Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop
I remember sitting in a Pizza Hut sometime between Christmas and New Year’s in Mt. Airy, Maryland with three writing friends, Mary Sue, Betty, and Shirley. It was 1997, and someone mentioned an interview they’d read with Maya Angelou, in which she said something to the effect that she’d die if she weren’t able to write.
All three of the others agreed, said that it was the main thing that made their lives worth living. I listened to them, and realized that I didn’t feel that way. Not that I didn’t love writing – I did. At that point I had rearranged my life so that writing could be the focus for me. I had parlayed severance pay, unemployment insurance, and part-time bookstore work into a reasonable living so that I could devote many hours each week to writing a novel.
Would I die if I couldn’t do it? No, no way. And I sat there wondering if I was a failure because I wouldn’t die without writing. Did I really believe that that meant I wasn’t really a writer? Truth be told, I didn’t know.
A few weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and my friend David was visiting me from England. His marriage had just ended, and he needed to get away for a while. Since it was January, we did some unusual things like driving up to see Niagara Falls frozen. Not all of it was frozen, but enough of it was so that it was pretty impressive, to say the least.
We saw a few movies, too. David wanted to see Evita. I wasn’t particularly interested, since I wasn’t a big fan of Madonna, Antonio Banderas, or Eva Peron. I did figure Jonathan Pryce would be worth watching, and the music should be good, so I agreed.
It was a revelation. I was completely caught up in the film, and afterwards I told David Madonna was nothing like what I would have expected. I knew who she was, of course, but I’d only heard her music in passing, and I hadn’t seen her videos or films. All I remembered was how all of the female students in the theatre department at Pitt had tried to dress like her. I thought it looked weird, and it definitely didn’t impress me. But the woman I saw in Evita was a serious, committed actress.
It’s hard to say who intrigued me more – Madonna or Eva Peron. I began to study both of them, reading whatever I could find on Eva Peron, and listening to Madonna’s music and watching her videos and films. For someone who followed Madonna from her first hit song through the years to Evita, her growth as a performer may have seemed natural. For someone like me, who sat down and watch the years of growth, discipline, and commitment sandwiched into a month or two of research, it was astonishing. And humbling.
sure to stretch her in some way beyond what she’d done before. In the Immaculate Collection recording, she went from the youthful exuberance of “Holiday” to the haunting quality of “This Used to Be My Playground,” to the complex layers of “Like a Prayer,” and then to the stylized passion of “Vogue.”
The films showed the same kind of progression. Desperately Seeking Susan showed a character similar to the persona Madonna often seemed to portray for the media. Then she played slightly more complex characters in Dick Tracy and the one with Willem Dafoe. Finally, in Evita she took on an enormously complex character based on a real person, and brought her to life. At one point I remember reading a biography of Eva Peron, and there was a description of her as the President’s wife, in an encounter with a very poor child. As I read it, I wept. It felt oddly as if I’d seen it in the film. Oddly, because I hadn’t – the scene was not in the film, but the sense of the character was. Madonna had created such a powerful sense of Eva Peron that when I read the scene in the book, I recognized it from her portrayal.
During this time of intense study of Madonna and Eva Peron, it occurred to me that Madonna’s commitment to her work was exactly what Maya Angelou was talking about when she said she’d die without writing. As I saw the discipline and intensity of Madonna’s growth as singer, dancer, and actor, I recognized that I had never made that kind of total commitment to anything in my life up to that point. Not to writing, not to any of the other interests I’d had.