Monthly Archives: April 2014

Music Is Serious, Serious

dragon breathing fire

The metaphor has arrived

“Stories are like Dany’s dragons.” One of the writers for the popular show “Game of Thrones” said this in an interview I was reading this week, as he commented on a controversial scene in one of the episodes. He went on to say, “Once hatched, they are beautiful and terrible spectacles that soar out of control of their progenitors.”

Last Friday I watched a dragon hatch. Of course you never know how a dragon will emerge, but regardless of how they do it, once they start to break through the shell, all you can do is stand back. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that my brother and I wrote a play with music. More specifically, I wrote a play and song lyrics; he wrote music. He also produced and directed the show, and last weekend there were two performances in Helen, Georgia. (In August, it will play again at a theater in another town.)

On Saturday, with my daughter and son-in-law and a friend, we went up to Helen to see the result. Naturally I had been wondering what it would be like to see something I wrote on a stage, interpreted and performed by other people. Would I feel compelled to stand up, throw my arms into the air and yell, “I done it!”? Would I cry from some indefinable, confusing emotion? Would I pull my scarf over my face, hoping no one recognized me coming in?

As close as I can come to being honest, here’s what I was thinking as I entered the theater: (1) This is cool. How many people get to do this? (2) Marvelous or mediocre, it will be interesting to see it happen , to go from page to stage. (3) It’s a small theater in a small town, and the actors are mostly just out of high school. It ain’t Broadway and I’m not fooling myself.

Some of what was so good about this production was that the cast appeared enthusiastic and happy with what they were doing. Of course I may have projected that onto them, as I knew they were all volunteers. Another good thing is that I liked the music my brother wrote, ranging from the “here’s how I feel” individual song, to overt parody comedy pieces, to lovely extravagant group numbers. I also liked the choreography, of which there was quite a bit.

Could I tell you that there were moments when the story was moving? I have no credibility to tell you that, even though I thought so, because I wrote it. I can, however, tell you that there were funny moments and cite the fact that people laughed. Sometimes audience members laughed at lines I wrote, as they were supposed to. Sometimes they laughed, and so did I, at some very amusing staging of a couple of numbers that were intended just for humor. I was delighted to see how the production took some things I had done and created very entertaining action. The two songs most deliberately reaching for humor were “Music Is Serious, Serious” (a parody of college music professors) and “Googled More Than Gaga” (sung by a young woman who sees herself as having a grandiose future ahead).

Regarding the dragons referred to above, as a writer, once the words leave your hands, God only knows what people will do with them, how they will understand them, what their interpretation will be. (I bet even Jesus would be surprised if he came back to see what people are doing with things he said.)This lack of control can probably be a shock to writers, but it’s best to accept it and move on. The process is true even for a text alone, as people may take a novel/story/poem and interpret it in ways that leave the writer slack-jawed and gobsmacked.

In a complex artform like theater, or movies, or opera, how many more layers of interpretation are going on? And in theater, things get changed, dropped, added. That’s how it is. You can go read up on Broadway shows if you don’t want to take my word for it. There were things happening on the stage last Saturday that surprised me, that didn’t follow what I was thinking when I was writing. But really, so what? I believe writers who want to insist “This is what I had in mind” are insisting up the wrong tree.

There was one thing I would have wished to be different. Most of my investment in this show was in the words so meticulously crafted and revised. I wanted every golden word presented clearly to the audience, so I found myself often thinking, “Speak louder and slower” or “Sing more clearly”. With a professional company, that might happen, but this ain’t Broadway.

Still, it was cool. How many people get to do this? Afterward in a bar, my daughter raised a glass of wine to toast me. That was cool, too.

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Being Here

painting of Charleston, South CarolinaThe spirit says, “Launch yourself into greater things” and the body replies, “Umm, do I have to get up to do that?” Aspirations may outpace probability, yet we have to try. Don’t you think? We’re here on this planet to do more than eat lunch, right?

We’re here to start programs that lift women out of poverty, to build beautiful buildings, to raise children who believe in themselves, to plant gardens in empty city plots. And we’re here to publish novels, even when the world repeats, until its tongue grows numb, “I am utterly indifferent toward you.” So let it be indifferent. I try anyway, and I’m proceeding with self publishing a novel.

One of my delightful writing comrades has been instrumental in nudging me toward this project. When she talks about self publishing, I’m astonished how much possible information there is on this topic and how much of it she knows. Compared to her, I’m just a puppy on a blanket in the corner. Waiting for a biscuit. She gave me the name of the company I used to hire an editor, Scribendi.

If you’re serious about your writing, if you want to put out something that’s well done and professional, then you have to find a way to do the things a publisher would have done, if they had not all treated you as a pariah whose presence pollutes the planet. Scribendi has various editing services to help achieve that level of professionalism. They offer a free sample of line editing, around 1500 words, which I tried. I liked it and decided to proceed. I then discovered, however, that even for a short novel like mine, the line edit would cost $1,000. It’s not that this is an unreasonable price for such work. The price is OK—except that I can’t afford it. So I went with a general critique of the book, for which I paid $427.

