Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Strange days indeed


(Most peculiar, mama.)  That line from the old John Lennon song "Nobody Told Me" has been running through my head these last couple of weeks.  I don't know about where you are, but for me and mine the summer just passed was mighty strange indeed.  It kicked off in early June when a close colleague of my wife was arrested for a sex crime; a shock and a tragedy on many levels, one being that it badly discredited an organization she has given her heart to for ten years and overnight made her job much much harder.  In July, during the halcyon early days of a marathon east coast vacation, we checked our cell phone to find two frantic messages from the woman who was minding our dog back home: 1) the dog had blood in his feces and she was rushing him to the veterinarian, and 2) (later) the vet was not yet sure what the problem was, but thought it could be the return of parvo, the disease the came within an inch of taking our dog's life when he was a puppy and which the vet assured us he could never catch again. (Turns out, it was nothing.)   Later in July, not twenty minutes after I told my mother we needed to leave earlier from her house in southern Maryland--"just in case something happened" on our way to Durham--the air conditioning died in our Toyota Sienna.  The temperature outside was 104˚.  Needless to say, it became impossible for us to make it to Durham without a long and rather costly service stop.  The same month, on the same vacation, it was so freezing cold in my father-in-law's air-conditioned basement that I had to wear a sweatshirt to bed and sleep under a quilt.  Around this time word came to us, from a variety of sources, that a very prominent southern literary and lifestyle magazine--one housed at my university--had locked out its employees.  Moreover, the head editor and founder of the magazine, along with his co-editor girlfriend, had been fired for inappropriate behavior toward interns.  Far from a mere local scandal, news of this miserable affair actually made it into the New York Times.  In August, Mitt Romney decided that Paul Ryan, of all people, would make his candidacy more palatable to the 99% who will be savaged by his policies.  A week later my philosophical Episcopalean son announced that he was a deist and also that for his birthday present he wanted to dye his hair black.  (This son, without benefit of dye, has the most beautiful chestnut brown hair you'll ever see on any living being.  Go figure.)  In June, a blog post I wrote that complained about the criminal indifference of administrators to faculty at my university went viral across the university and the state.  People who'd never read my blog were embracing it; people I'd never met were congratulating me.  A faculty member--who had already taken a job at another school all the way across the country--cornered me in a stairwell and told me we needed to organize a sit-down strike in front of the administration building.  Yes, well.

But you know, there's always an upside to strange.  Lennon's song is bouncy and jocular, but it's also severely critical of the era in which it was written.  I can't say that about my summer.  Wonderful, extraordinary, and equally unexpected things happened as well.  At a conference in June, Robert Olen Butler, a man I'd never had the honor to meet, happened to visit a session in which I was reading one of my historical fictions--not to see me, of course, but to see the other presenter--and wound up telling me how much he enjoyed the story and asking me questions about the collection it's housed in.   At the same conference a woman I had a three minute conversation with--an American, she is permanently situated at a university in France--offered to let me and/or my family stay at her place if and when I or we happen to pass through Angers.  I and we might have to take her up on that!  (The graciousness of people can be truly humbling sometimes.)  In August, after ten years of thinking about a novel, and researching and thinking more and researching more and drafting and redrafting and being distracted by other projects and redrafting some more and finally getting feedback from friends about the project, my wife got off the phone, walked into our living room and announced "I think I've found an agent!"  (Not only an agent, it turns out, but the perfect agent for her.)  Perhaps most wild of all, in June, after a strange little story of mine was published in the online journal Literary Mama, I received an email from a movie producer in England who wanted to use the story as a basis for a short film.  And possibly, later, a feature.  Most peculiar, Mama.  This story was something I drafted a year and a half ago in a notebook in a UCA classroom while my students were all attempting to write fictions in their notebooks.  I put it aside for at least six months.  Then came I back to it, revised it, read it at a literary conference last February, and decided that, yes, I really did like it after all.  So I was happy that it finally found a home in a special Father's Day edition of Literary Mama.   But a movie?  Strange days, indeed.

