In Sam Shepard’s notebooks there are lists of trees: cottonwood, dogwood, apricot, willow, polar, locust, crab apple, silver maple. There are guitar chords with Spanish lyrics, passages of prose that could be read as diary-entry confession or script, and unattributed quotations that might be lines picked-up from conversations overheard on the road or dialogue for a work-in-progress. In the back of one notebook, a photocopied review of Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love is folded up with an article about fly-fishing. Taped inside the dirt-red cover of another—a business card for Ray E. Ortiz “Horseshoeing” in La Cienega. Between these pages, there is no separation between what makes up art and what makes up life.
I viewed these papers in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin last summer, a week after Sam Shepard’s death that August at the age of 73. At the time, I was driving through the Southwest with my husband on our honeymoon—a road trip largely inspired by Shepard’s collaboration with German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, that would take us, two Australian ex-pats, 5,000 miles across the country from Los Angeles, back to our newly adopted home of Brooklyn, New York.
As one of the foremost research facilities dedicated to arts and letters in the United States, the collection at the Harry Ransom Center is comprised of manuscripts, rare books and other literary curios, including Edgar Allen Poe’s writing desk and David Foster Wallace’s personal, annotated library. The Center also houses the papers, correspondences and notebooks of many influential writers of the 20th century, including several boxes dedicated to Shepard—the Illinois-born cowboy-mouthed fool-for-love who would become one of the most prolific playwrights of his generation.
Whenever I think of Sam Shepard—his work and influence—I think of the way Patti Smith described him in her memoir, Just Kids:
I remember passing shop windows with my mother [as a child] and asking why people just didn’t kick them in. She explained that there were unspoken rules of social behavior, and that’s the way we coexist as people. I felt instantly confined by the notion that we are born into a world where everything is mapped out by those before us… When I told [Sam Shepard] I sometimes had the impulse to put my foot through a window, he just said, “Kick it in, Patti Lee. I’ll bail you out.” With Sam I could be myself. He understood more than anyone how it felt to be trapped in one’s skin.
With a career spanning half a century, Shepard wrote over 50 plays, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for Buried Child. As an actor, he received an Oscar nomination and appeared in more than sixty films, from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979) to Hollywood features like The Notebook (2004). He wrote songs on the road with Bob Dylan and was written about by Joni Mitchell, while back on his Kentucky ranch he tended to horses and picked fruit. Shepard also published several collections of short prose, and two novels. His last work, Spy of the First Person, describes the active and vital mind of a man suffering from a debilitating illness that renders him increasingly physically dependent on those who care for him. It was written as Shepard himself was dealing with complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was released posthumously, last December.
To Smith, Shepard was a rebel and a permission-giver, unafraid to break things open to discover something new. “When you hit a wall—of your imagination—just kick it in,” he urged her when holed up at the Chelsea Hotel and working on the play Cowboy Mouth together in 1971, during their brief love affair. From this time, the two formed a friendship and creative dialogue that continued up until last August and perhaps even continues now, in the way we can sometimes feel ourselves to be in conversation with the loved ones we have lost—through memory, and through art, the only ways we have of collapsing time.
At the Harry Ransom Center, there is an anxiety about the fragility of our artifacts. If the closest we can get to achieving immortality is through art and whatever other tangible evidence we leave behind, and even these objects aren’t immune to time and decay, then perhaps it is the more mortal fear of our own human vulnerability that the archive masks in its attention to preservation. But spending time at the Center also reveals that deep down, scholarship is a practice of devotion. Inside the reading room, it is cold and quiet as a church. Students and researchers bow their heads over manuscripts propped up on cushioned, red-velvet bookstands designed to protect delicate spines and pages, some instructed to wear white cotton gloves when handling certain materials. Pages turn gently with a palpable hush, the silence akin to reverence. What else could bring someone to trace the paper trails left by years of textural ephemera—the notes and to-do-lists and false starts, aborted poems and rough drafts of prose, memos and correspondence that are absent from a finished work—while the summer burned away outside, except for love, and it’s kissing-cousin, obsession?
There is a surprising sense of intimacy in handling someone’s personal papers and for me, it was not so much to do with the private nature of the documents but physical, tactile experience of holding this evidence in my hands. As Susan Howe suggested, in an interview with The Paris Review: “There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace.”
This is most true of Shepard’s notebooks—the covers torn and taped together, bent and misshaped, one imagines, from being kept in the back of his jeans. Many of are of a similar size and shape—roughly A6, with cream-colored paper and pale blue lines, slim enough to slip into a pocket. One is spiral-bound, with a faux snakeskin jacket. Several have the same earthy-red cover and thick black spine, as if bought together in a packet. These papers, creased and dog-eared, seemed to contain the texture of Shepard’s life. Like a soft-worn shirt or old pair of boots, there was a sense that the pages had been lived in. Here, the roles of writer and rancher and actor and musician and lover and father are neither contradictory nor neatly compartmentalized. Stage sets are sketched out next to maps of land divided into vegetable patches. Scraps of prose and notes about horse-keeping are recorded in the same loose script, which has the pretty looping “L”s and “P”s and “S”s of someone who grew up in the era of handwritten letters and taught to practice cursive as a kid.
