Monday, February 21, 2005

Tangent on Tangents

A few weeks ago I noted that I had gotten off on a tangent in the novel that seemed to be taking me away from the main story line, so I yanked it out and put it in a file called Rough Cuts. It turns out that I am finding I need that tangent after all; it is an integral part of the storyline and that I would be missing an important part of the development of Bobby as both a person and a man if I didn't use it.

So it's going back in but not in the same way I wrote it at first; in fact, nothing in the early version is useable. But the idea works, and that's where I'm going to take it from.

Without getting into massive detail, I realized that at this point in the story Bobby needs to come to some very powerful realizations. The first is that he is about to begin his adulthood; childhood and adolescence are behind him now and he has to come to grips with What Happens Next. Right now he is applying to college not out of any desire to further his education but because that's what's expected of a young man about to graduate from a prestigious New England boarding school; preferably attending some place like Yale, Brown, or Princeton. It has to dawn on him at some point, though, that there is a reason for him to go to college. That all the things he's spent the last twelve years or so learning both in the class room and out are put to use and that he wants to learn more. But about what?

It also is the time for Bobby to begin to see himself in the third person; that the world does not revolve around him alone and that such abstract qualities as empathy and even love are not inwardly directed. He has to realize that the next step in his growing up is becoming aware of his place in other people's lives and that the "Bobby Cramer" he thinks he is may be someone completely different than how others see him. And like some people, he is uncomfortable with that. He seeks to hide that real part of himself - the one that people demand to see when they say to others, "Be Yourself." Does Bobby like himself, or does he feel more comfortable hiding behind a mask, and how long can he do it?

Something has to occur to flip that switch; to engage the gears to bring about the evolution of Bobby from adolescent to adulthood. I know it will be a difficult transition - I speak from experience - but it all starts very simply, and when I thought back to how to make it happen, the answer was already the file under Rough Cuts.

And so it goes forth.


Monday, February 14, 2005

Death of a Playwright

There have been a lot of articles on the passing of Arthur Miller last week. Let me add my voice to those, but let me also say that while a lot of people found it interesting to look back at his marriages or his politics, I honor his craft in writing. He was able to use the language and character in ways that were simply moving. There was no mysticism to his characters and Willy Loman is not a classic tragic figure; indeed, Miller details his portrayal of the tragedy of a common man in an essay in 1941:
In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his “ tragic flaw,” a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing — and need be nothing — but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless.” Most of us are in that category.
True genius lies in creating simple truths and portraying them with little flourish, and Miller did that in Death of a Salesman.

There will be endless analyses of his plays for as long as there are theatre scholars like me to pick them apart. Was Death of a Salesman a tragedy or a melodrama? Was it a portrayal of the inside of a man's mind as he descends into madness, or was it just the onset of Alzheimer's? Did he, like Williams, Inge, and the later works of O'Neill, keep writing the same play over and over? I suppose that's a testimony to his greatness, but it also separates the work from the man, and that diminshes both. Miller acknowledged that he put his life on the stage; most modern playwrights do. But he did it in such a way that he was able to touch each of us even if we did not grow up in Brooklyn; we all struggle with the little moments of life that at the time seemed monumental - like how to deal with the insult of "whipped cheese." That's genius.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Tribute

Today would have been my grandmother's 102nd birthday. She died on May 5, 1998. At her memorial service on August 2, 1998, I wrote about her and her influence on my life and her contribution to my development as a writer.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was almost twenty-one, I was a student at the University of Miami. I had a small apartment in a part of town called Coconut Grove, which was then a section of town that might be compared to Greenwich Village. Grammie lived in Bal Harbour, which is more like Park Avenue. When I could, I would spend weekends with Grammie at her apartment. We’d go out, maybe to a movie or to visit her sisters Marjorie and Dorothy, or to dinner at the Beach Club or the country club. She always let me drive her Mercedes — I think more for the pleasure of having someone else do the driving than for me to have fun behind the wheel. Sometimes, we’d just stay home, have dinner, and watch television; Saturday night sitcoms seemed to go along with her needlepoint.

