the Contradiction of Susan-Lori Parks

I have been teaching Susan-Lori Parks’ play Topdog/Underdog for a few years now and I am so inspired and also confused with her work. What inspires me is the brave use of slang and idiomatic expressions; her themes and family/cultural dynamics are so amazing to me and have been since Jenny Cornell at Oregon State suggested I read her and suggested I experiment with plays and dialogue–spanglish. Perhaps Jenny saw a success there instead of a failure. And I especially like the hustling and the average-joe characters in Parks’ plays who also have such terrible familial ties and how that affects the individual. I strive to mold this in my work with the relation of Lolo and myself. (And for those of you who write who think we should not steal ideas and only create I will defer to TS Eliot in his essay Tadition and the Individual Talent–we must know what has come before us and what informs the canon as well as our own work. I liken that to Mozart being obsessed with Bach I learned about from NPR All Songs Considered. So you’re right Kim; NPR does make you smarter.)

Anyway, I also have quite a few interviews and also a documentary about Susan-Lori Parks. She states in one of these interviews the play is about two brothers–that is it. But in my read when you call a character Lincoln and another character Booth you set up these larger themes perhaps. Sort of like calling a character JFK and Oswald. You can’t get around it. But she discounts this message and insists character’s tap on her shoulder and asks her to be in the play. In other words, she listens to characters and puts them in the play–another version of the muse speaking and inspiring. I am uncertain of this as I am more of a blue collar writer who works and works at drafts and new drafts–old ideas and new ideas. And she also mentions this in her writing–how she is not an overnight sensation and has worked hard to develop her ideas and to study her craft.

This contradiction exists in my work. I think writers/students will write something that others say works well and they may not see it or be able to udnerstand why it works or just how it is constructed and developed. As a student who gets an A and has no idea why. This phenomenon does not help the writer or the writer’s process in the least yet it exists. I write things that come from places I don’t understand. I stay up at night and wonder where a draft comes from and wait–like Didion stating in the introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem about waiting for the drafts and nothing comes. So I mean my creative literacy is a mystery to me–I seem to write about Colorado and New Mexico exclusively. I write about family and darker times in my life. I write about my younger days–mostly when I was 12 to 16 at least in the last few projects. So though I feel I work hard at draft after draft and I do find it mysterous as to where certain drafts come from or where certain ideas come from. The experience/process is indescribable. So perhaps Parks understands this contradicition and has taken a side in order to save herself from those sleepless night.

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

One thought on “the Contradiction of Susan-Lori Parks”

  1. I’ve had both experiences while writing. There is the drafting and redrafting and shaping experience and then there’s the “where the hell did that come from” experience (maybe what Parks means when she says characters tap her on the shoulder?) that only comes when I’m writing fiction as opposed to essays, and then, not always.

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