Monday, January 31, 2005
That Was Easy
Saturday, January 29, 2005
From the outset I knew the story of Bobby and Richard would be about people who were not extraordinary. The struggles they face are the same as just about everyone else, and the way they deal with them isn't heroic; sometimes their character flaws are maddening. That's the hardest part of writing this story: making the characters interesting as they face the ordinary struggles of growing up without resorting to cliches and tricks that make everything work. For example, in an early draft of the novel, Bobby is dead and the story is told as a flashback leading up to his death. Then the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald tapped me on the shoulder, (not to mention the opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia) and I threw that idea out. Having him dead makes it easy; a tug at the heartstrings and a neat ending of the story. To make it really interesting, Bobby is alive throughout the story and goes on living after it is over. It also leaves room for the sequel.
So how do I make these ordinary people interesting and worth writing about about? It has to do with identification. I am hoping that a lot of people who read the story - if they ever do - will identify with some of the feelings Bobby goes through as he grows up and falls in love. True, he's a gay rich kid that attends a New England boarding school (well, there is a pretty wide audience that identifies with that; trust me), but his feelings are universal to anyone who's fallen in love at the age of fifteen and then spent years trying to get that feeling back. You do not have to be a gay teenager to know what that's like. Who doesn't know what it's like to find themselves in the throes of a crush bordering on obsession - why else would they name a perfume after it?
Bobby isn't the only character in the story facing these questions. Richard is too, and I am sure that there are many people who can identify with a boy who all his life feels that he is somehow different than the other kids, but has to wait until he finds someone else who feels that same way before he can be fully comfortable with himself. That's not peculiar to being gay; everybody at one time or another feels like no one else understands what they're going through. Richard struggles with being afraid to tell his parents that he's gay - not because he is afraid they'll disown him (although that does cross his mind) - but because he doesn't want to embarrass them in front of their friends. How does he tell his younger brother without shaming him with his peers? And how do I write this without turning it into a Lifetime Movie starring Markie Post? It's not easy.
The answer lies in listening to the characters and trusting them as much as they've trusted me to tell their story. I know these people. I know what they're capable of doing, and better yet, they know what they won't do, and they'll tell me. The easy way out may be what I want, but it's not what they want. And it's their story.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
There are a lot of other characters, but these are the ones that have most of the lines right now.
Bobby Cramer - the main character. Born in 1961, the son of a prominent physician in Toledo, Ohio. Richard Barlow - the narrator. Born in 1962 and raised in the suburbs. Josh Blanchard - friend of Bobby and Richard and a wise observer of life. Sandy Fitzhugh - Bobby's first love.
The story takes place in a variety of locales, including the fictional island of St. Edmund in the Caribbean, the mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the suburbs of Boulder, Colorado, and a boarding school outside North Andover, Massachusetts. These guys get around.
Labels: Bobby Cramer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
The novel is in four parts. The first part, called Now and Then, is told in brief sections, jumping between December 1995 and the summer of 1980 when Richard met Bobby, told in the first person by Richard. The second part, Robert Holland Cramer, tells of Bobby's life in the third person yet from his point of view, the idea being that he has told the story to Richard, and Richard is re-counting it. The third part, The Class of 1981, is Richard's senior year of high school and his own life story. It's told in first person, as is the last part, Baker Street, the story of their life together up to 1995. You with me so far? Good...I'll need to refer back to this later, because none of this has been written down as an actual outline.
So where I am now is getting close to the end of the second part in the actual writing, and I've hit a little speedbump: an idea for a plot episode that I had and plowed ahead with for about ten pages is suddenly beginning to bother me. I usually cure these by going back and re-reading and revising a part that has nothing to do with the new stuff, so that's what I've been doing, hoping that the idea will resolve itself when I get back to it. If it doesn't, I'll gut it and start from that point all over again.
I wonder if that's considered as much a part of the writing process as the actual writing.
Page count as of last night: 805 (Courier 10 double space).
Labels: Bobby Cramer
Monday, January 24, 2005
Ten Years In
On January 1, 1995, I went out to my office in Harbor Springs, Michigan - that's where my computer was located - and began writing the first draft of what has become my current novel-in-progress, Bobby Cramer. I didn't have a title for it then, and two years into it I started it all over again when I switched from the Apple IIc to the Gateway. I had no idea where I was going with it; some would say I still don't, but I'm having a lot of fun, and last night when I stopped writing at 11:38 p.m., I was on page 784.
About five years ago I wrote the preface - the teaser, if you will. Here it is in its entirety.
The kitten is staring back at me. It looks startled, but it is unblinking, unmoving. Off in the distance I hear a series of high-pitched beeps. A soft female voice says, “Breathe.” I take a breath, the noise stops. I feel weak, my body heavy. I try to look around. Soft lighting, chemical smells, muffled sounds, people moving. The alarm sounds again and the voice repeats, “Breathe, Richard.” My throat is dry. I am very tired. Darkness moves in.That's enough for now. Back to work.
The light comes back slowly. My right hand is resting on my chest. A long metal cap like a thimble with a wire running from it encloses my index finger. I try to lift my arm, but it is too heavy. Once again I hear the beeping and I take a deep breath on my own.
My head is clearing. The kitten is a poster on the ceiling: Hang In There, Baby. I am in bed, the covers lightly tucked around me. My left leg throbs but I cannot move it.
“Are you awake?” says the voice. She is wearing a white coat, large glasses, and a shower cap. She smiles, adjusts something. “Where’s Bobby?” I whisper. She moves off. More darkness.
The next time I open my eyes she is at the foot of the bed. Someone who looks like Alan Alda in green scrubs and dark hair looks closely at my leg. “Need to loosen it a little.” A high whine, the smell of cut wood, the heaviness lessening. The noise stops. “Where’s Bobby?” I say.
The man looks at me. “You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Barlow.” He moves to my side. “Do you know where you are?”
“In a hospital, I guess.”
“Do you know which one?”
I try thinking, but nothing comes. For a moment I stare at him, then shake my head.
“You’re in Longmont United. Longmont, Colorado. Do you know how you got here?”
I shake my head again. Still nothing.
“Do you know the date?” says the woman.
“February something. Nineteen ninety-five.”
She puts a clear plastic tube into the needle in my arm.
“You’re still a little groggy,” says Alan Alda. “You’ve had surgery to reduce a fracture in your left ankle. I did the operation.”
“Thanks. Where’s Bobby?”
He pats my hand gently. “We’re going to keep you overnight for observation. Go back to sleep. We’ll talk later.” He looks at the nurse, she nods, and the kitten fades into the growing darkness. (Copyright 2005 by the author.)
