Archive for October, 2010

Norman Mailer: “An Unemployed and Unemployable Hamlet”

October 29, 2010

Writing is revising.  Most professional writers will hold to some variation on this lesson.  For many, revision is where the real meat of writing cooks – by the next day, the end of the week, or even the end of a full draft, a writer has a basic framework or scaffolding to build around, “flesh out,” or cut, change, kill, and so on.

Writing/Revising for performance is a different beast altogether.  You see, the Norman Mailer Society conference will soon be upon us; I will spend this first week of November in a more southern clime, at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee.  My aim: to dramatize Mailer.  For the past five years, Wilkes University students and faculty have presented Mailer’s prose as Reader’s Theatre.  Now, the team of talent that comprises the 2010 Wilkes Reader’s Theatre group is deep in the mire of performance – or as I like to think of it, active – revision.  Needless to say, it’s exciting to return as one of this groups tried and true members.

READER'S THEATRE GROUP - Mailer Conference, 2009, Washington D.C.: (left to right) Bonnie Culver, Jim Warner, Ross Klavan, Matt Hinton, Juanita Rockwell. (Not pictured: Ken Vose)

As fellow writing alums know, the art of the “cutting” is a fine and delicate one – as far as the presentation of one’s work goes, editing for readings (especially dramatic ones) is comparable to the work of a jeweler.  A writer is a bauble-hound (given his penchant for crystals, the metaphor is one that Mailer would’ve either jovially defended, or laughingly and effortlessly dismembered), shaving the gemstone here, chipping away at it there, and expanding or contracting the band to hold in the panoply of color and light.  With Mailer’s work we already have the benefit of vetted (if at least by himself) and sculpted publications; we have the stone, the “color and light” – now the game is afoot to create a concise and effective script of his thoughts on boxing, bullfighting, writing, and women (and somehow work Hemingway in – fortunately, they shared all of said interests).  We must refine a band that gives this gemstone perspective.

Writing by cutting.  Deeply.  This means getting to the bone, then cutting even deeper.  Getting to the marrow of the bone.  At the same time, we must focus on paring Mailer down without trying to “misunderstand [him] too quickly.”

Puppetry?  Yes.

Really?  Well, no.  It is Reader’s Theatre, and we have the opportunity to once again present Mailer the “literary

Armies of the Night - Source material for the 2009 conference READER'S THEATRE script

character” – which he was known for (he refers to himself in the third person in Armies of the Night, The Fight, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and more) – and the responsibility to avoid turning him into a caricature – which he was all-too-often mistaken for.

So it is an exercise in concision, yes.  Good concision, by definition, includes the demands of depth, as well as breadth.  One cannot simply forgo the devil-swish of the man’s pen, the swagger and detail of his projections and hypotheses on America.  Here is man – a writer – who dared to run for mayor of New York City, predicted a heady (and unfortunate, by his measure) future for plastics, and made three independent films well before it was fashionable and affordable.  As a man of letters, he was a giant; as a boxer, he was diminutive (but effective).  And still, Mailer was so much more than the sum of these few parts.  Indeed, on the whole, these few fun facts seem tawdry and cheap when you consider the small library he produced and his accomplishments at large.  In no simple terms, he was a lion of a man with a soul that must’ve been on fire for the next new experience, that existential moment that sets the mind to roaring and prods one until he can find a way to understand it through ink on a page.

I often (at the beginning of the semester, for introduction’s sake) try to convey to my students just how much Mailer did in his nearly 60 years as a professional writer, and the impact he’s had on my writing life.  This trailer just became available, and I think it makes for a nice 2 minute flash of Mailer’s fire (complete with “misunderstandings” and controversial characterizations):

It is that fire, roaring, and prodding that we have been charged with channeling at the conference.  So far, we made such fine work of it that we have been welcomed, yearly, to return with more.  As the editing goes now, next year should prove no different.

