Playwright, author, and essayist Sarah Ruhl joined Zibby for a Women on the Move event with the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center to discuss her latest book, Smile. Sarah shared glimpses into what her ten-year journey living with Bell’s palsy has been like, how her condition has impacted her relationships with her kids and her mother, and what she is working on now that theaters are opening back up. Zibby and Sarah also connected over having twins and their shared love of essays.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. Welcome to the Streicker Center. Welcome to our Tuesday morning series, Women on the Move. I am Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of our literary events. As always, thank you so much to the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation for their sponsorship of this series. Today, we are very pleased to welcome a talented playwright, author, and essayist, Sarah Ruhl, whose plays have been on Broadway and performed internationally and translated into fourteen languages. Today, though, she’ll tell us about her personal story in her book, Smile. In conversation with her is author Zibby Owens, publisher of Zibby Books and host of “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” podcast. As always, please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We’ll try to get to as many as we can. It is my pleasure to welcome Sarah and Zibby.

Sarah Ruhl: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for having me too. Thanks, Marjorie. Hi, Sarah. How are you?

Sarah: Hi. Good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m so excited to be interviewing you today. I have multiple versions of your book, hardcover and galley. I was so excited about it. I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops. I’m delighted to talk to you about it.

Sarah: Thank you so much.

Zibby: I don’t have the sign, so that’ll be the next on my list of acquisitions.

Sarah: I can send you a sign if you have room.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell people listening in case they haven’t read your book yet, basically what it’s about and the experience that led you to write this book?

Sarah: The book is about a metaphysical and medical odyssey I had over the past ten years after I had a high-risk pregnancy with twins. They were miraculously born healthy. I developed a condition called Bell’s palsy where this nerve on this side of the face, the cranial nerve, is paralyzed. Most people get better really quickly. For me, it was a ten-year-long odyssey. The book is a reflection on what it feels like when you’re smile sort of walks off your face and wanders around in the world. I feel like the whole book was a prayer, in a way, to ask it to come back and also to make sense of what happened to me.

Zibby: All of a sudden, I can’t hear you for some reason.

Sarah: Oh, no, that’s terrible.

Zibby: I hear you now. You’re back. Sorry. I heard you say, “a prayer for some reason.” The book was great on so many levels. One, your experience of parenthood, the anxiety, the risks, the pictures of your kids throwing up, how open you were about it. Also, your honesty from the very beginning that you were worried about your career and how you would fuse the two and not lose your ability to be a playwright and be in all the rehearsals and all of that. Can you talk a little bit about the impending news when you found out you were also expecting twins after you already had a daughter?

Sarah: You’re the mom of twins too, right?

Zibby: I am the mom of twins. I related very much to that. I was also on some bed rest, had some complications, as most twin moms do.

Sarah: The twins were a bit of a surprise. They were spontaneous. I had sort of thought, one or two children I could manage with my writing life. When I found out I was having twins, it was a happy, abundant shock. At the time, I was about to have my first play on Broadway called In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play. I was very, very pregnant through that whole rehearsal process. The theater isn’t actually really built for children or families. After I had my first daughter Anna, who is fifteen now, I had learned how to write and go to rehearsals with one child. I would haul Anna to the green room. I would set up a pumping station. We had a rhythm. With twins, the rhythm was very different. I remember after they were born, I had this play, Orlando, which is an adaption of the Woolf novel. It’s about gender, to some degree. I would bring, first, one baby one day and then the next so I could keep my milk supply up. Bringing two seemed overwhelming in a rehearsal room. The costume designer thought I was dressing them purposely in boy clothes and then girl clothes every other day as a comment about the play. I was like, “No, there are two of them. It’s a boy and a girl.”

Zibby: I remember having to do that too. I was in a new baby group. I would bring one at a time. Then the next week, I would bring a different one because I couldn’t figure out how to manage that.

Sarah: It’s a lot to manage two. When I found out I had Bell’s palsy, I was with a lactation consultant who was teaching me to do something called the football hold, which maybe you’ve done, where you hold two of them and breastfeed them at the same time. I’m not terribly athletic, so the football hold sort of alluded me.

Zibby: But you did it for a year, by the way, you said in the book. That’s amazing.

Sarah: I did do it for a year.

Zibby: Hats off to you. I could not do that.

Sarah: I do find, mothers of twins, it’s a little bit like going through battle. I feel like you meet each other, and there’s a lot to talk about because it is sort of motherhood in extremis.

Zibby: Yes. I started with twins. Then I had a single daughter after. I was like, oh, my gosh, one baby, this is going to be a piece of cake.

Sarah: Did it seem breezy after that?

Zibby: It did. I was like, oh, my gosh, she can just come with me everywhere, just her. She happened to be an easy baby. Anyway, we’re getting off topic.

Sarah: It’s sort of the topic, but yes, carry on.

