celebration misses the point completely.


To Hear Hamlet (In a Cemetery)


This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing a live production of Hamlet by Lincoln’s Flatwater Shakespeare Company. The performance was held in the Swan Theater, which also happens to be in Lincoln’s historic Wyuka Cemetery. The show started at sunset; as the characters progressed into madness and scheming, the night grew darker and colder, and the full moon rose higher and higher. The experience was exhilarating.

Ham1As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I love theater despite my minimal experience with it. Plays are not meant to be read, but seen, and heard. Words are powerful enough in print, but when given a voice, they have so much more power to move the audience. Some readers are familiar with how important voice is to me. I’m drawn to people with strong voices; to me, it’s the first part of attraction. I grew up caring about voice more than any other part of a person. Garrison Keillor’s rusty voice on the radio; the beautiful harmonies produced by folk singers, The Wailin’ Jennys or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Of course Renaissance theater isn’t for everyone; nothing is. But hearing Shakespeare’s words put to the instrumentation of a cast of strong voices makes it impossible for me not to enjoy those words.

But the experience of hearing Hamlet in a cemetery was even more gripping. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, the audience is reminded that hundreds of ghosts are in the ground behind him. When Hamlet contemplates mortality, that undiscovered country, we are forced to remember that emigrants to that undiscovered country are just a few yards away. Finally, when a clown digs up a grave, tossing skulls out of the earth, we cannot help but think that an actual gravedigger is performing the same task, under the full moon. We are surrounded by actual skulls while Hamlet picks up Yorick’s skull; we are surrounded by actual corpses while Ophelia is placed in the grave.

The very ground the audience walks on to reach the stage is defined by mortality. The theatricality of undoing the grave’s permanence, of waking up the dead and gazing into their empty eye sockets, hits us uncomfortably close. The stage mocks the dead we struggle to leave hallowed; we depart from the performance facing the cemetery illuminated by a full moon wondering if our own skulls will be unburied, if a tragedy will be staged on the field we’re confined to.

In this case, the play’s the thing wherein the audience finds its own conscience, and as we all know, conscience does make cowards of us all. That’s the power of theater, and poetry, and art. It places mortality in our face and invites us to wonder. To look around. To investigate. To consider that soon we’ll be departing for an undiscovered country, and we can either go mad waiting in line for our plane ticket, or we can enjoy the graces the terminal has to offer. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, unless we muster up the courage to laugh at all the skulls surrounding us. Why not laugh? Aye, there’s the rub.