Wallace Shawn and the Paris Review

I have never read a Paris Review interview before, and I have never seen or heard a word from Wallace Shawn outside The Princess Bride. I feel immediately embarrassed about it, but I’ve basically always thought of him as Vizzini. Of all people for me to feel such a connection with! I’m floored by his interview. I clicked on it in the first place because I didn’t know he was a writer, and I wanted to see what he’d written. It’s strange because our lives are dramatically different, but in fact it might be that he embodies a part of myself I wish I had the chance to really be.

“I think I’ve heard about the response of certain painters to comments about their formal choices, or maybe I just imagine that I’ve heard this. Somebody says, We’re all sick of the fact that you always just paint a circle with three smaller circles inside it. Don’t you get tired of that? And the painter says, Yes, I absolutely can’t stand doing that. And last week I did a square and was really enjoying it, but something just didn’t feel right about it. And I began changing some of the edges of the square and it still didn’t feel quite right to me. Somehow it ended up as a circle with three smaller circles inside it.”

“There’s a certain way that a line fills up time and space in a play that you can’t really sense accurately if you’ve never acted. How many words are needed and how many words take a certain length of time to say—this is quite a subtle question. You can’t answer it if you don’t have the feeling of what it is to stand on a stage and say something. I think if you’ve been an actor, it’s much easier to write a line that has the right number of words in it, or to have an accurate sense of what that line is going to be like when it is unfolded and assembled on stage.”

I read this and realized why I feel like I’m such a strange person (one reason, anyway). I have that sense. I’m not an actor, and although I’ve been in a few productions—on the smallest scale, like elementary school, church, messing around with my cousins—I never have been an actor. But I know this. It’s what makes me such a good writer and editor, always so much better than my peers when I was in school. I have no innate creative spark, but I have the technique. I don’t know what to write about, but I can write it well.

The Fever, which I completed in 1990, took a very hostile, scornful view of art and writing. Basically, it mocked the idea that writing made a valuable contribution to changing the world. Self-aggrandizing artists, I implied, may like to feel that their paintings or poems protesting injustice or portraying misery actually help other people, but really that’s an absurd fantasy. My point was that it took concrete action to feed the hungry or to overthrow an authoritarian regime, usually action in which one might risk one’s life. I was trying not to fall into self-deception about writing.

Then a little time passed, and I began to think, But my God, without writers, humanity might be trapped in a swamp of idiotic, unchanging provincial clichés. Yes, there are writers who merely reinforce people’s complacency, but a writer like Rachel Carson inspired the activism of millions, and writers like Lady Murasaki, Milton, and Joyce have reordered people’s brains! And for any writers to exist at all, there must surely be a tradition of writing. Maybe in order for one valuable writer to exist, there must be a hundred others who aren’t valuable at all, but it isn’t possible at any given moment for anyone to be sure who the valuable one is. In any case, in The Designated Mourner, I wrote more sympathetically about writing.”

This was such a surprising, fascinating interview. I just discovered their archives and I can’t wait to start wading through them.

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