Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Archive for the ‘Pinter, Harold’ Category

This is so haggard

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.


I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.



Imaginary languages and secret meanings

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

There are two phrases that mean nothing to almost anyone else, but which have stuck with me most of my life: “Glx sptzl glaah!” and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

The former is the baby-speak cry of Sugar and Spike in the comics of the same name by Sheldon Mayer. When the babies talk, all the parents hear is gibberish. But we lucky readers are privy to the rather sophisticated notions and outlandish schemes of these toddlers. If you’re wondering if this was unacknowledged source material for “Rugrats,” I suspect so. The first season of “Rugrats,” before rampant commercial needs overwhelmed creative impulses, was often wonderful. “Sugar and Spike” was consistently wonderful; even as an adolescent reader of mainstream superhero comics who groaned when some relative would mistakenly give him a “Richie Rich” or, God forbid, “Archie” comic, I was devoted to “Sugar and Spike.” And soon, very soon, you too will be able to share the joy:  an archive edition will finally be released by DC Comics next month.


(By the way, I bought the issue above right off the stands in 1970. I was 8.)

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that I first read almost 30 years ago. It concerns a massive conspiracy by intellectuals to plant the false idea that there is a secret world called Tlon, with a nation called Uqbar. Inserting this false information into encyclopedias and referencing it elsewhere helps to, in essence, create the actuality — just as the creation of fiction implants ideas in readers that sometimes become reality. (Who invented the satellite? Well, the notion came from Arthur C. Clarke.) The fact that this phrase has stuck with me for 30 years proves the point.

In other words, both phrases are about imaginary languages and secret meanings.


Which takes me to today’s Google Logo (shown above). I was thrilled beyond measure to see that it was an homage to Borges, born 112 years ago today. More about that Google doodle, and how  Borges’ thinking led to the creation of hypertext links, can be found via this hypertext link.

To some degree, we are all of us privy to secret languages all around us every day, even when spoken in languages we purport to speak:  the thrum of jargon and subtext and obscure reference. It’s amazing we can understand anything. To some degree, this is what all of Harold Pinter’s plays are about:  that we understand nothing, while understanding everything all too well.

Writing: good, bad, variable, and influential

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

“Learning not to dislike Hemingway.”

That was the title an editor gave to a piece in today’s LA Times by book critic David Ulin. (Here it is; points go to the print edition’s copy editor — online it’s tagged “Under the influence of Hemingway,” a headline so weak that it seems a subtle jab at Hemingway’s manly writing style.) I read this piece with great interest because I’ve always read all of Hemingway with great interest since first coming across his short stories in high school, when one of those stories taught me the word “milt,” as Nick Adams strips clean a fish he’s caught. Almost 35 years later, this word has stayed with me. Indeed, I used it in my play “He Said She Said,” written two years ago and produced in LA and, recently, Omaha at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. The play concerns a vacationing PTA mom reading bad erotic poetry she’s written, and that setup flashed me back to the oddly sensual description of Nick Adams cleaning that fish. Here’s the comically bad poem from my play:



This is called Deep Sea Diving. Except the “Sea” is spelled “s-e-e.”


Deep see diving.

I can see you down here with me.

The shellfish scuttle out of the way

Forming a cloud of ocean dust around you.

There you are.


Don’t hide.

I can see you.

Peering at me from beneath your coral

Thinking that you’re safe and protected

I reach for you and pull you out

And take you above and slit you open

And run my tongue down the length

Of your milty flesh

Careful not to get your bones

Stuck in my throat.



Hemingway finds the right sensual word — “milt,” the sperm-containing secretion of the testes of fishes — and then in my play Amanda adulterates it into “milty.” Even as a teenage writer, I could see that Hemingway had the knack of finding the right word, something I struggled then and now with.

I picked up other tricks from Hemingway, purposely or accidentally. Here Ulin quotes Hemingway in “Death in the Afternoon”: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Note the circular reductionism, as Hemingway returns again and again to the baseline words:  writer/writing; about; enough. There’s a rhythm to this that just pulls you into it; it’s practically Biblical. This element of style infected my writing early on, and that’s fine; I got it from Hemingway, and Hemingway got it from Gertrude Stein, just as Shakespeare got Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer, and Chaucer got it from Boccaccio. All of which means that whether or not I admire Hemingway’s work (and I do), I certainly have been influenced by it.

(Who else was I influenced by? My friend Joe Stafford likes to point out that many of my plays contain what Joe calls “a laundry list” monologue in which someone complains about a host of items or events. In retrospect, the inspiration for this is obvious:  Harold Pinter,  and The Caretaker specifically.)

So here I am, filled with admiration for Hemingway, and somewhat put out by the Times’ book critic writing a piece bearing the headline “Learning not to dislike Hemingway.” To add insult to injury, Ulin goes on to say:

“The one who most spoke to me was Faulkner, with his flowing sea of language, his sense of of the past, of history, as a living thing. Next to him, Hemingway seemed flat, two-dimensional.”