I recall some sage advice I once received from Darrell Bourque, my dear, now retired, dissertation director at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  Reviewing my discussion of postmodernism in the introduction to my dissertation, Darrell noted a certain kind of disapproval--or maybe it was merely overseriousness--in my tone.  "Remember," he said, "for a postmodern chaos doesn't just mean uncertainty; it doesn't just mean darkness; for a postmodern chaos is the state with the most inherent possibility."  Hear, hear.  In the chaos of this summer, sad things certainly happened (I haven't even mentioned the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Times Square), but possibilities also arose that I could never have imagined a year ago.  Will these possibilities be realized?  Or will they displaced or superseded by others? I have no living idea.  But what's clear to me now, as it should have been all along, is that despite how I might try to plan for and predict and structure the future, I can't actually know where my life will take me by next summer.  I can't know what else that is new and unexpected and literally unimaginable will be presented in the next twelve months.  Life is just that strange and just that chaotic.  And thank god for it, people.   Because I can swear for sure that that's where the beauty lies.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Okay, so this is weird


If you read my last entry, you know that last week I commented on the connection I see between acting and writing.  This is a subject I wrote about in the introduction to my doctoral dissertation some years ago, and it's one I bring up periodically with my fiction writing students.   Well, it turns out that the same day I was composing that entry, Molly Ringwald was discussing the exact same subject in an article in the New York Times.  I'm not sure what to think about that synchronicity.  I'm not a reader of the Times, though it's obviously a superb publication; nor am I a particular fan of Molly Ringwald.  I'm pretty sure I do not want to have a mind meld with her!  Anyway, the day after the Times article appeared, a blogger for the Huffington Post wrote on the same subject, reviewing Ringwald's ideas and throwing in his two cents.  My wife kindly pointed out his blog post after she read mine.  Here's a link to the Huffington Post piece, if you care to read more on the subject of acting and writing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012



Early in my college career, fresh from a Catholic high school with only so-so liberal arts offerings, and negotiating a prestigious southern university with serious and significant liberal arts offerings, I found myself in the creative writing class of Mary Lee Settle, a cranky and rather opinionated professor of the older type, one given to delivering stark sermons about writing, the content of which I can't even remember now.  I do, however, remember an activity she put us through early in the semester.  Each of us were assigned roles of her choosing and forced, in character, to answer questions about ourselves.  The questions came both from her and from other students (who were supposed to stay in character the whole while).  At the time it struck me as a silly and highly contrived exercise, one which made me uncomforable despite the fact that I spent several summers of my childhood acting in community theatre productions and that in high school I acted in several one-acts peformed by a church teen group.  "We're here to talk about writing," I remember thinking as Settle put us through our paces, "not acting."  What I failed to understand is that Settle was talking about writing.  That was the whole point of her lesson.   What I recognize now, and say repeatedly to my students, is that in some crucial intellectual aspects, the crafts of acting and of writing are identical.  Writing fiction, especially, is about dropping yourself and becoming someone else.   This is most obviously true, I suppose, when writing in a first person voice.  On paper you act out that person's voice for the reader as a performer would for an audience.  And it shouldn't always be the same first person voice, or maybe fiction isn't really what you want to write.  But the similiarity still holds when one uses the second and third person voices.  Any time a writer draws characters in a story, the writer must find a way into the character, even if that character is a monster; otherwise the writer is doing nothing but manipulating stick figures, and his story dies.  This is obviously an intuitive process and involves not only mining the expanse of one's own personality-- and whose personality isn't wide enough to include at least a little of the monster--but being sensitivie to realities of the personalities in the people around you.  In the end, it feels like the mental prep work that practiced actors must do all the time.  And it can be remarkably liberating.