Zibby: Well, the topic is not me, so we’ll go back to you and your book and your story. One way that you captured the reader’s attention right away is the intensity of your experience giving birth and the NICU and just the fear that haunts any parent over something happening, and it’s out of your control, to your children, either when they are tiny or when they are adults. It doesn’t seem to go away, but yours was so magnified because of the twins and what really happened and your husband being a doctor. Talk about the moment when you were about to leave to the NICU. I know you have a section you can read about that too.

Sarah: Just going back for a moment, I had something called cholestasis of the liver, which is why the pregnancy was so high-risk. Twin pregnancies are a little bit high-risk anyway. Then I was on bed rest. That was very Victorian. Then cholestasis of the liver, if you don’t know what it is, bile is leaking into your bloodstream causing an intractable itch that’s really quite torturous, but the worst part is the anxiety because it can kill the babies. They deliver you right at thirty-six weeks to make sure the babies survive. I can just read a little chapter.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe, by the way, that the doctors would not believe you. You were like, I think I have this. Please test me. I’ve diagnosed myself. They were like, no, no, you’re fine. Of course, you were right.

Sarah: It’s very rare. I was working from a website called, which didn’t, maybe, sound like it had expertise behind it. I think they’ve changed their name since then. Thank god for it. It really was through this network of women that I knew what was happening to me. The babies, miraculously, were delivered. Then they were rushed to the NICU. They had breathing episodes. They were a little bit early. Then I got Bell’s palsy. This is a little scene of me going to the NICU with my frozen face. “We sped to the NICU in the ice and cold. Once there, I saw William in his little plastic box breathing. ‘Where’s my daughter?’ I asked. ‘You mean Baby B?’ the nurse replied. ‘Yes, Hope.’ ‘She’s sicker than your son, so she’s over there.’ ‘Sicker than? What does that mean?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to ask the doctor when he rounds.’ Hope was in a little plastic box attached to monitors. I wanted to take her out, hold her, feed her. There was a bottle of formula on top of her plastic box even though I was breastfeeding. I asked if I could move her close to William so I could feed them both. The nurse said, ‘No, we don’t have enough chairs.’ I spent some time feeling angry at the nurses for not having chairs. I wasn’t yet used to my frozen face, and I realized I didn’t know how to be ingratiating with strangers without smiling. How does one do that, especially if one is from the Midwest where a smile is almost a prerequisite for citizenhood? They hand them out along with lollipops at the bank, nice, big, untroubled smiles that you have to undo when you move to New York. I once read that Americans smile more because we are a heterogenous country of immigrants, that we don’t always speak each other’s language, so we smile to signal friendliness to those who are beyond kin. In any case, I tried to make friends without smiling in the NICU. I met another mother who had twins the same day I did. She’d had a C-section. Her husband wheeled her in a wheelchair to visit her babies. In the waiting room of the NICU, Orthodox Jewish men prayed. I can still see them now in prayer shawls davening. It was the only thing that made all the machines bearable, the humans swaying to the internal sound of hope. I wished I could pray in a visible way. I wished I could pray.”

Zibby: I just love that. I love how you describe things, the way you see them, the language you use, and then just the experience itself, all the emotion behind the words. It’s really amazing.

Sarah: Thank you.

Zibby: Then you had to deal not only, of course, with the pressures and stresses of having twins, but then this new medical issue of your own that also affected the way everybody was even treating you. It was like you had to learn how to exist in the world in a whole different way, identity-wise, physically, everything. When you went to write this, how did you even know — I just feel like there was so much coming at you all at once. How did you figure out how to tell this story in a way that didn’t seem that way to the reader, that it became clear when, I imagine, it was a rush of stress and fear and everything?

Sarah: It was a rush. I think the fact that I had ten years to contemplate what had happened to me helped a lot. I approached the book almost like peeling an onion. I kind of knew what the broad scope of it was. Then I was peeling back layer after layer. Then it was interesting working with my editor because at a point, I realized that my tenses were all over the place, past tense, present. As a playwright, you’re always writing in the present tense, pretty much, because stage time unfolds in real time. It was interesting that my tenses were all over the map in an early draft. I think it was because my sense of time was really disordered. My sense of where the illness was in my life was disordered. At a point, I put Bell’s palsy and all that in the past tense and the healing in the present tense. That probably irritated the copyeditors, but it made a kind of cosmic sense to me that the healing was in the present tense.

Zibby: Will you just briefly touch on when exactly it started? I’m seeing a question come in.

