Terry Gibson  |  I Have No Explanation for the Horse

Below are three very short stories that I gratefully submit in hope of saying something useful and relevant in conclusion about my creative process.

I once helped an heir to one of the largest family fortunes in the United States rise to his feet from the floor of a public restroom because he was too drunk to stay on the toilet. This occurred on a Saturday night in an expensive three-star restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side.  I was a waiter there and was expected to fulfill this task cheerfully and discreetly, though I was not to be thanked or tipped for it.  I hoisted and fastened his suit pants and led him to the elevator, stood him up inside it, and pressed the appropriate floor button.  He lived upstairs, above the restaurant. He owned the building.  I watched the elevator doors close with him inside, alone, his head bowed, facing the elevator wall panel, grasping the aluminum railing with both hands.


When I was 9 years old, I went to a traveling circus in a rural Midwestern county and snuck out.  I walked out of the big top tent to go I knew not where and into the warm, starry night.  I saw a smaller tent off to the side with a light on and shadows moving inside it.  I walked toward the small tent.  All the noise and commotion—the circus—went on behind me, the acrobats and fire eaters and dancing elephants, and faded from my boys’ curiosity. Tall field grass brushed against my legs. At the small tent, I slowly lifted the tent flap and looked inside.  I saw a clown sitting on a cane-back chair reading a newspaper.  He did not see me. There were horns and wigs and colorful costumes all around.  I watched him a long time. He turned the news page with an attitude of enlightened aristocracy and high technical skill. Under a bare lightbulb the, calamities and data of the world floated in his hands like imported silk. I lowered the tent flap and walked away. The night swallowed me whole like a whale.


My grandmother, who was not religious and neither am I, once took me to a Baptist church on the outskirts of town without telling me why.  I was wearing my Little League baseball uniform.  She resembled to me in every way Auntie Em, played by the actress Clara Blandick, in the movie The Wizard of Oz. We went into the church and sat down.  It was empty.  Sunlight poured through the windows.  The oak benches were hard.  She started to pray and I watched her.  I was frightened.  She was praying because she and my grandfather were about to be made homeless since he had lost his job as a glass cutter in Chicago. I watched her.  America, as I understood it, was about to put my grandparents on the street.

These experiences, which I have obviously carried around inside me for a long time, somewhat outsize my capacities to deal with them. That is, I can only consider them from a chosen and comfortable distance, like watching lions while on a safari.  And yet I believe they are important and worthy sources for writing and living. The person who has resulted from them, whether he writes plays and fiction or not, cannot be altered, and has some role or reason for existing alongside everyone else. After all, I was there in each instance with no preconceptions or desire to influence my surroundings. I was just watching, or trying to help or participate in some appreciable way. Send me to Guantanamo or the dark chambers of the Pentagon and the experiences still cannot be “persuaded” from my being or consciousness any more than the world views could from a Guatemalan or Filipino revolutionary.  And like William Golding in Free Fall,

My yesterdays walk with me.  They are the grey faces that peer over my shoulder.

I suppose this is true to some extent for writers I admire, as well—Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Mark Strand, Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Tennessee Williams.  They must sense a certain oceanic quality to undisguised moments that come along randomly, that call for extra attention and yet seem incomprehensible at the same time.  Thus you get great plays like Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or novels like Heller’s Something Happened and Kafka’s The Castle, or Mr. Strand’s beautiful poem “Lines for Winter.”  Or so I think.

As an actor in New York, I learned to be wary of obsessions but to seek inspiration. So I looked for people to admire and follow carefully, closely. I just mentioned some of them, but there are many others.

If writing were likened to riding a speed bicycle these authors would be the stirrups in which I set my feet for power and control. At this point in time, I would remove my feet only at great risk. And further, what they say about their writing is often as interesting to me as what they write, and it’s fun and absorbing to ponder their observations. Pinter has said some remarkable things about his process, for example, particularly in his 1962 address at Bristol University and his recent Nobel lecture. His most striking and original plays, he says,  evolve from circumstances and encounters so mundane and pedestrian, so hidden, in fact, from his own (piercing) ability to recognize and penetrate them intelligibly in their moment,  that he can only interrogate them artistically in the form of plays or poems to come to terms with them at all. And he is completely mystified by the process, so there is no shame for me in admitting the same. Where a phrase or an action comes from or where it will lead is often completely unknown to me and Pinter is telling me that this is not only okay, but desirable, as a point of departure. Onward, then.

