Friday, February 23, 2007

A New Use for Spam

Folks, a recent letter about Cialis from one Junior Maxwell gave me a brain fart. Much has been said about the random language poetry of spam, but what about the sender's names? I sometimes beat my head against the desk trying to think of the perfect names for my fictional characters. But I have a beautiful source, right under my nose. My spam folder! Why look in the phone book? When life gives you spam, make spaminade!

Here are a few choice monikers from a recent delete session: Earline Nix! Dewitt Trotter! Jeremiah Hill! Darlene Flood! Heriberto Griggs! Jewell Estes! Lenora Brewster! Robin Flowers! Hector Ash! Elmo King!

My imagination has no problem picturing these people, who probably never intended to send me mail. Lenora Brewster is a church lady. She has never been married, and doesn't fully want to, speaks in tongues, and loves praising the Lord. Dewitt Trotter is a greying white guy who wears only red ties and has no idea his daughter is dating Heriberto Griggs. Hector Ash is a computer programmer who comments his code with silly secret notes to his colleagues, like, 'wish we were in Hawaii, but we're not. How soon is lunch?' Darlene Flood has been struggling with weight her whole life, and is now trying South Beach for the first time. The divorce has been helping. Elmo King sells used cars in Texas, but dreams of becoming a full-time magician. Robin Flowers is a porn actress, of course, and is considering another surgical enhancement. Earline Nix is a psychic, and her son in law, Jeremiah Hill, thinks she should be put away. And Jewell Estes is a photojournalist, naturally.

Are they Googling themselves into this blog post? If so, I apologize to the folks above. But that won't keep me from using their names.

Thank you, spammers! You will now be committed to the realm of fiction.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tyranny of Plot: A Rantlet (And I'll Probably Have to Take It Back Later)

Why do fiction writers love to talk about plot so much? Maybe because it can be the hardest thing to master, especially in longer works? Or maybe, because it’s fairly easy to identify patterns in classic plots, and conform to them?

Why is it that any discussion of plot makes me itchy, and not in a good way? Could it be because it’s my weakness? Could it be the word plot itself? Terrorists and saboteurs have plots. Why must I? Plots thicken. What if I prefer airiness to thickness? Plots have climaxes. What if you’re faking your climaxes (which many storytellers are guilty of, in my opinion)? What if real life doesn’t have climaxes? Does this mean stories aren’t actually connected to real life? What a depressing thought.

The reason I read and write fiction is to explore human feelings and experience, and to discover things I wouldn’t in my day-to-day. And to me, one of the most important human feelings is inertia. Depicting inertia is something I’m struggling with in one of my almost-done-but-not-quite-there stories, which, to make myself laugh, I titled “The Plot,” because it doesn’t exactly have one.

It’s about a garden plot, which I’d like to think is a better way to think about story plot. The protag is restless and a little lost after her youngest child goes to college, and she kills time in her community garden plot, where she cultivates stuff, but where weeds crop up too--she pushes them back; they broadcast their own seeds here and there. Maybe this is my kind of story plot. Plant a few seeds in the first page, then see what sprouts, and how it looks, and what takes over the yard. Seeds are natural containers of suspense. Maybe tying up loose ends isn’t necessary. Maybe “endings” are overrated. Gardens don’t end, after all. The flora and fauna keep things going, even when human characters stop making those “critical choices” we writers love to dissect.

Am I being a “passive” writer, resisting endings? Do my characters have no agency then? Are they more passive than me? Is this a cop-out? Is it possible to satisfy readers without endings? Is satisfaction even the right goal?

OR, is it important for us to resist the tyranny of our expectation of plot? Like resisting the idea that Jesus is Lord? Which He is, for some people (and I’m happy for them), but not me, any more? It’s the same kind of thing, resisting indoctrination. The war is inside yourself. It’s my own thought habits I’m challenging here. I’m trying to figure out my truth. Is this making any sense? Am I foaming at the mouth yet?

If you’re still with me, and feel any glimmer of recognition at my questions, I heartily recommend Liesl Schwabe’s piece in the February 2007 issue of AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle. The essay, entitled, “Leaving the Window Open: Refusing Closure and Avoiding an Arc in Nonfiction Writing,” is aimed at reportage, but equally applicable to realist fiction, in my view. Here’s where I started going nuts with my highlighter:

Nonfiction writing that refuses to tidy up the mess on the page can often force the reader into a very active place of considering the information, not in the way that we collect headlines and trivia, but in triggering an awareness of interdependency, be it of politics or history or memory, that necessarily locates the reader within the mystery and blessing of his or her own humanity. When this kind of responsibility manifests in some prickly combination of acceptance and discomfort, I feel it ultimately represents a much more accurate way to share and keep track of experience.

