Friday, May 30, 2008

You Too Videos

The G-man likes his You Tube. He now comes to our bedroom every morning, bounds onto the bed where I'm working on something with the computer and makes his demand. "I want to see the You Too videos. I want Lego Star Wars. I want the Irish dancers."

He really wants the Irish dancers, only it's not what you think. Sadly, what he means is below. This from the guys who brought you Wallace and Gromit, so wonderful. They also created these two little blobs called, Purple and Brown. Sammie-bammie loves them, too. She calls them "the guys who laugh." The G-man now draws them obsessively at school, and we have to watch two to three of these every morning, including the one lovingly named, "the burping and farting one" and "the one about the bird poop," or "the one where rocks fall down on their heads." Okay, you get the idea, here. This one is the Irish dancing, which G sometimes calls "the step dancing one."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chicken Feet

One of the things we do in Chinatown is write down some of the stories, the outlines of stories as people tell them. In most neighborhoods, the participants must write their own stories. It is, after all, a writing class. We help people to write when arthritis or other issues make writing difficult or painful, but we ask everyone else to write their own work, even if they don't think they know how to write well. I give prompts in class to help them along. In one of these I ask them to tell a love story (it doesn't have to be their own). In another, I ask them to complete the sentence, "My mother never..." They don't have to say anything traumatic, or negative about their mothers, but rather than saying what their mothers are "polite, interesting, loving," they should start by describing what she was not. It always yields something interesting. We discover mothers who never learned to ride a bicycle, who never sat down all day, even at dinnertime, who never left the house without putting on her make up and drinking a full glass of water. I also ask them to write a food memory, a story about food.

Well, in Chinatown, things are more complicated. Many of the people in class aren't fluent enough in English to write in notebooks, and so they write in Chinese. A few more haven't had much experience writing in Chinese, either because education was at a premium during their childhoods in which their country was at war, or because they've lived away from China for decades and have not had experience writing in Chinese for long sentences and paragraphs. So, we help them. When I had translators, I would work with them one on one in the classroom. While other students were writing their stories down, I would essentially take dictation from one or two of them. One man talked to me about cooking chicken feet, which he considered to be his specialty.

In my notebook I have pages of his discussion about chicken feet. When I met with Alexis and Kwan a few weeks ago, we went over all the stories that the seniors had written and told. Kwan paged through their notebooks translating a few snatches of Chinese on the fly, while I paged through my notebook for notes. I have poems about roosters and bathrooms. I have a description of a near drowning. I have love stories and stories of cannibalism. And I have a recipe for making chicken feet. I read some of it to Kwan, because I thought my note-taking was so bad.

"Choose the big feet. Cook a pot of water. Defrost the feet. Get rid of the nails. Cut feet in half. Deep fry in oil. Keep frying skill is the most important process. Then wash with hot water to get rid of the grease. Add ginger and spice. Put in cooking pot. Cook for an hour to get the spice and salt to mix. Add molasses for color. After cooking, let it soak in hot water for another hour. Then you let it dry off. Cool it again. Put it back in a pot with spice and ginger a couple of times to make sure the chicken is crunchy. At restaurants, their chicken feet are too soft. Not crunchy."

I looked up at Kwan and shook my head as if to say, "I got this wrong, right?" She nodded gravely at me and said, "That is a good recipe. If you follow that exactly, you will have cooked chicken feet."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Port Authority

