Irish American Writers & Artists

October 24, 2013

John Patrick Shanley’s Remarkable O’Neill Award Acceptance Speech

IRT_1014John Patrick Shanley, 2013 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree

I love you all. I’m miserable with love for you. I want to move in with you. I want to stay with you until you die. And I want to bury you. I hate you, too.

The paradox. The contradiction. I love ya. I hate ya. In short, did I mention that I’m Irish? What is a man who would blow up the world because he loves it so much? He’s Irish. Why do so many Irish people write?

So they won’t kill you. But that’s obvious. So they won’t kill you and have sex with everybody in your house. That’s why we write, we Irish.

I know I shouldn’t generalize. Stick to what you know they say. Why do I write? Many reasons.

History.

Here’s a story to illustrate.

A family of birds fell in love with a girl and would not let her be. Shehad to live in a birdcage to keep them out. One morning, she left the gate open and the birds got into the cage with her. So she leapt out and shut the door. When you visit her, all seems normal. She is in her chair. Birds chirp in a cage. But when you know the history, what you see is different.

To be a writer is to reveal history. And to make connections, metaphors. A good metaphor is like a trellis to which new ideas can cling and grow; it is a structure that invites life. Sometimes I think to be a writer is like you get to sleep in a glass bed. It’s beautiful, it’s hard, it’s cold, but you get to see down, way down maybe.

Another world.

Thinking about talking today, I was unpacking my head last night, looking for stuff, and I realized that my head was packed all wrong. You know, like at the supermarket. Somebody packed the squishiest stuff at the bottom of my head. My childhood was down under all these marriages and cars and stuff, and it looked… well, it didn’t look good. Why does God put pack childhood at the bottom of the bag? That’s my first question for you.

Not that I’m going to talk about my childhood.

Lucky you.

But let me talk like I write think for a minute because why not?

I write because it is the day after some other day, and as usual I’m looking for the hidden valley or green shoots or code or balcony or question or messenger or bible angel… or you. Maybe I’m a search party looking for you by writing and the letters are falling out of the words like sand into the bottom half of Time, and the window by the desk is broken, and the sweet air is coming in, and is that your scent reimagining everything in my world?

Are you the organizing template that changes how I see the coming hours? Are you the Pilgrim sailing into my Plymouth, mounted on some mottled Pegasus, intent on upending this chaos Life?

The idea of your arrival turns my inner rubble into castles, chapels, walled gardens, ornamental vistas. In short, it is for you, folks, that I bother to become intelligible.

But not yet. A massive dictionary is hurled down by some ineloquent god; it busts open and the language pieces gather around you into poetry and revelation.

We don’t know what role we play, when the day comes looking for its purpose. Me writing is me searching for you.

I should tell you something personal. Sometimes I imagine that I am a horse. I don’t tell anybody when I’m doing this. I just look at people and think: “I am a horse.” It’s very relaxing. You should try it. Let’s all do it for a minute. Think: I am a horse. I am a horse in a folding chair. We are horses hanging out, having cocktails. What’s the problem? Nice, isn’t it, being horses together? Now think of the cricket. The bug. The little cricket. Some say crickets are damned souls asking for another chance at life. So I say to you: Don’t be a cricket. Be a horse. Horses step on critics. I mean, crickets.

I started out as a poet. A poet is like a pearl diver who holds her breath, hoping for a pearl. Fathom after fathom, down she goes. When has she gone too far? When is the pain too much? When does the pursuit of the prize tempt her beyond the mortal line of life itself? I have been writing all my life. My writing was my way of pushing against my reluctance to live. I was writing before I was calling it writing.

At first I thought it was puberty. I told Sister Christopher ‘There’s a piano in my head. If I don’t play it, somebody else will.’

And she hit me.

Why?

To ask another question: Eugene O’Neill. Why did he have to be so unhappy? Was that really necessary? Couldn’t he have written those beautiful plays, those strange plays, those sometimes lousy plays, without being just glutted and clogged up and finally wilted with misery?

He was a good dresser. No one can take that away from him. He never wrote a good line they say, but he could wear clothes.

This award I’ve received is named after O’Neill but I’m accepting it anyway. It’s an award, and if I get enough of them, maybe I won’t die. But I will. Damn it. Damn it.

Another story. A man raised by dogs was chasing a car down the street. Somebody stopped him and

asked: “What would happen if you caught that car?” The man replied “Why then I’d be happy.”

I am that man.

That is my affair with language. It is a pursuit. I send my ALL out of my fingers across this world to

you. My tenderness overwhelms my senses in the process. I can’t be otherwise than I am. I’ve thrown away whatever could have protected me. It’s such a reckless thing to truly be yourself. It’s like kneeling and offering your sword to God. I’d just like to say as a central statement that I am no more than a follicle on the face of Eugene O’Neill, and yet I have this award and he is dead.

Let me ask you this? Why is a beautiful woman more beautiful when she is holding a lamb chop? It’s a mystery, perhaps a Catholic mystery.

My mother wanted me to be a priest. What WAS she thinking?

O’Neill, leaning against an elm tree, would say Incest. O’Neill had incest more often than he had

marmalade. Mentally. That’s why he went to sea. To escape the incest.

Why does Conor MacPherson write about ghosts all the time? So that he doesn’t write about incest.

Why does Martin MacDonagh write how awful Irish people are? Because he’s Irish and that’s what we do when we’re not chasing our sisters down the hallways of our unconscious. MacPherson and

MacDonagh also have pianos in their heads that they must play or devils will. I can see it in their pink and blinking eyes.