Oh, William Faulkner. You  mean the famous writer I cannot read. The irony here is that, much as Ulin doesn’t care for Hemingway, I can’t abide Faulkner at all. Ever since I posted Doug’s Reading List six years ago, I’ve received many emails and personal comments that the entire list should be held suspect because Faulkner isn’t on it. But I can’t imagine a reason to put him on; I remain unclear what his impact is (on writers in general, or certainly on me). And oh, I have tried reading him, most notably Absalom, Absalom! (three attempts) and, just recently, Light in August again, this time getting to page 152 before bailing out. Here’s an excerpt prototypical paragraph:

He was standing still now, breathing quite hard, glaring this way and that. About him the cabins were shaped blackly out of blackness by the faint, sultry glow of kerosene lamps. On all sides, even within him, the bodiless fecundmellow voices of Negro women murmured. It was as though he and all other manshaped life about him had been returned to the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female….

What are “fecundmellow” voices? Like “milt,” the word aims to be erotic, but Faulkner’s neologism subtracts more than it adds, as do “manshaped” and “primogenitive.” To Ulin, Hemingway may seem “flat” by comparison, but I would respond that he doesn’t yank you out of the milieu with awkward showiness.

While I disagree with the Times’ book critic, I respect him for coming out with his opinion about Hemingway. I’ve been out about my dislike for Faulkner for six years, and I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of lit-snob derision — and I’m not the book critic of a major newspaper. I’m sure Ulin is in for a pasting from readers (and I’m betting he’ll be delighted to get a reminder that people are reading him). Ulin notes Hemingway’s influence — on Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Russell Banks, Tobias Wolff, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson (I would add Charles Bukowski) — but he doesn’t care for what Faulkner would call the primogenitive Writer.

All of this reminds me of something that happened last night, after the latest round of readings from my “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop. A couple of weeks ago, some of us in the workshop had plays performed in Moving Arts’ “The Car Plays,” and another playwright and I spent a few minutes last night discussing some of the plays we’d seen (of 26 different car plays, I’d seen 10). We came to the subject of one that neither of us particularly liked;  “It just doesn’t go anywhere,” I said, and my friend agreed. Then he said, “But I saw some people come out of that car wiping tears away.” We think it’s a bad play; others were emotionally swept away; and neither one of us could figure it out.  Just as I still can’t figure out the appeal of William Faulkner.

Email to a young director

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

When I was a kid, comic book editors were thoughtful enough to include the mailing addresses of fans who wrote in. There’s a whole generation of us who made a lot of good friends that way.

Now we have the internet.

Which is how I received this communication today:

Hi, my name is Isabel R–. I am 13 years old, I live in Mexico City and I now study in the American School Foundation. Right now in my civics class we are making a project about our future. I currently love theater, and it’s my lifetime dream to be a part of it and spend my whole life on it. I want to study acting, but I seriously don’t think I could be that good, so instead I would just love to direct, be in charge of everyone and be responsible [for] the whole play. This is why I was wondering if you could answer me an interview about your studies. I seriously respect you because you are a director, and in my opinion it takes a lot to be one.
I hope you will answer,
Isabel R–
P.S if you don’t have the time to answer or email me back, don’t worry I know you must be full of work 😉

Here’s my reply:


Isabel, I am indeed full of work. (And full of a lot else, too.) But I’m happy to answer you. The theatre is a wonderful thing to devote your life to. If you want to, you should do it.

Before we get to the questionnaire you attached, I’d like to say this:  You should study acting. Why? Three reasons:

1.    Because you want to. Thirteen is far too young to decide that you can’t be good at something. Know what the right age is? Never. Last month I heard a radio interview with an 82-year-old woman who had just piloted a plane for the first time. At age 80, she decided that she wanted to learn to fly, and now, two years later, she was flying solo. It’s not a good idea to limit yourself at any age. (It’s also good to have grandchildren to take away the keys, if necessary.)
2.    You should act because you want to, and you should act because it will help you as a director. Directors work with actors. That means you need to understand acting and actors. No, I was never an actor. But I did some acting in both high school and college (poorly, I might add), and since then I’ve done staged readings that I’ve been drafted into. And every Saturday I get to read at least one part in my workshop. Do some acting. It’s fun. And even if you’re bad, nobody dies as a result.
3.    It’s good to fail. Failure teaches you things. It’s also good to succeed. What isn’t good is to not try. Don’t avoid failure, or you won’t try enough new things.

Okay, let’s tackle that questionnaire.

1.    What did you study?

I have no formal theatre training. None. I have degrees in Communications (Associate of Arts), Literature and Language (Bachelor of Arts), and Professional Writing (a Masters degree). This qualifies me to answer your questionnaire, and to answer things for people even when I don’t know what I’m talking about. You learn that how you say things can lend a certainty to your tone that convinces others; that’s useful. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you sound confident. I also took a lot of science in college, and I’m glad I did. Other than the writing classes, the classes that stuck with me the most were probably Logic and Philosophy which, compiled with the others, form the backbone of criticism. Oh, I did study playwriting in graduate school, but it didn’t teach me how to write plays – I was already getting produced, after all. But it helped build my circle of contacts.