Months ago, Larry shut down the insane fantasy of going across the Atlantic to see Jim Norton in whatever play he is in next. Moot point now. Norton is onstage at the Atlantic Theater in NYC, as one third of the cast of Conor McPherson's Port Authority. This is one of McPherson's earlier plays, one of those in which the actors engage in long monologues that read like short stories. In fact, some of them are almost too literary to be short stories, if that's possible, unless we're to believe that down and out Irishmen talk like grads of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Well, grads with an exceptionally acerbic wit, grads unafraid to be pretty funny when things are darkest. (Not too many of those running around, are there?) I read these early plays and I want to write him a letter, saying, Can you just write a novel or something? Cause 90 minutes of this isn't quite enough, frankly. Shining City? Very nice, but I was still hungry at the end. 
So, when I found out this play was opening off Broadway, I said to Larry, let's go to this. That was at the end of March, just two weeks before his job ended. We were still a little spooked about, well, everything. I had yet to sign a book contract. We had no idea what he was going to do. He had resumes flying everywhere and a staff to worry about, and he had just brought home a stack of papers indicating that our healthcare bill would likely top out over the mortgage payment every month, starting in May. Not much spare cash left over from that to pay for train tickets to the big city because someone in the irrational half of the marriage has a little crush on an actor. (Jim Norton: 70 years old and still smokin hot!)
I dropped the matter. At least I stopped talking about it. As things spooled out, Larry had the chance to take a couple of freelance contracts. Not jobs, because who wants that? I helped him draw up proposals. We talked about what he should charge, and he sent them off. And then there was silence.  People tend to sit on their hands in these situations. Saying yes takes time. The no comes right away. The yes takes time. Being able to sit in the hang time, to give your price and sit through the uncomfortable silence that follows is a key skill. During the days we sat waiting, I said, "If you get this work, can we go see that play?" Foolishly, he agreed. Although we didn't get tickets before Norton was nominated for a Tony (for the Seafarer), we did get them before the New York Times raved about this production. Yay!
And this is where we'll be on Thursday night. In a little theater off Broadway watching these three guys. My boyfriend is the one in the middle. He lives in my iPod where he narrates Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. More on this later.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Staying in the Room

A couple of nights ago, a student said in class that she had a question. What she really had was a complaint about the fact that she didn't like the story she turned in that night. "I used to be able to spend a lot of time on these assignments and write four different versions and pick the one I like best. But now," she reached for the words, "I just don't have the time."

I understood. I mean, I understand what it's like to turn in work that you think is terrible, and that makes you feel terrible about yourself. Feeling that you suck is the cornerstone of any true case of writer's block. Not coincidentally, it's also the cornerstone of any true case of narcissism.

I've been reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story. In it, Carlson takes apart a story he wrote years ago, probably 20 years ago. And he remembers what it was like to write the story. He recalls the urges to go get a cup of coffee just as things were getting interesting, or when he felt stuck. He recalls the complete uncertainty that he felt at various points when he didn't know what was going to happen next in the story. The best advice he gives there is this: All the valuable writing I've done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I've wanted to leave the room.

I agree with this philosophy. (Much as I'd like him to have to admit that he stays in the room and writes for twenty minutes after hearing one kid clock the other one while they snack at the kitchen table. Honey, I'd love to stanch your wound, but Mommy's communing with her muse just now. I'd like to hear how he keeps writing for twenty minutes after hearing his spouse ask where the butter is. Yeah, but I can't see it in the fridge. Can't you just come get it?

I've felt that my greatest failing as a writer has been the inability to sit and feel utterly lost in a magazine story or book chapter or radio story and just keep sitting there tinkering and feeling lost until something happens, at least for a few minutes. But I'm getting better. Carlson seems to think that twenty  minutes is a good length to tinker, to push through uncertainty. Something will happen in those twenty minutes. He seems pretty sure about this.

So, in class I took great pleasure in climbing on my high horse and stealing this idea from Carlson. And really going on and on pretty passionately about how you have to just sit down and feel the suckage and the shame and just keep going. And it sounded so cool, and great and wise, at least to me.

