Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Press Box

Several years ago, I was working on a story on a minor league hockey player. It was fun. I went to a bunch of games and got to interview the player several times as he tried to impress hockey scouts and stay motivated. He never really did, but that wasn't my problem. Along the way I got to hang out with the coaches and ask all the questions you want to ask but don't have time for usually, such as, how do you keep a player motivated who has one foot in the NHL? It was great.

One day I was in the press room just before a game and a guy walked in who was dressed all in black. Black turtleneck with black blazer, black sunglasses, itty bitty black cell phone. The whole bit. I knew right away that he was a former star player in the NHL. He was surrounded by a small posse of much shorter men, all dressed exactly as he was, cell phones included. He carried with him the confidence or arrogance, or perhaps it was just the echo of these things, that heralded his former status. I looked up at him, registered all this, and then looked back down to my notebook to continue writing. This guy, whoever he was or had been, didn't concern me in the least, because he wasn't part of my story.

Then a weird thing happened. The press guy for this minor league team walked over to this player and gushed. He gushed. I listened in because reporters are just dressed up gossips. He said the usual: I'm a huge fan, etc. He listed games and scores and plays. Intricate stuff. And then he got out a piece of paper and asked for an autograph. Or maybe it was a shirt or a hat. I couldn't look. Even the player flinched, but he did it. He signed and listened and nodded, and then he turned away.

I came home and sent a note to my friend, Jack, who is a sportswriter. I told him how embarrassing it was to watch that. What is this guy? A child? Who asks for autographs? 

Jack reiterated a point I've heard many times. No cheering in the press box. A reporter is not a person, and certainly not a fan. A reporter does a job, fulfills a role. And that's it. If you are a reporter, on assignment and you don't have a professional question to ask a sports celebrity, or any other kind, then you say nothing.

That same night, I sat next to that former player, a famous goalie whose name now escapes me, in the press box during the game. (Larry would know his name. He knows every player's name.) We sat next to each other for two hours, but didn't exchange a word or a single glance. The rules protected us both. At the end of the game, I stood to go down to do post-game interviews. The player turned to me and extended his hand. I shook it. We nodded to each other and that was that.

Bear this in mind.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How Are Things?

Roger-Pol Droit is a research fellow at a think tank in Paris. A couple of years ago, he decided to study objects, to examine and write about a series of objects. He literally took the question, "how are things?" seriously and literally for several months. He wondered if objects have lives, which he admitted seems silly, but then he decided to examine them closely and deeply to see what emerged. He said later he wanted to "draw nearer to things, to spy on them."

What eventually emerged was the book, How Are Things: A Philosophical Experiment, which is astonishing and wonderful, and sadly not in print in the US.

Early on, he describes a bowl of onion soup. 

"Set before me is a large bowl, steaming, still bubbling. Fragrant, crusted around the edges. Dark brown in some areas, almost black, tending to pale yellow in others. But what arrives is not a soup. More than the fumes, the steam, the waft of oven, what is set before me is a bowl. Solid, heavy, as if from the depths of time. From childhood and beyond. Prehistoric. A concave thing, protecting the liquid, preventing it from escaping. The shape of reassurance, instantly companionable and trustworthy.
"I almost forget what I am doing here, in the present. Here is one of the earliest, most primitive objects. This thing remembers the emergence of mankind. The larger primates had clubs, stones, rough likenesses of weapons and tools. But no bowls. Only with mankind to platters make an appearance: gourds, basins, bowls.

"The bowl inaugurates the function of receptacle. It is a fixture of reassurance. Amid the universal flux, the receptacle intervenes and stanches the endless flow. It preserves against dispersal. It prevents spillage. It suspends pouring. Liquid, which is fanatically committed to leakage and loss, is stayed. More effectively than cupping one's hands. And indefinitely. Effortlessly."

He goes on about the bowl. And then turns to the paperclip, which is an object of Eros. It binds things, he says, without paralyzing.  A key is like a lover; it needs a lock. But beyond all this, is the emergence of the writer who studies these objects, something he muses on in the essays. Objects are our silent companions, he says, who store our memories and emotions.

It's a lovely book and so deeply calming.

THE EXERCISE: Describe your silent companions. A fiction instructor at Grub often gives this prompt, to write a story about an object. The object has to be the central drama of the story. It brings the characters together, brings the epiphany, if any. It seems like a difficult and pointless thing to do, but try it. Once you have an object, characters appear all around it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Satisfying the Comp

One of the things lingering on my to-do list is a 400 word story about a posh coastal resort in Mexcio. I was invited there last September on assignment for another story, and because I stayed there for free, I now need to write an additional little travel piece on this place. Editors call it "satisfying the comp," but I believe street hustlers refer to it as "doing the date." It involves lots of sexy praise, some panting and moaning over the marble bathrooms and a big fake O at the end.  It's not difficult to praise a wonderful resort. The trouble is that these resorts tend to be wonderful in all the same ways. The exact same ways. The same walk-in closets, the same plunge pools, the same outdoor showers, the same thread count on the sheets. The same glitzy glass bubble between the beautiful vacationers and the impoverished locals.