Several years ago, across a range of courses, I taught a certain writing student, the only former student of mine that I can call a certifiable genius.  (This was not just my opinion.  Everyone who taught her said the same thing.)  She was frightfully, painfully reserved in class; she said almost nothing during workshop; but her creative work was both voluminous and astounding.  She had more natural command of, and an ear for, language than any person I've ever met.   Her stories were disturbing and difficult and very darkly funny.  As it turned out, this student, for a time, was also a drama major and had roles in several productions.  As hard as it still is for me to imagine, this brilliant but critically shy girl became someone else entirely when she hit the stage.  I'll never forget my wife rushing home from one show, exclaiming how shocked she was to see Jessica, of all people, completely owning a campy, outragious, flirtacious role.  "I just couldn't believe that was Jessica," she kept repeating.  But really, it should have come as no surprise, to her or to me.  The trigger that allowed Jessica to dump her usual self and become another woman on stage is the same trigger that allowed her to develop the outrageous and compelling characters that took over her stories.  When I was in graduate school I was constantly told by readers how surprised they were to find such distrubed, cranky, even hateful people narrating my stories.  "You seem so normal," they would say.  For my part, I was surprised by their surprise.  It seemed perfectly natural to me to create these characters.  After all, I was just acting.

That writing is a means of self-expression--no, that we write in order to self-express--is a widely accepted axiom.  But at the risk of academic heresy, let me say that I think self-expression may be the worst reason to write anything creative and certainly not why I do so.  I write stories to indulge in new human worlds and to know imaginary people from the inside.  And to see how the lives of those imagined people play out.  There's usually very little, and sometimes none, of me in my stories.  Don't you get it?  That's the pleasure.  But I should say, before wrapping up, that I don't think this is merely an aspect of fiction writing.  If one is writing poetry, for instance, or creative nonfiction, genres famous for their ability to let the writer explore and express himself, I don't think the work finally begins to succeed until the writer regards himself as only another character in the reimagined world of the poem or the memoir.  The person-writer who, back in the real world, experienced the triggering event or relationship must get kicked out and be replaced by the writer-as-character in order for the actual writer (who technically is the same person, but not really) to bring the piece to its best fruition, the fruition demanded by the piece itself not by the person-writer whose experiences inspired it.  This may sound like some kind of complicated mental trickery, but it's not.  It's a natural process for any experienced craftsman.  I'll never forget hearing Jo Ann Beard, during a visit to my university, say that she tells her students their memoirs will never be any good until they stop thinking about those memoirs as their attempts to tell on themselves to the world and start thinking about them as pieces of art that have almost nothing to do with them at all.  I sat there and knew exactly what she was talking about.   She meant that when you are writing--no matter what you are writing--you are playing a role (or perhaps several at once).  And she meant to take that responsibility seriously.  She meant to say, Make damn sure you play that thing to the hilt.  Make sure that afterwards people say, I can't believe that was you.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Director's Cut


In filmmaking these days--or, rather, film marketing--the "director's cut" has become an important selling point.  Often the director's cut appears on DVD several months or even years after the movie in question has had its initial run. The director returns to her film to render it anew by restoring it to the structure she originally had in mind, before powers that be--whoever that is--or commercial concerns--as if the director didn't have these in mind all along--forced the director to make some unfortunate choices.  Or, perhaps, after a break of several years, the director has reconsidered her film and now thinks of it very differently.  So differently that she feels compelled to render the newly cut, "truer" version.  The director's cut should represent the most pure, most artistically successful iteration of the film, the personal attention by the director being the sine qua non that guarantees the new version has realized the film's inherent ambitions and possibilities.

If you think my tone sounds cynical, you're probably right.  Too often I suspect that these "director's cut"s don't represent a more refined version of the movie in question but just an attempt to milk a few more bucks off of it, by selling movie lovers something they don't really need.  Other times I question whether a director's cut is necessarily better than the original.  (And didn't the director cut the original anyway?) Ridley Scott was famously unhappy with certain aspects of the version of Bladerunner that appeared in theatres back in its original 1982 run.  He especially didn't like the Harrison Ford's voiceovers, a compromise apparently forced on him by the studio.  In the thirty years since its release, a variety of differently edited Bladerunners have appeared on DVD and even in the theatres, including a most ballyhooed "Final Cut" in 2007.  But there's no getting around the fact that the original Bladerunner was--and is--a stunning, viscerally affecting film.  I, for one, never minded the voiceovers; and I find it hard to believe that whatever Scott did to his movie in subsequent edits it can entertain me any more compellngly that it did the first time I saw it.  As much as I love the film, and maybe because I love the film, I have no desire to see this so-called "Final Cut."