2. Where did you study?

I think you’re asking me theatre-related questions. What I would say is this:  To learn the theatre, you get involved with theatre. You attend plays, you volunteer, who do photocopying and script reading and chewing-gum-scraping and whatever else they need. And then, one day, an actor doesn’t show up and you read that part to help out. Or, in my case, the cool kids are putting on a high school play and even though you’re invited to participate, they don’t invite your other friends (the non-cool kids), and you don’t feel good about that, so you wind up writing your own play expressly for those uncool kids.  And then when you hear people in the audience laugh at your funny lines, you are hooked forever.

The simple lesson:  In most things in life, you learn by doing. So go get involved with directors and actors and playwrights and costume designers and stage managers and lighting designers and all the other theatre people and you’ll learn everything. Because theatre people – honestly – can do everything. They have to.

3. How long?

To this day. On Saturdays I convene a playwriting workshop (for almost 20 years now), and I’m always glad to learn new things from the smart talented people who come. And at least a couple of times a month, I go see plays. Even bad ones are useful (although annoying). You can learn good things from bad plays.

4. Did you study an MBA?

That’s a business degree. (Now I own a business (not my first) and am once again completely self-taught. Libraries and book stores and the internet are wonderful things.) I believe you mean an MFA. I have an MFA-equivalent degree. It is a terminal degree, but I am living with it.

5. If yes, where did you study it? How long?

The University of Southern California. In general, a graduate degree requires two years. What you learn may not be as important as who you meet. Building a network of contacts is important.

6. After studying, in what have you worked?

I have written radio commercials, billboards, plays, advertising copy, fundraising letters, essays, poems, cartoon strips, short stories, websites, interviews, speeches, public service announcements, headlines, newspaper stories, technical specs, instructions, magazine articles, and just about everything else you can imagine. At some time or other I’ve been paid in almost every conceivable field of writing. (Yes, I even got paid for poems once.) I own a creative marketing agency (with another theatre person!) named Counterintuity. That allows me to offer creativity all over the place. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and a scientist; Benjamin Franklin was a writer and statesman and scientist and inventor; Will Eisner was one of the founders of comic books and graphic novels, and also a businessman. I am inspired by their greatness.

7. What have you been doing lately?

See above. Plus, I travel frequently. And I read a lot. And I like to take long walks with friends and my dog and smoke cigars. (The dog doesn’t smoke.) And I like to play games with my family and by myself (“Risk” on my iPhone, “Civilization” on my laptop, and “Oblivion” on the xBox.) I also go to the theatre, of course. Last night three friends and I went to see a play that we didn’t like at all, but we had great fun afterward, and that made it worth it.
8. As you have worked in plays, what have been your favorite or most famous?

Almost all the plays I have directed are new plays. The theatre I founded in 1992 does only new plays. I’ve directed world premieres by Trey Nichols, Werner Trieschmann, Sheila Callaghan, EM Lewis, and many others. I don’t direct as often any more because I don’t have time, but I make an effort to do it at least once a year. Last year, I directed four times and am still unclear how that was possible. Famous playwrights whose work I like include Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Mamet, Labute, Albee, Kushner, and August Wilson. I think that Shakespeare guy is pretty good too. I am a big fan of Buster Keaton, so any well-done commedia del arte excites me; a couple of years ago I flew across country just to see Bill Irwin’s new show. It was well worth it.

9. In the play, what is your job?

To make an impact other than boredom on the audience.
10. What [do] you get out of this career?

Brief bursts of intense satisfaction. Followed by an addictive need for more.

11. Do you live well with your job?

I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m going to try to answer what I think you mean. I make my living being a creative storyteller, sometimes for business clients, sometimes for audiences or students. Stories are at the core of who we are. The human brain has grown and expanded because we developed language, and we developed language because we needed to share stories – about the hunt, about our struggles, about who we are and want we want. Without stories, we would all still be in the trees. It’s enormously gratifying to move an audience with a story you’re telling – whether it’s a ticket-buying audience watching one of my plays, or an audience of two in a business setting. It’s also enormously gratifying to get pulled into the stories of others whose voice you respond to. I’m lucky enough to have very smart, very funny friends who keep me surprised and entertained.

12. Has this career choice made you happy?

I don’t believe in happiness. Pursuing it is fine, but I don’t know anyone who has gotten it, and if anyone were to get it, I don’t know what he or she would do next. I do believe in work, good work, and in remembering that on any given day, most people in the world are worse off than I am. Bear that in mind and it’s easier to focus on your work.

Thank you for emailing me. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll always be someplace interesting. I apologize if my reply isn’t as good as Rilke’s, but no one’s is.