 While doing this date, I am reminded of why I don't like to go on press trips. Imagine a sort of magical mystery tour in which the unwashed journalist gets elevated out of her cubicle, or in my case her run-down cottage in suburbia, and into the ethers of the super rich, where she will be falsely flattered and pampered and shuttled about as though she belonged. Unlike those English novels (such as Pamela), in which the good-hearted lady's maid is lured into a promised union with her lord, a story in which the young woman guards her virtue, behaves impeccably, and carries the day, a story in which she challenges and thereby enhances society's Great Chain of Being, our travel writer can be counted on to surrender her virtue before the foil has cracked on the first magnum of champagne at the welcome reception. She can be counted on to rip off those naughty journalistic instincts before the butler has given her the full tour of the presidential suite. Truth be told, any semblance of objectivity sails away at the moment any trip is proposed.  As soon as the PR person on the phone says, "Of course, my client will be delighted to pay for your air fare as well. Which dates and flight times would you prefer?" is when our heroine clutches the phone to whisper, "Take me now, hard and fast. I'll write anything you want," while fantasizing about a business class upgrade. 

And then we hate ourselves in the morning. Nobody likes to be a slut in exchange for a suitcase full of itty bitty shampoos.

THE EXERCISE: It might be fun to describe a non travel destination, your own house, a local pool hall, or your worst-ever travel accommodations in the same breathy fake-O style of most travel writing. 

Friday, January 25, 2008

Indecent Proposal 2

It traveled through cyberspace to the agent's office today. 24,000 words, 75 pages. This one keystroke required six weeks of rewriting and six hours of line editing via phone. Meeting to follow. 

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Planting Seeds

Yesterday, I sat at Garret's swimming lesson and wrote out my to-do list for the week. When you haven't started your to-do list and it's Wednesday, well, that's a sign of poor planning, now isn't it? 

Garret was having no better time of it. We usually arrive at swim class a bit early so the G-man can splash around in the shallow end before he faces taking turns with the laps and the breathing. Usually, there's another boy there, Jonathan, who is the sweetest little boy in the world, but who has no boundaries. He sees Garret get into the pool and charges toward him and wraps him in a wet bear hug and kisses his face and puts his nose on Garret's nose and smells him and touches his hair.  All the while Garret stands there smiling awkwardly and looking around for Jonathan's Mommie. And then she strides over from the chairs where we sit. She leans out over the side of the pool and says, "No, honey. Garret doesn't like that." She says it over and over again while reaching out to tug him away. Jonathan doesn't want to hear this, but he takes it, and goes off, still smiling. Then when she turns her back, he comes bounding over again.  His Mommie has apologized to me about this, and I just shrug. I really want to say, "Hey, all kids are nuts. Mine, too. What can you do?" Clearly, this would be the wrong thing to say, but it's true. At no time does Garret ever say anything to Jonathan. He doesn't push him away or say go away. Nothing. He just stands there, waiting.

So Garret and Jonathan are doing their little ceremony with Jonathan cutting glances at mom to see when she's not looking. I'm writing out the list that will not end. This paperwork, these errands, this deadline. Endless. I know that this little respite will be the last time I have to think until midnight. After the lesson ends, I hustle Garret out of the pool and into the locker room to shower and change and off to the car. The instant we get in the door, it's already 5 and I'm late leaving for my 6 o'clock class at a bookstore just far enough away in suburban Boston to need an hour's stop-and-go through rush-hour traffic. I workshop 11 stories between 6 and 9, then head home to set the coffee maker, pour a martini and start a 10 o'clock phone meeting to line edit the Indecent Proposal that absolutely, positively must hit the agent's desk by Friday. Then I sit dazed in front of the TV until exhaustion takes over.

The question is this: When to write? What to write? My schedule is all over me like that sweet little boy in the pool. I like all my little jobs, but no one is going to tug them away so I can get some space. Not writing for a few days doesn't work, either. Try that once, and you'll wake up a month later, or a year later, and find an empty notebook and an imagination to match. Ask me how I know this.

The answer yesterday was to sow some seeds on the back page of my notebook. This concept came from a student last term, a wonderful writer who also teaches English in middle school. She gives her students journals at the beginning of the year and the kids have to start by making a list of things that interest them on the very last page. Then later on, when someone whines and says, "I can't think of what to write," she can very sweetly point out the list they have made for themselves. It's sort of like saying "shut up and write" but ever so much nicer.

THE EXERCISE: Chuck the to-do list. That battle was lost long ago. Make a list of impulses, artistic or otherwise. It can be a list of book ideas, story ideas, old anecdotes that might become stories. It can be a list of the sins you would commit if you had the guts. It can be a list of the titles of books you will someday write. It can be the first line of five poems you will never write. It can be news stories that should (or should not) be made into movies. It can be a list of provocative topics (liars, whiskey, garbage, relief, massage) that could yield an interesting paragraph or two--or more. This is a personal collection of ideas still compact and powerful and waiting to grow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Guilty Pleasures 4

Early in the second act of The Seafarer, actor Ciaran Hinds takes a fall. He reaches out for a chair and tips it and goes down flat out on his face. Boom. Try that eight times a week. At least I think it was intentional. I read the play again afterward and it's not there. The line that follows, "I'm f*ing going in and out of time zones here" is there, but no fall. (Was he wearing a cup for that? Wouldn't a cup be a good idea?) A bunch of other lines aren't in the printed play as well. At one point Richard, who is a practiced drunk, turns to his newly sober brother and says, "We know you're an alcoholic and your life is tatters and it's a struggle for you to grasp human emotions, but..." That line is not in the play, except for the last bit. I looked for it later, because it stood out, that line. 

I know all this because last Thursday Larry and I saw the kids off to school and preschool, told them to be good for their grandma, then got on a train to New York to see our first-ever Broadway play. 