Of course, the following morning was a great day to climb down off that horse and refuse to write a single word of a story that was already four days overdue.  And even to ignore the friendly, if pointed, email from my editor along the lines of, "Hey, there. Thinking of turning this in anytime soon?" Um, yeah, just after I warm up my coffee again and play another game of online Soduku.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Back in Chinatown

Today Memoir Project coaches met with translators and participants in Chinatown to begin he process of turning the notes and story fragments from class into full essays for the second volume of "Born Before Plastic." Because their notes are written in Chinese, we need translators to help us along. The process of getting Cantonese stories about pre-war China, pre-Revolution China into English essay form is cumbersome. Do we translate what's on the page, which will cost a fortune and take weeks? Or what they say out loud that has been translated roughly into English by our live translators? Do we ask questions about content and ask them to provide written responses and then get those responses translated into English? Or do we just listen to their answers as translated and then add the English into the half made essays we have? And if we use an oral history component to this, how do we translate the English parts back into Chinese so that we can have bilingual text in the book? Glad I'm not the one deciding any of this. I plan to limp along as best I can. 
The students who showed up to this morning's meeting were exuberant, as always. Most of them are in their mid-80s and they will not be quelled. Alexis, our head coach and book editor, had asked how to communicate with the group. "Do you talk and then pause for the translator to translate?" Yeah, pretty much. I'd forgotten, though, what a chatty group this is. Every time you say something, Douglas or Kwan will translate it. Then someone in the group is going to have a comment. Sometimes all of them will start talking at once. And there's Douglas and Kwan nodding and answering them. And there you are in storm of conversation, not one syllable of which is understandable. They're laughing, acting out some bit of business. Big hand gestures, shouting, laughter, lots of eye rolling. This can go on for a long time before one of them will look over at you and take pity. "She's asking about how long before the book comes out." Or, "She's saying that her grandfather was a minor." During last year's class, it began to eat at me, this ignorance. So, I took some Pimsleur tapes out of the library and soldiered through a few hours instruction. When Larry came to bed at night he would find me with the headphones on, doing the little call and response. He snickered at this, at least the first time. "Stop it," I said. "This is serious."

I tried out some phrases on them in class last year, and Kwan said she could actually understand me. She seemed stunned. One lady, Kim, patted my arm and taught me a word. She approved of this effort. Now I can hear some words. May-EE-Gwa-yan, is American. YING-man is English.  NGO is me or I, but you have to say it all the way back in your throat. HIE denotes being or location. Putting an Mmm sound before a verb negates it. DOH-Jay is thank you. I know baby stuff like that, but it allows me to hear at least some things, including the startlingly high number of English words and phrases they've folded into their everyday speech.

It's good to be back in Chinatown.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Drama Desk Awards II

He won. Of course, you have to dial through virtually all the text of the published stories to get at this fact, but Conleth Hill of the Seafarer won the Drama Desk award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. (I still don't know quite what that means.)

I looked it up this morning and got all excited about it. Don't really know why. After I saw this play for the second time, I called Larry from New York and said, "I've got to see these guys again." Meaning Jim Norton and Conleth Hill, mostly. Larry said, "Sure. Anytime you want to go to New York, we'll go." And I whined that these guys usually only work in England. We'd have to go to England to see them. I was pretty sure Larry said, "Well, then, we'll do that." But when I brought it up again, he balked. "I never said that." I insisted that he did. He said, "We're not going to England to see  a play. That's crazy."

OK, when you put it like that, it does sound a bit crazy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

NBA Playoff Distractions

Larry announced earlier today that he was definitely not watching the Celtics game 7. If they play badly and win, he said, I won't enjoy it. And if they lose...

He never finished that thought. Too horrible to contemplate.

Naturally, when it came to game time, he glued himself to the TV. The kids needed some distraction, so we turned to You Tube. The kids went nuts for an Aadrman-style short film melding Star Wars and Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It's here. But my favorites are the creature comforts videos, as below.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Adult Field Trip

Yesterday my mother-in-law and I went to this exhibit at the MFA in our semi-annual visit. Wonderful. Inspiring. I have no words for these works. The painting of Toledo above seems to be hiding an entire gothic novel inside it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Still Life with Editor

When Larry was still at that fancy pants magazine he used to edit, he liked called me up to complain about certain writers. He did this at least once a week. I got to know these writers based on his rants about them. I knew which ones who turned in single-source stories, which ones liked to copy out phrases from press releases into their stories, which ones liked to use words such as "artisan" and "hand-picked," and "iconic" to ill effect. I knew their writing because he would read me the sentences that offended him, and then he would read me the edited version so I could be impressed. And I was. 