For me, that was real money, as I’m now semi-employed, but I was pleased with what I got. I had no idea what the response would be, but after I got it back, I felt encouraged to proceed. The critique from the editor opens with “If I had to summarize The Illusion of Being Here in one word, it would be ‘thought-provoking.’ What you have here is a powerful story that seamlessly intertwines a number of disparate elements—life, death, love, insecurity, history, international politics/relations, mystery, philosophy, and the supernatural.”

Here are two more positive comments:

“As a literary novelist, I believe you have accomplished what you set out to do—elicit the readers’ emotional involvement with the characters.”

“The characters in TIBH are multidimensional, introspective, and quite complex.”

OK. I’m happy with that. But is the book so perfect that nothing needs changing? Not at all. The editor also wrote, “I find it a bit strange that Luke’s story is told from the first-person point of view and Paul’s is not, even though Paul is arguably more central to the plot than Luke.” I was also somewhat inconsistent with the point of view. I think the editor is right that it needs changing.

In addition the editor pointed out multiple instances of sloppy writing or proofreading, with an embarrassing list of such errors, as well as telling me that I was inconsistent with my use of punctuation. Well, sheesh. That’s a touch ironic, because I get paid to edit other people’s work in the pharmacy articles. But you know, when it’s your own work…you’re so busy listening to the sweet beautiful genius of what you’ve written that you miss those damn commas.

Following the critique of the editor, I’m now converting all of the first-person sections into third person. At first that seemed like a mechanical matter of switching the references, but I realized that in first person I had used a particular voice for the character, whereas in third person, I want a different narrator’s voice. So the changes are more complicated.

Thus I have work to do, and I’m doing it. I’m also thinking about what to do for cover art. I considered designing my own cover, but how many book covers have you seen drawn with crayons? My friend from the writing group has provided several options for places to buy a cover. In addition, last night I went with my daughter to an outdoor jazz concert, where we completely ignored some good musicians, as we were caught up in the intensity of our conversation. Among our topics, my daughter reminded me that my son-in-law has self published books of his own artwork. And since he is, you know, an artist, my daughter suggested that I get his help in designing a book cover.

So be patient. Maintain your illusion of being here. The book is coming.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Hopeful About Being Human

girl floating over a circle of books

Reading poetry

When you think of poetry, do you think of come-to-Jesus exaltation with your arms in the air? If you’re a poet, maybe. Or perhaps you’re likely to think of poetry as elegant interactions of intellect and emotion. Several years ago when I was teaching in Pennsylvania, I became involved with a literary group that combined community members and students from the college, so that I began attending regular poetry readings.

I would often think that some of what I heard in that group I liked far better than anything I could find in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, which I would occasionally look at with more perplexity than enthusiasm. I wondered why I preferred the poems of the students and concluded, like most people, that modern poetry, the proper published stuff, is incomprehensible and you aren’t even supposed to like it.

I know a good poet who endured the gauntlet of a university poetry writing program, and thus I learned that there is a phrase used in that setting: “academic poetry”. Does that phrase sound cold and lifeless to you? If not, maybe I’ve spent more time in academia than you have.

Under the influence of my little community group back in Pennsylvania, I began to write an occasional poem, but I’m not a real poet, and I know that. I was just playing. I had nothing I really wanted to say with poetry. Then I had a difficult love affair that I would describe as fireworks, in the best possible sense, going off inside a car that was headed over the edge of a cliff. Now I had a topic to write about.

Given this background, I will go sometimes to a poetry reading or even to an open mic night and read something myself. I would really prefer to read fiction, but one seldom finds open mics for fiction, which requires more time. This past Sunday I went to an open mic at the coffee shop Java Monkey in Decatur. The festivities were in a separate room, with a small stage, a row of bleacher-like seats built along one wall to accomodate the audience, and a plastic drop wall that can be opened onto the patio in good weather.

When I first arrived I was surprised, very surprised, to see that the place was fully jammed, people spilling out onto the patio in spite of a light rain, and with folks standing inside. Back in a corner, against the odds I managed to open out a folding chair and find a seat. When the reading got underway, I was reminded of an old-fashioned black church. Occasionally as lines of poetry moved the audience, they would shout out: “Come on!”, “Tell it!”, “You can do it!”

Of course it’s not that it was all great poetry. More than one poem was far, far longer than needed for what the poet actually had to say. Having made the point quickly, the poet went on to reiterate reiterate reiterate, until I was thinking, “Alright already, ya fuckin’ told us.”

But some of the poems rose to what poetry can do, using words, phrases, rhythms to take our humanity and lift it for a few minutes off the ground, to let it shine in the air and make us feel hopeful about being human, make us feel that we can do this. More than once as people came off the stage, someone got up and went over to hug them. Once or twice the poet was so emotionally distraught from pulling their heart out in front of us they needed a hug.

