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February 02, 2006

Bring On the Elephants!

by Nancy

My church is a theater.  Any theater, really.  Taking my seat, reading the program, waiting for the lights to go down and the story to begin—that’s my prayerful time, I think. The time when I open myself to ideas that can change the way I live my life.

This week, one of the most quietly influential American playwrights died at a very young age, long before her time and when her only child is just six years old. In her memory, I am trying not to mourn her but to celebrate her life and her work.

If you’re bored already with my tone today, just do me the favor of listening to the NPR story about Wendy Wasserstein.  Hearing her voice, not mine, you’ll be hooked.

Wendy Wasserstein, who wrote, among other plays, The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig,Go to fullsize image was the first playwright to write in an authentic way about the modern American woman.  (Until her arrival, were we supposed to believe Tennessee Williams had a lock on our story??)  Wendy wrote genuinely about young, college graduates who came of age (in the late sixties, early seventies just after the first bras were burned) and who are earnest and smart but also clueless and not a little desperate—trying to balance the complexities of the female life that any fool who ever set foot in a theater recognizes as The Real Thing.  My generation was the first, really, to face the pressure of having both a career and family. How each of us has managed to do that—or not—may seem like the insignificant struggles of small people. But we represent nothing short of a revolution in American life.

Wendy Wasserstein was the first to write plays about feminism—not just theoretical feminism, but the day-to-day choices and actions that create a feminist life. 

And she did it with laughs! With shopping! With stupid boyfriends! With characters who work for the World Bank and also cook dinner!

She took material from her own life—growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, then making the choice of a life in not-for-profit theater instead of law school or the MBA her brother achieved—and liberally laced her observations with the hilarious as well as the meaningful.  She took a hard look at feminism through characters who must make the tough choices she made and I made, too. She wrote about funny, smart women with broken hearts.  (If you read my books, you will understand how much this combo resonates with me.)

My oldest daughter is graduating from law school in a couple of months.  She’s newly married.  She has a job clerking part time at a respected firm.  But recently it hit her that—unlike her husband who will finish grad school and slip easily into the workplace and an adult life—she’s got to fight for everything she wants.  Start a career? Or have kids? Try to do both? Forget the kids and forge ahead into the highest paying career she can find and not look back? Pick up and move to a

new city

if her husband lands a job elsewhere? Or should she encourage him to stay where she begins her career?  Does she leave her family? How does she make time to nurture the kinds of friends who will sustain her for a lifetime?

We all know how agonizing these choices are, but Wendy Wasserstein was the first to write plays about the conundrums. Make life the way you want it! What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?  Those ideas spark good table conversation, but the reality is so much more agonizing.

And hilarious.  If you can’t look at your life and laugh about the situation you’ve gotten yourself into, you’d better resign yourself to a longterm prescription for Prozac.

Anyway, we writers have lots of role models--writers we admire and try to emulate. Whose styles we study, whose themes have kidnapped our imaginations.

Wendy Wasserstein was such a role model for me.  I love the way her dialogue defines character and tells a story with no stage direction needed. (If you’re a writer, too, you’ve probably already discovered studying the art of dialogue by reading plays, so I don’t need to tell you that The Sisters Rosensweig is a terrific starting place.) I love that she found a way to make one woman’s story into nothing short of an epic tale.

In the NPR story, you’ll hear Wendy say, “I like large canvases.  I like lots of characters and lots of sets. Bring on the elephants!”   As a novelist, I know what she means.  Mix as much material into the story as you can because something's going to resonate with somebody out there.  She says, “What matters is content and a voice. . . . And if told truthfully, {women's stories should create} some sort of connection” with the audience.

Words to write by.  You’ve been a role model for me, Wendy, not just as a writer, but in the choices you made for your own life.  In an age when young girls look to women like Madonna and Britney Spears for direction and inspiration, and little boys admire professional athletes who take steroids to cheat the competition, I am very sorry you are gone before your time. I know flights of angels are singing.

Role models, anyone?


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Nancy: Great piece. You know, I've never read any of Wendy's plays, only a couple of pieces she wrote for the New Yorker and I immediately gravitated toward her voice. It's almost a Divine thing, don't you think? Having a voice like that.
The best we can do is pick up the torch, add our own voices and pass it on to our daughters, or other young women we see coming up the ranks.
My own daughter never listened to Brittany Spears and at 15 is smarter in math than I ever was, has goals to travel the world by the time she's 20 and a terrific social studies teacher who's a single mother in her early thirties, a former Peace Corp volunteer and a heck of a role model.
Will order the Heidi Chronicles now...

