Sunday, June 25, 2006

On Fences, Beds, and Good Neighbors

Well, we finally replaced that icky rotten fence behind my mulch experiment from last year. You know what they say about fences and good neighbors. So we're trying. I'm sure the guys next door are relieved to be rid of the dog-sized hole that used to be between day my husband and the dog came home to find the neighbor's pit bull in the front garden! The pit bull is sweet, but Willie didn't like that very much.

So we found a contractor who did a clean, fast, fair job. He even spared the volunteer sunflowers you can see here. No wonder the neighbors are all vying for his time. And after a little work this weekend, I have fulfilled my own wish of raised beds in the sunniest spot in our yard. Willie chose a supervisory role in the project, except the part where I dumped out some of the city's free compost. He likes dirt.

This summer, we'll try peppers, yellow squash, Chinese eggplant, and loads of nasturtium, which I like in a salad. (It's like having lily pads on your plate!) And don't believe that thing about planting nasturtiums in crappy soil to get more flowers. I planted ours in pure compost and they are blooming like crazy.

What Can Fiction Writers Learn from Acting Classes?

I aim to find out. I'm going into a research phase on my novel-in-progress, and since my protag is an aspiring actor, I have a lot to learn about how actors relate to each other.

Someone gave me a good tip: acting classes often allow cheap auditing or free trials, so actors can shop for a new teacher. Who says writers can't audit too? So I did my first audit Friday night, at HB Studio in NYC, known for its founders Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. I went hoping to take in a scene study class, but since enrollment was low, I ended up in an acting/directing class instead. Whatever, I went with the flow.

The class, taught by Alexey Burago, was focused on keeping the direction of a scene as close to the play itself as possible. The students were using short stories, all Chekhov, I believe, and turning them into acted scenes. Since I missed at least one class meeting, I'm interpolating a lot of info, but my guess is that their charge was to do all of their research/homework inside the text. In other words, not to project or imagine motives that are not explicitly evident in the text itself. Imagination can be good, but it can also lead one away from the literature.

This is harder to do than it sounds. A literal, surface read of any text is not enough to create an interesting dynamic between players. The actors and director must dissect the impulses of the characters from moment to moment, without following unrelated tangents.

One group did a scene where there was an unspoken sexual subtext between two characters. Burago had an interesting take on it: sure, they have sex. Maybe yesterday. Maybe tomorrow. But not in this scene. So what impulse right now is driving the actions of the people? Why is this moment different from other moments? Though it is a little formulaic, it's also a damn good question to ask of any scene in literature. Why now? Why not tomorrow? Why not yesterday?

Another of his comments made me chuckle to myself: writers always instruct each other to show, not tell. But Burago instructed a student: "Don't show it! Live through it." This must be a common theme in the craft of acting; I noticed the same idea came up in the film In America, which happened to be on TV last night. (Great film, by the way, but that's another topic.) I imagine "showing" in this context means a certain awareness of audience, the practice of assembling signs of an emotion or impulse, rather than feeling it and manifesting the involuntary signs of the impulse. So, the actor's version of "telling" is called "showing." It feels a little bit like derivative calculus: maybe living is alpha, showing is beta, telling is gamma? Let's hope I can keep the lexicon straight.

Anyway, I'll be back to acting school. I hope I can remain on the sidelines, observing and notetaking. I have no aspirations to participate, and my great fear is that I will be required to. I don't need the distraction of my own insecurity...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

You See? Even THIS GUY is a Poet

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire had a cute item this week...a White House spokesman told reporters Bush's speech in Budapest will be a "tone poem," meaning he doesn't plan to actually SAY anything, but it will sound really cool.

Next stop, Naropa. I want a sonnet!

Monday, June 19, 2006

There's Glass Between Us!

Little Ava, now rid of her hormonal sweetness, is turning out to be a regular tomboy kitten. She plays soccer, she corners poor submissive Angus, and she torments Vince through the window. And she doesn't walk anywhere. Why walk when you can run?

Vince is not pleased. "How come she gets to come inside and I don't? Just because she's a girl?"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

See You at the Fair?

One of my favorite NYC literary events of the year is this weekend: the CLMP Lit Mag Marathon. On Sunday, June 11, we lowly writers can commune with editors and purchase back issues for $2, benefiting Housing Works. Let's go! See you there? Details:

The Magathon
New York Public Library's DeWitt Wallace Periodicals Room, 5th Ave. at 42nd St.
Saturday, June 10th from 4–6:30 PM

The Magathon kicks off the weekend with a celebratory “marathon” reading. Over a dozen readers—editors representing journals of every size and style, from promising upstarts to the oldest, most established—will present favorite selections from their latest issues.
Featured magazines include Call: Review, Columbia, Fiction, A Gathering of the Tribes, Gulf Coast, Home Planet News, Lips, Me Three, North Atlantic Review, Opium Magazine, A Public Space, Skidrow Penthouse, SLAB: Sound and Literary Artbook, StoryQuarterly, Swink, Terra Incognita, Tiferet, and Verbatim: The Language Quarterly.

Seventh Annual Literary Magazine Fair
Housing Works Used Book Café, 126 Crosby Street in Soho
Sunday, June 11th from 12–5PM
Lit fiends can take home armfuls of lit mags discounted more than 50% at only $2 a copy! Choose from hundreds of magazines from all over the country and hobnob with many of the editors who’ll be present to meet and greet. Proceeds go to Housing Works, a nonprofit organization serving homeless people living with AIDS, and to The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a nonprofit organization serving independent literary publishers.