The point should also be made that the art of such editing comes also with the consideration of talent.  The assigned actor or reader brings different affectations to the material.  In this regard, the process is something like that of an artist who paints a portrait with an eye toward capturing the “essence” of the subject.  When the essence escapes the reader, either because of a failed delivery or poor editing (oh, it’s possible), the image goes flat, lifeless, and is therefore seen as dull.  It is the painting that you cruise by with little-to-no contemplation; “average, at best” you mumble to yourself and continue to the rest the exhibit.  With guts, talent, and a shaving of luck, however, the results can be like the natural light that fills a proper gallery – a gallery where the paintings come to life with scenes of shipwreck, exploration, love, murder, humor, passion.  At that point, the presentation ceases to be “Reader’s Theatre” and morphs into something nobler: it becomes, simply, theatre.

As it currently stands, I will be portraying the “voice” of Mailer, while friend/producer/colleague Ken Vose will convey both men’s “thoughts,” or narration.  Poet and confidante Jim Warner will take on the role of interviewers and writer counterparts, with screenwriter Ross Klavan (Tigerland) playing the counterpart in our narrative – Papa Hemingway.  Wilkes Program Director Bonnie Culver will take on female roles and other voices.

Again, I return to the metaphor: in November, we will present the conference-crowd-cum-audience with a ring.  I’ll post our performance and progress, of course, and we shall see if our band and gem offers the prism-like spectacle of the world seen through Mailer’s eye, or if it is simply a hoop forged of cheap ore and faintly holding zirconia.

I PRESENTED IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS! - Mailer Conference, 2009, Washington D.C.: If you squint hard and look to the left, you can see me presenting my paper, entitled: "Advertisements for Others: The Blurbs of Norman Mailer"

How to Smile when you Kill (your Darlings)

October 21, 2010

Look at all of those seats to fill!

Kill your darlings – it’s as ubiquitous a piece of writing advice as “write what you know”, and recently, I’ve done some slaughtering of my own.  My full length play Quiet Cowboy is slated for a five-day premiere run at the Mellow Theatre in Scranton, PA.  Minutes into a summer tour of the space, Gaslight Theatre president (and age-old friend, and QC director) David Reynolds turned to me and said, “How’d you like the play, Mr. Lincoln?”  And it’s true; the Mellow is strikingly reminiscent of Ford’s Theatre.  Hopefully, though, the only life-changing drama that takes place in January will be onstage.

Of course, the terminology of theatre productions can be utterly morbid.  An actor “cheats” to be seen, gives “cold” readings, and is told to “break a leg.”  If the talent laughs onstage, breaking character, they are considered a “corpse.”  In the aftermath of a show, good theatre companies hold a “post-mortem”; an opportunity to discuss what worked in the show’s run, and, more importantly, what went awry.  On the more technical side, there are “ghost lights” for reasons of safety and superstition.  Only props seem to actually “live” somewhere in the theatre world. 

And, of course, there are those legendary death “props” in the theatre world.  In the clip below, witness the daring use of the actual skull of pianist André Tchaikowsky by the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), as was set out in Tchaikowsky’s will.  This is the BBC version with the RSC – the skull is real.  More blogging follows:

Theatre carries with it a guaranteed existential (some might say “temporal”) experience, in that each performance is different than the last.  As it is created, it dies – never again to be seen.  Wednesday night’s show is entirely different from Friday night’s show – actor (and audience) mentalities change slightly or in leaps and bounds, certain tricks of the trade play better to certain crowds, laughter comes in places appropriate and unexpected.  (I recall a series of MacBeth rehearsals in which the actor playing MacDuff would enter with a basketball instead of the bloody head of the title character.  On opening night, he was finally given the actual prop head – a convincing piece that wasn’t presented to him until just before his dark return for the play’s conclusion.  The director said of his performance: “You’ll never pull off that performance again.” – A look down the timeline of infamous MacBeth performances will also yield a high number of dark and fatal onstage ‘accidents’; The Curse of MacBeth… which is why you don’t say the show’s title unless speaking the Elizabethan tongue, and e’en then should you turn thrice and spit for want of blessings.)  Theatre is about surprise, on both sides of the curtain.  Even productions that we affectionately deem to be “train wrecks”  – those with ques you can run a fleet of ships through, or where the poised Queen takes forever to actually DIE onstage (based on an actual viewing of Hamlet), or with cardboard line-delivery and hack actors – are fascinating to watch.  As Garrison Keillor once said to me: “Being a playwright is wonderful, because no matter what happens, you give the people ‘an evening’.”  So, whether it be a masterpiece of writing and performance or massacre of art and decency, the audience will take your work home with them – for good or ill.