Labels: Bobby Cramer
Saturday, January 22, 2005
Writing On Writing - The Series
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing on Writing - Part 1
I cannot remember a time when I could not read. I’m sure that there was such a time when I would look at signs, books, or words on a page and they meant nothing, but I don’t remember it. I’m not sure when I first became aware of letters forming words that formed sentences that expressed thoughts. All I know is that when it happened, it was like it was always there.
So words and language have always been a part of my life. Our house was filled with books of all sorts, from fiction to biographies to art and even pictures. Sometimes I would pull a book down just to read the dust jacket. I remember lying in bed as a child sometimes reading the same book over and over until I knew the characters and plot by heart. I would write stories in my head to fill the time – usually in school, daydreaming and staring out the window, which caused my parents no end of anxiety when the report cards came home. Like all children, I needed an escape; a place where life was more to my shaping. And the characters that populated those stories were my friends – not the real ones that I went to school with, but the ones from the books.
When I was twelve, I received two gifts that changed my life. The first was a small blue Sears portable typewriter. I never took a typing class, but within a few weeks I taught myself how to get by, and thanks to the remarkable invention of erasable typing paper, I became a fairly neat and proficient typist. The second came in the form of a series of books that belong to my father; the Swallows & Amazons stories by Arthur Ransome. Written in the 1920’s and 30’s, they are twelve tales of six children (and more friends added in as the series progressed) sailing small boats in the Lake District in England and having all sorts of fun adventures that only children in children’s stories can have. I loved the books – I too learned to sail at a young age on a lake – and Ransome wrote in such a way that he was never condescending to his characters or his readers. Oh, how I wanted to be one of those kids. One of the first things I remember writing was my own attempt at a Swallows & Amazons adventure of my own. I also loved the fact that I was able to share something that had entertained my father as a child; I remember him reading the first of the stories aloud to me, and how he would often stop in the middle of a sentence to tell me something about his own childhood memories of sailing on Lake Minnetonka. It brought me closer to him, and it was something I could do that did not require the athletic prowess that my other brothers came by naturally. I didn’t play football or hockey very well, but in the summers Dad and I could sail. (By the way, my father still has the books, all first editions. In 1975 I found the entire collection published in paperback in a small bookstore in Stratford, Ontario. I splurged and bought the whole lot.)
Reading and writing became a refuge for me. This is no small thing when you’re not a great student or athlete and you’re beginning to figure out that you’re not straight, either. Talk about your triple threat. So the typewriter and English class became the escape route; often at the detriment of other studies (for which I spent a number of years in summer school to make up for mathematics grades). I was content to read, to write, to just get by. And then two things came along that awakened in me the true realization of what language and its forms really meant. They were theatre and boarding school. To this day those two elements have combined to shape my life and how I see it and deal with it.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing on Writing - Part 2
Eighth grade sucks.
At least it did for me, and from what I can gather from my friends and my few years of teaching, we're all agreed that it's the toughest year in school. It's the last year before high school, puberty is in full rage, and you really are between childhood and maturity. I was never a great student for all sorts of reasons, and that school year of 1966-1967 just brought it all to a head.
My parents were at a loss to get me motivated, so they decided that perhaps if I went off to a boarding school, just as my siblings had done, that kind of structured environment would somehow help. After touring several schools in New England, I was accepted at St. George's in Newport, Rhode Island for the fall of 1967.
To make a long story short, it was a disaster mostly of my own making. I was homesick, I found the academic load crushing, and I was a kid from small-town Ohio in the rarified air of New England preppiedom and an easy target for the inevitable bullying that happens at an all-boys school. Within a month I was miserable, and since I had nowhere else to turn - television was not allowed and my parents, in an attempt to coerce me into studying, had not allowed me to take my stereo with me - I spent hours in the library reading nothing that had anything to do with schoolwork. I also became more stoic - learning not to react to the torment - and I turned that anger into writing. I filled notebooks with short stories, rarely finished, and most of them describing revenge against my tormentors. English was the only class where I consistently got good marks.
But that wasn't enough, and after one year I gave up and returned home to my old school where I was welcomed back as if I had never left. And what a difference that year made. While my grades didn't show it, I was enjoying school more and I made more friends. I found Jenny Hankins, an English teacher who actually cared about my writing and encouraged it, poring over my scribblings with a fine hand, always cajoling me to do better even as she told me that what I was doing was very good. And she turned my anger into something more useful, making me examine the characters for their motivations; if I wrote about a bully, she made me explore what made him that way. She focused on looking at the objective - what made people the way they are and how others reacted to them. She also ignited an interest in reading plays - she gave me my first look at the works of writers like Samuel Becket and Ionesco - and when the school decided to put on a production of John Patrick's The Curious Savage she prompted me to try out.
Whether it was in class or on the stage, I couldn't get enough of theatre. Shakespeare daunted me (and he still does), but modern works such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Robert Anderson and the avant-garde stuff emerging on the off-off-Broadway scene fascinated me. I even began to try my hand at writing a play or two - mercifully never produced except for a skit or two - and I found a group of friends who also liked doing it. As it happens in all high schools, I found my clique. When it came time to think about college, I knew what I wanted to major in, and thanks to the drive and determination forged at St. George's and the encouragement of Jenny Hankins (now Barthold), I entered the University of Miami bound and determined to become the Next Great Thing in American Drama. As they say, the best laid plans...
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing on Writing - Part 3
I wanted to be an actor. It was fun, I could be someone else, and there wasn’t a lot of math involved. So when I started looking for colleges, I wanted to find once with a good drama department. I knew I didn’t have the grades to make it into some place like Yale, so I looked at a couple of large places – Northwestern and the University of Miami – and small – Lake Forest and Fort Lewis. (Fort Lewis is a small college in Durango, Colorado, and a couple of my friends were also applying.) Northwestern and Lake Forest took one look at my GPA and said No, and Fort Lewis didn’t have a separate drama program; they said I could major in English with an emphasis in drama. They also suggested I go to summer school before enrolling.
That left the University of Miami. I had been to Florida once before but never to Miami, even though my grandmother lived there. I came down during the spring break of my junior year to look at the school and was immediately impressed by two things – they had a real drama department, and it was 80 degrees. I had spent the first week of spring break skiing with my family, and the bright tropical sun and warm breezes sold me on it. Remember, I had grown up in the cold grey twilight of northern Ohio winters, where cars rusted out in months and spring had to claw its way north, arriving barely breathing by May. But strolling across a campus where students were walking around in shorts and the university’s sales pitch - “Every Semester is Spring Semester” - got to me. I didn’t even look inside the university’s theatre, The Ring. I know right then was going to go to UM. And a year later, I was accepted.
