Thursday, November 20, 2008

Benign Criticism

This fall, I have been both a student and a teacher. I've been teaching the usual 6-weeks, 6-essays class for Grub Street, and I've been teaching a memoir class to senior citizens in Mission Hill, also for Grub.

In addition, I have been taking a fiction class, in part to see what I can do in that form (so far, not much luck). Also, I've been hoping to hone my narrative skills and this seems like the appropriate way in which to take some aggressive risks. I'm hoping, too, that being a student will make me a better teacher. And it does, in that I give much more direct criticism to students in my classes now that I've been a student. I've realized that students who really want to improve want honesty. But it has to be smart honesty, the kind that makes them want to try again because they feel someone understood what they were up to (even if it went splat). 

I used to be too timid about this. When I started teaching I was writing primarily for magazine editors and let me just say that for the most part, they have no manners at all.  Editors have written THIS IS STUPID in all caps, in red ink, on paragraphs that I've written. Or they write YOU'RE PUTTING ME TO SLEEP HERE. Or PUH-LEEZE.  (Okay, I get it. Rewrite. I can rewrite.) Magazine writing is a factory of sorts. The editors package the text, copy edit it, put a title on it and send it off. They don't spend a lot of time prettying up your feelings.

In my memoir and essay classes, we tend to be much gentler. Not to say that we don't offer comments that might seem bizarre to the uninitiated. In a recent class I remember saying to someone about her essay, "Wow, my favorite thing here is that, you know, while we obviously know your husband is dying, we don't actually know that he's dead until that last line when you walk up to his body. That's amazing." And to everyone in the class (I hope) that seemed like an appropriate way to comment on the story, and on the storytelling at work, which was remarkable.  The woman who wrote the story didn't need therapy from our workshop; she needed real advice about--and appreciation for--the savvy way she had constructed her piece.

In a fiction class, the critiques tend to be all over the place. Unlike memoir, the facts of the story are up for grabs. So people might comment on how a character should behave differently or say different things or be a different gender in order to make a bigger splash in the story. It's scary. I'm struggling with this, too. For the first time, I look at someone's story and have no idea what to say, no idea at all what they're trying to do. On top of that, some of us are getting little lectures about how our stories aren't big enough, important enough, how they don't represent an aggressive artistic stance, an attitude about the world. (Yowza! Where can I get one of those?) Anyway, I've gone from confident writer and workshop participant to nervous neurotic in seven short weeks.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Dead Cat Play

Near the end of this play, which Larry and I saw on Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old girl in a short haircut and an even shorter dress, raises two guns to shoot her boyfriend in the back at point blank range while he cradles his own headless dead cat. You'd have to see the play to understand. Or perhaps you wouldn't understand even if you did see it. I can assure you that this is one of the least shocking moments the play has to offer. By the time Mairead gives Padraic both barrels, we've already seen people being tortured, having their eyes shot out, and getting gunned down on stage. We've even seen two characters have a chat while they dismember two dead bodies. Padraic's imminent death is just another plot point clicking into place.

What's shocking is the stage blood packets that explode in that scene with such force that they send spatters up through the first six rows of the theater. As we were sitting in the front row, Larry and I got our share. He turned to me after the play, pulling his shirt out in front of him. "This will come out, right?" It was a new shirt. I shrugged. Hard to say. Sometimes blood is made from chocolate syrup and that stuff never comes out. We should have been suspicious of being one of the only people sitting up front. Live and learn.

It's a tough play to sit through, funny as it is, and this might be the wrong moment for American audiences to have a laugh about the absurdity of torture. At one point, Padraic is standing next to a man he has suspended by his feet and is lecturing him about the fact that he refuses to choose which nipple Padraic will cut off. He's standing there, holding a pair of pliers in one hand and a razor in the other and saying something on the order of: If you don't choose, I'll take them both and probably feed them to you. So you might as well choose. To do anything else is madness. (The speech itself is much more clever, but I don't have it in front of me.) And then the phone rings and Padraic answers it, and learns that his pet cat is sick (or poorly). And he dissolves emotionally. And the man hanging next to him has to comfort him, by telling him that the cat probably has ringworm and if he'll just run round to the chemists for some pills, the cat will be all right in a couple of days. The whole exchange is funny in the most shamefully uncomfortable way. Fortunately, the actors were wonderful. I particularly liked Colin Hamell as Padraic and Lynn Guerra as Mairead, two grown ups playing emotionally stunted children who have been hardened to violence but who remain naive about everything else. 

I enjoyed the performance, but I was glad for the end and I wouldn't want to have to see it again. And I don't even need a program; I have my bloodstained clothing to remember it by.

Boy Book Update

We turned it in today. 

Oh, my.

It came in at a little under 92,000 words, written starting March 30 or around there. I hope the editor likes it. We all do. But there's almost no time to consider that possibility or its alternatives. Already we're to submit a list of possible titles for the marketing department to chew on. We have a huge author survey to fill out. We have to send them photos of ourselves in a certain trim size. Black and white only, please. Hi-res only please. But a variety of poses in a natural setting. 

I said to my co-author: Natural settings? What the hell does that mean? No nudity, right? I'm a nice girl.

The author questionnaire must be a dozen pages long and quizzes us on everything: where we come from, what cities we've lived in, what media contacts we have, if any. On and on. And it asks for a detailed description of where the book idea came from. It's not a problem answering these questions, it just seems to be happening so fast. We turned in the book, and the editor was thrilled. Then she said, well we're working on the book jacket now. I want to tug her sleeve and say, "Psst. What if you don't like what we wrote?" But of course that's not done. 

We just give the information they want and feel gratitude. 

And we fall down. I sent off title options today and then got up from the computer, crossed the room and started down the stairs to check on S, who was busy making a paper bra for the dog. Pink paper. Don't ask. It was to go along with the paper mermaid tail she'd taped to the dog's midsection. I took one or two steps down the stairs and then my feet went out from under me and I skidded the rest of the way on my back and elbows, one foot twisted sharply under me. The lightheadedness of relief had made me clumsy. I sat on the bottom step saying, oh, oh and watching the red blotches appearing on my skin. S was up in my face in a flash, saying, "You have to hang on to the railing. Otherwise you slip." It was a very stern warning. Then she was waving one of her socks in my face. They're all over the house because she uses them to make mermaid tails for her stuffed doggies. "You slipped on this," she said and shook her head like a disappointed mommy. Then she marched up the stairs to put it in her drawer. When she returned she crawled onto my lap wanting hugs. I was still on the bottom step because I couldn't quite get up. That's when Larry appeared, asking what's going on. 
"I fell down the stairs."
"Yeah," he said. "I heard."
So much for the romance of success. I sat with an ice pack on my bruised foot for a while and then took S off to her swimming lesson. It's time to get back to work. The editor's verdict on our book is coming. We just don't know when. 

Friday, November 7, 2008

Taste of Grub

Tonight is Grub Street's annual fundraiser, called the Taste of Grub. It's a swanky party at which some famous and near-famous writers read their work and Grubbies and Friends of Grub all stand around chatting and eating. It's one of those events at which I tend to meet people I've read and admired from afar and then have one of those moments where I try to say something witty and intelligent and just fail utterly. So there's that to look forward to.

We don't always go because nights out come along rather rarely for us, but Larry and I bought tickets this year. It's a good way to celebrate the (near) end of the boy book project. We're at 93,000 words. And the deadline is Monday.