I will say, however, that this first step seems crucial. You find a remark or gesture that you sense defines a character, let him or her say or do it over and over in your mind, testing it for plausibility and truth, and then write a play for them.  The play itself can be a complete fabrication of events and actions real or imagined. You may add or dispense scenes or characters to your heart’s content. But not that first utterance. All that follows should bear some connection to it, even remotely. I believe Oscar Wilde may have followed this approach in plays such as The Importance of Being Ernest and An Ideal Husband. It would take an essay of considerably more length and ambition to illustrate how. My own grappling with it in Illinois goes something like this:

I love what I do. People don’t know what I do and wouldn’t understand it if I tried to explain it to them. I love that. It’s like being invisible. Nobody understands anything, they just smile at me and go away. I’m a specialist.

Who would think and say such a thing, and so triumphantly, with such blithe arrogance and self-congratulation? I don’t know. But lo, she speaks again:

The only people I ever talk to or have anything to do with know what I do. They have no interest in anything else but … my performance. I don’t mean    the pharmacist or the dry cleaner or people like that. But people who understand my language. My special language. That’s all business is, really. A special kind of language.

Whatever that writing is worth, and at the time I had no indication myself, it came from the single sentence “People don’t know what I do and wouldn’t understand it if I tried to explain it to them” and proceeded, as well as I can remember, as naturally and spontaneously from there as I could manage. Not to say it was easy. At only two scenes and forty-two pages, Illinois still took almost two years to compose, the writer experiencing all manner of creative frenzy and lethargy in the process. But I had inspirational sources to turn to in times of crisis, as I said, who reset my feet into the stirrups, and you know some of their names.

Have you ever seen Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa (1966)?  He is chased through the mountains by a Mexican bandit leader played by John Saxon and falls off his horse.  (Actually it’s a stunt that comes up in other old Westerns, too.) He falls off his horse and fakes being dead or unconscious while watching Saxon creep up to him on foot reflected in the horse’s eye. Brando slowly grasps his six-gun and cocks it, never taking his gaze from the horse’s eye lens. A good horse, loyal. Saxon approaches for the kill. At just the right second when Saxon reaches for his pistol, Brando rolls away and fires. Saxon’s bullet flashes in the sun-baked Mexican dirt as he falls dead.

It’s a scene that has all the elements that I experience when writing. A faint, distorted image coming toward me, as wary of me as I am of it, isolation, only one chance to get off a good shot, and a palpable tension between me and the thing coming toward me.

Sometimes, an excitement. What’s it going to do?  Will my aim succeed, or send the bullet into an empty, limitless void?  I like to think that I present a well-hit target to people. They will applaud. And the satisfaction for me is that my aim and control—my stillness—and intuition did the job. 

It’s mysterious, too. I have no explanation for the horse. But sometimes things just line up like that and you’ve got to do something about it. I think James Stewart performed the same scene in Winchester ’73, under different circumstances, but I’m not sure. Maybe it was in A Bend in the River.

Other examples of my dramatic handiwork include a soap-opera producer in New York and a man who talks to a shoe in Indianapolis. The soap-opera producer travels extensively and lavishly with her married lover, and says:

We know other people are starving. Toiling, hungry, oppressed. But somebody has to have a little fun on this planet, don’t they? So why not us?

The man in Indianapolis asks the shoe “What is greatness?”  

That’s all I know about either of them.  With luck they will fill me in on the rest. 

Here, finally, is a recipe I have used occasionally to help things along, entirely of my own invention, but that nonetheless has been very productive in generating theatrical dialogue and ideas. Employ it at your own risk, vary it to your own taste and disposition.

Secure yourself alone in your home or apartment on a Friday or Saturday night with a bottle of wine, a wineglass, various glitzy magazines, and an operating TV. Turn on the TV to any broadcast from a major network. Open the bottle of wine. Turn the sound down on the TV until all that remains are idiotic faces and emasculated programs and commercial messages. Remove your clothes to your undergarments. Drink two glasses of wine and select your favorite dance music. Play it. Have paper and pencil ready. The Kinks’s recently released two-CD set of hits from the sixties and seventies is especially exulting and supportive for this effort. So is the Ethel Merman recording of Gypsy. Open the magazines to various advertisements and place them where they can be seen. Begin dancing while execrating the advertisements with as much joy and hostility as you can muster. Drink more wine, if necessary. Don’t forget the TV. Make notes of the result. 

And onward.