When I arrived in September 1971, four days before my nineteenth birthday, I moved into Mahoney Hall, a large six-story structure on the northeast edge of the campus that looked like an overgrown Howard Johnson’s. It had no air conditioning, the aluminum jalousie windows providing the only ventilation, and it was teeming with freshmen from all over the world – but mostly, it seemed, from New York City. (My roommate, also a drama major, was from Great Neck.) It was quite a change from a small town and private school in Ohio, but it was also exhilarating – I was on my own, I was off on a career in the theatre, and it was going to be fun.
I immediately declared my major in drama, got signed up for my classes, and auditioned for every play that was available. To my enormous surprise, I was cast in the very first show I tried out for – a small character part, but still, it was a part. (As the late Avery Schreiber once noted, “There are no small parts…just short pay.”) The play, The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar, was my first foray into a period comedy and the director took great pains to teach us exactly how to play the parts. He was also the designer of the set and lighting and had spent the summer reworking Farquhar’s cumbersome Restoration script into something that could work with a modern audience and college actors. At the time I didn’t realize what a tremendous effort it was to mount such a production, but I soon learned. I was soon immersed in every aspect of theatre and production, from building scenery, studying acting, theatre history, even taking voice and dance classes. I loved every moment of it. I had found a home.
But the writer in me started to grow impatient. One night I sat down at my typewriter to crank out a report on Stanislavski when my roommate complained that he couldn’t find a suitable monologue for acting class. In about fifteen minutes I batted out something – no more than a page – and handed it to him. He read it, liked it, and in an hour he had it memorized. He did it in the next class and got an A. The teacher didn’t ask him where it had come from, but word soon got around that I could write, and several other students asked me to provide them with material. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t like it was something I thought could be as fun as being an actor – I was cast in three more shows that year, spending more time on stage than many of my classmates. Writing was something that could wait.
Later that year I wrote a letter to the editor of the college paper about some issue now long forgotten. He printed it and the next day called me up and offered me a job as a columnist with the paper. They would pay me ten dollars a column. Wow! Getting paid to write! I accepted immediately and began writing about anything that struck my fancy – kind of like blogging. It went over pretty well, I guess, because the next year they brought me back and gave me an op-ed position. It was easy to do – I could crank out a column in an hour and rarely had to re-write – and people liked what I wrote. But I was still a drama major, and when I graduated in May 1974, my degree was in acting.
But there were two little things bugging me. First, what exactly do you do with a degree in acting? Go to New York? Hollywood? Star Search? I had no idea. And second, the day after graduation, I had lunch with my parents and the man who had first directed me in The Beaux’ Stratagem and who has remained a very close friend and mentor to this day. I remember him looking at me and shaking his head sadly; “You wasted your time getting a degree in acting. You’re a writer. Do that.” I have never forgotten those words, and I’m very glad he said them.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing on Writing - Part 4
The Uintah Range in northeast Utah is the only mountain range in the United States that runs east to west. It is a rugged range with high peaks that include King’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the state. It was also where I spent the summer of 1974 as part of an outdoor education course through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) of Lander, Wyoming. It was my college graduation present.
The course started out in Lander at the NOLS headquarters, an old lumber yard. NOLS was founded in the 1950’s by Paul Petzoldt, a rugged outdoorsman who as a teenager climbed Grand Teton Peak solo in the middle of winter. He started NOLS to teach people how to live in the wilderness and in doing so develop a sense of independence and learn about their own limits and abilities. Perhaps it was the last elements that got to me to go. I had never been an outdoorsy kind of guy, although as a kid I had spent two summers at camp in the Rockies learning to ride horses and hike the trails. NOLS, however, would be different. My group (or “expedition”) was made up of twenty or so men and women from ages sixteen to forty-five. We would be out for six weeks learning all there was to know about hiking, backpacking, and living in the wilderness.
Among the pieces of equipment I carried was 3 x 5 spiral notebook with 70 pages. I had picked it up on impulse at a newsstand in Denver’s Stapleton Airport while I waited for my Frontier flight to Wyoming. I had never kept a diary before, but something made me spend the twenty-nine cents. I started keeping a detailed journal of the trip right then: the first entry was on Sunday, June 9, 1974 at 10:15 a.m. And I was faithful to that little book for the next six weeks, often writing small entries two or three times a day of my moods and impressions, even down to what I had for dinner each night. I kept a separate notebook for the classes we had on flowers, first aid, mountaineering, and so forth, but this little notebook was my refuge. It was small comfort, but when you have nothing to read other than a rather worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, it was all there was.
The last four days of the expedition were spent on what they called “survival.” All of the remaining packed-in food has been either eaten or burned; you are left with nothing but your backpack, your cooking equipment (including a fishing pole), and your clothes. The members of the expedition are split up into groups of four or five and given directions on where to go and when to meet up at the trailhead at a specific time four days hence. With that, you’re off.
My little group made good time in our first couple of days and we found ourselves on the shore of a small but fishless lake on the east side of King’s Peak, twenty miles from the trailhead and day ahead of schedule. Two of my group decided to hike over the next pass and look for a lake that had fish, and another member, who had taken a vow of silence for the duration of the survival, went off in another direction to explore and be by himself. That left me alone at the campsite to ward off any wildlife. And so I spent an entire day alone in the middle of a mountain valley.
At first it was pleasant enough – I slept for a while, made a diary entry, watched some hawks and even caught a glimpse of some elk and mountain goats on the far side of the lake. It wasn’t until about noon that the silence and the solitude began to get to me.
I was all alone. For the first time in my life I could not see or hear another human being, and I was in the middle of a valley that was probably five miles long and at least a mile wide. The only sounds were the wind in the trees, the occasional bird call, and the lap of the water on the shore of the lake. And since there were no walls to echo, even if I shouted, my voice would go nowhere. And even though it was a clear and warm day in the middle of July, I couldn’t help a feeling of foreboding, as if there was some kind of danger out there.
Maybe it was the lack of food. Maybe it was the solitude – I hadn’t read a newspaper or heard a radio broadcast in four weeks (and this was the summer that Watergate was reaching its climax; we were all wondering what was going on “out there” – would we come out of the wilderness to find Nixon was no longer president?) Maybe it was the realization that if something was to happen to me that day that no one would know and nothing could be done. A ruptured appendix? A slip on a rock? Evacuation would take days, and all they could do is carry out my body.
King’s Peak loomed over the valley. Our hike in had taken us three-quarters up the side of that mountain before coming down to the shore of the fishless lake. There was no sign of human habitation anywhere. I suddenly felt very alone, very scared, very lost. I wrote an entry in my course notebook: “The wilderness does not care if I live or die out here. It doesn’t notice me. We humans are so arrogant to think we can do anything more than just survive out here without the grace and permission of nature.”
Late that afternoon the rest of my group returned with a nice catch of fish and we ate well that night – it sure beat chewing on mountain bluebell salad as we had done for the first couple of nights.