Sarah: It was two days after I gave birth. My mom was there. The lactation consultant was there. She said, “Your eye looks a little droopy.” I was taken aback because it seemed slightly insulting. I think I made a joke about being Irish. My great-uncles, when they drink, their eyes turn into little crescent moon shapes. I said, “Oh, I’m Irish.” She said, “That’s not what I mean. Go look in the mirror.” I looked in the mirror. This whole side of my face had kind of fallen down and wouldn’t move. I thought I might have had a stroke. My husband’s a doctor. He told me to call the neurologist. He diagnosed Bell’s palsy. Usually, you get better within three months. It’s really a small minority that has this long recovery. In my case, I think what was especially hard was the neurologist, after a year, said, “You’re not going to get better. There’s nothing you can do to help your face. You can have experimental neurosurgery, which I recommend. Otherwise, don’t try acupuncture, PT. Nothing will help you. You’re just not getting better.” In my case, it turned out there were some other underlying conditions. All those modalities did help. It just took really a long time. For a long time, I thought, how is a chronic illness interesting? It’s long. It’s incremental. There’s not necessarily an apotheosis. I came to realize through writing it that life is a chronic condition in many ways. Art has to make space for that. I was recently reading a memoir by Chuck Mee, who’s also a playwright. He had polio at a young age. He talks about, in his memoir, the idea that to make sense of a sudden illness or a sudden rupture, it’s almost as though you need to make aesthetic sense of it to become whole again. I feel like writing the book was that for me.

Zibby: Wow. When you wrote about your relationship with your twins and how there were all these studies about, I can’t remember the word, silent mother or the face —

Sarah: — Still face.

Zibby: Yeah. When you were dealing with all of that, how you tried to show your real self to your kids and yet knowing that they only saw this new version of you, I found that to be a really poignant moment too. Do you think about that often? What was that like for you?

Sarah: It was hard. I really wanted to smile at my babies. That was, in a way, the worst torture for me. I thought, how will they know that I’m joyful, that I adore them when I can’t smile with my whole face? They’re still learning how the face is coded. My husband, who’s a child psychiatrist, long, long time ago had shown me these studies about still face, which is kind of a cruel experiment, in a way. You take a really loving, warm mother, and then you tell them to not interact with their baby at all and show them still face. For it to be like, , and then suddenly be like, , the baby freaks out. I thought, oh, my god, am I giving my children still face? In retrospect, they had my voice. They had my touch. They had my gestures. They had all of this warmth coming at them. They weren’t encoding that half my smile wasn’t functioning, but I worried about it for a long time. I think I even worried about it until writing this book. My daughter Anna, who’s older, was listening to me talk to my editor. I was on speakerphone. I said, “Oh, that must have been interesting. What did you make of that, Anna?” She said, “It was interesting. For me, I’d always thought of your face as kind of a beautiful house that suddenly fell down, or a wall fell down. You spent all this time trying to rebuild the wall brick by brick. You couldn’t quite do it. When we looked at you, all we saw was our home.” I thought, if Anna had said that, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. We always think of the unconditional love parents have for children, but it’s also quite stunning that children have that unconditional love and acceptance for their parents.

Zibby: It’s true. That was so beautiful, oh, my gosh. What you said a minute ago keeps going through my head, about the doctors again not recognizing or giving you the wrong information and, after a year, telling you you wouldn’t get better. It makes me think of when you saw that one acupuncturist who said that perhaps the first person you saw had actually damaged the nerve and that it would take a while to recover. Do you believe that or not?

Sarah: I have no idea. I’ve seen so many Eastern medicine specialists at this point. I was lucky to be able to do that. It’s hard me to make sense of what was helpful, what was not helpful. I think, for sure, physical therapy was helpful to me. I didn’t try that until, really, ten years in. I tried it too early on. I talk about, in the book, going early on to a physical therapist. He told me to make expressions in the mirror that I really couldn’t make. I kind of looked like Cosmo from Singing in the Rain, if you’ve ever seen that scene where’s he making really insane expressions. The physical therapist friend was like, “Dude, that’s insane,” and took a picture of me without my permission making really strange expressions while trying to smile. For that reason, I didn’t try again until a decade later. When I did, it was with a woman who herself had Bell’s palsy. She really mirrored my face and smiled with me. It made such a huge difference. I feel like it was so therapeutic emotionally, but also physically, trying to retrain those muscles with her.

Zibby: I loved how, in the book, too, how you show your relationship with your own mother and how you idolized her and her career and how she also had Bell’s palsy and how, even that one scene where she was sitting next to you in the audience when you were watching your own play and she said something like, “Are you displeased with this?” You said, “No, I’m not displeased. I can’t move my face.” She came in and helped. How do you think this has affected your relationship, or has it? Maybe that’s too hard to even know.

Sarah: I don’t know, but I could read a little passage that you had asked about, about my mom, if you want.

Zibby: Sure, yeah.

Sarah: My mom had had Bell’s palsy too, but recovered more fully and quickly than I did. “After my mother’s two-month retreat from the world, her face got much better. It’s hard to know where my mother ends and I begin. Isn’t that the story with so many mothers and daughters? I remember when I was little, she taught me what a Venn diagram was. We were on a train from Chicago to Texas to see my cousins. In the dining car on a napkin, my mother carefully drew two circles showing me the overlapping section. ‘What do these two circles have in common? Here,’ she said, pointing. I was fascinated by the logic of that diagram, mothers and daughters, two circles, and the all-important bounded sections where they are complete unto themselves. Daughters, perhaps, have a tendency to point out the differences; mothers, to point out the commonalities. My mother and I both loved theater, both loved books, both were afflicted by Bell’s palsy, and also the bounded section where two are not alike. She recovered.”

Zibby: I love that. This is great, all these favorite parts of mine. Neat to hear you reading them. Now I don’t have to go back and listen to the audiobook as well. Did you ever feel this unspeakable annoyance that she improved and you did not, or was that just off the table?

Sarah: No, I don’t think so. I think it was more mysterious. Why am I not getting better? People are supposed to get better. My own mother got better. Why am I not getting better? I think it was more that.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit more about how you even got started being a playwright and how you achieved all that success. Where did that begin? Did you ever write these types of essays that became this memoir? Was that a form that you experimented with also? Did you go straight to playwriting? What happened?

Sarah: I always wanted to be a writer from a young age, but not necessarily a playwright. Speaking of my mother, she’s an actress. She used to take me to rehearsals when I was little. That world was familiar to me. I understood it, but it seemed too decadent and fun to actually have that be your job. It wasn’t until I met Paula Vogel, who was my teacher at Brown, that I really considered a life in playwriting. Paula was one of those incredible mentors who not only teaches you substance, but also is an example of how to live as a writer in the world. Studying with Paula, I really started writing plays in earnest. You asked about the essay form. I never stopped writing essays or poetry. I really started as a poet. After I had the twins, I wrote a book called 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Zibby: Oh, I have that.

Sarah: You do?

Zibby: Yes, I have it right there. I should’ve grabbed it.

Sarah: It’s in your white section?

Zibby: What’s that?

Sarah: It’s in the white section.

Zibby: Yes, it is.

Sarah: Because time was so disordered when I had the twins, I just wanted to write little, distilled essays. In terms of your “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” thing, it’s perfect. People can read it on the toilet because they’re really micro-essays. You can read it before falling asleep. The form was really, for me, can I have a thought in the morning and retain it until I have time in the day to write it down? That was how that book came to be. In a way, Smile is an extension of the thinking I was doing then but now that I finally have time to write in long form.

Zibby: I remember stumbling upon that book in a bookstore and thinking, oh, my gosh, I hope this person doesn’t think I’m ripping off her whole brand.

Sarah: Oh, god, no.

Zibby: I forgot all about that, but I loved the book. It is great to have snackable bits and books that you can dive into and stay and bits you can pop in and out of. Just getting that hit is great. I love just a snippet or whatever.

Sarah: I’ve been talking to writer friends recently who say they have reader’s block, which I think is interesting. It’s a new corollary of writer’s block. I think it’s part of the disordered attention we have with phones and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. It’s very hard to take in long form and truly get absorbed. I do love a short essay. I love reading poetry. I love reading in the little moments you have in the day.

Zibby: I have this new anthology, Moms Don’t Have Time to Kids. It’s the same thing. You can read each essay in three minutes. It’s all authors from my podcast. I think you’re right. On TikTok, they had to shorten the videos from eleven seconds to eight seconds or something like that because they couldn’t keep people’s attention for eleven seconds. It’s crazy.

Sarah: That’s incredible.

Zibby: I have teenagers. My twins are fourteen and a half at this point. It’s hard to be like, oh, wait, stop that, and sit down and immerse yourself in a book. It might not get good for a hundred pages, but you’re going to stick with it. They’re like, what?

Sarah: I wonder how the brain will change. With theater as my primary mode, I’m really attuned to presence in time and space and abandoning the world at the door of this darkened theater and letting yourself be in another place for two hours. It’s one of the few places where we do it. I have this opera at The Met right now that’s an adaptation of an earlier play of mine, Eurydice. The director doesn’t let anyone have phones or electronics in the room rehearsing. It’s kind of amazing to realize that the artists themselves have been disordered by the attention economy. Even for the artists, it feels like a monastic ritual to really stop and be a truly attentive, loving first audience for these incredible opera singers. Why would you want to look at your phone when you could listen to this extraordinary voice? Yet we have this bizarre training that I do think is affecting our brains.

Zibby: I totally agree. I used to go to the movies, and it was no problem. Turn off your phones. Okay, fine. Whatever. Now even when you said sitting in a darkened room for two and a half hours, I’m like, I don’t know if I could do that right now. I don’t know. Is there an intermission? I would need an intermission. Of course, there’s the fear, always, as a mom, that I need to be touch. What if something happens? I need to be reachable forever. Maybe I’m just getting trained like everybody else in the world. Although, I do still love long-form fiction and narrative.