Well, this one guy needed extra ranting. He had come to Larry with a bunch of top shelf clips. He'd written several times for a big glossy magazine, one that shall remain nameless here (except that one of the letters in the title was a "G" and another one was a "Q"), and had demanded $2.50 a word. Now Larry was sitting at his desk, looking at the results. This really expensive thoroughbred writer couldn't seem to lay his hands on a single fact. He couldn't complete a thought, couldn't match up the subjects and the verbs correctly, couldn't spell, and couldn't quite figure out where to put the commas, either. 

"Why aren't you a millionaire in this profession," Larry asked me. I had no answer for this. For days after, he would call me up and read me before and after sentences. I heard them while herding Sammie to the bathroom, while folding laundry, while cooking dinner. I learned to hate this writer.

Now Larry is at home. He is doing some freelance editing, and the word is out. He's getting calls from people who need a good line editor. And there is no one better. Truly. 

Mostly, he's editing me, but not on paper. I should be so lucky. Rather, he's editing our conversations. Yesterday, we walked the kids down to the center in that dead time between school and dinner. The G-man was on his scooter zooming ahead of us and then coming back. Larry asked if that was okay. I said, "Yeah, he roams further and further ahead. Then he comes back. He knows." Then I felt a nervous pang. "Farther," I said. 

"I was so totally going to correct you there," said Larry. Yeah, I know. (In fact, he doesn't read this or any blog because the sea of unedited copy makes his belly flip. He read it once, months ago, and then called me with a list of before and after sentences. I'm pretty sure I hung up on him. Then I made the changes he suggested.)

What's worse is that he edits the broadcasters during Red Sox games. And the ads. Turns out the modifier "only" is incorrectly placed in most television ad copy. Ask me how I know. Sometimes I get sucked in and ask him how he would rewrite this or that ad. Let me tell you, when you are in bed with your husband and the two of you are dissecting a sentence that was uttered in a Dunkin Donuts commercial from twelve hours ago, well that's a new brand of crazy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cocktail Napkin Outlines

The story is due this week on finding the right helicopter to land on your mega-yacht. (I sh*t you not. That is the subject.)

With luck, the phone will ring at 6 a.m. tomorrow and on the other end will be someone calling from London who helps advise the ultra high-net-worth types about such a purchase, and he will rattle off the names of several helicopters. (We hope they are pretty, because that's what the editor wants. Pretty, pretty 'copters to put on the spreads, like pin ups. You know, a petite little Robinson or Eurocopter next to a lusty, power-hungry Agusta, and a big-boned Sikorsky dominatrix right next to a seasoned but saucy Bell. You know? Maybe you don't. I'm a little ashamed that I do.) This guy, if he calls, will also give me the phone number of a pilot who is now working off a yacht in the Bahamas, and who might have more details. I'm hoping for a cockney accent, or something from the north, but what are the odds? In the US when you talk to a pilot he's almost always southern, with the accent to match. Usually deep Texas, sometimes Georgia. The Carolinas are common, too. That or he affects a southern accent because all the swaggering types in aviation are southern. It's the cool thing to be. Not so sure what the deal is in England. So far the accents are pretty posh.

Sikorsky, a manufacturer, calls the day after that--we hope. No guarantees that these folks will keep their appointments. Sometimes people just don't call.

At that point, I'll need to make an outline for the story, the first of several. I always start with a rough outline, the type you can put on a cocktail napkin. I use three to five bullet points, plus a lead and a conclusion. In the cocktail napkin outline, I cheat on the lead (the beginning) and the conclusion. I use the most interesting anecdote in my notes as the lead and the second most interesting anecdote as conclusion. Sometimes this outline sticks all the way through to the final draft. Usually it changes. Making this outline, though, means that the story is almost done. The story has already been created in the reporting, in the conversations that happen around the story. The writing is just glorified typing. I don't mean that it's bad writing. It can't be bad. The sentences must all be correct and clear, but also unadorned.