This reading ran for three hours, and at the end there were still people who wanted to read but didn’t have time. It was a Sunday night and because of noise we were required to quit, as people live around there. Another interesting thing about this open mic is that the man who runs it always arranges ahead of time for someone to be a featured reader in the middle. I was fortunate to be there to hear Gypsee Yo, a poet and performer from Albania who is living in Atlanta (but about to return to Albania).

The poems she presented, recited from memory, were mostly about events from Albania, and for most of them, every line came on the blade of a knife. The most striking piece was a long poem (based on real events) about a teenage girl who was made pregnant by an 80-year-old neighbor, who then killed her because she wouldn’t have an abortion. The poem was in three parts, narrated by the girl’s body, by her severed head, and by the old man justifying himself. The story was harsh, but the poetry was astounding. When Gypsee Yo finished her part of the program, including other poems, everyone in that crowded room stood up, cheering and applauding.

I understand the beauty of carefully crafted poems by a talented poet. We need that, the world needs that. Yet if you ask many people whether they like poetry, they’ll probably say no. Perhaps they think of it as dreary intellectual exercises that seem almost intentionally incomprehensible. As for poetry at the other end of the scale, it’s not like we didn’t hear some bad poetry Sunday night, but isn’t there something encouraging about seeing people enthusiastic for poetry?

And poetry that makes people yell and cry and walk away feeling like their heart was touched—that poetry was in a small room at Java Monkey last Sunday.woman floating with papers

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Beginning to Fly

painting of woman with birdsYou know how to sign your name, right? This week I heard a story on the radio that some states are no longer requiring the teaching of cursive writing. If people really do grow up without knowing this, will we stop having signatures? Will people in the future look at George Washington’s signature (or at letters he wrote) and think “What are these mysterious lines?” This week I also went to an event where signatures are considered part of the reason for being there—a book promotion where an author signs copies of the book.

The author was Sue Monk Kidd, who appeared for a talk and book signing at St. signaturesBartholomew’s Episcopal Church, to promote her new novel The Invention of Wings. Many people had copies of the book, and Kidd sat at a table before her talk, rolling out her signature. I also have a copy of that novel, which I bought as a birthday present for myself a couple of months ago, but I didn’t have my copy with me this week, as I’ve loaned it to someone.

Over the years I’ve stood in line to have other writers sign a book, but at this point I realize I don’t care anymore about having a signature. Maybe if it was somebody from the Bible, like Noah. I wouldn’t mind if he signed his chapter. Otherwise, what am I going to do with a signed book? Probably just give it away the next time I move.

I did, however, want to meet Sue Monk Kidd. I got in line to say hello to her, and to tell her that I’ve enjoyed her novels, though I really wanted to say “Can we sit somewhere and talk about writing for an hour?” Instead I said my few words of approbation, shook her hand, and moved on. It’s a disadvantage, sometimes, being nobody.

There was quite a crowd gathered for the talk, which was held in the somewhat stark, modern sanctuary of the church. Looking at the crowd, I noticed what was obvious—99% of the attendees were women. I can’t figure what to make of that. Is it because Kidd writes about female characters and women read about women, whereas men read about men? Are human beings so stupid that we only want to read about ourselves? I hope there was another reason for this strange gender imbalance.

This particular novel has a historical setting and uses two real people, the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s. In her talk, Kidd told us some of how the book was inspired, a bit of how she came to create it as she did, and she did a few readings from the book.

Kidd also talked about the fact that she has always felt compelled to write about race (she also wrote The Secret Life of Bees). She grew up in Georgia, at a time when she saw the open racism of Colored water fountains and other signs of our southern apartheid. In addition, Kidd told us about sitting in school watching a home economics teacher make a short list of the few jobs that were available to women. With The Invention of Wings, Kidd has embodied the battle against both racism and sexism by writing about two women who engaged that battle—amazingly—in the 1830s, women who rose up in the very maw of slavery and opposed it. We can reasonably ask why South Carolina has not yet erected a monument to these women.

As a writer myself, I was also interested in some of what Kidd said about how she writes. I happily noted that she referred to Joseph Campbell and his idea that something extraordinary happens to initiate an adventure. This was an idea Campbell (a scholar of mythology) discusses in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces. For her novel, Kidd said that the event that sets off the “adventure” (the plot of the novel) is a birthday party, when Sarah Grimke is a little girl and her mother gives her a young slave as a birthday gift.

As part of her talk to us in the church, Kidd discussed racism as a lingering result of slavery. I’m glad to see her write about this, talk about it, push the discussion. We have not yet had an honest recognition in the south of the apocalyptic horror that happened here. Shamefully, even now in the 21st century we still hear weasel language about heritage and history and obtuse bullshit about the Confederate battle flag, without acknowledgment of what that “history” was really about.

Books like The Invention of Wings are moving us in the right direction, and I’m grateful to Kidd for adding to the necessary conversation. This is part of what writers can do. As Kidd said, “What I really want readers to take away is to feel what it might be like to be an enslaved woman.”

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Filed under Book Talks, How We Create Magic