Missed it by That Much

Thanks to Felicia Sullivan of Small Spiral Notebook for this link:

Entertaining blogger Summer Pierre is enjoying a fate we almost had, an infestation of criminally cute orange furry beings. Warning: these pictures might make you weep. I don't know about you, but I have a chemical reaction to cuteness like this.

Ah, if only. I'm pro-choice, but our little knocked-up Ava didn't get to make a choice exactly. We made it for her, and I have some regret. It's hard making choices for our four-footed friends. Heavy sigh. I haven't held a newborn kitten in years. If we didn't already have a cat surplus, it might have been worth letting nature take its course. Nature is not so bad.

The good news: Ava got her sutures removed and is healing well. She's dominant and aggressive. Likes cuddling with the dog, also likes attacking her new feline brother Angus, who is easily cornered and very submissive. She's active, playful, and demanding. Our little Feline American Princess. It's nice not being the only gal in the house. Even if I have to carry a water pistol.

On Milestones, and Irony

It wasn't long ago I was working hard to cut 300 words a day from #1 Novel, STARVING HYSTERICAL NAKED. My agent, an excellent editor, challenged me to remove 10,000+ words from that sprawling opus, and he was dead right.

So what the hell am I doing pushing to write 300 new words (and more) a day on #2 Novel, ALMA? I love irony. I'm happy to report I crossed the 10K milestone last week, and momentum is good. Diving into chapter four. And this is the fun part, even if I'll end up cutting it all. Full speed ahead, even as I cram it into coffee breaks and subway rides.

And what's the new novel about? Should I share, or will that jinx it? Aw hell, why not. An actress/preacher's daughter from a huge interracial family embarks on a new scene study class, and is assigned to explore the preacher's daughter of preacher's daughters, Tennessee Williams' recurring character Alma. Alma = soul. What is the soul, exactly? Especially to us lapsed Christians? I'm dying to figure this out.

But she's not even in the acting class yet. I'm caught up in backstory now, meaning it could be the book or it could be my homework for the book. I may end up cutting all of it, but it's stuff I need to know. About the character, the only one not adopted in her liberal family, and about how the six siblings relate to each other as adults. Adult siblings are a goldmine/minefield of material! Why haven't I played with it until now? Where have I been? I have a rudimentary outline, but I'm not looking at it. I'm just letting the character tell it her own way, which is a big meander. She thinks in circles, same as me.

I'm getting a new appreciation of backstory. What if backstory was the story? Why do we relegate it to the back? What if I called it nonlinear storytelling instead? What is wrong with chaotic reflection? So I'm plunging into the joy of memory, mixing my own experiences with imagined ones. We writers live for this shit.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Old School in the House: Dorothea Brande

I think originality is the big carrot we writers chase. Even the ones who believe originality is a myth, even the ones who follow three-act formulae, we all want to find that THING. At least some secret part of us does.

Consider this solution, from Dorothea Brande's 1934 classic, BECOMING A WRITER, which I've just read for the first time:

When the pitfall of imitation is safely skirted, one often finds that in the effort to be original an author has pulled and jerked and prodded his story into monstrous form. He will plant dynamite at its crisis, turn the conclusion inside out, betray a character by making him act uncharacteristically, all in the service of the God of Originality.

...So these stories fail from their own inconsistency, although the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large "ifs," and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one's own convictions.

As writers' books go, Brande's falls into more the category of self-help than craft. But lately, I'm finding the self-help category more, well, helpful. I can read a million volumes on narrative shape or musical sentences or making dialogue real--and I enjoy reading these things--but I still have to teach myself to write. We all have to teach ourselves to write. It's like basketball--you might know you suck at freethrows, but the only way to get past that is to stand on the line and shoot. A lot. Identify fundamental weaknesses, sure, but talking about flaws actually fixes diddleysquat.

So I vote for Brande's brand of writing book, at least today I do, and the bulk of it focuses on methods of the "hard digging" she mentions above. She offers several familiar but tried-and-tested solutions: early morning writing to exploit the leftover dreamstate, harnessing the unconscious through meditation (this is pre-1960's mind you), timed daily writing, putting off rereading/revising, close analysis of others' work, rhythmic imitation of others' work, etc. She does NOT push for heavy critiquing/workshopping for beginners, as she finds it cripples more than it helps.

One of her approaches I tried and enjoyed this week: spending some time in a language-free world. No reading, no talk. (Of course, in 1934, this meant closing out far fewer distractions. She warns against the distraction of the telephone. If she only knew the explosion of verbal distractions we face today!) The idea of the exercise: if one doesn't read or hear talk, then the unconscious will bubble up with writing. She encourages walking, knitting, playing solitaire, and other meditative, repetitive physical activities during the text-free time. And during this time, one may think about writing, but one may not write.

For me, this works like a charm. Nothing like forbidding something to make it more attractive. Nothing like setting aside nonproductive time to make my brain more productive. Writing has been going very well this week, and I have a new excuse to knit and pet my new cat.

Highly recommend this book, if you haven't read it already. It's quick and instructive, and way ahead of its time.