By Craig Lucas
In 2009 I had the good fortune to receive the Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 stipend and a residence at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key in Florida. It could not have come at a better time.
A lifetime of ignoring consequences had finally caught up with me. My house was on the market for less than it had cost, my marriage was ending and many friends had drifted away—understandably. I’d given up alcohol and drugs a few years earlier, but was facing 60 with no clear vision of what kind of character I wanted to play in my third act. For the better part of two decades, nothing I’d written had received the kind of reviews required to set aside any significant savings.
I arrived at my spacious room at the Hermitage with its view onto the Gulf of Mexico, well-armed with three dozen books I’d never had the time to read. The environment at the Hermitage is quiet, unpretentious and ideal for slowing down and getting work done—both things intimately intertwined, paradoxically. You shop and cook for yourself. Beyond that and beachcombing, there is little distraction.
During my Greenfield year, I primarily concentrated on the play I proposed in response to having been nominated. (The mission of the Greenfield Prize is “to bring into the world works of art that will have a significant impact on the broad as well as the artistic culture of our society.”) That play, Ode to Joy, needed lots of time to germinate and develop, moving through countless drafts and readings and workshops, even years after I left the Hermitage.
Ode to Joy opened this March at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre as part of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s season. Most of all, the play concerns itself with the one big surprising thing I learned in my year of reading, contemplation and conversations with the Hermitage staff and fellow artists.
Things get clearer when you turn off the sound. In that quiet space by the Gulf of Mexico, I began to realize that I did nothing at all to deserve what talents I may have—they were given to me. The most I did was to refine, deepen, or, in many instances, despoil them. When I am writing well, I am a conduit for something. Something often speaks through me, surprising me. When I try to hold onto my creation or use it to advertise myself, I stand a good chance of losing it. The ego aspect of success leads to many sour, resentful, rageful and helpless stars in whatever field of endeavor. No amount of money and fame will quench that flame. (And that can pretty much stand as a definition of alcoholism, by the way.)
When I am prepared to accept my lack of control, I am more apt to tap into a power, into some measure of freedom from fear, and even, at times, finitude. My year at the Hermitage led me to an understanding that humility is key to any achievement and gratitude serves in gaining mastery.
Without my hermitage at the Hermitage, I don’t know if I would say I had much hope for anything. Now I find I’m holding on with all the hope I can muster. I have more work now than I can keep up with. I’m not as rich as some, nor are my works as lauded as others. But I have everything I could wish for, and it is my wish for all writers to have no less than that.
Craig Lucas is an Obie-winning playwright, director and screenwriter. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in American Theatre magazine.