We walked from our hotel to the playhouse in the rain. The stage was lower than I would have thought and smaller, with a compact, even claustrophobic, set. But what shocked me most was the quiet audience. Here's the devil flat on his face and nothing but silence for a whole beat. Then he says, "Oops." Nothing. A few giggles, maybe. Then he just gets up and the play takes off again at the same breakneck speed as the first act. I wondered at the strangely silent audience (and I was part of that) even though the play is very funny. The devil keeps talking about taking someone to hell through the hole in the wall and then when there's a snag in this plan, another character says, "Well, that's a pain in the hole." Juvenile, but just right. And yet we just sat there, clinging to our seats. Maybe we're conditioned against laughing at drunks. The silence didn't take away from the experience. At the point when Ivan runs in screaming about his glasses I thought, oh, no, this is the beginning of the end. 

At the end, everyone stood to clap. Larry's eyes were shining. But the two older ladies next to him on the aisle bolted out of the theater between the two curtain calls. Like their hair was on fire. Funny thing, one of the actors looked down at those seats. Then his eyes flicked up at their retreating backs, while everyone else is roaring and clapping. 

Because we weren't ready to go back to our little hotel room, we stopped in a bar. Larry went off to order drinks and came back with two shots of whiskey, said it was Powells. He said it was the same stuff they were drinking in the play. OK. He was very serious about the whole thing. We talked about the play and he understood it better than I did. It's a play for men, really, which is not a criticism. We talked about the actors and this gave me a chance to weigh in as an authority. This one was in The Yalta Game a few years ago in which he killed. Killed. Like it was written for him. And this one toured with Stones in His Pockets, in which two actors do dozens of parts. And this one, with the stunning presence,  has been in lots of  McPherson plays, The Weir and Come on Over. It's like a collaboration at this point. (Here is the true tragedy of the internet; it can make a pseudo-intellectual of any idiot with an index finger and an idle hour.) 

Larry listened to all this. He said, "I see it now. You're going to be a groupie for all these guys." 
"Yes," I said. "Yes! And why not?"
Larry said we should do this again. I told him that Shining City is at the Huntington in March. He looked into his glass and said, "Get tickets now."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Indecent Proposal

Draft two of the endless book proposal went out to the co-author today. 24,000 words. 76 pages. Will soon convene the co-author meeting, to be followed by the co-author/agent meeting. Hope this will be followed in a few weeks by the co-author/agent/editor meeting. I became a writer to get away from meetings. How did this happen?

THE EXERCISE: Take the rest of the freaking day off. Take the kids out to lunch. Forget everything until tomorrow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reading & Lovecraft

Many readers talk about the void between books, that time after you've read the last page of a truly satisfying work but before you've chosen the the next book to read. I wallow there now, waiting and thinking of what to pick up next. Some people insist that you have to set a reading list for yourself and just read the next book on the list, no matter your mood. Can't do it. This is similar to the sex advice that tore through the stay-at-home mommy community a few years ago. Have sex even when you don't feel like it, they said. Well, reading is like sex; it's a kind of intimacy. And we readers may be promiscuous in our choice of material, but we're never indiscriminate. (And P.S. Not in the mood for sex? When does that happen? If you're a stay-at-home mommy, sex is the only entertainment you can afford.)

I tried the first few pages of The Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin, but it starts with a talking stone that wishes to be alive, and having been immersed in the work of a modern Irish playwright for some weeks, I'm not quite ready for yearning stones who are granted wishes by wandering monks. I'll get there, but not today. It promises to be a sort of Romeo and Juliet story crossed with Peyton Place, but set in China in the late 1600s. Could launch into Alain de Botton's On Love, but don't think I'm ready for something smooth and chatty, either. And then I looked at the bedside table and realized I've had Tales of H.P. Lovecraft out of the library for six weeks. It's overdue and unread except for two attempts to read the introduction. Mistake. It has to go back now and I have to pay the fine and feel shame, double shame for keeping it so long without reading even a single page of it.

So, to start the shame brigade now, let's turn to the first paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu." Even I know this is some sort of classic story. Cultural icon and all. People go nuts for it. It begins like this:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, Is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." 

Yikes. OK, it stays here for one more day. I'll read this one story and then pay a slightly larger fine tomorrow. Shame abated. New book discovered. Problem solved until tomorrow.

THE EXERCISE: Make a reading list for the year. Stock it full of quirky old books, the kind that were best-sellers 50 or 100 years ago, but now gather dust in the library. Pepper it liberally with bulky classics, if only so you'll have something to read next year when you start this list again. The list should include some biographies, but try to pick people who lived very badly and had lots and lots of sex and preferably at least one addiction. It should include one book from a genre you think you hate (hello, horror) and one book from a genre you would like to know better (did someone say poetry?). Add some history, but fun stuff (In the Heart of the Sea), a book about a new discipline (science, opera, math), and several imports (Sacred Games). And then ignore this list, when necessary to read or re-read something that makes your heart beat faster (Winter's Tale, The Woman in White, Jane Eyre).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Guilty Pleasures 3

Found out in September that a certain actor I admire would star in a Broadway play set to open in November. I asked Larry to take me, and he agreed, mostly because he wasn't listening. Much marital legislation gets introduced in those two minutes between sex and sleep. When I brought it up next, he balked. 