On the other hand, there is the infamous case of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, his ambitious followup to Citizen Kane.  The story is well known.  After filming had finished, Welles dawdled through the editing and finally put the work aside for several months to do some filming in South America on behalf of the Roosevelt administration.  In his absence, impatient studio officials took hold of his movie and essentially ruined it.  Most criminally, they filmed a new, happier ending and shoe-horned it into the movie, and they cut up Welles's supposedly masterful opening shot in which he let the eye of the camera roam from room to room of the Amberson mansion, following this character and that, without any jump cuts.  In fact, no cuts at all.  It was the longest unbroken sequence in film history and a powerful opening (so we're told)--at least until the studio got its paws on it.  Realizing what was happening to Welles's movie, some close to the action pleaded with studio executives to at least make a copy of Welles's version and archive it before they proceeded to make any more changes.  The studio refused.  Welles's version of The Magnificent Ambersons was destroyed, lost to history forever.  That's one movie for which a newly discovered director's cut would be most welcome--and a miracle.

I have all this in mind because I am busy making my own "director's cut" these days on my Van Gogh novel.  As I may have mentioned on this blog previously, the original typed version of the thing ran to over 1200 pages.  1200!  The first version I began showing to interested readers was around 950 pages.  And the version which many agents first saw was around 750 pages.  My director's cuts at that time were simply a  matter of trimming and more trimming, trying to get the beast under control.  Over a year ago I was working closely with one agent's office.  This agent made the compelling case that I needed to cut still more.  Okay, okay, I told myself.  They want cut, I'll cut.  I became ruthless.  I trimmed another 200 pages from a novel that had already been mightily reduced in size.  At the time, I really thought that through these last cuts I was bringing the story into the sharpest focus possible.  However, recently another agent  mentioned that there seemed to be a few rather strenous jumps in it, with the intervening years and circumstances going largely unexplained.  Well, yeah, I thought, but don't you know how much I cut?  And aren't you impressed that I did?  Then of course I realized that she had no idea about the earlier cuts, and all that mattered to her is what she saw inside the manuscript.  I realized too that those last brutal cuts might not have been so artistically necessary as the earlier agent thought.  In fact, I may have removed some crucial connecting tissue of my story.  I proceeded to review the entire novel all over again, going back and forth between different versions. Well, length be damned, because I'm now convinced I cut way too much.  I've since restored about 100 pages to the book, and I'm feeling a lot happier about it.  Some scenes which were my private favorites, and which I'd eliminated as I followed the "kill your darlings" approach to writing, I put back.  And I'm glad.  Because they are good scenes.  And the novel, in my opinion, is better, clearer, for their inclusion. And because it's a director's cut, dear agents, I'm afraid that it's only my opinion that counts. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Versatility and virtuosity


