Sam Shepard is a national treasure. I know that there are pockets of the literary world that appreciate him, but I still think he is vastly underappreciated overall. If we take away his very good acting career, he’s still the greatest living American playwright and, in my opinion, the very best when it comes to crafting a short story that grips you, immediately means something, and leaves you wanting more-and-more. I don’t know any writer — dead or alive — who creates nameless, faceless characters out of thin air and makes you care about them within a few very short paragraphs before allowing them to vanish (and being okay with it — he is never, ever greedy with his stories and characters, he is restrained almost to the point of stinginess).
As it might be clear from the type of writing that I specialize in, I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading fiction. I’m more comfortable with non-fiction (particularly when it comes to my own writing), and the main reason for that is because it is real. I can relate to it so much better because when something is real, I can feel it. I have a very difficult time when it comes to being touched by fiction.
And the truth is that I always want to feel something. Personally, I have a difficult time expressing my feelings and accessing my feelings. Non-fiction — history — makes it easy because I don’t have to spend a lot of time putting my imagination into gear in hopes of triggering certain emotions. With history, they are often already on the surface — I know where I’m supposed to be going, and that makes it easier to get there.
But when I read Sam Shepard, his words — often simple, unadorned phrases — provoke instinctive, visceral feelings. I can’t tell if Shepard’s writing is connecting with something deep inside of me, or if his stark language is scalding the very surface of my skin. Whatever it is, I feel it. It doesn’t matter how austere the prose, how alien the setting, how foreign the characters, I always feel what Sam Shepard writes, and I can’t say that about any other writer that I have ever read. I read to learn, but we also all read to feel. Sam Shepard’s stories don’t always make me smile, but I feel every single piece and they resonate with me long after I close his books.
Decades from now, when I am old(er) and gray(er) and talking about my favorite writers, I’ll be able to say that I read the collected works of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce, or learned the poetry of Pablo Neruda — legendary writers who died before I was even born. I’ll be able to mention that due to my age I caught the tail-end of the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Gabriel García Márquez, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko — appreciating them once they were already established as literary giants but appreciating no less than what they rightly deserved. And all of that will be wonderful. But then I’ll be able to mention that I bought Sam Shepard’s books as they were released — maybe not Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, or Fool For Love because I was too young, but that I went to the bookstore (I’ll probably have to explain what that was) and picked up The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven, and Day Out of Days (and hopefully a few more collections of stories before all is said and done). I’ll be able to brag that I bought them on the day of the release and pull out my somewhat worn (but hopefully in good condition) first edition copies of these Sam Shepard collections, and someone will look at them with wonder and awe, just like I’d look at first edition copies of The Sun Also Rises or Tortilla Flat or The Beautiful and Damned if someone pulled them out today.
Sam Shepard is on the same level as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or HST. The only difference is that Shepard is more versatile as an artist. Those who don’t know his work might scoff at the comparisons; those who do know his work don’t need any convincing. But I know one thing for sure — Sam Shepard takes an art form and somehow uses it to create an emotion.
No people are uninteresting.
Their destinies are like histories of planets.
Nothing in them is not particular,
and no planet is like another.
And if someone lives in obscurity,
befriending that obscurity,
he is interesting to people
by his very obscurity.
Everyone has his own secret, private world.
In that world is a finest moment.
In that world is a tragic hour,
but it all is unknown to us.
And if someone dies
there dies with him his first snow,
and first kiss, and first fight.
He takes it all with him.
Yes, books and bridges remain,
and painted canvas and machinery,
yes, much is sentenced to remain,
but something really departs all the same!
Such is the law of the pitiless game.
It’s not people who die, but worlds.
We remember people, sinful and earthly.
But what did we know, in essence, about them?
What do we know of brothers, of friends?
What do we know of our one and only?
And about our own fathers,
knowing everything, we know nothing.
They perish. They cannot be brought back.
Their secret worlds are not regenerated.
And every time I want again
to cry out against the unretrievableness.
— Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "No people are…", 1961
(Translated by Albert C. Todd)
Yevtushenko: The Collected Poems, 1952-1990