"Go all the way down to New York? For a play?"
"What? So you can look at Mr. Flapjack Tits?" He was getting wound up.
"It played in London last year. The West End. It killed." 
He looked at me like I'd stopped speaking English. "Train tickets. Hotel. Food." He held up fingers as he talked. "Plus the tickets for the play, which are what?"
"A hundred."
"Each, right?"
I nodded. 
"This would cost more than a mortgage payment."
"He's a true stage actor. You have to see him in person."
"We were going to buy a couch with that money."
"It's Broadway, honey. It'll be fun."

That was that for a few weeks. I continued to talk about The Seafarer as though we were going to go, and to this Larry generally offered to make pancakes, saying, "You can look at those and pretend they're your boyfriend's tits."

The strike hit in November and no plays opened for three weeks. During this time I checked out all of the Conor McPherson plays from the library and read them and read them out loud and followed Larry all around the house talking about them, about the long monologues and supernatural touches, the Catholicism, the drinking and drinking, the yearning, the hopelessly bad sex. Larry informed me that my fake Irish brogue is dreadful, painful. We entertained a lengthy discussion about the appropriate way to drop the f-bomb in an Irish accent. He voted for fah-king. I went for foh-king. Although we never agreed, I knew his resolve had cracked.

The day the strike ended, he caved. We picked a date well after Christmas, right after his March deadline, found a time when his mother could watch the kids. Third week of January, when it's bitterly cold in New York and the hotels are dead. He called from work to say that he bought tickets in the second row. "Not going to throw your panties on stage, are you?" Funny guy.

I had six weeks to wait. I read all the plays and all about them. I like especially the early ones with the endless monologues that read like short stories. I began to tell anecdotes about them at dinner, about the actor who fainted on stage after he forgot his lines, about the actor who drank actual whisky onstage instead of apple juice. Although he got through the play, after some substantial pauses at the end, he then went on a bender, invited himself home with several women and nearly got himself beaten to death by their boyfriends. I told these stories as though they had been told to me by the playwright, not as though I'd read them in a book. I talked about Brian Cox as though we were pals. Larry took all this patiently, poor man. He showed interest--or faked it--right along. They talk about the cornerstone of a good marriage being the love and commitment, the trust. No. It's looking across the dinner table at the deeply, deeply crazy person you've married and just nodding at whatever she says no matter how bored you are. Men do this a lot and they don't get nearly enough credit for it.

THE EXERCISE: Gorge yourself on a single writer in any gnere. Read every scrap. Leave nothing on the table. Imitate the writer's style in your journal, slip anecdotes about his or her life into conversations. Become an authority on a voice that's utterly different from your own. 

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Extreme Positions

OK. One more quote from Memoirs of Hadrian. It can't be helped.

I have come to think that great men are characterized precisely by the extreme position which they take, and that their heroism consists in holding to that extremity throughout their lives. They are our poles, our antipodes. I have occupied each of the extremes in turn, but have not kept to any one of them; life has always made me move away.

The old emperor feels that this is a description of great men, but wouldn't it also fit a great villain? My husband says that a great villain must have excellent hair. Agreed. But he must also have that feeling that he is doing good, that he alone is holding the line against the void. (Or she, sorry).

THE EXERCISE: Who is the heavy in your story or your memoir? What is that person's fight? And how is it the good fight, even if only in his or her own eyes? 

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Be James Bond

A year or so ago I took the old James Bond novels out of the library on a whim. What a surprise. Read the first ten pages of "From A View to a Kill" alone (terrible title and proof positive that Fleming never intended these stories to be an entertainment franchise) and you find a James Bond who is lonely, depressed and can't get a girl. Ever. OK, unless he pays, and then gets mugged by her pimp. (Oh, excuse me, this takes place in Paris, so we must call this pimp a maquereau.)

We meet Bond for the very first time thusly:
James Bond had his first drink of the evening at Fouquet's. It was not a solid drink. One cannot drink seriously in French cafes. Out of doors on a pavement in the sun is no place for vodka or whisky or gin. A fine a l'eau is fairly serious, but it intoxicates without tasting very good. A quart de champagne or a champagne a l'orange is all right before luncheon, but in the evening one quart leads to another quart, and a bottle of indifferent champagne is a bad foundation for the night. Pernod is possible, but it should be drunk in company, and anyway Bond had never liked the stuff because its licorice taste reminded him of his childhood.

Not everyone could sit in a cafe in Paris and be depressed, but Bond is a guy who has seen too much in the war and feels at odds with the post war exuberance in Paris, the tourists and the traffic. Try it out. Take an ordinary scene and write ordinary details, but make sure everything has that air of sadness. 

Myrna pushed her shopping cart first to the produce section. She was afraid of the apples, which had been so inexpertly stacked that to remove one would cause an avalanche. The grapefruit looked waxy under the fluorescent light, and the bananas were still so green, even after their long trip from South America. It soured her mouth just to look at them. In the next aisle she found the lettuces sagging under the cold mist meant to keep them fresh during the long day. She picked up a bag of baby carrots, judged the water content inside and then put them back down. The brussels sprouts looked good, still tight fisted, but Bill hates those. She grabbed the packet of carrots and turned her cart toward the fish counter, already steeling herself not to look at the lobster case with its murky water, the things crawling and waving their bound claws. No one needs to see that in the morning.

Horrible? Absolutely. But good fun, too. Try it.