It would be another two years before the meaning of that solitary day would come clear to me. As in the fashion of all good theatre majors, I discovered that the only way to avoid getting a job in the real world was to go to grad school, and I had done so in the fall of 1975, entering the University of Minnesota to get my masters. But this time I had a goal – getting into teaching – and after a semester of trying acting, the words of my old professor came back, and I switched my field of study to playwriting. One of the degree requirements was to write a play and have it produced. I didn’t know it then, but my little spiral NOLS diary would come in very handy.
Writing on Writing - Part 5
Writing fiction is just taking life and making it interesting.
In the summer of 1976 I got a job as a camp counselor in Colorado. It was part of my plan to get into teaching; what better way to get some experience with kids than spend a summer with them? It was also at a camp where twelve years before I had spent one of the happiest times of my life – four weeks in the mountains learning to ride horses and hike up mountains. My brother and I had ridden out to camp on a train – the Denver Zephyr – from Chicago, and I remember riding the bus up the winding road to the camp and being awestruck by the mountains. One particular peak stood out above the rest. It was still covered with snow in mid-June and I wondered how anyone could ever climb it. Four weeks later I stood on top of it with a group of fellow hikers, shivering in the wind and tossing snowballs on the glacier.
Now I was back there at the mature age of 23, ready to share my NOLS-learned wisdom with these eager young boys for the next eight weeks. I shared a cabin with another counselor named Bill, and while he was a few years younger than me, he had been a camper there for many years (I had only been to camp for two summers; summer school intervened) and he’d also been a counselor the year before, so I learned from him, too. He taught riding, and one Friday morning two weeks into the camp term he went off on a ride with some boys while I and another counselor took a group off on an overnight trip to a nearby campground. I used some of my outdoor cooking skills learned in the Uintahs to make dinner that night, and later we sat around the campfire, told ghost stories, and listened to the owls and the coyotes.
The next morning as we were making breakfast the camp’s assistant director drove out to our campground and told us that Bill had died the night before. He had a congenital heart defect and he had collapsed while playing dodge ball with the other campers after dinner. There was nothing anyone could do – he was dead before he hit the ground.
The campers were young and perhaps this news didn’t really sink in, but it hit me as if Bill was my brother. For the next couple of days I was in shock, and as the activities at camp resumed after a brief interval, I found myself wondering why Bill’s death hurt so much. I hardly knew him for more than a few weeks, and we didn’t really spend that much time together outside of our work at camp. So what was it? Perhaps it was the fact that I had never really known death close up – and that I had seen Bill alive and well one day and come home the next to find him gone. When I got back to the cabin that afternoon, all of his possessions had been packed up and moved out. It was as if he had never been there. Life went on, and no sign of him was left.
A few weeks later I took a day off and drove several hours through the mountains to visit my nephew who was attending another camp in southern Colorado. We spent a nice day together and I left in time to get back before dinner. As I was driving lots of thoughts ran through my mind, one of them being that as a master’s candidate in playwriting at the University of Minnesota, I had to write a play and have it produced in order to complete my degree requirements. I had never written a full-length play before, much less had it produced. I didn’t know any directors or theatres that would produce a new play, and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. But that all was far away in the future that July afternoon; I just had to come up with an idea for a play with a plot, characters, and an interesting story to put them in. Thoughts churned in my head – what kind of conflict could I tell? What kind of characters would be interesting? What was the message? Random thoughts kept popping in and out as I wound my way along the Front Range. I remembered hiking up a mountain with the kids the day before, running and getting under protection as a sudden thunderstorm crashed down on us, trying desperately to remember my rudimentary first-aid training if one of the kids should get hurt – we were so far from the trailhead that even a minor injury was serious. What if disaster had struck? What would we do? Bill came into my mind, followed by a flashback to my lonely day by the fishless lake on the survival in my NOLS class. How the wilderness did not care – we were no more than microbes to the mountains and the forest. What would happen if someone tried to fight back?
People talk about having moments of blinding inspiration, and at that moment I knew what they were talking about. I pulled my car off to the side of the road next to a large boulder, got out, and stared up at the cliffs along the steep red canyon walls. I had my story: lost and frightened boys on a wilderness course in the mountains, not trusting their leaders, easy prey to fear and self-doubt. Only one of them, Elliott, seemed to know all the answers, and he would betray them as well. It was all there. I could see the characters, I knew their names, I knew where they came from, and I knew what made them do what they did. And I even knew the title. I drove back to camp as fast as I could, arriving just as a thunderstorm was building over the mountains behind me, and hurriedly penciled the outline on a single piece of paper.
That night the thunderstorm broke heavily over the mountains and created a horrible flood in a canyon ten miles from where I was sleeping, taking out trees, homes, and killing many people who were suddenly trapped by the rising waters as a huge wall of water tore down the Big Thompson Canyon. It was in the national news the next day and the whole camp turned out to help with the rescue and rebuilding. Nature and the wilderness had proven its power once again.
When camp was over and I drove back to Minnesota, I saw the mountains disappear slowly in my mirror, fading in the late summer haze and finally disappearing as I reached the prairie. But the outline of the play was still with me, and by the first week of October I had written a first draft. Borrowing heavily from my little spiral notebook diary from my NOLS expedition, the loss of Bill, and the force of nature demonstrated in the Big Thompson canyon, I took six teenaged boys and four counselors out into the Colorado mountains and pitted them against themselves, each other, and the wilderness. A fellow grad student in directing read it, liked it, proposed it for production, and the following April The Hunter had its world premiere. I finished my degree and graduated in August. But I didn’t attend the ceremony; I was back out at camp in Colorado, hiking in the mountains.
Writing on Writing - Part 6
There’s something ironic about students who get lousy grades all the way through high school ending up as teachers, but when you think about it, who better? After all, we know all the tricks of avoiding doing work in subjects we thought were dull, and “just getting by” is the mantra we all chant until we find something that sparks our interest. In between there is the torture of summer school, the pain and suffering of quarterly grading periods, and strenuous attempts by parents to get their kids to do their homework. It was a constant struggle, and by such struggle our lives our shaped. So it was only natural that I turned to a profession that shaped me. Besides, teaching runs in my family. Two of my great aunts, three uncles, and countless cousins have entered the profession. One of my uncles gave up a promising business career to become a teacher in California. So there has always been something tugging at me in some way to be a part of the educational system, either genetically or, as some might say, pathologically.
