Before it was a Memoir, it was a Play

The Burning Light of Two Stars is a memoir, a mother-daughter estrangement and reconciliation story, a narrative that moves back and forth through time, covering a 57-year-period, from my birth to my mother’s death.

It’s always been a memoir, right?

Wrong.

In its very first iteration, The Burning Light of Two Stars was going to be a play. My mother was an actor, and her long theatrical career in community theatre is one of the threads that weaves through the story. My mother is an amazing dramatic character. What better way to create a tribute to her, I thought, I’ll write a play!

Of course, I’d never written a play before.

I love the theatre and always have but being an avid audience member is a lot different than writing a play.

Oh, it can’t be that hard, I thought. I have theatre in my blood. In my bones. I can do this.

And so, the very first draft of The Burning Light of Two Stars was a play.

Here’s a scene from that early rendition. Temme is my mother’s name. Abe is my father, and Paul is my brother:

TEMME

The sixties changed everything. Joints started showing up at our suburban cocktail parties. Some of the more adventurous couples got into wife-swapping. Abe was interested, but I said, “No way!” And he accused me of being uptight. The world as I knew it was slipping through my fingers.

LAURA

Every morning as I got ready for school, I’d toast my cinnamon-apple pop tart while listening to the Vietnam body bag count on WBAI. And every morning, the news got worse. There was Mylai. Kent State. The campuses were on fire. Dad was reading Ramparts Magazine, listening to Ravi Shankar and silk-screening all night in the basement. My brother was smoking dope and playing electric guitar in the attic. I didn’t know what to think.

The summer I turned 13, my parents took me and my best friend to Woodstock. I’m sure it was Dad’s idea. I remember being in this huge traffic jam and this white guy with dreadlocks going from car to car, chanting “I’ve got the A. I’ve got the A.”

TEMME

It was acid! He was selling acid. What the hell was I doing in that place with two thirteen-year-olds? Why did I let Abe drag me up there? How could he have possibly thought it was a good place to take our daughter?

LAURA

We camped out and hiked into the festival. We heard Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker. Jimi Hendrix played the sunrise. People were naked and having sex and smoking joints all around us. It was a sea of mud. Mom fled back to the campsite. Dad was dancing and acting weird. It was so embarrassing. That’s what I thought at the time. But afterwards? All my life, I’ve gotten so much mileage out of saying I went to Woodstock.

TEMME

If I’m gonna be honest, I got a lot of mileage out of it, too—afterwards. But at the time. I was mortified! I should have been protecting Laurie, but how could I when her own father got swept up in that whole mess.

LAURA

The next summer, Dad drove Paul to college at the University of Colorado. They loaded up the car and headed west. Three days later, they got busted in Council Bluffs, Iowa for frolicking in a pot field.

TEMME TO AUDIENCE

My husband had the audacity to call me to wire him the bail money. And the thing that really pisses me off now is I did it. I sent him the fucking money! I should have let him rot in jail.

LAURA

I went on a bike trip through Nova Scotia that summer, and when I got back to base camp, there was this letter from Dad. He’d covered every inch of the envelope with tiny pen and ink drawings.

TEMME

Abe said he needed to “find himself” and he went out to Esalen, out in California, to do it. He signed up for an encounter group! He got stoned and took acid and was fucking other women. He even had the nerve to write and tell me about it, like I was his best friend. Abe just loved being free.

LAURA

In the letter, he said he wasn’t coming home. And that he wasn’t leaving because of me. That I’d always be his daughter. That he’d always love me.

TEMME

Abandoning his wife and daughter? That’s love all right! And Laurie? She blamed me for the whole thing. She said it was my fault. He walks out and abandons all his responsibilities, leaving a fucking mess behind him, and she blames me! One day she actually said, “Well, if you hadn’t been so uptight, he never would have left.” And I slapped her across the face. I couldn’t help it. I just saw red. I’d never hit her before. And I never did it again. And Laurie—she wouldn’t forgive me. She threw it up in my face.

And it went on from there.

After six months of concentrated work, I finished my play. I contacted a beloved, local Santa Cruz theatre director, Wilma Marcus, and asked her if she’d read my script. She said yes and when she was done, she gently informed me that what I had written wasn’t a play. It had no dramatic action. None whatsoever. It was dead. She said I should write my story as narrative.

But I still really wanted it to be a play.

So, I went to my friend and colleague, Susan Brown, and asked her if she would read it. She basically delivered the same message, but she was a lot blunter than Wilma, which is one of the things I love about Susan. You always know where you stand with her. She doesn’t coddle the writers who work with her. She demands their best work. And apparently, this wasn’t mine.

She said, “Laura, this is definitely not a play. A play is all dialogue and action. There’s no narrative arc. It’s episodic. it’s boring. I was drifting.

“I want to discourage you from writing a play. Playwriting is treacherous. People have been writing plays for 20-30 years. Why compete with them? You need stagecraft. To turn it into a play is to completely redo how you think and write.

“You’re such a beautiful writer. Your prose is beautiful This is a book. It’s your memoir. Write the damn book.”

I didn’t talk to Susan for weeks after that conversation. I was devastated. I hated her. She was mean. How could say that to me? For weeks, I felt hopeless and despairing. The story was dead. I had failed as a writer. I’d never pull this off. I gave up. It wasn’t the first time. And it wouldn’t be the last. I was done with this story. Done!

But the core story wouldn’t leave me in peace. No way could I abandon it. So, I set the “play” aside and started writing narrative. There had to be another way to tell my story. I just had to find it.

Read the rest of the posts in this series…

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