For both of us, we were learning to live independently. For me, I was just starting out, finding my way around the real world of rent payment, grocery shopping, and getting to class from the third-floor walk-up cinder-block apartment on Virginia Street in Coconut Grove. Grammie was starting out, too. For the first time in nearly fifty years, she was living by herself; there was no cook, no maid, and no family except her two sisters who both had husbands and lives of their own. And we both had lessons to learn. For me, it was clear that I could learn by watching my grandmother deal with the ups and downs of starting a new life. For example, she was learning how to cook. There were successes, and there were some spectacular failures... like the time she tried to make cookies.

I don’t know where she got the recipe… perhaps out of a cookbook, perhaps a magazine. Wherever it came from, it didn’t turn out the way they were meant to, and what started out to be chocolate granola bars ended up being more like a concoction from a particle board manufacturer. She was woefully disappointed, and I tried manfully to eat them, but we both knew it was a lost cause, and she teased herself mercilessly about them. From then on, whenever she cooked for me, she made it clear that homemade cookies would not be the dessert. Ice cream and Pepperidge Farm were it from then on.

Those years in Miami were good times. She saw every play I was in at the University, sometimes not really caring for the play themselves but always supporting “her grandson, the actor.” I would return the favor for her, going with her to church sometimes, or going with her when she visited friends. And I really got to know her—not just as my grandmother, but as a person. I found out what was important to her, and she learned about what was important to me. I know that there were times when she may not have understood me, but I never doubted that she loved me, cared about my happiness, and shared both the joys and the sorrows that come with every life. And I knew when she was hurting how I could be there and comfort her as well.

About ten years ago she and I came to this little chapel one Sunday morning. The service ended as it always has, and I hope always will, with the hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God To-day.” I listened to her clear voice singing out. And then we sang the second verse:
It is the Wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
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 freshening breeze, And I’ll put back to sea.
I was struck with that phrase, “The Purer, Brighter Years,” and I thought, like the playwright that I am, what a wonderful title for a play that would make. Within a month the first draft of the play was written. It told the story of a woman, who, after years of living in a “retirement” community, decides to spend her last years in the summer home she and her late husband had built on the shore of Lake Michigan, and had been the beloved summer home of her children and many grandchildren. Her family is aghast. What could she be thinking of—how will she get through the harsh winters all alone? And she tells them that living here, hardship and all, where she spent some of the best years of her life, will be a worthy and fitting end to her life…she is seeking the purer, brighter years.

I thought a lot about Grammie as I wrote the play. I think I got her spirit in it, if not the reality—after all, I don’t think she’d have traded Hilton Head for here no matter what. But I know that she faced life—all of it; the struggles and the joys, with a grace and a dignity that few of us can match, and she did find those purer, brighter years.

Grammie, I’ve come here to see you safely ensconced in a place where I know you are among friends and beauty no matter what time of year it is, and forever at the address that I sent so many letters to as a child…Number 9. Thank you, Grammie, for your love and for sharing it with us. Thank you, Grammie, for your steadfast courage and faith and being an example to us. Thank you, Grammie, for giving us this place that has been and will always be a part of our lives, and thank you, Grammie, for being the bond that makes us all one family. Oh, and Grammie—thanks for the cookies.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Writing Rules

Folkbum has a tongue-in-cheek list of writing rules over at Liberal Street Fighter. I try to abide by most of them. And then again I don't.

I'm Working on It

The reason you haven't seen much posted here is because I'm working on the novel, and the more I work on it, the less time I have to blog about it. That's a good thing, right?

After redacting the tangent, I'm moving ahead with the storyline; Bobby's senior year at Winchester and all that goes with it - applying to colleges and getting a serious case of Senioritis.

I'm also mulling over posting some of the first parts of the Now and Then section for your perusal. If I do, it will be as a separate file in PDF format. Stay tuned.

Page count as of today: 806, but that's because I deleted about ten pages.