I am driving through the rolling hills of New Jersey on a day in early fall, trying to convince a character named Megan to move to Hackettstown, New Jersey, where there is a mystery she needs to solve. Instead, she wants to take a job in a coffee shop. If Megan insists on an easy life, I can’t use her in the play. At a red light, I try to feel back through her history. Suppose Megan did decide to investigate the murder? What steps would she take to get to that choice? Where would she start? I scribble notes on the legal pad on my passenger seat.
It is fall 2002. I am on my way to the second staged reading of The Tillie Project at Centenary Stage, an equity theatre company about thirty miles west of New York City. The play opens in eight weeks. Commissioned by the theatre to write this play, I have been struggling with it for over two years. Much of it is working, but I am locked in a battle of the wills with my character Megan.
A battle of the wills! How can that be? Megan is fictional. Then why do I feel such resistance from her? I named her. I endowed her with being, though admittedly she accumulated characteristics helter-skelter as a snowball rolling downhill picks up snow. I gave her a push and somehow lost control. I am worried sick. Closer to Hackettstown, ads for the play are on the radio and in the papers. Critics already have their tickets. But I am not sure there will be a play for them to watch.
I change Megan’s name to Margaret. Margaret is formal. Margaret has a stronger will than Megan. I shift into third and peel away from the stoplight.
When Kafka remarked that art is like an axe that can chop through the frozen seas within us, he surely must have been speaking of the writer as well as the audience. To write a play involves more than an intellectual search. It demands that I respect and love the characters—that I live in their choices, that I take their emotional steps myself. Oh, it’s easy enough to invent a character and force her to perform. It’s just paper and alphabet, after all. But audiences don’t like puppets. They want characters who make choices with integrity.
The human will is a great mystery. I’ve taught for twenty-five years, raised two children and been married, and have many friends, and still I know almost nothing about why people make the choices they do.
Driving among the brilliant fall colors, I think of Dorothy Sayers’ analogy between God and the artist. As we create characters, God created us. As we invent landscapes, God brought this rich world into being. It strikes me that my involvement, my deep pleasure and my frustration with Margaret—or Megan, or whatever her name is—must be analogous to God’s deep involvement with my choices, with my struggles. He does not leave us alone, but He leaves us be. Knowing everything, He has nevertheless left us free to choose, to decide everything, even if it is to resist Him. What a miracle and a paradox!