“Students and researchers bow their heads over manuscripts propped up on cushioned, red-velvet bookstands designed to protect delicate spines and pages.”
Phone numbers for Wim Wenders on location and Susan Sontag’s New York address appear between other lists: things to buy for a party (tequila, limes), actors to cast in a movie (Harry Dean Stanton), Christmas gifts for his family (most of a creative or practical nature, like sketchbooks and sweaters), and lilies. Of all the ways to remember Sam Shepard—his long cross-disciplinary career; the way he reimagined the American West as a landscape of longing, isolation and abandonment; his handsome face like a cowboy in a movie with those steel-blue eyes and two lines between his brows as if he’d been staring into the sun too long—it seems important to note that he was a man who knew the names of trees and varieties of lilies. In his hand, they read something like a poem: Citronella, Scarlet Emperor, Thunderbolt, Golden Sunburst, Silver Stain.
Viewing these papers at the Harry Ransom Center in close proximity to his death gave certain fragments a heightened power. One in particular jumped out at me, sent a shiver down my spine in the climate-controlled library. It was undated, scrawled horizontally across the page: I know that I am dead but I have not given up on the possibility of living. How else can I explain the uncanny feeling of turning these pages except to say that it felt like brushing hands with a ghost?
My own love affair with Shepard’s work began with Paris, Texas, which I watched for the first time at 19, reeling from romantic rejection. It is a slow-burning film starring Harry Dean Stanton—another cowboy gentleman who died last year at the age of 91—in his first role as a leading man. It’s difficult to imagine the film without the gravity and grace he brought to the character of Travis or the profound and ethereal presence of Nastassja Kinski when she appears as his estranged wife Jane, in what may be the most iconic sweater on film. If Paris, Texas is a love letter, it is one that positions heartbreak as an existential condition, reflected by the burned-out landscape of the Southwest—a desolate but dreamlike purgatory of highways, diners, motels, payphones and railroads always on the brink of being swallowed whole by the desert.
Shepard once stated that it was not these places themselves that interested him, but their connection to the past, and at the heart of the film is the cruel joke Travis’s father used to make about his mother—introducing her to people as “the woman he met in Paris … Texas” as a way of shaming her for failing to be the worldly, glamorous woman he wanted her to be. For Travis, the road offers a route of return and the hope that we might come to understand who we are through where we’ve come from.
Home alone, watching the movie in the blue-dark of my family’s living room, I remember thinking it had the most beautiful dialogue I’d ever heard in a film—not knowing, back then, that it had been written by a famous playwright. In the story’s emotional climax, Travis tells Jane a story through the one-way mirror of a peepshow booth in Houston. He has not seen or heard from her in many years, since they deserted each other and their young son, Hunter, who has been taken to a nearby hotel room after a long drive across the country with his father and now waits to reunite with his mother. I knew these people, Travis begins, these two people. They were in love with each other. The girl was very young, about 17 or 18, I guess. And the guy was quite a bit older. He was kind of raggedy and wild. And she was very beautiful, you know. And together they turned everything into a kind of adventure… Just an ordinary trip down to the grocery store was full of adventure. Flickers of recognition move across Jane’s face as she begins to remember his voice. The story he is telling her is their story.
“These papers, creased and dog-eared, seemed to contain the texture of Shepard’s life.”
I thought often of that scene in the long lonesome months that followed. The way they articulated how love can be irreparably ruined not only by lack but also by excess, and understood how jealousy and possession can give way to violence (and are, perhaps, their own forms of aggression). I imagined I had written those words, and imagined they were written for me. I used to make long speeches to you after you left, I thought, remembering Jane talking to Travis through the glass. Every man has your voice, I said in my mind to the one who had left me. But perhaps what I was recalling was not so much the movie or my own recent heartache, but an old feeling, a memory of a memory, its seed buried deep within my own origin story.
Notes for Paris, Texas begin to appear in Shepard’s papers in 1982, the same year City Lights Books published his second collection of short prose, Motel Chronicles—a series of fragments where fiction collides with memory. There are stories of a boyhood spent in Pasadena and rural California, and episodes from a transient life as a ranch hand, musician and actor. The pieces of poetry and prose, left untitled and identified only by date and location, could be direct translations from one of the small dirt-red notebooks I held in my hands at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin last summer.
When Wim Wenders approached Shepard about collaborating on a film that would “tell a story about America,” their initial idea was to adapt Motel Chronicles, and out of this grew the early sketches of Paris, Texas. The first draft I found in archive is dated 11/82, with shooting scheduled for the early months of 1983. It appears with the following disclaimer from the director:
This is not a “script.”
It’s not really an “outline,” either.
It is, rather, a description of a film.
It won’t be in a more refined form before it comes to
the actual shooting.
The film will be shot in chronological order and Sam
will write it as we go along.
I’ve made four films this way.
It’s how I work best.
It is also the way LIFE works.
And, as the film deals with a man whose perception is
completely open, it seems necessary that the film’s
perception, too, stay open.
