Narrative recently caught up with Sarah Ruhl as she marks the publication of her memoir Smile: The Story of a Face.
1. Who is your favorite character on the stage or in fiction; your fave character in life?
Elizabeth Bennett. And in life? How to choose? It makes me think of the word character as it applies to life; character as valor, as temperament; or character as someone who is a bit of an eccentric or seems to have hopped out of the pages of literature. My mother has always openly aspired to be “a character,” and I think at the age of seventy-six, she has achieved that noble goal, so I’ll say my mother.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
“Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch” (Walter Pater).
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
I remember so clearly reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke for the first time while sitting on the grass in Providence, Rhode Island. It taught me that love involves a great deal of patience and also the formation of some boundaries. As Rilke puts it: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
4. What’s a writing day for you?
The ideal writing day is hiding in a friend’s wooden tower with minimal furnishings and one source of light and writing from morning (after dropping my kids off at day camp) until 2 p.m. This happened today. A more typical writing day for me is being constantly interrupted by various chores but writing in the cracks and interstices.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Yorkshire Gold Tea. And bodies of water—for looking at or immersion in.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
A guess: Little. Blue. Cup. Please. Soup. Fuck. God. Play. And. Love.
7. What’s your current obsession?
My main obsession, to be honest, is trying to keep my family healthy during a pandemic. Let’s see, other obsessions . . . my Havanese dog, Minerva.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
It intrigues me that I am at such a loss to answer this question, perhaps because I don’t read reviews; I fear I’ll find them devastating to my ability to write the next thing and the next.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I’d known that when I grew up I would find many, many friends who loved books as much as I did. What I hope I haven’t forgotten since that time is my ability to play.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
The older I get, the more I perceive that love is everywhere on this earth. Even as the earth is ravaged by human beings’ baser impulses, I believe that the ground we stand on, sit on, lie down on, is forcefully, molecularly comprised by love. We can obscure, ignore, or defy love, but if we simply stand, sit, or lie down on this earth and open our eyes wide, we will see love: not only as a noun, but as a verb—a doing, an invitation.
Finally, is there a passage from Smile that you’d like to share with our readers?
My best friend from childhood, Sarah, is a pediatrician, and she is both practical and kind. We were talking about my face one day. “It’s not a tragedy,” she said, “but it must be disappointing.” I suppose this helpful distinction between the disappointing and the tragic sheds light on why I resisted writing about Bell’s palsy for a long time. Disappointing things were not for the written word, disappointing things were for the stiff upper lip. Tragic things are for the written word, because in tragedy there is catharsis, not slow, incremental, almost invisible progress.
The partial recovery is not terribly dramatic. It is the stuff of life, not art. But the partial recovery is, I believe, very much like life. Most people have partially recovered from something. A childhood burn, a childhood trauma, a broken bone, a broken heart. . . . How rare is it for someone to hear proclaimed about their heart or their body: “You have made a full recovery.” Who, after all, is fully recovered from life? Our bodies are resilient but always in the process of dying, even as they sometimes have the grace to regenerate.
A woman slowly gets better.
What kind of story is that?
I know that in the writing the story itself, A woman slowly gets better, I slowly did get better. Not completely better. I will probably always have a crooked smile. But I am better enough. Better enough for strangers to know if I am trying to be friendly. Better enough for my intimates to know if I am full of joy. Better enough to proceed. To paint the self-portrait now, not later, not to wait to be fully healed to go on with life. To proceed, to move—slowly or quickly or at any pace at all—but to defy stasis.
This haiku took me, in a sense, ten years to write:
A crooked smile is
better than a crooked heart;
open me to God
More from Sarah Ruhl: