A Conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley

First, we need some context.

Maria Headley and I have known each other since the late '90s, when we were both struggling, semi-idealistic aspiring playwrights attending the Dramatic Writing Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I was a couple years ahead of Maria and destined soon to flee Manhattan for the coziness of the University of New Hampshire, while Maria was destined to embark on the ... experiment ... that would lead to her new memoir, The Year of Yes.

What was the experiment? Quite a simple one: She said yes to everybody who asked her out on a date. Everybody.

I haven't yet read The Year of Yes, but I know there's a happy ending to it all, because Maria married Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer-winning writer of The Kentucky Cycle plays, as well as Lewis and Clarke Reach the Euphrates, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. He's not just an accomplished writer, but, by all accounts, a marvelous human being.

Maria and I did a decidedly silly interview, because everybody else keeps asking her serious questions, and I've never subjected her to such things (even when I directed her in an excerpt from Peter Handke's play "Offending the Audience" in a directing class we survived together). Here it is:

We knew each other at NYU when you were a freshman and I was a junior, after which time I transferred to UNH and you began your experiment (a coincidence, not a correlation). How did you survive four years when I could only get through three?

After year one, beginning a long slide into chaos and empty pockets, I barely appeared on the floor [of the Dramatic Writing Program], because I a) had five jobs, and b) was a colossal snob and wanted to "learn from life" instead of from teachers and c) was dating all of New York. When I met you, though, I was a writing program innocent, and we suffered together the aggravation of a certain directing class. It was only later that I became the libertine The Year of Yes details.

So should I have just gone on dates with anybody who asked?

Obviously. Also with anyone who whistled, made cat sounds, groaned as you passed, said things like "Uh-huh," "Work it, mama," and "Yo, yo, yo, I know you, right?", made eyes, made kissy faces, made sounds like a sprinkler from out of the dark, hit on you as you were foraging for ice cream in the back of a bodega freezer case, and/or as they were teaching a class you were a student in. Hey, it turned out well for me.

Much of my survival at NYU can be attributed to choosing people to have crushes on, obsessing over them as I wrote, and then managing to churn out some fairly decent writing based on thwarted yearning. Christina Nehring wrote an essay about this a few years ago in Harpers...though hers was about the benefits of teacher-student lust on the productivity of both. I had some of that too, but my preferred poison was always grad students. You could leave notes in their cubby holes, and then flee, blushing and snorting to yourself. My favorite of those was a hot Puerto Rican yoga master playwright, but he volunteered to babysit my cat while I was on vacation, and the cat neurotically ate his entire broom and then vomited straw across the guy's house. The guy didn't really like me after that happened, for some reason. Perhaps he saw a correlation between cat-neurosis and me-neurosis. I might have eaten his broom too, out of sheer joy, if he'd only let me have a few moments in downward dog with him. It was not to be. Sigh.

How, in hindsight, do you think you could have prevented the cat from eating the broom?

Slept with the broom's owner, obviously. My cat was driven to eat his broom because of displaced sexual tension. If the guy and I had just slept together, we would've been purged of this, and my cat would no doubt have curled up sweetly at his house and napped. Being kept from the one you want to love is, in the end, all too similar to straw gobbling. After my cat ate the broom, he proceeded to get into a battle with the guy's miniature pinscher. He came home with two black eyes, and a bite of ear missing, not to mention a troubled digestive tract. He was really never the same. All he wanted was love, love and the chance to spin straw into gold...or in this case, not exactly gold. But still. I think a good roll in the hay (or straw, or linoleum, or futon) with the guy would've helped both me and my cat considerably.

I heard from a publishing insider that the original title of your memoir was actually Magic for Beginners, but that Kelly Link heard about it, wanted the title herself, and threatened to subject you to an endless marathon of zombie movies unless you gave it to her. Is this true?

It's true, it's true! Before that, though, it was called Exit Pursued by a Bear, and, to my woe, no one had a clue what I was talking about, or even that I was referencing Shakespeare. I tried to go with Alchemy for Experts, but that seemed a little too similar to Kelly's book, and I didn't want to seem like a copycat. Besides: magic trumps alchemy. You can do anything with magic. Alchemy only gives you gold. Which, in the end, is not all you need. Gold alone will not get you satisfaction: witness the pitiable pick-up line foisted on me by an LA guy recently, when he spied me scribbling in a notebook...
SLIMY GUY: You know, I'm actually a writer too.
MARIA: (not looking at him) That's interesting.
SLIMY GUY: Except, I write checks. Big ones. For lots of money. Because I have lots of money.
It didn't work, needless to say. I went home and watched a few of the zombie movies premptively, just in case Kelly was planning to make good on her threat. However, zombies are really nothing compared to random guys in coffee shops.