Amen, sister. She makes me want to write complicated, open-ended things, or maybe I wanted that already and she just named it. Schwabe uses the metaphor of architecture to discuss structure, instead of “arc,” that is to say, stories benefit from having some kind of internal logic holding them together. But they need not have the focus on forward movement and results/outcome/conclusion that we’ve been brainwashed to hold valuable.

Endings, arcs, the crap in Wikipedia’s definition of “plot,” these things do work on me. They keep me inert in front of the television, they keep me up all night reading certain bestselling books. But characters-serving-plot makes my eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, not deep emotion. And racing through a book doesn’t necessarily mean the book is good. Perfectly crafted stories sometimes leave me cold. Loosely crafted stories sometimes stick with me, even haunt me, if the characters and emotions ring true.

I’m reminded of Rick Moody’s talk with Michael Silverblatt, in which he holds his nose at the “stench of fiction.” The stench can be perfumey too, maybe even seductive. But a smell is a smell. I prefer natural smells over artificial ones--today, anyway.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I Loved "A Spanish Play," I Don’t Care What Anyone Says

I’m glad I decided to delay judgment on Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play, currently up at NYC’s Classic Stage Company. I had a funny encounter with the subscribers sitting behind me—one man joked about leaving an aisle free for exiting. “I heard that!” I said, with playful self-righteousness. The woman with the man (who was a generation older than me, and probably an actress herself) suddenly started swearing a blue streak—“Fuck that Charles Isherwood!” “Well, I’m gonna judge it for myself,” I countered. She agreed. And we defiant theatergoers took our seats in the small thrust auditorium.

So, the consensus among reviewers seems be this: great actors transcending bad material. I agree, the actors were engaging, impressive veterans who were more than watchable. Since I'm with the reviewers on this point, I won’t dwell on the performances, but instead, I’ll put up a counterargument on the play itself. Maybe I just don’t see enough theater to be as jaded as everyone else, but I left the play wishing I had a copy of the script to read.

Why do people hate meta so much? Why do American audiences find it pretentious and gimmicky? Why all the bitching about its lack of originality? Who says deconstruction is trying to be “original?” Why do we need so badly to be taken for a superrealist ride? Why can’t we be more French? Or at least Canadian?

The play, translated from the French by David Ives, does not take itself too seriously, in my opinion, which is precisely what makes meta work, for me, when it does. Other reviewers claim the actors made unfunny lines funny, but I disagree. I would probably laugh at it on the page too.

The story’s main conceit is that we are watching a rehearsal of a Spanish play, a comedy, in which two of the characters are themselves actresses, one far more successful than the other. The less-successful one (played by the breathtaking Linda Emond) is rehearsing another play, a Bulgarian drama, throughout the Spanish play. Meanwhile, all cast members pause periodically to address a live videocam, projected on the back wall, with ruminations on their process, its irritants, and how it fucks with their identities.

Maybe the problem for we Americans is that when we see characters who are themselves actors, we want to have the laughs at their expense. Actors are only acceptable subject matter if we can make fun of their narcissism. Reza’s choice was to explore this tendency, but not fully buy into it. The result can be audiences flippantly saying, “good for actors, bad for everyone else.” I, for one, am glad Reza took this risk.

But I’m one non-actor who has grown interested in the actor’s process. I’ve decided they’re easy targets. I spent years believing the popular notion that actors are simply hungry for attention, nothing more. But conversations with actors, some novel-writing-research at HB Studios, and reading a few acting books has changed my tune. Acting, like fiction writing, is a highly moral activity. The morality comes from exploring other selves, finding common ground, practicing compassion and mercy. I think the world is hard on actors, especially fictional ones, even as we spend a good deal of our time watching the fruits of their labor.

The big crowd-pleasing moment of the play comes when the more successful actress character, Nuria, played by poised Katherine Borowitz, tries on two ridiculously slutty dresses she might wear to a red carpet. Crowd-pleasing, because insecure actors are such easy targets. But Reza is not fully laughing with us. It's her Spanish playwright's comedy, not hers. And when Borowitz steps down from her platform character-shoes to discuss the actor's process, the cruelty inside the cheap laughs (which I partook in) becomes subject matter. I was left with a tender view of artists and their efforts, the struggle to make "real" out of the artificial.

My favorite moment in the play is when Aurelia, Linda Emond’s character, is running lines for the Bulgarian play with her half-cooperative husband (played by engaging physical-comic Denis O’Hare). She does the same monologue twice. The first time, it’s easy to miss the nuance of the text, but the second time through, it carries more weight. This is definitely a case of actress transcending material—the actress Aurelia transcending the material of the Bulgarian play, fleshing it out through repetition, finding its value. And, though Emond’s execution is exquisite, credit for this repetition belongs to the playwrights, both the fictional Spanish one and Reza herself.

My brother, an actor, loved this scene too. “That’s the kind of thing you see in acting class,” he said on the ride home. A moment when, through practice, the text just clicks into place, becomes poetry before your eyes. It’s nice to be there when it happens.

(P.S....I'm not the only contrarian out there...)