Later, in FAVTAK we get several gloomy paragraphs in which Bond remembers losing his virginity in Paris. He lists the restaurants he visits and why. A waiter serves him and snubs him all at once. Then Bond reminisces about a recent failed assignment in which someone died. Abruptly, in the middle of that paragraph, he has a fantasy. James Bond's fantasy is to find a woman who isn't a prostitute and pay her for companionship and sex. It goes like this:

Today had been so beautiful--one of those days when you almost believe that Paris is beautiful and gay--and Bond had decided to give the town just one more chance. He would somehow find himself a girl who was a real girl, and he would take her to dinner at some make-believe place in the Bois like the Armenonville. To clean the money look out of her eyes--for it would certainly be there--he would as soon as possible give her fifty thousand francs. He would say to her, "I propose to call you Donatienne, or possibly Solange, because these are names that suit my mood and the evening. We knew each other before and you lent me this money because I was in a jam. Here it is, and now we will tell each other what we have been doing since we last met in Saint-Tropez just a year ago. In the meantime, here is the menu and the wine list and you must choose what will make you happy and fat." And she would look relieved at not having to try anymore, and she would laugh and say, "But, James, I do not want to be fat." And there they would be, started on the myth of "Paris in the Spring," and Bond would stay sober and be interested in her and everything she said

THE EXERCISE: Detail a depressive's sudden fantasy. Fleming does it in nine sentences, with three bits of dialog. Feel free to use m-dashes liberally, as he does, to squeeze in cynicism, and to begin sentences with and, or to string together thoughts with conjunctions. The word "and" is a great one because it allows the paragraph to skip along as thoughts do and to take odd jumps to cover more ground. The dialog can be as corny as you like.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Red Coats

Shining City, the play by Conor McPherson, concerns an inexperienced therapist, named Ian, who has a very troubled patient. A recent widower comes to see Ian, complaining that he is being haunted by his dead wife. In nearly all of McPherson's plays storytelling plays a central role. Characters tell their own stories to the audience or to each other, so a therapy session seems natural shift for him. 

The main character, John, narrates the first of these ghostly visits in which he comes home and turns around to find his dead wife standing behind the door: "I could only see half of her, behind the door, looking out at me. Eh...but I could see that...her hair was soaking wet, and all plastered to her face. And I, I f*ing jumped, you know? And I f*ing just stood there, I froze, it was terrifying. And I mean she was as real know if you've ever seen a dead body? How strange it is,'s real! That feeling..."

Later, he describes the troubled marriage, troubled in part because he wants to have an affair with a woman he met at a party. He describes this in detail the meeting, the party, the first text messages. (And I'm thinking, he's in his 50s and he texts? I'm a generation younger and I don't text. Don't have the foggiest idea how.) In the course of all this is a little detail about buying his wife a red coat that was too expensive, but he bought it anyway out of guilt, and then he says it became her good coat, the one she wore the night she died, the one she wore when she appeared behind the door. It's a striking detail, this red coat, and I wondered what it was doing there. It's as loud as the ghost image, but the narrative takes off again before we can think too much.

Ian talks further about meeting this woman and then pushing her to go to a hotel room where things go horribly, comically wrong, and then he finds himself in a whorehouse where things now go violently awry. One of the things I love about McPherson's work is that he peppers each play with these galloping narratives. A character makes one bold mistake and then it's a mad scramble, usually bolstered by many beer-backed shots, to the next horrible blunder, all of which is told in the past tense, well after the fact. It's electric and strange and of course the truth of these narratives is always in question, which just adds interest.

I read the play in one day of ceaseless interruptions. I kept the book close at hand, but had no peace all day. Finally, at Garret's swimming lesson, I took the book out again to read the last scene. No galloping narratives here, which made the last awkward exchange between the therapist and patient seem slow. What's going on here? And I read through to the end, to another image of the woman and the red coat and I didn't understand. I looked up to see my son stroking through the water, his arms windmilling as he moved on his back, legs kicking wildly. He got through three strokes before he sank under the water and came up sputtering. I sank, too, into the details of the play. What had I missed? 

All around the kids were screaming and playing. Their voices echoed under the bubble. I looked around at the bored parents sitting in the lawn chairs along the side of the pool, weighted by the oppressive humidity of the indoor pool. I watched my son, now on his belly and stroking the other way, still sinking after a few feet. He continued to flail but couldn't make himself stay afloat. He stood and wiped his eyes. My heart lurched for him. He wants to swim so much. At the same time a woman stood in my mind, her face battered. She wore a red coat. What did I miss? I watched and thought. I spun through the details of the play. All the while, the woman in the red coat waited.

THE EXERCISE: Allow a single, vivid image to haunt your story, even if it doesn't make sense. It's good practice to add striking images, or to let an odd image take over part of a story. This detail should rattle its chains, appear at odd moments, and inspire fear or awe, as though it lives in a place not bound by the laws of reality. Why? Because it's good to be haunted.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rejection Slips

Two rejections arrived in the mail on Saturday, one of which was so small that I couldn't find it in the envelope at first. I finally fished out a tiny scrap of paper with uneven edges and an excruciatingly polite preprinted message. Like the fortune in a cookie, except that this one had been xeroxed so many times that the print was slightly tilted on the paper.  Whereas a fortune in a cookie actually is mass-produced and delivered at random, it manages to feel intimate--if only for a moment. This rejection, although sent directly to me, seemed mass produced. 