I spent the winter of 1976-1977, before I finished my masters, looking for a teaching position. I contacted several agencies that are renowned for finding qualified teachers for private schools, and they took me on as a candidate for teaching English and drama. Even though I had taken only a couple of courses in college English, a produced playwright is deemed capable of explaining the intricacies of grammar and composition, and besides, someone needs to direct yet another high school production of Our Town. I interviewed at several schools across the country but landed nothing, and by the time I was done with my second summer at camp, I was out of options. I went home for a month or so, then packed up my Ford Granada and drove out to Santa Fe to visit an uncle and his family who were living there for a year while he was on sabbatical. I arrived in Santa Fe in October 1977 and promptly fell in love with the desert and the mountains; it was like being back at camp, except it was exotically different, with the sharp reds of the hillsides and strange desert plants taking the place of the evergreens and glaciers. I stayed with my relatives for a few weeks, and then found a house to share with a couple of other guys. I met a teacher who was running a one-room private school in an industrial park and volunteered to teach there until I ran out of money. I taught everything from sixth grade English to high school algebra (my own worst subject), and learned that teaching is not as simple as reading out of a textbook and dodging spitballs. But by doing algebra and grammar from the other side of the desk, I learned an awful lot – probably more than the students. Suddenly algebra made sense: it’s a language with nouns, verbs, and modifiers, except it uses numbers. English grammar has its own peculiar logic, but it can be bent to the will of the writer with skill and purpose, and word choices become ever so important. I was just beginning to get the feel for it when the reality of being broke hit hard, and I left the school to take a job as a chairlift operator at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. That was fun, but I knew that I needed to get back to teaching.
I kept looking for teaching jobs. I spent the year after Santa Fe doing a myriad of things, including a stint as a news reporter for a small-town radio station in Michigan, and now it was July 1979, a time when schools had long ago hired their new faculty, and I did not want to move in with my parents yet again. I was desperate – I didn’t want to move back in with my parents (and they weren’t thrilled with that prospect, either). Then out of the blue there came an offer from a private school in a medium-sized city in the Midwest to teach English. I loaded what I could get into my 1974 Jeep Wagoneer, found a furnished apartment in this city, and there began what I hoped would be a long and satisfying career in education.
At first I loved being in the classroom, getting to know the kids, trying to find out what were their strengths and how I could reach them. I was taken under the wing of several veteran teachers, and I tried as hard as I could to find the one way that worked for me. But there were lessons to be learned; the most important being that teaching, especially in private (or “independent”) education is more than lesson plans and knowing your field. It also means learning the hierarchy of the political aspects and acting accordingly. Forget your degrees – to some parents you’re a servant, just like the housekeeper, and the kids pick up on that. Some teachers play that game very well, but I don’t; I’m either too dense or too stubborn. By the end of the school year I was painfully aware of the fact that I was not fitting in to this particular type of teaching, and I also wondered if perhaps I should set my sights higher, such as college teaching. But for that I needed to go back to grad school, and I wasn’t ready to quit…yet. It took another two years before I finally threw in the towel.
Just like at St. George’s, writing became my refuge. A friend offhandedly commented that my play, The Hunter, sounded like it would make a good novel. I batted the idea around until the storyline became clear, and then one weekend I sat down at my IBM Selectric and within two hours I had ten pages. It became my all-consuming vocation – when I wasn’t doing my schoolwork, I was writing. Elements of my teaching and camp experiences came into the story, the characters taking on the characteristics of people I knew, growing from the images of the kids I’d first imagined on that day in 1976. I kept most of the plotlines, but expanded on them and plowed ahead, filling in the spaces that had been only suggested in the play. Two years and a year into my first year of graduate school at the University of Colorado, the novel was finished.
Now what? Well, of course: send it to a publisher, sign the contract, get the huge advance, do the book tour, enjoy watching Hollywood fight over the rights, watch Tom Cruise take the role of Elliott, and accept the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Then wake up and realize that everybody and their dog was writing the Great American Novel. Take a number, get in line, and file the rejection letters alphabetically.
But something had happened between that first weekend of writing and the day I wrote “The End.” I found that I loved the process more than anything else. I loved seeing the characters grow and take on their own lives and guide my fingers as I wrote. They became a part of me, which is only natural since they are me. When I was done, I didn’t want to let them go. Publishing became less important to me than the process, and after a fitful attempt at finding someone interested in publishing it, I put the novel in an empty stationery box and put it away, content in the knowledge that I could, if I wanted to, write a novel. I didn’t care if anyone ever read it.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing on Writing - Part 7
The difference between playwriting and most other forms of creative writing is that it isn't a solo effort. For a novel or a short story, all you need is a reader. Sure, you can read the script and understand the plot and the characters, but the script is like a blueprint with all the internal workings - stage directions, costume and prop lists - included. In order for the play to be completed, you need a director, a cast, a stage, sets, lights, costumes, and an audience. And in order for the message to get across, the playwright needs to know the language of the stage.
It's a cumbersome medium. Putting on a play is hard work, and there are all those other people who have to put in their two cents; the director, the designer, the producer, and worst of all, the actors. (I once heard a designer refer to actors as "props with feet.") And they're all there with their egos and "concepts" to interpret the story the playwright has crafted. The results are sometimes surprising.
When The Hunter was written, it was my first foray into letting a work of mine go off on its own. The director was a man with very strong ideas of his own - including not allowing me to attend many of the rehearsals. I was stunned, and it led to a tense relationship between us for a while; both of us had to learn about the playwright/director relationship. (Rule Number 1: both playwright and director need to learn how to trust each other.) But when the play was finally ready for staging, I was both surprised and amazed that what I had written six months before was suddenly on the stage. Those actors were speaking my lines. The audience was listening to my words. And when it was all over, everybody clapped. I went to the director and cast afterwards and paid them the highest compliment I could think of: "It's what I meant to say."
The reviews were pretty good. Not great, but what could I expect for my first effort? One thing I found intriguing was reading reviews written by Intro To Drama students who had no idea that the playwright was a fellow student at the University of Minnesota. I learned a lot about my characters and what the play said to them - things I had no idea were in the play. I was invited to speak to a class about my play and one student asked me a very complex question about the psychological background of the main character. For a moment I tried to come up with something that sounded intelligent, but in the end I just said, "Well, I really don't know - I just wrote the play, that's all."
One of the questions most often asked of playwrights is "Why do you write plays?" (The smartass answer is that there's no heavy lifting required.) It's usually asked in terms of other forms of writing - why plays instead of novels or poetry? I can't speak for other playwrights, but it has to do with the characters. When I become acquainted with a character that I want to write about, I see them in their world and I know how I want to tell their story. Sometimes it's a play, sometimes it's not, and sometimes, like The Hunter, I can make them work in both. The format of playwriting isn't that hard, but it does require thinking in terms of the stage. What you can tell in five pages in a novel has to be distilled to an action, a line, or a monologue in a play. The audience fills in the rest, and you have to trust them - and yourself - to make it work. And sometimes you see the characters in a way that only a novel is the way to tell the story. That's the case with my current piece in progress.
