I write to run away from myself. Perhaps some of you do as well. A flag-waving member of the “Writers’ Escape Club,” I’ve pledged life-long allegiance to characters and events far away from my own life and time.
In the saddle of doppelgangers (riding through my fourteen plays), I’m a shrewd prospector bilking miners in the California Gold Rush (In Gold We Trust); a star-struck ‘linthead’ (cotton mill worker) dreaming of escape while caught in a tragic 1929 labor uprising (Finding Clara); a stoic German immigrant challenging 1800s sexist mores to become a lighthouse keeper (Women of the Light); and a deeply religious American female soldier returning home from the Iraq War, making unfathomable choices after losing faith and family (Across the Holy Tell).
It’s a well-worn trope that writers put themselves into their work. I’ve forcibly locked the door behind me when I write, taking refuge in a towering paper parapet to map the echoes of distant stories below.
It’s why I’ve never managed to keep a diary (Lord knows I’ve tried). Cowering in my office corner is a carton stuffed with notebooks – a few feverish paragraphs in each book, penned in valiant, yet aborted attempts. Late at night, the orphaned pages taunt: “Coward, coward!” disgusted by my failure to soldier on.
After my mother died, something shifted inside me. I had, till then, excused my avoidance out of a desire to shield her from hurt. But this false narrative has been a frail veil hiding my inability to process the painful dynamics of my family life – and the fear (irrational or not) that excavation of this embittered battlefield would catapult me into lifelong depression.
It would be comforting to believe that bravery has propelled me to undertake, finally, this herculean task. But the truth can more honestly be found gasping for air in a river of rage flooding the banks of my pen.
The past year I’ve been digging channels inside my play’s cave. Exploratory tools include yellowing family photographs, food-stained letters, saved emails, frayed birthday cards, crumbling birth certificates and stained medical records. This Pompeian avalanche has left me suffocated and overwhelmed. Trying to forge a path through the chaos, I rolled out a 25-foot roll of brown paper to chart my family’s timeline, taping my relics to the mud-colored papyrus in search of order and clarity.
It didn’t help.
Sardonically, my Muse chose to arrive not via trumpeted fanfare or a bright beam of light. Rather, she blew in on a cold, rainy night as I sat in a theatre watching a cloying adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My most beloved book as a child - perhaps Little Women was yours too? - what young girl has not been breast fed on Alcott’s fantasy of a loving mother and four sisters triumphantly surviving hardships and even death? And what girl wanting to become a writer has not imagined she is Josephine March?
Anger can be liberating. I vividly remember the day – I was fifteen – when we parted ways. Surviving a particularly harrowing family wrestling match, I sought safety in my room – only to be confronted by Louisa’s tale mocking me. “Fucking, fucking lies!” I screamed at the cruel pages. It would be forty plus years before I would seek solace again in her story.
Leaving the theatre that evening after seeing Little Women, a tsunami of emotions coursed through my veins. When the storm subsided, floating to the surface were bits and pieces of my new play, and by the time I returned home, I knew I would write a radical retelling of Little Women, using the Alcott book as a frame to tell the very real, turbulent story of my tribe of women - my mother and sisters.
The irony – that to write about my life, I had to return, at least on some level, to fiction as a source of inspiration – I’ve found perversely gratifying, given my year-long struggle battling ghosts in the Trenches of Truth.
Also ironic - my discovery that Louisa May Alcott had no interest initially in writing Little Women and penned the books primarily for the cash. Her writing passions – which were varied and radical for her time – lay elsewhere.
If all writers are like Icarus, fated to fly into the light,then it has always been destined that a young girl, seeking refuge from her family’s raging storm, would grow up to one day write a play about her life.
So. Yes. I am Jo in my new play. And my play is called Little .
Epilogue: June's new drama recently received an unstaged reading and she has been awarded two artist residencies in the fall to continue her journey writing about her life. An apparition of Louisa May Alcott plays a prominent role in June's new work :) .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
June Guralnick has created plays, performance projects, and large-scale community cultural projects for four decades. Her works have been performed throughout the U.S. – and beamed to the Space Station! Awards include the Silver Medal-Pinter Drama Review Prize, Second Place-Judith Royer Award for Playwriting Excellence, North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellowship, Southern Appalachian Repertory New Plays winner, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Writing Fellows, Hambidge Center for the Arts Writer-in-Residence, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar (University of the South). For more info, visit https://juneguralnick.com/ and see a YouTube clip at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPEScKwkL4o&feature=youtu.be
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