Friday, October 24, 2008

Jack's Hierarchy of Vocational Aspiration

I was going through some of Jack's old emails, and came across this piece of advice. He used to give this as part of his lectures to undergraduates. He sent it out to one of our mutual friends as part of a rant as to why writers are chronic malcontents. I should post the entire email (it's that entertaining) but it's pretty long.

Anyway, when kids complain that they have to start at the bottom, he says this:

Somewhere at the Herald, a guy is taking classified ads over the phone and thinking, Christ, I could do obits or wedding announcements if they'd give me a shot. Meanwhile, the guy writing obits and announcements is thinking he could be a reporter, the reporter is thinking he could write features, the feature writer wants to be a columnist, the columnist wants to be a novelist, the novelist wants to be a playwright, the playwright a poet, the poet an angel, and the angel wants to be God. For the rest of the story, see J. Milton's "Paradise Lost."

I love that bit. And it's true, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, you're always pining for that next rung. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Political Humor

I had no intention of writing about the election, because I'm over it already. I don't know a single person who isn't. And yet...

A couple of days ago I was driving the kids home from something, maybe the G man's karate class. The two of them were in the back seat, arguing about who touched who's face (an old chestnut around here). 

Of a sudden, the G man says, "Hey, mommy. I wanna play war." To which I said, no, honey. I'm driving.

"Come on, mommy. Please? Let's have a war."

Okay, honey, how do you play that?

"Well, I'll be John McKennedy. And you be. And you be. And you, um. Hey, mommy, what's the brown guy's name?"

That's a six-year-old's perspective of things. The election is a war between McWhatsit and the brown guy. It would be funnier if not for the fact that this is exactly how the election has been presented to us on so many fronts.

When I offered up his name to G, I said it carefully so he would remember. And S, who is four, said it right back to me, just as carefully and said, "That's who I'm cheering for, mommy." Of course you are, sweetheart. He's very popular with the ladies.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Draft One is Done

The first draft of the boy book is done. It came in at 82,000 words, most of those were written in the past seven months. Hard to believe. Tony is looking at the first draft of the final chapter today and we'll likely edit over the weekend. Then we'll print out the whole thing and edit it together in a series of cookie-fueled meetings.

All the worry about whether we would finish or not has evaporated. Now I worry about looking at those old chapters we wrote back in the spring. Those chapters have been gathering dust for 5 or 6 months. Early drafts rarely age well. And I anticipate terror-filled dreams in which the editor hates it, really hates it, dreams in which the manuscript gets lost somehow and we have to rewrite the whole thing in a single day. Stuff like that. 

Writers are nuts. Just nuts. But for this moment, I'm happy. We will finish this thing and turn it in on time. Whatever changes the editor wants, we'll make them. No problem.

Also, a finished draft means time to start thinking: What next?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Feeling the Pinch

The new issue of the Pinch is out, and my essay "How to Work a Locker Room" is in it. The sample copies came in the mail a couple of days ago.

The best part was reading the other essays and stories in the magazine, all of which are wonderful. I was especially excited to read "Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote" by Brian Kiteley. In it, he used parts of Plath's published diaries as a jumping off point for an imagined encounter between Plath and Capote. The narrative captures her voice well in that it is equal parts beautiful and disturbing.

But I was first excited to see his name in the magazine because I love his book The 3a.m. Epiphany. It is the best writing book I've ever encountered. Instead of posing exercises that purport to teach a specific skill (describe a rock in order to practice description), he uses highly specific prompts that get you out of the normal rut. I don't leave home without this book.

One of my favorite exercises is #61, Character Building. In it, you write a story in which two people create a fictional character over the course of several conversations. It's a chance to use the urge to gossip in an artistic way. I love it and have used it several times. The whole book is like that. There is a story under every draft, every attempt to create. It's an antidote to this notion that every story is a failure and that the job of a writer is to fail better next time. When I use this book, I have the opposite feeling. I feel that every draft is a partial success, that it is at the very least a fun and exciting way to spend some time.

