What should an artist-in-residence do when she's not really wanted? Do the write thing (hey, it won the Pulitzer).
Okay, I'm going to tell you a story. About five years ago, I was offered a job at a theater. They wanted me to be their playwright in residence. The name of the theater is not important. What is important is that I was excited. I imagined all the wonderful opportunities that would unfold: My plays would be produced on their beautiful stage, rehearsals would be fun, opening nights would be thrilling—what outfit would I wear? I packed up my stuff and went there to live. A few days after I arrived, the reality bomb dropped. They no longer wanted to produce my plays, even though they definitely wanted me to remain in residence. I really needed the job, but I was heartbroken, angry, and discouraged. How was I going to get through this? Oddly enough, something in my gut was telling me that the experience would teach me a great lesson. So I decided to stick it out. Weeks passed. I dutifully showed up at the theater each day, rolled up my sleeves, and helped out—doing whatever needed to be done, which was mostly secretarial work. More weeks passed. Nothing changed. I felt as if I'd been invited to a dinner party only to be given a seat in the kitchen. What could I do? I could picket the theater; I could burn the place down. Neither seemed appropriate. And then one day it occurred to me. I realized that I felt shut down and thwarted but was only as shut down as I allowed myself to be. "I am a playwright; I will write a play," I said. "This won't make me stop writing, because I am a writer and no one can take that away from me." And so I sat down at my desk and began writing. Three days later, I had finished a new play called Topdog/Underdog.
The writing of Topdog was a great gift. I feel the play came to me because I realized that my circumstances, while causing me despair and heartbreak, also held great possibility, if only I could see it. I knew that I was learning one of the most important lessons of my life: that instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity, I should work toward a realization that every opportunity is perfect. Each moment is perfect and heaven-sent, in that each moment holds the seeds for growth. Difficulty creates the opportunity for self-reflection and compassion. "They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes. / But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong," Langston Hughes wrote. When the people at that theater did not allow me a seat at the main table, I did not allow their actions to make me forget who I am. And I wrote a play that now, as it's performed across the country and around the world, offers opportunities to so many people. I learned that if we embrace what's happening, we are also embracing what is possible—and a road opens up for God to meet us halfway.
From the May 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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