Since that tour and the confirmation of the Mellow, I have been guilty of an assassination of my own.  Character assassination, to be more accurate.   No, I’m not running for public office; this is no mud-slinging black and white commercial where an opponent’s nose balloons out of proportion and his use of government contracts is exploited to gain points.  Rather, I deleted an entire character from Act II of Quiet Cowboy; a move that came after some major stalemates in my writing sessions.  In the process of preparing the play for its premiere, I’ve found the value in deadlines again.  It is because of a deadline that this deletion (indeed, a dizzying and dreaded REWRITE of Act II in its entirety) came like a miracle.  A brief reading with the Stage Manager, the Director, and a lead actor, reassured me of the necessity of this “murder” – the blood that ran like ink soon turned invisible, and the character was erased from existence.

As recently as this past Sunday (October 17th), the cast assembled at my apartment for a full read-through and talkback session about the major changes.  Those in attendance took them well, and I discovered this killing I was so afraid of – the elimination of an entire character – meant expanding other roles and sculpting something more intimate but far from insular.

I think it’s important as a writer to remember that out of death comes birth.  I am reminded of this even as one of the lead actresses cast in Quiet Cowboy shows me her personal binder full of every full-length draft she’s recieved of the play (she has about 4 completely different full-length evolutions of the script in chronological order; there are nearly 8 previous scripts that she hasn’t seen).  Quiet Cowboy is my first full-blown opus, and the deadline (the run is January 5-9, 2011; rehearsal scripts are needed by November) fast approaches – for the first time, my play will have a life beyond the page.  I have no desire to act in it or direct it, and plan to only be present at rehearsals for line or scene revisions.  It will soon be time for this play to die a little in my mind, so that I can see it anew on the boards.  As with all productions, this one will end, will meet it’s deadline onstage.  (Hell, even CATS finally closed…)  This brings up an even more dreadful question: Once it has been put up, how does one take it all down?  Life and Death … the myth of the Phoenix bird comes to mind.  After being engulfed in passionate flame, what new version (of myself, of the play) will arise from the ashes?  What will I take away from it all?  What will it take away from me?

Gale Martin – Opera-tunistic Writer!

October 19, 2010

Gale Martin - Operatunist

Heya!  Gale Martin does what I wish I could do: write about Opera.  Sure, I listen to Live from the Met, but she’s out there viewing, interviewing, and appreciating it all in person!  Check out her acclaimed blog, leave her some e-word-love (comments), and don’t stop until you hear some fat lady with a balcony fit for Shakespeare!

Douglas Messerli Blog link added!

October 19, 2010

Douglas Messerli - bullseye!

Hi all!  I just found this link while on the job! (job #4) Douglas Messerli is a poet and playwright (and yes, fiction writer) behind a number of great publications.  From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995 [edited with Mac Wellman] with a Preface, is among my favorite collections of all time.  Check out his writings abroad, at home, and beyond.  Find the address amongst my links, or click the pic!

“The Blessing of Work”

October 14, 2010

… that’s what patriarch and mentor Mike Lennon called it.  It was an unusually cool afternoon at the June residency, and I had mentioned how my life was swelling with the obligations of classes and a play that felt red-hot at my fingertips – there was so much work to be done, and I saw it sprawling out before me like an ancient sea map.  Mike is the captain to know such a map, I realized, and his sage-like words were etched in salt and echoed through the surface fog.  He didn’t even seem to need the map anymore.  He knew its traps and treasures by heart.