Then I fill in all the quotes an anecdotes into an expanded outline. Then I pare them down. Get rid of repetitive information. They I have to look for missing pieces, in this case probably prices and other stats. An S-76 costs how much? ($10 to $12 million.) What's the span of the rotor blades? What's its range? How many can it seat? What's the waiting list for taking delivery? Stuff like that, easy to find, but it takes time. That expanded outline can become a draft in a couple of hours.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Not Quite What I Was Planning

Hemingway once wrote a short story that was six words long. (For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.)

A couple of years ago, SMITH magazine held a literary contest, asking folks to submit a memoir in six words. The result is a slim volume of memoirs, called Not Quite What I Was Planning. Some are hilarious, some sound like potential titles for country songs, some fall a bit flat. But reading them is completely addictive.

"Bad brakes discovered at high speed." by J. Baumeister

"Found true love, married someone else." by B. Stromberg

"I still make coffee for two." Z. Nelson

"Savior complex makes for many disappointments." A Schubach

"Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends." H. Davies (9 years old)

This is a good exercise, the attempt to sum up your life, so far, in six words. Some have floated the idea of trying to sum up the life of someone famous, such as the current president, in six words, and a few apt suggestions can be found on the SMITH mag website. (My favorite is: "Born on third base, stole home." Click here for more.)  The magazine is now taking submissions for its next volume of 6 worders. 

Friday, May 9, 2008

Drama Desk Awards

Conleth Hill, who played Ivan in the Seafarer, was just nominated for a Drama Desk award for best featured actor in a play. I have no idea what these are, or what a featured actor is, as opposed to the regular kind, but no matter. This was the only nomination for this play, which is crazy.

Anyway. Can't find him online anywhere, except in this series, The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, starring Jennifer Saunders. He plays the extremely effete husband of a toxic talk show host. It's dark and strangely funny. I've now watched a bunch of clips of this show, which is not available on Netflix, and I think he's doing a parody of the perfect celebrity wife. Here's a tiny clip that doesn't do it justice, but it's one of the few clips that doesn't drop the f bomb.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Student Success Story

I just got word that a former student, someone who took my Six Weeks, Six Essays class at Grub Street, submitted a short piece from the class to The Sun, and it was accepted. It will run in the "Reader's Write" section of an upcoming issue.

It's so hard to write, to submit, to open up thin envelopes to find teeny preprinted rejections inside. Just hearing about someone's success brings a huge high, at least to me. This is one of the most prestigious literary journals in the country, and her acceptance letter arrived via special delivery. 

To use a cliche, I am over the moon.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ancient Roman Boyfriends

Just finished listening to the Emperors of Rome series of lectures from the Teaching Company (nerd alert!) in mile two of this morning's run and moved right into the first of 48 lectures on the History of Ancient Rome. Earlier this spring I listened to Great Battles of the Ancient World, all by the same lecturer. I waved my iPod at Larry, who was on the treadmill next to me and said: "This guy is pretty much my boyfriend by now." I don't even use the lecturer's name (Garrett Fagan, Irish intellectual). He's just this guy who lives in my iPod and says wildly droll things about deceased despots. Larry knows who I mean. He knows a lot more about me these days now that he's at home. We even work out together every day, which is either sickening or really cute. Hard to tell which.
"What is it with you and the Irish," Larry asked without breaking stride. "If I started drinking heavily and stopped bathing and brushing my teeth, would you be into me, too?"
"Don't know," I said. "Can you do the accent?"

Monday, May 5, 2008

Astronauts and Weebles

Last weekend Somerville hosted its Open Studios event for local artists. It was a rainy and cold weekend, perhaps the last bad weather of the season, and not so many folks were out touring. Luckily, my mother-in-law lives next door to an artist, Jason Chase, one who likes to serve cookies and freshly made popcorn during Open Studios. My children can eat their body weight in popcorn. And did. He is also generous with balloons when little kids come calling. He has an entire series of Weeble paintings (as above), and lots of suburban landscapes, strip malls and the like. 