I imagine a woman in a little cocktail dress sitting at a bar. Every time a man approaches and does his little patter or offers to buy her a drink, she flicks a glance at him, then fishes one of these scraps of paper from her bag and hands it to him. Thank you so much for the opportunity to carefully review your fine personality. Unfortunately, it doesn't meet my needs at this time. Everyone experiences rejection at one time or another, and I'm sure that you will eventually find someone else who appreciates you more. I regret that the volume of solicitations I receive prevents me from replying in a more personal manner. Good luck in your future endeavors.

THE EXERCISE: Writers say that the best way to get past a rejection is to time the disappointment. Figure out how long it takes to get over it. A day? A week? And how bad does it feel, anyway? There's a pang at the sight of my own handwriting on the letter in the mailbox and then a sort of mild embarrassment for a day or so, then nothing. That's not so bad.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Guilty Pleasures 2

A few weeks ago, Larry came home on time, which was a surprise, mostly because I was glued to the TV set and the place was still a mess. In my nightly click-around, I had found my favorite actor in a new (to me) movie, Veronica Guerin. He has a bigger part in this one, a pimp, and while waiting around for his next scene, I got sucked into the story.

As a result, the whole evening was out of whack. No dinner for the kids, no jammies, not that they noticed. They were happily playing in the next room. I could hear Garret making his killer robot sounds and his lava sounds--imagine aggravated flatulence interrupted by explosions--while Sammie sat next to him, chatting away. She was portraying both halves of a mother-daughter team of rescue cats about to save the robots from the lava. But first? Shopping! For shoes, maybe some groceries. I heard her ask Garret what sort of snacks the robots might like after their rescue. How wise she is. People do get peckish after a crisis. Robots, too, I imagine.

So, Larry walked through the house to find chopped vegetables next to the empty soup pot. Bills stacked up to be paid. Not a single coat, art project or half-eaten snack cleared from any surface. Bad mommy.

He walked up to the TV. "Isn't that Julius Caesar?" I said the actor's name out loud, and then, "I adore him."

Larry sniffed. "Sweet look for your boyfriend."

To what could he be referring? The greasy hair? The sad moustache and fat-Elvis sideburns? The orange tinted aviator sunglasses? Or the wardrobe of rayon and pleather? I pointed to the TV. "On him, that outfit is sexy." I'm sure Larry was chewing up a mouthful of something to say to that, but the kids intervened. We heard: Stop it! followed by Quit lookin' at me! Then we heard a slap followed by a scream. I handed Larry the remote and trotted off to initiate peace talks. Larry stretched out on the couch and asked for a recap. I tossed a couple of headlines over my shoulder: Reporter takes on Irish mob. Violence ensues.

"Great," said Larry. "A message film." He continued to watch, though, and to provide extremely cynical commentary while I whipped up mac and cheese and herded the kids to the table before issuing the usual threat: I am holding your desserts hostage. Anyone throws milk, spits food or pokes someone's eye out with a fork and both desserts will be destroyed uneaten.
Garret sang "You're a Grand Old Flag," but substituted the word fart for the word flag, and the word wave, and then most of the other words. Each time he did this, Sammie shrieked "NO!" hitting ever higher and more piercing notes. In the living room, Larry rounded the bases on a speech about the trouble with message films. I poured a little wine. Then Larry interrupted himself to call out, "Hey, your boyfriend has no shirt on." I scurried on in, but was too late. The scene had migrated to close-ups. My favorite guy was doing his creepy sinister look, while the actress was looking, well, exactly the way an A-lister is expected to look when she has to be brave, deeply self-righteous and smokin' hot all at once. No semi-nudity of swarthy character actors was forthcoming.

"How did he look?" I asked Larry, who just shook his head.

"Gravity is a bitch."

"What do you mean?"

Larry waggled his hand in the air. "I give him a B cup."

Here I said something regrettable. "On him, even man-breasts would be sexy."

Larry smirked. "How old is this guy, anyway?"

"Shut up. Women will want him when he's 90. He will make wizened, toothless geezerhood sexy."

Larry looked to the ceiling. Perhaps he was scrolling down a list of responses to this crazy tidbit, but the kids intervened again. We heard a cluster of soft plops, the unmistakable sound of wax beans hitting a vertical surface. I trotted off to impose a no-fly zone.

Ever since then, Larry has referred to the actor in question as "Your boyfriend, Mr. Flapjack Tits."

THE EXERCISE: That story's not going anywhere. There's no real reason for it to exist, but it was fun to write. On some days, inspiration grows cold. I have three things I'm supposed to have edited by today and a huge long document to write, and instead, I came up with this. On some days, the task is to write something, anything. Today, write something fun that makes you smile, even if it's not going anywhere. Let the work be your guilty pleasure. 

Shades of Pink

Bringing new books home from the library is always a minor thrill, more so when they are books for the kids. Our library sorts new books onto a separate shelf, even in the kid section, so I can find brand new books for them each week.

The best recent find was Steal Back the Mona Lisa! by Meghan McCarthy. Both kids adored it and asked endless questions about the little boy detective who has to steal the Mona Lisa back from the crooked crooks and get it back to the Louvre. Sammie memorized it and slept with it. I could stand outside the door after bedtime and hear the cellophane on the book crinkling as she turned the pages. She would clutch it in her sleep.