What a beautiful post, Nancy. Your question about role models got me thinking, and made me realize that only now, in my firm middle age, am I finding my true role models. Growing up in the suburban reaches of the Bay Area (I graduated high school in 1976, to give some perspective), I somehow absorbed feminist sensibilities but had no one but a few high school friends to share them with. The books I read and the music I listened to were, with very few exceptions, men's voices telling men's stories. I guess I just didn't know where to go to find the alternatives.

Later, I was a young (and not-so-young) woman pursuing a career in a male-dominated field. I had no female career-style role models available to me (between them, my undergraduate and graduate departments employed 3 women) and relatively few female graduate students with whom to discuss the trials of trying to combine family with a career in academic science. I just sort of tried to figure it out as I went along.

It wasn't until I started studying martial arts and attending women's martial arts camps that I found my true role models. Some of them began training when women were simply not accepted as serious students of the martial arts. Some began training late in life. Some have traditional jobs and families; others are non-traditional in just about every way imaginable. What they all have in common, though, and what I've learned from them, is that it's OK to take risks. It's more than OK to open yourself up to new experiences and to continually seek new paths for development and growth. And you're never, ever too old to try something new.

I wish I had known Wendy Wasserman's work way back when; I'll make it a point to know it now.

Wasser*stein*. It's way too early . . .

There's a nice interview at http://www.bombsite.com/wasserstein/wasserstein.html if anyone's interested . . .

I was nearly singularly blessed to have a feminist grandmother - even though she didn't know that's what she was.

My Nana was born in 1910 and she was a working mother. She didn't just work either - without a degree, founded a business in 1938 that has diversified and is still thriving today. All of this with a husband who traveled with his work for the first ten years or so, and two children.

My Mom made the choice to give up her career as a chemistry teacher to be a full-time Mom. There were five of us, so no joke about the full time.

So I grew up knowing - really knowing - that I had choices. How did my Nana - and my Mom for that matter - do it? Same way I am trying to do it. With help and flexibility. My Nana always had women around her who could answer office phones while feeding kids. My Mom had women to give her a break once in a while.

Today, those women who help sometimes take a more institutional form - day care centers, cleaning services, answering services - even the staff at Kinkos.

If there's a way to do it without the help of other humans, I sure haven't seen one.

Nancy, so glad you wrote about Wendy. I watched a piece they did about her on PBS, and she was so funny and happy and so accessible. It was lovely. As for role models, definitely my mother and my grandfather, above all others. Never in my life have I known two more generous, hard-working, honest, loving people. The biggest compliment anyone can give me is to say I'm like my mom...or Paw Paw. It's nice to think I have a little of each inside me.


Actually, there I disagree profoundly. Your generation was the first middle-class one faces with that pressure. My parents were the first middle-class members of their family, and both had always, always, always had women working and raising families. I honestly never even thought there could be another option... until I was a latch-key child who watched a lot of sitcoms and realized oh, that's not how other people live.

I've always been a bit irritated by the Wellsley et. al. girls who act as if they've made an incredible discovery - working and raising kids at the same time is hard!

Sorry, I tried to quote you above, and failed miserably (working, raising children, and trying to read blogs while doing both is hard...)

This is the phrase I was responding to: My generation was the first, really, to face the pressure of having both a career and family.

Alina--Good points, all.

But...Wellesley? Honey, I went to a strict Presbyterian school. None of that east coast liberal stuff At least, not in undergrad.

I might suggest that working a job (or 2 or 3)while raising a family and coping with life has a different--not harder or easier, but *different*--set of pressures from building a professional career in traditionally male-dominated fields under similar family & life circumstances--which I think is what Wendy W wrote about so well and in a new way.

I just checked out Alina's webpage, everyone. What great timing with the Olympics! Check it out: http://www.alinaadams.com/

I was never a big Wendy Wasserstein fan--when I was at NYU, we favored Sam Shepard, e.g., over Neil Simon, and Wendy W. seemed to me to fall into the Neil S. camp. My own tastes tended toward the Greeks, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neil, Tom Stoppard, John Guare, Lanford Wilson-- yes, yes. Boys all.
So I couldn't figure out why I saw the front page photo yesterday, and stopped everything I was doing, and felt like crying.
Nancy, thanks for explaining me to me.

There is a big difference between work and a career. Career connotes education, planning and decision-making, rather than working out of economic necessity.

I grew up in coal mining country - I know the difference.

Just because career pressure is different from economic pressure doesn't mean that either is more worthy. They're just different.

I think that's why so many people from my part of the country are so proud - because we have both kinds of pressure here - both kinds of working women. We're different - until Sunday - and then everybody looks the same when they're wearing the Black & Gold.


Nancy, what a beautiful post today. It resonated with me on so many levels...as a writer, as a woman, as a wife. Wow.


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