\’It doesn\’t count if it\’s easy\’ Project Angels book

Me talking to me about this book 

I can finally confidently say, I’ve really picked up project Angels Book for probably the first time in a year. And it is…getting there. Maybe at the end of this I’ll say exactly how far I’ve got. 

Of course apparently a global pandemic, unemployment and the whole other mess of this year was clearly the time I should be doing this or I’d have wasted the time I had. And while the luxury of time has always been an obstacle to getting it done, it was of course never the only one. And I would venture that a global pandemic isn’t the ideal time to return to writing about a play that deals with another one. 

But, I’ve learned lately that this year, in all this, there’s a weird balance between needing the stuff that makes you feel and needing to avoid the things that make you feel. And boy does this project make me feel. 

The reason it took me until now to pick this up was simply, it makes me feel too much. It tears me apart, and I wasn’t ready. 

There are times when I have to physically stop. I have to go away and do something else. Is that weird? Should a project do that? Maybe. Maybe not.  I’ve long known my PhD and pet project weren’t ‘normal’ academic endeavours. (and let’s face it that I’m not very normal either) Because I care too much. But also it gets under your skin, this play. One actor commented on the play ‘this show tears you up emotionally’. One conversation I had with Marianne Elliott about it, is how when you work on it a lot, when you’re ‘in it’ a lot you feel it seeping into your bones, your mind and you end up feeling depressed. It’s not, in fact a depressing play- the beauty of it being it leaves you so full of hope in fact. But to sit with it, the weight of these characters and their complex problems…it gets inside your head at the best of times. 

Me taking a break from this bullshit 

Add to that a global pandemic and well it’s not a recipe for sunshine and rainbows. Just before writing this I had to stop work for a second when I read this from Tony Kushner; 

‘One of the things it’s about is that it’s incredibly hard to take care of someone who is catastrophically ill. I think this is going to become an issue that is inescapable, because people are getting sicker all the time’

Kushner said that in 1992. And I find myself in 2020, amidst all this, picking this up again and trying to make sense of it all. Every other contextual note I have is about the numbers of people dying. About government inaction. About Right-Wing governments crushing minorities in different ways. About Roy Cohn and his buddy Donald Trump. The weight of it is exhausting. 

There’s been much written about the morality of productivity in a time of emergency. And I wrestled with it a lot. There was a push and pull between what I know of the AIDS epidemic and how creative responses were vital, for mourning and activism. But also in being paralysed in our ability to have them by this one. I still don’t have answers there, and it’ll be a while before we can fully compare. 

Early on in all this I felt like Harper. Trapped at home alone complaining she had ‘no time’ to do anything while having ‘all the time in the world’ that’s what the lockdown felt like in a way, a slowly being trapped inside your own head, afraid of the world outside and unable to escape. I feel I should clarify without the valium addiction, though it may have eased the process somewhat. The point (dear the point) being it’s impossible to get anything meaningful done when it feels like the world is burning around you. For Harper it was her personal world, for the rest of us it was (is) the literal world. (of course, Harper is aware the literal world is burning too….see how my brain can’t stop with these connections now?)

And now, suddenly I’ve become Louis again. With my brain and mouth running at 100 miles per hour. Specifically I’m Louis at the courthouse gathering all the papers to spill the righteous tea (i have no tea to spill don’t worry) and i’m also Louis ‘Angels in America’ speech writing and speaking in 12 different directions at once trying to contain everything in one thought strand and failing. It’s exhilarating to have that back after so long but also exhausting. 

Me about to drop some research on a bitch 

And to top it all off, I feel guilty. That it’s somehow self-indulgent. Because, well look at the world. And the fact I don’t have a job and I should be doing this or this or this. And in part that’s what’s always held me back before. The feeling that there was always something ‘more important’ I should be doing. That perhaps, I shouldn’t be a ‘Louis’ about it. But if not now when? If I have to find myself in limbo thanks to a big old global pandemic, the least I can do is finish the book that’s tangentially, about another. 

And it’s great and I’m excited, and for the moment able to put the feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome in a box. After months of lockdown struggling to concentrate. After even longer not being able to pick this up and do it to be able to, to want to spend all day on it is…well a threshold of revelation. 

I admit while being a lot Louis I also get a bit Harper when I work on this too long. A little bit ‘this is why Joe, this is why I shouldn’t be left alone’. I start talking to myself, to the characters, I get pulled back into their world. This morning that mainly involved muttering ‘Fucking Roy Cohn’ a lot, which is at the very least, a big old mood. I also end up with utterly ridiculous ideas and spin-off tangents which end up in a document of their own, most of which quite sensibly to never see the light of day again- I start finding links with utterly everything else I encounter which leads to some brilliant notes, some hilarious tangents. Perhaps they’ll end up an appendix one day, just for the laughs. 

Me and my my crazy ideas realising I\’m talking to the air.

But, jokes, and guesses about how ridiculous I’ve gotten with those ideas aside, we should recognise the difficulty, the emotional toll of it. Firstly we should always recognise the labour that goes into any kind of writing. But also the idea that factual writing (please notice I’m no longer using academic) takes its own particular toll too. Especially something which has any level of investment in it. It feels difficult to accept that, the instinct being to say ‘but I’m not living through this’ or even ‘I’m not creating’ this. But you are hearing the stories of trauma, you are working with the creative. It counts. It’s labour, and it’s hard and if you’re doing it right, in my opinion at least, it takes emotional investment as well. 

As Belize says to Louis (fittingly, given my current state of mind) ‘It doesn\’t count if it’s easy’ 

And it’s not. Nothing about doing it is. It’s huge and overwhelming and I am overwhelmed with feelings of not being able to ‘measure up’ to the play, to the expectations, to academia…to doing it justice. But I know I have to try. 

And in revisiting it now, I know I couldn’t have written this three years ago. This is the best I could have done it. And I know why I’m doing it now. For better or worse I’m writing my version of it, telling the story I wanted to. That sounds weird for factual work, but you have to give it your voice. Or once again it doesn’t count. 

Today when making some notes I was reminded of this from Harper’s final monologue; 

‘But I saw something, onl I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things.’ 

I don’t flatter myself there’s much astonishing about me. But, I do believe there’s something to that- I’ve kept going long enough with this, because there is something only I can see and say. 

If I was putting a number on it I’d say it’s 75% written, and 60% ready as a draft. I’m giving myself this month to get to 100% draft. The hard part is far from over. But the world feels like it’s spinning forward again at least. 

Me, thanking people for coming to my TED talk 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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