Then last week we tried out Pink by Nan Gregory. The story is about a little girl who loves a certain shade of pink that all the popular (and rich) girls at school wear. She obsesses over pink, but her family is too poor to buy her new pink things. Then she finds a pink doll and wants that, but it is very expensive, so she works and does errands for neighbors and saves her money. The kids grew slack over this part. We all thought we knew where we were headed with this. But no. Then the mother suggests a special pink picnic with pink tea and pink like sandwiches and pink confections and they look for pink in nature. The father talks about wanting special lights for the truck he drives, but he can't afford them. All nice, but we're waiting here. And then the girl suggests going by the store to see the doll she's saving for. And they do, and here my heart leapt a little, because when they get there a rich girl from school is buying the doll. She whisks it away and it's gone. Here's a twist, and the kids are interested again, looking hard at the book. The girl is heartbroken and when she gets home her dad is sitting on the stoop and he plays his harmonica and she dances out her frustration. Afterward, she says to her dad that she's sorry he can't afford lights for his truck. And he has the greatest line in kid lit. He says, Don't be sorry. Wanting makes good music.

Wow. The end. The kids looked confused. Garret asked, She doesn't get the doll? I shook my head. He blinked and asked again, She didn't get the doll? I said, No. Sammie turned back through the last few pages looking for the real ending. Garret said, But she wanted the doll. She saved. Here I was able to pull my spine straight and lower my voice into full Sanctimommy mode. You don't get everything you want, I said. It felt great, but I knew myself to be a liar. They do get everything they want. We buy them everything they want, everything in every shade. Why do we do that?

THE EXERCISE: Make a list of old favorite children's books. What happens in these stories? What are the themes?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The List of Negatives

The Memoirs of Hadrian is a fictional memoir as it might have been written by emperor Hadrian to his 17-year-old grandson, Marcus Aurelius. When I explained this to my husband, who had caught me reading the battered old library book, he took the opportunity to imitate a smirking Russell Crowe, "You knew Marcus Aurelius?" And then waited for my Oliver Reed, "I didn't say I knew him; I said he touched me on the shoulder." As literature, this book is as dense as cheesecake and just as yummy. I find myself wanting to eat the sentences, bathe in them, smoke them.
Here's some, where the old guy talks about giving up riding. 

My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared every impetus; he knew perfectly, and better perhaps than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will. But I no longer inflict upon Borysthenes' successor the burden of an invalid whose muscles are flabby, and who is too weak to heave himself unassisted upon a horse's back. My aide Celer is exercising him at this moment on the road to Praeneste; all my past experiments with swift motion help me now to share the pleasure both of horse and rider, and to judge the sensations of the man at full gallop on a day of sun and high wind.
The narrator invokes the feeling of riding by suggestion alone. How? I've just finished the section where he talks about his young lover's suicide, which devastated him. He is consoled by his wife, sort of.

Hermogenes ... transmitted some messages from the empress; she behaved decently (people usually do in the presence of death). But such compassion was based on a misapprehension: I was to be pitied provided that I console myself rather promptly. Even I thought that I was somewhat calmed, and was almost embarrassed by the fact. Little did I know what strange labyrinths grief contains, nor that I had yet to walk therein.

Don't look in these pages for traditional plot or scenes. Author Marguerite Yourcenar described her book as a psychological novel and a meditation on history. In February of 2005, the New Yorker ran a great piece on her and her most famous work, which was a huge hit on publication in 1952. Hurry to read it, though, because in a year or so it will become a movie starring Antonio Banderas, a fact that begs for a moment of silence accompanied by two--or perhaps three--bitter tears. 

THE EXERCISE: On page 23, the old emperor describes himself, his life, first calling it a "shapeless mass." Then he becomes more specific. "As often is the case with other men, it is what I have not been which defines me, perhaps most aptly: a good soldier, but not a great warrior; a lover of art, but not the artist which Nero thought himself to be at his death; capable of crime, but not laden with it."
Make a list of things a character is not, or has not become. If in memoir, this could be a list for any one person in the story, a parent, a lover, a friend, or even yourself. We are defined by what we are not, as well as what we are. If you work on fiction, these lists can be especially helpful in figuring out character. Remember that these lists don't have to be criticisms. Some people struggle against negative tendencies and take great pride in never taking up a particular vice or a trait they abhor. 

Guilty Pleasures

Sometimes at the end of a long day I amuse myself by clicking through the movie channels looking for one that features a certain swarthy Irish character actor. He's been in at least a dozen movies, very small parts, and the chances are good.
One that's in heavy rotation right now is Miami Vice, in which he has several lines at the beginning, a few minutes in, and then another short scene about 45 minutes in. What's actually going on in this movie is a mystery, and will remain so, but I know the sequences cold. The other day I clicked to it and I hit the scene in which Crockett and Tibbs (Tubbs? Tubby? Don't know; don't care) are talking to a bad guy about a shipment of drugs, which they call a load.  No irony. They call it this about 35 times in a row. That's my load. You lost your load. You stole my load. How do you know it's your load? No one laughs at this. Why not?
Anyway, after the who-moved-my-load scene, there are some shots of an airplane, something that looks like a souped-up O2, flying over a jungle. Then a business in a limo. Staring, smirking, talking. Then some ten minutes of scenes in Cuba. Dancing, talking, sex, more talking, more sex. Then, vroom, vroom, an A-lister rides a power boat. Then my favorite guy comes on for his four lines. Granted, he stands in abysmal lighting, off mic, and has to share this scene with Frick and Frack, the A-listers, and with some other guy making scale, but I don't care. After 5 p.m., I need a deadline and a treat.
I know that all of that filler takes about 20 minutes. In that time I can turn over the laundry, chop the rest of the vegetables for dinner, sing three rounds of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, email a possible source on my floundering story on Latin American land deals, soothe two bouts of hysteria, answer ten questions about Darth Vadar, apply a Band Aid and sort through the junk mail. I can even pause to look around the house, taking in the holes in the walls, the linoleum curling up off the kitchen floor, the rips in the upholstery, the roof that leaks after each snowstorm, the piles of papers and clutter on every surface, the toys, and pieces of toys, strewn in every room. I can pause and notice these things and breathe in the shame of it all, and the fear that we will never have enough money to repair our half-broken, limp along life, the fear that I will never be organized, never have real free time. Oh, and pay the water bill. And write a note to my son's teacher about lunch tomorrow. I can do all of these things and have plenty of time to cruise back to the couch and watch those four lines.
I can sit and sigh and think, he's so handsome. I can think about buying the actor a cup of coffee and telling him in very soulful terms about his talent, and how he should have had good lighting there and a microphone that worked, and more lines. Many more lines. But I can't get very far with this before the kids start yelling in the next room, and then the scene is over and the actor is striding offscreen, no doubt to pick up his check, one that would probably cover our mortgage.
For me, the movie ends there, and it's time to get up and finish making dinner.