Sarah: It takes a different kind of long-form fiction to really immerse myself these days, I find. Also, the mom thing of wanting to be reachable and interruptible I think is such a paradox. We want to always be reachable, but then we’re never reachable because we’re not actually present.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I was sitting right here — I shouldn’t even admit this. My daughter was sitting on the couch behind me. She was doing her homework. I was here. She was trying to talk to me and talk to me. She’s like, “I’m just trying to spend time with you, Mom.” I was like, “I’m right here. I’m right here.” From behind me, she was like, “But are you?” I was like, oh, man. Of course, I got up. I walked over. I sat next to her on the couch. I was like, why did she have to remind me of that? My being here working on my computer with half an ear to my daughter is not being with my daughter. I’m better off spending five good minutes with her than an hour with me distracted.

Sarah: I saw a beautiful little shadow of your daughter at some point in your corner. I feel like in the nineteenth century when, of course, you couldn’t get anything done as a woman — I don’t know how Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote. She had nine kids or something. I sometimes think, if you’re sewing or mending, it’s like you’re doing something, but actually, the kids know they sort of have your mental attention. I think kids crave that kind of being with. I sometimes think kids don’t actually want me staring at them trying to be truly present with them. They want me to be somewhat otherwise occupied, but not with my mental work that totally consumes my emotional attention. I don’t mend socks, so I’m sorry.

Zibby: This weekend, we actually went holiday shopping in person. I’ve decided I don’t want to take shopping time out of my time. I don’t want to take it out of my work time. It’s going to have to be done with the kids. Instead of doing it online, I was going to make it a whole thing. I do think this speaks to your book, so I’m not just totally going off on a tangent. Taking them and remembering what it was like to give and be in the moment and think of someone else and say, look at this whole store, what would this particular cousin of yours like? Otherwise, how do they get that skill? All to say, yes, as moms of teen-ish and even younger, I think that we don’t realize sometimes as parents that we’re not showing the way our parents showed us as much

Sarah: Right, it’s a little bit internalized because we’re doing a lot of activity with a screen. Then you’re not modeling. I think that’s true. That moment is so arresting and wonderful, the moment when children decide it makes them happier to give than receive. They know that, actually, that’s what makes you happy. It’s magical. To be able to do that in real time with them is great.

Zibby: How do you do your holiday shopping? Are you online? Have you thought about it?

Sarah: Not yet. Once this opera opens on November 23rd, then I’ll think about it again.

Zibby: What other work are you actively engaged in at the moment?

Sarah: That’s the main thing, going to rehearsals. It’s not as though you rewrite a libretto that much, but being moral support and having thoughts. There’s the church bell saying it’s noon. I wrote one haiku a day during the pandemic just to keep myself sane and as a marker of time. Copper Canyon is publishing that in the spring. It’s Love Poems in Quarantine. My kids make fun of me because my themes tend to be love and death. I’m like, what else is there?

Zibby: What else is there? What else do we have to talk about? That’s really it. That’s the crux of the whole thing. Have you — maybe it’s too early with the publication. I’m curious if people have responded to you in ways you were not expecting or maybe apologized or have said things in advertently. Sometimes you pointed out things that didn’t sound so good or whatever. Have you had responses that you weren’t expecting or anything like that?

Sarah: I’ve had a lot of responses from friends who said, “Oh, my god, I didn’t actually know what you were going through.” I said, “That’s good because I was trying to maintain a plucky, no-nonsense stoicism, Midwestern cheerfulness.” I didn’t want anyone to know that the Bell’s palsy actually was giving me any suffering or that I went through a period of postpartum depression, in retrospect, that I was quite unaware of at the time. I’ve had a lot of reactions from friends like that. Again, I said, “Please don’t apologize. You were absolutely there for me. I didn’t want anyone to know.” I think part of the book is coming out of that form of hiding. I think we could all hide a little bit less in that way. Other reactions I’ve had have been so moving from people who’ve had strokes or Bell’s palsy, an actress who had Bell’s palsy who never recovered who found it sort of disqualifying in terms of her career, a lot of pregnant women who’ve had Bell’s palsy. It can be associated with either your third trimester or right afterwards. It’s been really moving hearing from those people.

Zibby: That’s so great. There was this one scene I just wanted to flag really quickly about gratitude with Thanksgiving coming up here. I thought this was particularly apropos of the holiday. This is when you were at the Tonys and did not win. Sorry about that.

Sarah: That’s okay.

Zibby: This is your nanny who was at home. “Once home, Yangzom told me she had hoped I would win so that I would be able to thank people on television. As a Tibetan Buddhist, Yangzom is always attuned to values like gratitude. I’ve always thought it was a strange quirk of all awards programs that they foster greed and the desire of an artist to win mainly so that they can thank their dear ones in public. The system creates competition among artists who are otherwise compatriots so that the winners can say publicly that they’re grateful to their third-grade teacher, their mother, their children, God. In truth, we don’t have to win to be grateful. We can always thank the people we love, the people who help us even when we don’t win an award. We often just forget to. At any rate, I thanked Yangzom, and she went home.”

Sarah: Thank you for reading that.

Zibby: I love that passage. How’s Yangzom these days? Are you guys still in touch?