The second most often-asked question of playwrights - or any author - is "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer is simple: from me. It sounds trite, but writers do write about what they know best, and that's themselves. They find something in their lives that they feel they must express and out it comes. The plays that I have written have all been about characters that are me or like me and what is important to them. And I'm not alone. Contemporary playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, August Wilson, Sam Shepard, and Lanford Wilson, just to name a few, have turned the stage into the psyschiatrist's couch where all the slights and turmoils of their lives are analyzed and dissected for all to see. (Not that I would compare my work for an instant to any of those writers - they are lightyears beyond my feeble efforts.) It's not unique to playwriting. Contemporary fiction and film has become character-driven, sometimes taking a plot along just to keep the action moving. I've written, at last count, four full-length plays since The Hunter, and I revised it heavily when I directed a production of it in 1984. (Don't ask - a playwright shouldn't direct his own stuff.) All of the works since then have been about characters who are trying to find themselves a place in the world and what they're supposed to do in it. That sounds like me.
Oh, one question I get asked a lot is "Why is it spelled 'playwright'?" To wright means to craft, as in "to build." Playwrights, like sculptors or blacksmiths, form something out of words and assemble them for presentation. It's merely a trick of the language that "playwright" and "playwriting" sound alike. But it's a happy coincidence.
Writing on Writing - Part 8
Inspiration, at least with me, shows up unexpectedly. More often than not I will be doing something completely unrelated to a creative effort when all of a sudden, there is an idea which leads to a thought which then leads on to more ideas, and finally to the keyboard. There have been at least two times when such inspiration has changed the direction of my life.
In October of 1983 I was in my second year of grad school at the University of Colorado and working in the scene shop building sets. As a grad student I got to share a small office with a couple of other grad students, one of whom was a TA in an acting class. On his desk was a copy of 5th of July by Lanford Wilson, and one afternoon while waiting to go down to the shop I picked it up and started reading the play.
I'd heard of Wilson and even seen a snippet of 5th of July when Showtime filmed it with Richard Thomas and Swoozie Kurtz, but I'd never paid much attention to his work. I knew another play of his, Talley's Folly, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. But this play nailed me. The characters were real, their dialogue was genuine, and Wilson's ear for the rhythm of their interaction was infallible. I read the script in forty-five minutes and went to work with the story running through my head. After work I borrowed the script from my colleague, took it home, and read it again. I was both in love with the play and extremely envious of the playwright - he was writing the way I thought plays should be written. I got my hands on every play of Wilson's that I could find. It turned out to be a lot; Lanford Wilson was (and still is) a very prolific writer. I read ten of his plays - everything from little one-acts to Broadway productions - over the next couple of weeks. No two plays were alike, yet it was clear they were all from the same voice, and while the characters were wildly different, they were all honest and strong. I was about to start reading the next batch when my advisor stopped by one day to ask if I'd given any thought to my plans for coming up with a topic for my dissertation.
Frankly, I hadn't. I had no idea what topic I would research, knowing that whatever I chose would be with me for the rest of my scholarly life. I'd thought about looking into a study of the evolution of realistic drama starting with August Strindberg, but I didn't speak Swedish and Strindberg was a decidedly unhumorous playwright. And then, thumbing through another collection of Wilson plays, I noticed that most if not all of the plays had been originally directed by Marshall W. Mason. Hmm. I looked through the other plays, and there he was again; 5th of July, Talley's Folly, Hot l Baltimore...all directed by Marshall W. Mason. And that, as they say, is when the light came on. A week later I submitted a proposal to my doctoral advisor that I would study the how a playwright and director work together and use the works of Lanford Wilson and Marshall W. Mason as my model.
For the next few years I was immersed in the plays and productions of Lanford Wilson. I directed a production of 5th of July at a community theatre, traveled to New York four times to meet with them, see their plays, and talk to other actors and directors about working with them. One such trip also launched my first foray into writing my first play since The Hunter.
I was sitting in the New York Public Library's Lincoln Center branch waiting for the copier to finish the clipping file of reviews of Wilson's plays. Out of boredom I thumbed through a thick book, a directory of New York actors. I stopped on the second page. There was the picture of a guy I'd gone to St. George's with. I hadn't seen him since 1968, but there he was, looking pretty much as he had eighteen years before. His phone number was listed, I jotted it down, and when I got back to where I was staying in Greenwich Village, I called him. After the usual exchange of "Wow, you remember me," we got together for lunch and spent three hours catching up, telling tales about our lives since those days and reliving the horrors of that freshman year. When I got back to Boulder, that three-hour meeting became the basis of Dark Twist, the story of two former classmates at a New England boarding school who return to become teachers at that school. They relive their time together; healing some old wounds, making some new ones, and coming to terms with themselves and their past.
When Dark Twist was produced, I wondered if after all the years of reading the plays of Lanford Wilson I was about to see a pale imitation of his writing with my own name on it. But Robert Anderson, who wrote Tea and Sympathy, once noted that while original ideas may be few and far between, every voice is unique. So is inspiration, no matter where it comes from. After all, Lanford Wilson hadn't gone to St. George's.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing On Writing - Part 9
Today is the first day of the 23rd Annual William Inge Theatre Festival, taking place at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. I'll be going there tomorrow. I’ve written about this event before, but I haven’t really examined the subject of this event and what his life and work represents to me and a lot of writers.
William Inge was born in Independence, Kansas (not to be confused with Independence, Missouri, the bustling suburb of Kansas City) in 1913. Located in the southeast corner of the state seventy miles north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Independence is one of those idyllic places that you see depicted in Norman Rockwell illustrations that evoke small-town America right down to the white picket fences and kids cruising the main drag on Friday nights. Independence is what people think of when they say “the heartland.” And it was from this seemingly ideal place that Inge created some of the most interesting and tortured characters in American drama. His best-known plays; Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba, as well as his Oscar-winning screenplay Splendor in the Grass, are all based on his life and times in this little town that today still looks much as it did when Inge was growing up.
Most playwrights have a common thread that runs through their work; in essence, they write the same play over and over. (If you have any doubts about that, look at the works of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.) This is because they are writing from the one thing they know best: their own life. Inge’s plays depict the lives and characters from his past; his family, his parents, his friends, and the hopes and dreams of a child who was not quite sure what was expected of him and who, as he grew up, became aware of things that were at odds with the only place he knew of as home. He never spoke of it in public or wrote openly about it, but Inge must have known as a young man that he was gay, and he dealt with it as most gay people of that time did – he suppressed it until he was able to escape so as not to embarrass himself or his family. Inge went to college at the University of Kansas and from there to a career in teaching, eventually ending up in St. Louis where he met Tennessee Williams. Inspired by Williams’s work, Inge began to write his own plays, and like Williams, he wrote about his life and his family and in doing so, he created an archetype character, the Handsome Young Man, that reflects many facets of Inge’s personality as well as his deeply-closeted feelings about himself and his desires.
