Thursday, June 11, 2015

My Second Shakespeare Conversation In Two Days

I’m the guy tourists stop to ask questions, the guy complete strangers tell their life stories to in bars; and if I had to come up with one thing that all my friends have in common, it would be the fact that, at some point, we have had a conversation during which they have all stopped and said: “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”  And I always want to say: “Because I'm the guy you can tell.” 

So when I was reading the New York Review of Books outside The Coffee Shop while I was waiting for my lunch date to show up, I was not at all surprised when a tall thin man with a grizzled gray beard in a long light coat with a wide-brimmed leather hat, a guy who looked like a cross between Jacques and Old Man Picard in the last episode of Next Generation, turned to me as he was walking past me, pointed to the NYRB I was reading, and said:
STRANGER: I read that magazine.  What article are you reading?

ME:  It’s about Boswell.  A review of a book about Boswell.

STRANGER: You mean Boswell the biographer of Samuel Johnson?

ME:  Yes.

STRANGER: You like Boswell?

ME:  No, I’m reading the issue from cover to cover.

STRANGER: I know he’s famous for the Samuel Johnson Life, but didn’t he write his own autobiography?

ME:  Well, he published at least one journal of his life in the 1760’s.

STRANGER: I never had much interest in Johnson.  But the period!  The literary figures in the period!  That fascinates me.  Not Johnson.

ME:  A great figure.  And like all the greats, a man of contradictions.

STRANGER: That’s an interesting premise.  It may indeed be a given.

ME:  I come at Johnson from the Shakespeare angle.  Johnson on Shakespeare.  Smart stuff.

STRANGER: Well—Shakespeare.  Now how did we do what he did?  It’s incredible, really.

ME:  I know—three dozen plays which have become a part of our culture, and when you realize that there was a time before they didn’t exist, you wonder how did he do it?

STRANGER: Exactly!  How was he able to do it?

ME:  Because he was a working actor who was paid to do it, a poet who wrote what people wanted to see and then managed to make something immortal out of it. 

STRANGER: Yes!  That’s the mystery!  How did he do that?  The ability to do that—I hate to use the word, but I’m going to do it anyway—that ability is what we call genius, isn’t it?  Genius in the sense of his—and I may be mispronouncing the word here—his demon?

ME:  Daemon.  What Socrates said he was always arguing with.

STRANGER: Yes—his inner genius—his inner Daemon.

ME:  Oh I think all writers have one.  I mean I write—and when  do, I feel like there’s something pulling at my pen, something tugging at my hand to get those particular words down on paper, and I have to be totally open to it, like I’m the tool that the work is using to get written.

STRANGER: I am a writer too, and that’s all I’ll say about that, but I am going to use an expletive here, and say that what you have just said, is, exactly, the same, fucking, thing, that happens to me, and the place I always try to get to when I write.  Thank you.  [Holds out his hand] Thank you.  It was great talking to you.

ME:  [Shaking hands] Great talking to you, too.  Take care.

STRANGER: Thank you.  [Crosses street into park]


I have learned over the years not to make too much of these random encounters.  But I also believe that they happen for a reason—and in this case, I think that either I needed to hear that I’m not alone in feeling like the best writing I do is when I am an open door for creativity, or he needed to hear it.  Or—which is much more likely—we both did.