Sarah: Oh, she’s part of our lives. I see her all the time. I feel like once I had twins, I kind of gave up feeling like I could do everything myself.

Zibby: Yes, there is something to admitting complete defeat. I know there are going to be a lot of questions for you, but my last question is, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Sarah: Aspiring authors, don’t give up. Cultivate patience. It’s a long game. If you’re lucky, life is long. Find a reason to write that is intrinsically motivating to you, not for an award, not for publication. I always reread Lewis Hyde’s The Gift because it’s such an incredible book about being a poet and being an artist in a capitalistic economy and the idea of art as a gift, that there’s such a thing as gift economy, speaking of picking out gifts for people, and that artists are actually in a gift economy. I teach at Yale School of Drama. I have my students write gift plays for each other when they’re getting to know each other. I like to think that every play is a gift for an audience, but also maybe for a particular person in your life. I think it’s a way you could approach fiction or poetry. If one person in your life might be pleased by this gift, you’ve done your job even if you don’t end up reaching publication or getting an important grant. I wrote a little essay on writer’s block for Poets & Writers where I tried to anatomize the different — I think writer’s block is a chimera. I think it doesn’t really exist, but trying to anatomize what we think of as writer’s block, which often is just not having your butt in a desk and paying attention for an hour a day. Usually, if we do that, we end up writing.

Zibby: Very true. Thank you for this.

Sarah: Thank you.

Zibby: Marjorie, do you want to ask some questions?

Marjorie: Yes. That was a very, very beautiful interview between the two of you. It really was very moving. Before you go away, Zibby — I hope you won’t.

Zibby: I’m right here.

Marjorie: Somebody’s asking us about twins. Have either of you gone to the twins convention in Twinsville, Ohio?

Sarah: No. Have you? I don’t even know what this is. That’s so cool.

Zibby: In a land of endless time, I would love to do that.

Sarah: You guys said don’t look at the chat because you’ll get distracted, but for a moment, I did see that my piano teacher from Chicago, Barbara Rubenstein, is here. I wanted to say, hi, Barbara. Miss you.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice.

Marjorie: That’s funny. Yes, Barbara comments, it’s a thrill to see you. That’s wonderful. Let’s talk a little bit about your career. I know you touched on it a little bit. Of course, I’m fascinated by it. We’ll start with Sandra who says you were awarded a residency 1 program by the Sig Theatre in 2019. Do you know what plays will be there? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sarah: It’s such a good question. The amazing thing about Signature Theatre is they devote time to a writer’s body of work, if people don’t know Signature Theatre. Right now, I’m not exactly sure what we’re doing because COVID has disrupted so much of the planning in the theater world. I was talking about maybe doing Eurydice and The Clean House. I have a new play that’s an adaptation of my book, Letters from Max, which is a book I wrote with a poet, Max Ritvo, who’s an extraordinary young writer who was a student of mine at Yale. He died of Ewing sarcoma at twenty-four. Max and I wrote letters back and forth to each other while he was undergoing chemo and were going to make a book out of it when he was alive and didn’t have a chance. The book became something I finished after he died. I made a play out of it. Signature was talking about doing that as well. Everything’s sort of like, woo. The theater’s throwing out seasons in the air and watching how it all comes down. I don’t know, but I hope I know soon what the Signature will be.

Marjorie: Isn’t it wonderful that things are back?

Sarah: It’s so wonderful.

Marjorie: It really is nice. I know you touched on this, but let’s talk a little bit about your career. Let’s talk about things that you’ve presented. Of course, we know what’s coming. Tell us more.

Sarah: That’s such a big question. I’m trying to think how to zero in. What do you really want to know about?

Marjorie: the future. I think you touched a little bit about that, but I’d like to know a little more about a lot of your body of work.

Sarah: One thing I do is I write in different genres. My first play was called Passion Play. It was a three-act trilogy about people playing the passion. The guy who played Jesus really wanted the role of Pontius Pilate played by his cousin. The first act was Elizabethan England. Then we moved to Oberammergau, Germany, where Hitler was a big fan of the passion play. He thought it was great because Jesus looked so Aryan. Everyone in the town was a Nazi except for the people who played Pontius Pilate and Judas, weirdly. Then the third act moves to South Dakota. That was my very first play, if you want my career in a nutshell. Paula Vogel snuck that play into the New Plays Festival at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island. My mom and I were driving there. On the way, we got blindsided by a car. I blacked out. I woke up. My mom said, “We better get you an MRI.” I said, “No, no, I got to go see my play.” I think I became a playwright that night. Part of me wonders if the whole thing has been a dream since then because I did black out right beforehand. That was my first play. I’ve written maybe ten plays since and then books of poetry, books of essays.