Why does William Kennedy write about Albany? Nobody  knows.

A pair of Pulitzer & Eugene O'Neill Award winners: John Patrick Shanley and William Kennedy

A pair of Pulitzer & Eugene O’Neill Award winners: John Patrick Shanley and William Kennedy

Rip paper. Spatter ink. Scrawl a word. Screw it to the paper. Stop. Ignore the heart. Ignore the brain. Find the stone you stand upon. Say it all. Then you’re gone. That’s the writer’s way.

Or say nothing. Create a silence as frightening as a black ripped hole of a nightmare. Watch it grow like a dark forest leaning over the road. Walk that road till you yourself turn into a dark river, dangerous to ford. Travel on. The edge of dawn appears like gold abandoned by retreating bandits. A steel grey trout darts in your freezing waters. You emerge from Winter and the Night. The silence you created becomes summer, the trees bear fruit, and THAT’s the writer’s way, too.

You don’t understand everything I’m saying? Relax. You’re not supposed to. Take the ride. I am.

Advice?

Take what you want. What you leave is more than enough for me. Take everything. Everything will still be there when I need it. Give me everything, why don’t you? You will still be rich. We’re all rich. We own nothing. We lose nothing. We acquire nothing. But we can use our metaphorical minds and memories to remember the sun when the rain falls, the warm when the chill is on us. We can remember Love when no Love is, which is a way of always having

Love. Remember your pleasures like consoling candles that dance on the edge of the dark. Safe? You will never be safe! Find pleasure in peril, or live in an upholstered dream. The love you want you have. The future is an act of imagination, intelligence and hope.

All you have ever been, that is your treasure. Value it. No part of your history is less than precious.

2013 Eugene O'Neill Award Celebra

2013 Eugene O’Neill Award Celebration

Everything you’ve ever wanted is right here, waiting for you to pick it up and use it. NOW.

The largest bell in Notre Dame is named Emmanuel. It weighs almost 13 tons. I sometimes picture myself as the cathedral and this bell within me. It’s immobility is so difficult to overcome. I want to vibrate from my center outward until I am heard. My quiet credo to myself and you: The long journey earns its destination.

To speak straight on for a moment, I have avoided writing about the Irish most of my life. I did this because I wanted to be an American writer, not an Irish American writer. If you’re an Irish American writer, the critics discount 46 percent of your talent as a natural genetic blemish. But now, as my hair goes grey or just goes, I’ve decided it’s time to admit I’m Irish, and to write about the Irish. My father came from Westmeath when he was 24. He’d be a 107 now so it’s good he’s dead or he’d frighten everybody. But

he made it to 95 he did, and a great man he was. Grew up on a farm that’s still in my family. I was just there a couple of months ago. The cows ran away from me.

They saw the city on my face.

My grandmother used to say that Ireland would sink into the sea 7 years before the end of the world, and I think she was right. When Ireland is no more, when the Irish perspective abandons the human experience, I think the end will be upon us. I have Ireland on Google Alert so I will know instantly when Ireland has sunk and the final countdown has begun.

I will immediately chase down as many beautiful women with lamb chops and sheep’s eyes as I can manage, and try to write once more with flame and blood my personal experience of this beautiful life that is so fleeting and so fine.

Thank you for honoring me. I value the boost. My experience of life radiates outward from a central core. It violates my skin like the spokes on a sheriff’s star, exceeds my boundary of flesh, and affects others. Each of you in turn radiate outward as well, and the effects of your good will in this case overstep and crosshatch my personal fire. We are a cosmos, balls of light, and in the case of the Irish, gas. I have always perceived that my individual existence is in part illusory. We are all over each

other, covering and permeating each other with lights and wind and magnetism and spirit. I do not believe I will ever die until everyone of you is dead, and those beyond this room and this time have perished also.

I don’t know what happens after humanity flickers out.

The party’s over I guess. The cumulative effort is accomplished. We will retreat into a dark fist until creation broods anew and takes some other turn. It’s pointless to peer too far down the curving corridors of time. Now is all.

You are benevolent and kindly in this gesture. You honor me for what I have so far done. That is an alright thing to do.

It’s not too serious.

I’m just a schmuck like all of you.

But there is joy and wisdom in honoring any one of us.

We are alive.

We strive.

And, if we are blessed, we create light.

I’m glad my son is here, as well as friends and strangers.

Thank you all!

© John Patrick Shanley

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2 Comments »

  1. That’s pretty amazing. Reading this afterward allows all of the thoughts to seep in better. Too shocking to engulf it all while it’s read right in front of you (that is not a negative comment about the PA system, by the way). Thank you JP Shanley. I believe I know you a bit better now. And you’re good to know, I can tell.

    Eamon Loingsigh

    Comment by eamonblog — October 24, 2013 @ 3:31 am |Reply

  2. Shanley’s rant was inspiring to me. I heard it the other and since I can read, experienced it again just now.
    Can’t say I ever chased one of my brothers but I pined with love for some of their friends.
    The rant makes me want to write from (my)….. “silence as frightening as a black ripped hole of a nightmare. Watch it grow like a dark forest leaning over the road. Walk that road till you yourself turn into a dark river, dangerous to ford. Travel on. The edge of dawn appears like gold abandoned by retreating bandits. A steel grey trout darts in your freezing waters. You emerge from Winter and the Night. The silence you created becomes summer, the trees bear fruit, and THAT’s the writer’s way, too.”
    Here I go.
    Thanks Shanley.

    Comment by regina kelly — October 24, 2013 @ 1:56 pm |Reply


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