How did you go about reconstructing the events of your life into a narrative? Do you have a perfect memory, or did you just start making stuff up when you needed?

I have endless notebooks from this period of time. I was, after all, in a writing program. My notebooks from class are all hybrids of notes on Arthurian Myth, and some guy named Craig's phone number and identifying characteristics. I kept thinking I was going to make a one-woman show out of the material, but it never worked. I had, incidentally, far more material than I actually used. I went out with about 150 people during this year, and I only really wrote about my favorites. So, I didn't need to make anything up. I'm sure, though, that there are things I made up without knowing it. Memory is a bitch that way. It fills in blanks, and you have no idea that it's filling them in out of scenes from Sam Shepard plays you were reading at the time. So, if Sam reads this book and recognizes anything, I apologize. I thought it was real.

Might you still consider making The Year of Yes into a one-woman show? And would you ever consider casting me to play you in it?

Yes, maybe. I also have a composer friend who might want to make it into a musical with me. If that happens, I'm hoping for a nice chorus line of Ziegfieldian feather dancers. Why have a musical, if you aren't going to have feather dancers? And yes, I would definitely cast you. You could then go out with a spectrum of guys that I don't need to go out with again. I think you and I have enough in common that things would be fine. As long as you're willing to wear a Maria wig. A very unflattering one, considering that at the time of the year, I was cutting my own hair, and thought I'd look good with Bettie Page bangs. Not so much, it turned out.

Who do you think does look good with Bettie Page bangs?

Bettie Page. Period. I've tried them three times to date, each time because of total amnesia about what I actually look like, and each time, I've had to immediately grow them out. Maybe I also shouldn't cut my own hair with dull scissors. This is possible. And maybe I should also learn how to really use scissors. I'm a defiant leftie, but I spent most of first grade doing a unit the teacher called "Scissor Skills." She was trying to make me right-handed. Now, because of her, I cut right-handed, but not in a good way. People think I have cerebral palsy when they see me with scissors. So maybe Bettie Page bangs would look good on someone who actually had control of her scissor skills, and didn't feel the need to hack at the bangs in public restrooms with toenail scissors. Maybe. I doubt it, though. They're hard to pull off.

You and your husband are both writers. Many of the writers-married-to-writers I know are miserable and seething with repressed jealousy and self-hatred. How do you avoid misery, jealousy, and self-hatred?

We solve that by reversing our seething with misery, jealousy and self-hatred onto other people, who we loathe together, spill vitriol upon together, and yowl our choices of insult at through non-connected phone lines together. Robert's favored insult, used on anything from computer malfunction to Hollywood executives, is the following choice phrase: "You tedious motherfucking cocksucker." I sometimes hear him whispering it to his hard drive. My favorite insults are combination punches involving descendants from goat-fucking ancestors, and a variety of custom-curses. My office is in the basement and Robert's is in the attic, so our middle floor is reserved for friendly conversation, lunch together, and naps. Mostly, we don't do the same thing. If he started writing prose, there might be trouble. I do write plays, but I don't have a Pulitzer (unless husband and wife are one Pulitzer Prize Winner), so he doesn't feel too threatened in that area.

Has anybody asked you to start a dating and/or sex advice column?

Yes. We shall see, but I think I might just do it. There are lots of tortured and mangled people out there. I'm, in fact, one of them. I think maybe there ought to be someone who could call bullshit on all of our drama, from a nice print platform.

Want to practice? How would you answer the following:
Do you agree with Rufus Wainwright that 'the gay messiah is coming', and if so, what does this mean for straight women who keep finding themselves falling in love with nice men who turn out to be gay? --Wary in Wichita
The only thing that pains me in the Wainwright song is that the Gay Messiah is wearing tubesocks. To me, tubesocks reek of straightness, and they are usually worn pulled to the knee, while in bed, with tighty whities. Or maybe that's just my own bad memory of not-falling in love with a man who was not-remotely-gay -- I would have liked him far more if he was. I think it's a rite of passage for straight women to fall for gay men. I've had at least two or three. Maybe it's part of the Gay Messiah's plan. Love one another, etcetera, etcetera, regardless of unconventional bedroom situations. Who needs conventional?