THE EXERCISE: Detail a guilty pleasure. It doesn't have to be well-written, as evidenced above, but it does have to inspire guilt. Try for several paragraphs, maybe 250 words. Shrug off your dignity for this. You won't need it today. In most writing ventures dignity is a burden, anyway. 
I used to use this as an ice-breaker at the beginning of every class. And may do again soon, as I teach again in a week or so. I've had great luck with this. People start off by telling a guilty pleasure in a sentence or two, and they are fantastic. Nothing illegal, I say in class. One woman talked about her lipstick fetish. She had collected more than 100 tubes of lipstick. She knew the exact number. She loves buying lipstick. Fantastic. Another woman wrote about how she has an empty bottle of good gin at home and she routinely fills it with the cheap stuff. She calls it bottle climbing. Love it lots.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Story You've Told A Hundred Times

  The strangest thing I've ever said into the phone is this: "I think I'm watching a rat die." This kills a conversation, by the way. One minute your friend drones on and on about the mother who won't stop judging her and the first date sex she should never have had with Mr. Fantastic who hasn't called since. Next, she tersely excuses herself to go floss her teeth.
At the time, I lived in two basement-level rooms, standard issue graduate housing. A single barred window, high on one wall, offered a view of a tiny patch of grass framed by a sidewalk and the front stoop.
That day a yellowish, long bodied rodent crawled across the grass, panting with its jaws wide. It moved slowly, lifting one paw up to reach, pulling itself just an inch or so forward, then reaching with the other paw. You don't see rats in the middle of the afternoon, never in bright sunlight. I stared at it until it collapsed against the bars on my window.
My panorama of argyle socks and heeled sandals had been marred, in my opinion, by this corpse. I called the university's maintenance department to complain. View obstructed by deceased vermin. Please advise. About 20 minutes later, Frank, the building maintenance guy, arrived in a truck. He was a handsome older guy with slicked back salt and pepper hair and a toothy smile. He tended to grimace before each remark.  I led him to the body and described what I'd seen.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Heart attack." (Insert broad Boston accent here.)
Before I could stop myself, I asked, How do you know?" What was I implying, that I suspected foul play? That we should wait for the autopsy? He flashed two fingers at me.
"Two types of rat," he said. "Your black rat, also known as your roof rat. Very good climbers. And then there's your common rat, also known as the Norwegian rat." He nudged the body with his boot. "Which are notorious for their bad hearts."
I pursed my lips hard in a struggle to suppress a smile. "Too much junk food?"
He shook his head. "They eat mostly grains. Pasta and the like. They just die young." He made no move to pick up the rat or cover it, or to return to his truck to get anything with which he might remove it. Stuck for small talk, I asked my second stupid question. "So, they're from Norway?"
"Actually a misnomer," he said. I waited. "Denmark. They come over on the ships." We both nodded sagely about the ships. I wanted to excuse myself, but he asked me which direction it had come from and strode off around the corner of the building. I followed him down into the alley and found him squatting near a crack in the foundation. "Probably came from in here," he said. He leaned down and peered into it. "Oh, yeah," he said. "That goes all the way back. He was living in there."
"Wait. My bedroom is on the other side of this wall." Now it was his turn to suppress a smile. "Are you telling me my roommate died today?"
That made him laugh.

THE EXERCISE: Write out the story you've told a hundred times. Tell it to an anonymous reader, which is much different from telling it aloud. I took this exercise from the book Writing Without the Muse, by Beth Joselow, although she calls it The Story You've Told a Million Times. I've used it in memoir classes, and people like it, even if they struggle with it a bit. The trick is to follow the story all the way to the end, no matter how muddled the exposition at the beginning. Then leave it alone for a week or so. Come back to it and strengthen through editing. On the surface, it's an exercise about the difference between telling and writing. And getting through opening exposition, which always, always sucks.
Try it several times and it will become something else. Because it's a simple story that you know well, because the material already has compelling raw material (funny lines, absurd situations, sudden reversals) you can try to hold three or four elements in mind while you edit each sentence. You can ask each line to do more than one thing. Can you make this bit funnier by changing a word? If you stretch this exchange out for a beat, does it add a nuance of emotion--cut some sentiment into the rage--or does it just wreck the pace? Now you're working like a writer.