I have to admit that in a little way, like much of the American and world public, I've been bitten by the Olympic bug.  Having spent several summers of my childhood logging morning training laps in a swimming pool, I always watch the Olympic swim races with interest.  (Like nearly all my brothers and sisters, I swam for our local summer league team way down in backwoods Accokeek, Maryland.)  Not just because I like to see my countrymen do well--and we have--but because it's a beautiful thing to see the various strokes carried out by such astonishingly accomplished athletes.   When I swam, my favorite strokes were butterfly and breaststroke; not surprisingly, these were also the strokes I did best, at least relative to other kids.  (Backstroke was a chore, mostly because you couldn't see where you were going.  Freestyle--a.k.a. the Australian crawl--always struck me as a perfectly uninteresting if efficient way to get from point A to point B.)  My favorite event, however, both to watch and to participate in, was the medley.  Even today, my favorite individual Olympic races are the medleys and my favorite Olympic relay race is the medley relay, which only a few days ago the United States men won once again for god knows how many straight Olympics.  What I like about the medleys is seeing an individual or group of individuals show a complete mastery over a range of strokes.  It really is a thing of beauty and an incredible athletic feat.  And as a competitor long ago, I know I enjoyed the physical challenge of trying to master four strokes in a race, even if I never quite managed to.   The versatility show by a great medley swimmer pushes the very meaning of greatness and becomes its own special, higher kind of virtuosity, more spectacular and even god-like than the more mortal if still rare virtuosity of the swimmer who can  master one stroke--say breaststroke (great breaststrokers tend to be the outliers of the swimming world)--so well that he or she is virtually unbeatable at it.

It's the same in other endeavors.  Thinking of well-known and well-regarded actors, the ones I admire deepest are those whose roles vary so widely from film to film and play to play that it is impossible to gather them into one single category.  In fact, you don't really associate these actors with any single role, or kind of role, because the actor himself or herself disappears inside every role he or she plays.  I think of Dustin Hoffman, for instance, or Meryl Streep, who I'm sure will eventually go down as the greatest film actor, male or female, the United States ever produced.  When I watch Hoffman or Streep in a film I never feel like I am watching Dustin play a role or Meryl play a role; I feel I am watching the characters they intend to portray.  Hoffman and Streep are so flexible and so versatile as performers that they themselves are virtually lost in their performances.  Compare these two actors to someone like Tom Cruise who--based on the admittedly small number of Cruise movies I've seen--seems to play the same role over and over; worse, that role always strikes me as some heroically idealized version of himself that Cruise carries around in his head.  (I realize it's common sport to make fun of Tom Cruise these days, but what the heck.  He can afford it.)  Hoffman and Streep, the true virtuosos, have no interest in playing themselves.  They know there's too much fun to be had mastering the art of becoming other people.  

Thus I arrive at my usual subject, historical fiction, only to say that it seems to me one could divide up historical fiction writers into two fundamental camps.  Those who make a career of digging into a past historical period and finding more and more stories to tell from that period, and those for whom the talent to write historical fiction is one of several writing talents they show.  I think of Madison Smartt Bell, who already had a significant and flourishing career as a writer of contemporary fiction before he began writing the novels that are now known as the "Haitian Trilogy."  I think of Bernard Malamud, who wrote several great contemporary novels and countless great short stories in a variety of voices, but who also composed an astounding historical novel called The Fixer, which I consider to be his finest work.  Think of Alice Munro, perhaps the greatest short story writer North America has ever produced, who writes mostly and cuttingly about her own times but has proven herself an equal master at exploring the rurual Canadian past.  It seems that the writers we honor with the highest accolades are always those who move with seemingly effortlessness from project to project, genre to genre, period to period, like Shakespeare moving from tragedy to comedy to romance to history.  This is not to say that many fine and even important novels cannot be produced by a writer who sees his or her life task as the writing of historical fiction.  It's just that perhaps the finest historical novels might in the end be written by those who also write contemporary realistic fiction and science fiction and magic realism and even detective fiction.  Because writers of such versatility are our greatest virtuosos.  (Jonathan Lethem is a newer, younger name that springs to mind as part of this discussion.)

I guess what I am trying to argue is that there's an evident virtuosity in the versatility that allows a Bell or a Malamud or a Munro to move freely between past and present, just as there is an incredible virtuosity in the versatility that allows a writer like Sherman Alexie to move between fiction and poetry, screenplay and memoir.  And too I guess I am saying that with these writers I trust their need to explore the past when they do choose to explore it.  I am compelled by their own compulsion, because I know it's not a matter of career necessity; it's not simply "what they do."  It's what they've been called to by the material itself.  And that's the highest calling there is.