Voices from the American Heartland: Word Theatre Stories by Peter Orner

This past weekend, my writer-friend has been visiting me in London. He just finished attending WordTheatre Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in Edale, and invited me to their London event at the Crazy Coqs.

When he said, “Tickets are 20 quid”, I said “For a poetry event in London! That’s unheard of.”

When he clarified, “No it’s an award-winning novelist and five actors, including David Soul – from the original Starsky and Hutch! And a violinist!” then I understood why. There is actually money in fiction, film, and music.

Luckily, he offered to pay for my ticket, or I could not have afforded to attend this kind of event. After attending, I am very glad I went. Peter Orner’s short stories and the performances by Damien Molony, Ian Hart, Rhashan Stone, Madeleine Potter, and Emily Bruni got into my head and my heart, and struck me with the tragedy and stagnation of the little town America experience.

To be honest, I feel haunted. The stories and experiences that Peter shared were so painful. He is fantastic at portraying how shit it is to be a woman in America. I genuinely hope that he is donating to the #MeToo Movement for how much his career is profiting in writing about the female experience.

In one of his stories, he describes a couple who live in a one room cabin far from everyone. The man is fat, angry, and roars around in his small car, while his wife is “ponytailed, small, friendly”. Oh how I felt for his wife, this woman – how for her to be small and friendly, she must be balancing her husband’s large aggressiveness. As someone who is small and friendly, I know how much of a performance it is.

In another story, the second wife of an old man says “Isn’t it wonderful to be a permanent houseguest in my own home.” How I have felt that very feeling, in high school I felt like a side character in my own life, the lack of authority in your own actions, the sense of powerlessness in your own happiness. The woman wrote marketing copy. How that stabbed me again. I spent two years working in marketing; it’s just stripping, but instead of spinning your body for others, you spin stories.

In a third story called “Divorce”, an older woman utters in reflecting on her heartbreak, “I will be wanted again.” How that line echoed the sentiment I felt when talking to female friends and family who had been divorced. To be a successful woman is to be wanted. That is where your value you comes from, and if you are not wanted, you are worthless.

By the end of the performances, I felt destroyed and exposed. And yet the lights went up, and everyone asked my favorite question, “What did you think?”

They said, “Oh yes, I enjoyed it very much.”

To which I said, “I feel like that’s the wrong word…it was intense. Stimulating, but definitely not enjoyable.”

They defended themselves. “Oh, that’s just a filler word to describe something much more intense and complicated.”

We changed topics but I couldn’t help thinking how ironic it was. To me, that is the purpose of being a writer – to find the words to describe the intense and the complicated, to find the words that make people reflect, change, and take action.

Peter’s stories only got the conversation going about the unequal power dynamics between men and women in America, but gave no real suggestions on how to help. Unless that was what he was trying to do, to just entertain people, a sadistic word wank.

I genuinely hope not. Peter Orner is too talented a writer to waste his skills writing stories that only ever touch the surface. This separation between words and their meanings, feelings and their responses, is the reason I have decided to leave creative writing and publishing behind. Expression is a means to an end, it is not an end in itself.

I’m tired of this fucking bull shit. I’m tired of feeling like a permanent houseguest in my own planet.

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I’ve banned myself from buying books for the year, and decided to ask my library to be better. Maybe then they’ll stop saying people aren’t using them!

If you want to ask your local library to get Peter Orner’s book in – here’s the information they need.


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