Anyway, he and I are in the same magazine. I feel elevated and important today.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Stranger on a Train

Larry and I went to New York a couple of weeks ago to see two plays. We did this for the very first time last winter, going all that way to see the Seafarer, and it was worth it. We went back in the spring to see Port Authority, and that too was worth the expense and the time away from work and home. We aren't rich. No writers are, but going off to see people performing at the top of their profession in drama feels less like an extravagance and more like a pilgrimage. 

In this past trip, we didn't have quite as much luck. Not true. The pilgrimage was different and enlightening in a new way. First, we found magic. Standing on the platform in Boston, waiting for the Accela, I noticed Larry looking grim. He's always worried about getting a seat. I don't know why he worries about this, but he does. I patted his belly and his cheek. I smirked at him and then kissed him, hoping to chide him a bit and to comfort him. I don't know why but men prefer to be teased a bit while they take comfort. Perhaps they don't like to feel coddled. 

Anyway, there was an older man standing next to us on the platform and he exclaimed to his wife, "Look. That woman patted her husband in broad daylight." He was leaning on a cane and wearing a Red Sox hat, but the letters looked to be in Hebrew. He went on and on about belly patting and how much men need that. I couldn't quite figure out how to take him, and this fuss. But the train came. As it turned out, we couldn't find a seat. And wandered to the front of the car, and found ourselves sitting across from each other and across the aisle from this man and his wife. He recognized us. Said to his wife, "Look who that is, the lady who pats her husband." Or some such. 

I took out my notebook and began to write. The best part of the trip is the train ride and having all those hours in which to write undisturbed. I saw the man take out what looked like a small plastic kit of some sort. He unfolded it and it had compartments and inside that a little tiny flask of water. I went back to my writing. Turns out that he was unfolding a small watercolor palette. Two hours later he handed me the above picture, one he painted on the train while we rode. He does this all the time. He carries this little painting kit and these 5 by 8 cards and he paints people he sees every day. He paints them at Fenway Park and on the Common. "Usually, they don't even know they're being painted." 

On the back of the picture he wrote in pencil, "Jane Austen finishes chapter 19 on the train to NYC." Afterward he asked if I was writing a book. I said yes. "I knew it," he said. He seemed happy to have guessed it. We were on the train just a few days after attending my friend Jack's funeral, and I was still selfishly very sad about my own loss. To me, the picture felt like a blessing for the trip. I couldn't get over it, and I couldn't quit looking at it.

The plays themselves were somewhat less exciting, although I shouldn't complain. We saw this as a matinee. And that's really the only time you should go to one of the big blockbuster-type comedies. If you're not surrounded by 70-year-old Rotary Club members from Madison Wisconsin who are laughing so hard at the par boiled laugh lines that their contact lenses are popping right out of their eyes, well, you're cheating yourself. Truly. 

We walked out afterward and Larry said, "What did you think?" I said, "I miss the Carol Burnett show." No snark intended. It's like a really long, but pretty good skit of the old Carol Burnett show. Not till we got home did I look it up to find that it's the most exported play of the French theater. Ever. 

That night we saw Three Changes. The acting was good and there were several astonishing emotional moments, but I didn't quite understand what was going on or why. I'm going to come right out and admit this. It's very disappointing to be facing a long train ride home in which to ponder one's own inadequacy as a viewer or appreciator of drama. Fortunately, there was a klatch of ancient ladies behind us in their sensible sweaters and chunky jewelry who were just as confused as I was. It was somewhat cheering to overhear them parsing out the plot after while waiting to file out of the theater. (So the gay boyfriend became the man's son? Yes. But he wasn't the son before, right? I don't think so. And the brother became the husband? Right. How did he do that? I don't know. Who was that girl talking in the corner? That was the girlfriend. No. Really?Whose girlfriend?)

Better to console ourselves with Carol Burnett-style comedy.