He shared space during Open Studios with his friend, Scott Listfield, who does astronaut paintings. There is one of an astronaut standing at a urinal, an astronaut crossing an intersection. My favorite is the astronaut sitting on an iceberg. Behind him are three fast food signs. Most little boys go for the painting of the astronaut at the laundromat. Below he's in a scene stolen from Planet of the Apes, sort of.

And here's another Weeble painting from Jason. Oil on canvas. Can't resist it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Broadway Bowls!

The story about Broadway actors and stagehands in their Thursday night beer league will finally run,I think, this Saturday on Only a Game. Locally, the show starts at 7a.m., on WBUR (90.9 FM), but the story will probably run in the final segment, starting around 7:45. Luckily, there's a podcast, too, usually posted a day or so after the show airs.

It should run, unless some unforeseen sports-related emergency develops between now and then. Among those quoted in the story are two actors from the Seafarer, Ciaran Hinds (what a lovely man he is) and Sean Mahon (tall, cute, mentioned Bulgaria at least once). Would have loved to quote Conleth Hill (left, more on him later) but he hates microphones. No, seriously. Famous stage actor. Brilliant. Nice guy. Decent bowler. Won't talk about himself. What can you do? At the very end of the night, at 2:30 a.m., when it was time for them to go home and for me to make the trek through Times Square back to my hotel room, Hill said, "I'm sorry. Put a microphone in front of me and I look like a dog that's been told to take a bath."

Final Musings

Thoughts from the Muse that won't go away.

1. Sitting in the little break room reserved for panelists, I overheard one legendary editor describe what she considers to be a fair offer for a work of debut fiction to two agents who sat utterly still, they were listening so hard. And she went on to describe exactly what she thinks of certain types of sales pitches from agents. I'm pretty sure that neither a fire alarm, nor a live sex act could have distracted anyone in the room from her comments.

2. Memories of Michael Thomas' discussion about emotional resonance just won't go away. At one point, he turned on some James Brown and asked, "OK, what's going on here?" We looked blankly back at him. "Come on. What's the defining characteristic of funk?" he asked. Silence. "Should I turn it up?" he asked. We looked at our shoes. He shook his head. At that point I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Um, I'm from Nebraska." You know, by way of explanation.

3. One of the discussions I attended at the Muse was fairly dull. It happens. An academic sat at the front of the room and droned on about an old research project from graduate school that accidentally became a book. Luckily, Grub Street puts a little surprise in everyone's name tag. It's true. The name tags hang from a lanyard and tucked behind the name in each plastic pocket is a copy of the poem, The Lanyard, by former US poet Billy Collins. The poem appears in his collection, The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. I had started to read it earlier, this poem about a boy who weaves a
lanyard for his mother, and knew right away that it was just sentimental enough to make me cry. So, I opened it up and read it during this dull little speech. Had myself a little cry to pass the time.

4. On that subject of poetry, Chris Castellani read a poem by Grace Paley from her last collection, called Fidelity, at lunch the first day. I think it's called Sisters. The first line is "My friends are dying," and it's wonderful. 

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Latest Assignment

This is it. My latest assignment. Helicopter lands on boat. Make this subject interesting, and spend 2500 words doing it. And turn it in by next week. Funny thing is that there are a lot of videos just like this one on the internet. They're taken by what's known as "yacht paparazzi." These are folks who hang out in the marinas or in the bushes outside design facilities and take photos or video of new yachts. There's quite a veil of secrecy over the whole yacht industry, which inspires this kind of spy stuff. A friend of mine went to tour a factory for building these megayachts, and the owner led him all around the hull of this 500 foot boat, talking about it and the Russian businessman who had commissioned it, but then added, "But if you tell anyone, we'll deny this. Because we're not really building this. Because we don't really have this client. Because we've never heard of the project." Okay, Mr. Crazy, thanks for your time.