Like a comet streaking across the sky, the Handsome Young Man, described in great detail by Inge in his stage directions as a muscular and confident youth in tight jeans and t-shirt, plays a role in nearly every play Inge wrote. Hal in Picnic, Bo in Bus Stop, Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba, and Sammy in Dark at the Top of the Stairs are all seen as breathtaking objects of envy, jealousy, and desire by both male and female characters. As a dramatic device they provide a turning point in the play – the focus of the action and reaction – and the danger and choice that must be faced by the people he touches. They are never depicted as evil or cruel; in fact, Inge paints them as lovable pups that blunder onto the scene and cause disruption through no fault of their own. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see what Inge was writing about. What makes his work amazing is that he so well depicted the people who surround this character and how they pin some kind of fulfillment of their small-town hopes and dreams on him. And when he leaves, as he inevitably must, they have to adjust their lives to his passing through and see how he has changed their world.
When I first was invited to attend the William Inge Theatre Festival in 1991, I knew very little about him, other than the fact that his niece was a family friend from my hometown in Ohio and that I had read and seen several of his plays. But when I saw Independence and saw the house he grew up in that provided the setting for Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (and, by the way, it is dark up there), and saw the places such as the country club and the picnic grounds and the diner and met his now-aged childhood friends, it became clear to me that Inge wrote with such a true voice about his life and his inner dreams. Over the years at the Inge Festival I have met playwrights who were contemporaries of Inge; Jerome Lawrence, Robert Anderson, Arthur Miller, John Patrick, and playwrights who make no bones about acknowledging Inge’s influence on their own writing, such as Neil Simon, John Guare, A.R. Gurney, Wendy Wasserstein, and Edward Albee. All of them share the common bond of writing their lives onto the stage much as Inge did and much as every playwright – including this humble scribe – still does. They all realize that the genius of Inge was not in creating these characters as much as it was in listening to the people he knew and loved and depicting them so truly.
Inge received the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic, and Bus Stop was turned into a star vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. He was considered to be one of the great playwrights of the 1950’s, but by the mid 1960’s his writing began to falter. He also faced personal demons including depression and alcoholism, exacerbated no doubt by having spent all of his life in the closet, and in June 1973 he committed suicide. He was buried in the cemetery in Independence. His gravestone says simply William Motter Inge – 1913-1973 – Playwright. I will stop by that marker on Saturday and say a quiet thanks from one small-town boy to another.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing On Writing - Part 10
There’s an old saying that a play is never finished; it’s abandoned. And if it’s not abandoned, it’s re-written over and over, even after it’s produced and published. It’s not that playwrights are mercurial and indecisive (well, we can be); it’s because a play is a blueprint and in order for it to be fully formed, it has to go through many hands – the director, the actors, and the designers – and they have their own ideas. A play becomes a piece of clay, molded and re-shaped as it is growing. Sometimes it’s a good thing – Lanford Wilson made extensive revisions to 5th of July (including changing the title to Fifth of July) between its original production in 1978 and its revival in 1980. Neil Simon took his 1965 hit The Odd Couple and re-wrote it twenty years later for an all-female cast: Felix became Florence; Oscar became Olive, and updated it from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, changing the opening scene to the gang playing Trivial Pursuit instead of poker.
Every so often a director will try to “improve” a play by making cuts or alterations, sure in his knowledge that he knows better than the playwright how the story should really be told. This usually happens when the play is new and the playwright – already a somewhat fragile creature and anxious to see the work on the stage – will consider making the requested changes, but it also happens with well-established plays. Shakespeare is always the victim of this. It’s not really surprising, though. Shakespeare wrote before the advent of such modern conveniences as indoor stages, lights, and directors, and I daresay that very few audiences would sit still for Shakespeare played in the authentic Elizabethan setting of the “wooden O.” I’ve seen productions of his plays in all sorts of settings with all sorts of cuts and alterations to the stories. Some have been glorious successes – a production of The Comedy of Errors by the Stratford Festival of Canada was set in the Old West using TV cowboy stereotypes like Maverick and Gabby Hayes to tell the story. And I have seen real turkeys, such as a production of The Tempest in the mode of Star Wars with Ariel as R2-D2. Shakespeare should have sued.
Playwrights have no obligation to allow directors to run roughshod over their plays. After all, it’s their work and their vision, and they are entitled to see it done the way they meant it. There are supposed to be safeguards; the Dramatists Guild’s standard production contract forbids any alteration to the script without written permission from the playwright or his agent, and there have been cases where playwrights have sued to halt productions that violate the rules. Edward Albee closed down a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when a company did it with an all-female cast. But that’s the rare exception, and all too often the original message of the play is in danger of being lost if a careless or self-indulgent director or producer gets ahold of it. A playwright knows this. And yet we keep on writing…and re-writing.
Why? Few other creative forms are subject to this sort of humiliation. No one would dare go into a novel, shuffle around chapters, remove characters, or change the setting without recrimination. (Can you imagine someone trying to redo Gone With The Wind set in 1940’s France with Scarlett and Rhett as gay lovers? I don’t think so.) Who would put a Speedo on Michelangelo’s David (besides John Ashcroft)? Even architects don’t allow changes to their designs even if they have drawn something that is nearly impossible to build. (I used to sell windows and doors; I know whereof I speak with architects.) So why would an author write in a form that practically invites meddling? Because sometimes there is no other way to tell the story.
I’m often asked how I know how to tell a story as a play as opposed to a novel or short story. The simple answer is that if I see a setting first, and then see the characters, it’s going to be a play. The Hunter was the in wilderness. The set for Dark Twist – a cavernous study hall at a boarding school – had been in my head since my year at St. George’s; eighteen years later I found the people to go in it. The scene design for The Purer, Brighter Years was around me for years; it takes place in a summer cottage up in Michigan, and I saw the living room in the house on the Florida Keys that is the set for my current opus, Can’t Live Without You, then borrowed characters from other works to enjoy the sunshine. But if I meet the characters first and get to know them, then chances are they won’t be in a play. They will spend more time with me than in a locale, and that will become a tale told in a book; or at least in a manuscript.
That is how I met Bobby. In November 1994 I was on vacation with my partner on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. We were having dinner one night at a nice little open-air restaurant at the Belham Valley Hotel, and I was in the middle of a nice piece of red snapper when I looked up and glanced across the room. Standing there looking at me was a young man about twenty years old. He had blond hair, grey-blue eyes, a nice build, and he was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. Nobody else in the restaurant noticed him because he wasn’t really there, but I could see him, and in an instant, I knew everything there was to know about him and what I didn’t know, I knew he would tell me.