My last play or latest play was called — . I shouldn’t say last play. That’s terrible. My most recent play was Becky Nurse of Salem, which is about the Salem Witch Trials. It’s about a present-day woman who works in the Salem Witch Museum. She’s a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was the oldest witch to have been — sorry, not actual witch, but so-called witch to get killed, to get murdered. It’s sort of my answer to The Crucible. I wrote it when I learned that Arthur Miller, when he was writing The Crucible, was really in love with Marilyn Monroe and felt guilty because he was with his wife, and so he invented this whole love story between John Proctor and Abigail. I was like, that’s so weird that our whole understanding of this very important moment in history about the murder of women, schoolchildren mostly understand is based on Arthur Miller’s lust for Marilyn Monroe. How strange that is. Becky Nurse of Salem was the last thing I did before COVID. It was at Berkeley Rep. It’ll come to Lincoln Center next fall. Again, it was supposed to be done during the pandemic, but everything’s so crazy and postponed.

Marjorie: Zibby, I could think that you might be able to write plays. Have you ever thought about that?

Zibby: I wrote one once.

Sarah: Ooh, a secret.

Zibby: I think I was in ninth grade. I have it somewhere. There were two teenagers trapped in an elevator. We’ll see. I haven’t tried since then.

Sarah: I think everyone’s got a play in them.

Zibby: That’s how I feel about memoir. I feel like everybody must have a memoir in them.

Sarah: Yes, several, I hope.

Marjorie: Sarah, Roberta asked us, you mentioned your mother having Bell’s palsy, is there anything to do with being hereditary, or that is coincidence?

Sarah: They do think there’s a genetic piece of it. They don’t really know. It’s idiopathic. I think it’s not well-studied. It can be Lyme disease. It can be viral. It can be pregnancy. It can be genetic. My uncle had a bout with it. My mother did. I don’t know. Certainly, mine fit in with the postpartum reason for having it, but it really is idiopathic.

Marjorie: Someone named Sharon has such an interesting comment. She said, I can’t help but think of how all of us have had our smiles covered by a mask during the pandemic. I often wondered if people could tell we were smiling under the mask.

Sarah: It’s been very resonate for me. I really knew what it was like to be masked. Especially in the acute phase, I felt there was an opacity. People didn’t know what I was thinking or feeling. I think what was odd was feeling isolated in that, that no one else was wearing a mask, but I was. Then when everyone started wearing a mask, I was like, oh, great, we’re all wearing masks. I also think there’s an incredible resilience in the human spirit. At least in my case, when it was acute, you use other senses. You start gesturing. You make more vocalizations when people are talking. You try to smile with your eyes. You try to use everything you have to make human connection. I do think we’re so wired for human connection that no matter what’s covering this area, we’ll find a way. Certainly, I reflected on that and reflected on — in Brooklyn, when we first were able to take our masks off outside, it felt like such an invitation for strangers to speak to you in a way that — when you could smile at a stranger, they felt like, oh, maybe I’ll talk to you. Maybe a child will come pet a dog. I definitely, in the acute phase of Bell’s palsy, felt like I couldn’t create that invitation. It took me a long time to think about, how can I get enough function back where I’m creating that invitation?

Marjorie: The masks, the sunglasses, it’s hard to know . I, just as an aside, ran into Zibby one day on the street corner. Of course, I know her well, and it took me a moment to .

Zibby: It takes a while to get people into 3D again. I can sometimes feel my brain shifting. Okay, this person is this height and this size. I have to redo how I had them in my head, which was completely flat.

Marjorie: Somebody we talked to Zoom I then met in person. It was a man. He was very tall. I was very surprised to see how tall .

Zibby: I continually get taken aback. I’m 5’2″. Everybody is so tall. Sometimes it takes me a minute to get into — you realize that you talk to people very differently depending on how tall they are, in a way.

Sarah: Maybe this is good for all of us 5’2″ people. We’re disrupting the tall hierarchy. I always feel like in the train, when you get off on Wall Street from Brooklyn Heights, all the tall men get off. I’m like, ah, power. That’s what’s happening.

Marjorie: Ruth Ellen has a question. As a writer, did this experience with Bell’s palsy lead you to ponder on a more universal level how society seems to place such a relatively high value on physical appearance and the definition of beauty?

Sarah: Absolutely. Thank you for that question. It’s so important. I think for girls who are on Instagram now who are depressed, of course they are because we’re in an image-driven society. We’re turning ourselves into imagery constantly and voluntarily and then being judged for it. In the theater, for sure, there’s not a lot of place for asymmetry. It’s a very wonderful, joyful, warm community, but do they make room for actors with asymmetry? No. No, they don’t. It has to change. I think it’s slowly changing the more that women are in positions of power in the media, but there are also women who enforce standards on other women and will tell another woman to smile through a difficult work situation. It’s something I’ve always been aware of, but Bell’s palsy brought it home in a new way for me.

Marjorie: A couple of very, very good comments. Iona says, we’re sitting together with friends and listening to Sarah. We think you’re inspiring, have a beautiful smile and a very warm face. Nice comment.

Sarah: That is so nice. Thank you.

Marjorie: Patty would like a little more information on the book, The Gift.