As Wenders states, these pages are more of a roadmap than a screenplay, with a series of locations spanning the Southwest—Los Angeles, the Mojave desert, El Paso, Marfa—a route I would trace, some 35 years later, with my husband on our honeymoon.
But back in 1983, on the other side of the world, my parents were meeting and falling in love in a Melbourne rock n’ roll club. In my own mythology, the story goes something like this: my mother’s high school sweetheart bought her tickets to see a band, of which my father was the lead singer. Two other men asked to buy my mother a drink that night. My father asked if she wanted to get coffee.
“Phone numbers for Wim Wenders on location and Susan Sontag’s New York address appear between other lists: things to buy for a party (tequila, limes), actors to cast in a movie (Harry Dean Stanton), Christmas gifts for his family . . .”
Details are collapsed in myth, and I imagine them leaving together and going out to a late-night café after the show and in my mind it becomes one long evening where, over coffee, they talk about everything: their families and where they’ve come from, what they want to do with their lives, how many children they want to have and what they’ll name them. My mother is 19, just starting art school, a tiny gothic beauty with black hair and angel’s face, a doctor’s daughter and aspiring family black sheep. It turns out she has had a poster of my father’s face on her bedroom wall for years, but in black and white, with his long hair across his face and dark, kohl-rimmed eyes, she had thought the singer in the picture was a woman. In real life, my father is tall and his eyes are pale blue, deep-set in a way that betrays an old sadness. And though his voice on stage is a primal scream—raw, and visceral—he is a gentle man. He is 28 and has a nine-year-old son in another city. That night he mainly talks to my mother about his grandparents, who all but raised him. Before his mother married his father, he tells her, the family name was Love.
In other words, it was the best kind of first date—the kind that lasts for five years. When Paris, Texas opens in Australian cinemas in 1985 they will see it together at the movies. Shepard once described this kind of love between a man and a woman as a quicksand feeling, “terrible and impossible” because it is based on the belief that one can be save and be saved by the other. And so time rushes forward. In 1989 my parents marry. In 1990, I am born. I have no memory of my mother and father together, but I do remember my favorite songs at four years old: “So, Long Marianne,” which I danced to at my mother’s house, and “Unchained Melody,” which played on repeat at my father’s.
I am told that my parents separated sometime between my second and third birthday, which would have been around the time I was learning to talk and so language, for me, will always be prefigured by loss. Perhaps because I was so young, my mother and father were spared from having to explain to me what had happened. Perhaps, in all the years that followed, they were still trying to find the right words and so I began to look for them elsewhere. If Paris, Texas is an origin story, then through watching and re-watching it, I’ve come a little closer to understanding my own.
In the original drafts of Paris, Texas the first half of the script remains remarkably consistent with the final film. What changes most in revision is the ending. Early versions of the story include a series of haphazard plot twists imposed upon Travis and Jane in order to keep them apart—a television preacher who kidnaps Jane; or a rich, powerful father who opposes their union and marries her off to a more respectable partner. In one revision, Travis takes Jane back to a caravan he has on his land in Paris where she struggles with a drug addiction as the two try to reconcile. Her part is significantly reduced, as is her agency—in these drafts, she is a pawn in the larger plots of men, a victim of circumstances.
It was Shepard’s co-writer, L.M. Carson (whose son would play Hunter in the film) that suggested axing these plot devices and making Travis and Jane responsible for their family’s dissolution. While any film project is, by nature, collaboration, with this interjection Shepard seemed to get closer to writing something that resembled a more personal truth.
In his own origin story, Shepard believed he was conceived in Texas where his father was stationed as an air force officer and his mother jumped the fence of the barracks to be with him. Like Travis, he was also afraid of flying, and afraid of becoming his father and repeating the patterns of his parents’ unhappy marriage. And in 1983 there were other parallels between the movie and Shepard’s life, as it was during this period that he was preparing to separate from his first wife and son in order to be with the actress Jessica Lange. While Lange and Shepard would go on to have two children together and be married for 30 years, it was away on set with her in another part of the country that he wrote Travis’s final words to Jane and Hunter. The lines, scrawled on yellow legal paper and now collected with his other papers at the Center, were dictated by Shepard to Wenders’ crew over the phone.
We say art mirrors life because where else does art come from except lived experience, imagination, and the desire to give those events a shape and coherence they may have lacked? A blank page is our only tabula rasa, and it offers us the hope of a second-chance—that here, we might get it right this time. We can write our way back towards the things we have lost and hold them again for just long enough to let them go.
Crucially, the small town that gives Paris, Texas its name never actually features in it. It remains a place of longing, a barren plot of land that stands for that ever-elusive dream. Homecoming, the film seems to suggest, is like the parable about the man and the river—you can’t go home again, because, after a separation, it is never quite the same place because you are no longer the same person. It is here that the movie subverts the familiar trope of Westerns, where the return to the hearth and homestead offers peace, stability, comfort and above all, resolution—it is the curtain falling on the hero’s journey.
Shepard, for his part, resisted this kind of closure: “I hate endings,” he said in The Paris Review,
Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.