I did not dash back to my room at the Vue Pointe Hotel and start writing. I knew Bobby would wait for me, and besides, I was on vacation. But when I got back home the story of his life and his world began to take shape on my little Apple IIc, and nine years, two moves (to New Mexico and then to Florida), and two computers later, I’m still writing about him growing up alone, going to boarding school, finding love, losing hope, and struggling with all the little things that make up his life. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish the story and I’m not sure I’ll even try to get it published if I do; I’m having far too much fun telling the story to let him go.
I know there are writers who write solely for the money. They crank stuff out and sell it immediately and make a comfortable living doing it. More power to them; I’d love to have an income source like that. But I have never sat down to write a story or a play with the goal that I would sell it. (Heck, with my plays I’m just happy to get a staged reading so I can hear someone else besides me read the lines.) I love the process of listening to the characters and having the scenes evolve as I write. Sometimes I have no idea where they’re taking me, but it’s always better than where I thought I would go by myself. And that makes it all worth it. Bobby’s story may never be finished, but at least he won’t be abandoned.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing On Writing - Part 11
I remember once years ago showing one of my plays to a colleague in grad school - I think it was Dark Twist. He read it, handed it back and sighed, "It's so you." Although I don't think he meant it that way, I took it as a compliment and was flattered.
There's no such thing as "true fiction." All the characters I create are me or an aspect of me, and if I model them on people I know, it's as if they're being seen through my eyes. Even the women sound like me, I suppose, although I must say that I have been accused - fairly - that I don't write stories with a lot of female characters. I don't know why that is; perhaps it's because I don't have a lot of "issues" with women and it's tough to write interesting characters if you get along well with them.
One thing I've learned as I write is that we human beings spend a lot of our adult lives making up and making amends for the slights and traumas of childhood. Writing is a wonderful way to change history. I was a geeky, scrawny teenager with terrible grades, so Bobby is strong, good-looking, and a B+ student. He makes friends easily; I did not. But I also gave him some struggles that I never had. He has a distant relationship with his parents; I am close to mine. And Bobby is, by the age of twenty, on the way to being an alcoholic. I don't drink, but that's because I've seen the effect it has on others and I'd rather not take the chance. He's me, just as is Richard, the narrator of Bobby's story, or Lee in The Hunter and the sequel The Purer, Brighter Years, Paul in Dark Twist, and Donny in Can't Live Without You. They're just different facets of the same person. Is there some deep psychological purpose in exploring all these different people with unique personalities and quirks? Is there some kind of multiple-personality disorder going on, or is it just a healthy form of artistic expression and exploration? Hell if I know; I'm just the writer.
Why do writers feel the need to change history? And what makes them think that anyone else could possibly care to read about their personal lives and the little mundanities that go with it? Is it all just a big ego trip?
I don't presume to speak for other writers. For me all I know is that there is something that is completed when I write a story. It is as if the struggle to get thoughts from my head through to the keyboard and into some coherent form on a page or a dance of electrons resolves and reshapes whatever it was that compelled me to tell the story in the first place. The characters that populate the story are my messengers and metaphors. (I have a friend - a fellow playwright and set designer - who describes actors as "props with feet.") As I said in the previous installment, it really doesn't matter to me whether or not the story is published or the play is produced. To me the act of completion is in the telling in my own words, not in having to tell the world. I save that for blogging.
Labels: Writing on Writing
Writing On Writing - Part 12
I was setting up my little stereo system last week after unpacking. To test it, I pulled out an old CD that I hadn't played in a long time; Nether Lands by Dan Fogelberg. The title song is the first cut, and my response, as always, was immediate and overwhelming. For a few moments I was glad I was alone in the house because I was sobbing uncontrollably.
That song always has that effect on me. I connect it with so many memories of living in Colorado (the album was recorded in Nederland, Colorado, up the canyon from Boulder), of spending my summers in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lyrics get right to me, especially the line,
I've seen the bottom and I've been on top, but mostly I've lived in between.I used the song when I directed a production of The Hunter in 1984 along with the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony. To me, both pieces added a great deal to the telling of the story, even if they only meant it to me. (I can't tell you how many times I've wondered where I will go when I get to the end of a dream.)
And where do you go when you get to the end of your dream?
I'm not particularly musical. I like listening to it, I have a decent collection of albums ranging from Bach to The Police, and I know enough about it to prefer listening to a good classical radio station over some of the crap that's out there now. I took voice lessons as a part of my theatre training and I can get by passably if I have to in a solo. I took folk and classical guitar lessons when I was in high school and did well enough to play at camp in groups and by myself, and I took piano lessons when I was ten or so to the point where I can sit down and thump something out if it's in C.
So what does that have to do with my writing? I don't know the conscious connection, but when I look back at my work, I find that music is threaded through the stories as a part of the element. It seems to set the tone, as it were. When I wrote The Hunter, Dvorak's plaintive tunes suggested mountains and wilderness, and the first line of Nether Lands, "High on this mountain, the clouds down below, I'm feeling so strong and alive," conveys many of the feelings of the main character. Dark Twist, the play about the boarding school, cites The Doors' Strange Days, an album that got me through many lonely times at St. George's by pretty much summing up how I felt about the place. The title of The Purer, Brighter Years is drawn from a line in a hymn that is sung every Sunday in the chapel near where my family spent our summers.
It is the winds of God that dries my vain regretful tears,The play is about an elderly woman who gives up living in a retirement home to spend her last years living in her house on Lake Michigan, so I thought the sentiment was perfect for Bessie as she took up her life in the northwoods.
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years.
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel thy fresh'ning breeze,
And I'll put back to sea.
The connection, then, must be what we called in acting class "sense-memory recall." If you want to evoke a memory of something, use something from another sense - a smell, a sound, an image - to bring it back and work from there. The sense of smell works best, according to psychologists, but since Smell-O-Vision doesn't work on the stage or the page (no, I'm not going to include Scratch-n-Sniff in my manuscripts), sound is the next best thing to pull out the memories. Radio stations have figured this out, especially in targeting the baby boomers; why do you think the "Classic Rock" format with hits from the '60's and '70's is so widespread? Play a cut by the Beach Boys and suddenly it's the summer of 1967 when you were young, strong, and in love: pliable to buy whatever the advertiser wants to sell you.
When I sit down to write I hear music in the background - either real or imagined - just as I hear the dialogue and see the movements of the characters. It's part of finding the Muse and including her in the process of turning thoughts to words. It's an incredibly personal thing - I never know exactly what feelings will come through. But just as Nether Lands brings out my own memories, maybe in some small way the words and images it helps form will convey those feelings to the reader. And that is the whole point.
Labels: Writing on Writing