Sarah: It’s by Lewis Hyde, H-Y-D-E. Lewis Hyde is a really interesting poet who’s written a lot of great nonfiction books. He recently wrote a book called A Primer for Forgetting about how forgetting is actually marvelous and necessary. He writes about aesthetics. He’s got a very wide-ranging mind. The Gift has some chapters about poetry, some about gift economy. He looks at traditional cultures too or some native cultures where, say, someone will barter with a necklace with a seashell, and then you’ll find the gift on some other far island because the gift giving is not reciprocal in that particular culture. You give it, and you pass it on. It goes on and on and on. For instance, when I do this gift play assignment at Yale School of Drama, I never pair people and give reciprocal plays. I say, A gives to B, B gives to C, and so on, and so on, and so on. You feel like the gift can march forward in the culture. It’s not just, oh, you’re giving me a gift, so I’ll give you a gift. It’s, I’m giving you a gift because I need to and I have enough generosity to part with it. Then maybe you’ll pass the gift on, which is another thing that I feel I really learned from Paula Vogel.

Zibby: Can I talk about this last comment? I’ve been wondering about your wallpaper the whole time as well. A comment just came in the chat about it. What is the story with your wallpaper? Where is it from? How do we get it? Where did you pick it?

Sarah: I love that. William Morris, nineteenth century arts and crafts movement. I’m kind of obsessed with the nineteenth century. What I love about William Morris is he really believed everything in your house, you should find it beautiful. It was a whole ethos and aesthetic and kind of bohemian. You can still get it because he made so many classic designs. My husband used to not like wallpaper. I really had to convince him. This made it through the portal of my husband’s distrust of wallpaper.

Marjorie: Two more questions. The last one’s a great ending question. Before we get to that, Susan would like to know, how much function has been recovered from the beginning until now?

Sarah: It’s a good question. It’s a little bit subjective. When I go to physical therapy, she’ll test me and have me do different exercises on this side and see how much I can do. I think I was at about seventy percent last time I visited her. I can say my Ps, which is so exciting. My daughter’s name is Hope. When I first had Bell’s palsy, people would say, what are your twins’ names? I would say William and Ho. They would say, I don’t think I heard you right. William and Ho? Yes, I named my children William and Ho. No, William and Hope. I can say my Ps. I can not drool while I’m eating. I can blink. Big, amazing thing because when the sunlight’s really bright, it really sucks to not be able to blink. I feel like I can register all the emotions on my face. My smile is not symmetrical, but it does the trick. It does the job.

Marjorie: Pretty smile. We have a very, very nice ending question. Somebody above said your mom was an actress. What was her name? They also said they took one of your classes, your writing session ones. It was a lot of fun. Then we had a nice question from Kathleen Ruhl, who said —

Sarah: — My mother. Hello, Mom.

Marjorie: Hi to Barbara Rubenstein from Sarah’s mom. Why don’t you tell us about your vegetable play?

Sarah: My vegetable play? I think I must have written a play about vegetables in the refrigerator that all had different personas as a child. More memorable to me, which I did find recently, was my court drama about land masses that I wrote in the fourth grade. Now with climate change, it seems even more resonate and really time for a production. It’s as yet to be produced. It’s a talking isthmus. A sun comes down and settles the dispute. Mr. Spangenberger in the fourth grade, he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready to produce it. I’m still waiting.

Zibby: I think fourth-grade teachers have to know that they should be on the lookout for future authors. It seems to me that fourth grade is the peak time where the people who end up becoming writers wrote their first stuff.

Sarah: That’s interesting. It’s the moment.

Zibby: We should just put some agents in there and see what happens.

Sarah: Get your daughter in there, Marjorie.

Marjorie: We had an author on a few weeks back, Hilma Wolitzer, who’s ninety-one. She tells the funniest story that when she was in fourth grade, her fourth-grade teacher wrote to her parents on her report card, “She shows a lot of promise.” Then her parents started believing her. She kept writing. Years later, she met her fourth-grade teacher who said, “Oh, I wrote that on everyone’s report card.”

Sarah: That’s kind of an amazing story, really, isn’t it?

Marjorie: She told it to us a few weeks back.

Zibby: Shows what a little encouragement can do.

Marjorie: Sarah, this was such a charming and lovely interview. Zibby, as always, you’re a wonderful interviewer. Everybody loved listening to you. I think we could sit here all day and listen to you. If you haven’t already bought the book, we have some links over here on this side. We did sell quite a few because it’s such an amazing story. Thank you very much, Sarah. Thank you, Zibby.

Sarah: Thank you.

Marjorie: Next week, although Zibby won’t be with us, we have Naomi Ragen. We’ll talk to her about her new book. Thank you, everyone, for being us.

Zibby: Thanks, Marjorie.

Sarah: Thank you for coming. Thanks for talking. That was really a delight. In person someday, I hope.

Marjorie: We hope.

Zibby: I hope. Buh-bye.


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