Wilkes Creative Writing Residency - seated with Dr. J. Michael Lennon

More than two years later, I would learn that another navigator – this time of Broadway and Hollywood fame (two oceans with their own uncharted monsters, white whales, map-edges, and lands mysterious and perilous and full of buried gold) – the legendary Elia Kazan, had offered the same wisdom.  To a small cadre of actors and writers (Mailer among them), he said, “Here, we’re always talking about the work.  We talk about it piously.  We say the workThe work.  Well, we do work here, and get it straight: Work is a blessing.”  I understand now (now that I have my sea-legs) that this saying has never left me, and though clouded over on occasion, it has reemerged and taken that high spot in the sky: a star to my every wandering bark; a guiding light; that which I look to when searching for my true north.

Of course, today I work four jobs with some regularity.  This is not new to me.  In my as yet brief time on this mortal coil I have been more committed to the work which paid my bills, and kept my role of simple wordsmith as a hobby.  I have held the titles of (and been paid as) housepainter, plumber’s assistant, home electrician, carpenter, gardener, teacher, editor, camp counselor, bookseller, record store manager, graphic designer, researcher, office worker, set-builder for plays, and mover.  Many of these positions were held simultaneously and in too many permutations to even list; all of them merciless in their demands.  So, I am a workaholic – out of necessity and a secret denial of that basic American instinct that tells us all to be a couch potato.  But the tide is turning – four jobs now and I find myself tired by the end of the day, but not without the time and the will to sit down and, as Guy de Maupassant said, “put black on white.”

Why the sea change?

Bukowski also worked at the track...

I’ve begun to create a list in my head of all of the odd-jobs that great authors held, some of which allowed them to write – all of which added to the gestalt of their experience and no doubt informed their subjects.  Arthur Miller wrote plays during his long dark nights as a security guard, Steinbeck spent his California days as a fruit-picker and surveyor, Bukowski worked in the post-office (a place that once promised a level of job ‘security’ and provided him with the title & subject matter of his first novel – Factotum is another work which offers up his endless string of odd-jobs as the penultimate in starving artistry), and countless authors today must make ends meet as ghostwriters.  James Jones was ready for his success.  He could enjoy it, but had been through hell and back as a soldier (a job which I’m not likely suited for, but considered – as a former retail boss once put it to me: “you’re a good worker, but you don’t take orders well”).

I guess was never looking to be an immediate success.  I’ve made peace with my patchwork career choice, for now, and would rather be anonymous and wildly creative while I can.  To roar as a literary lion too early means quick alienation: there are fewer shadows to observe from, fewer dinner-party and department store chats to overhear, and less honesty in the world – if any at all.  These jobs – all of them – have colored my writing.  I’ve even found that writing can be seen through the lens of each new position and experience to come.

One day I may find myself to be captain of my own vessel, or even admiral of my own fleet.  Should I have a sea shanty to work by and a star to set my compass points to, I will not doubt the orientation of my map.  Then will I lift the oars and count my blessings.

Just Added! The Marlon James blog is still up!

October 11, 2010

Hi all!  Check the link to the right (or below) for some truly superb thoughts, links, and interviews on writing/reading/music/and life-in-general.  Marlon James is an author in the trenches of teaching and publishing.  It hasn’t been updated recently, but the archives are bursting at the seams!  (Some favorite pastime entries include “Satan is Real…”, “The Problem with Reading”, and “19 Movie Questions” … I leave you to find them!)  Oh yeah, the fact that his books are powerful and ripe with meaning helps too.  I’ll recommend his novels The Book of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil until they become irrelevant, which they won’t.  Enjoy!


Marlon James: Among Other Things –

The Blank Page

October 8, 2010

Life is a succession of transitions.  No great secret of the universe, I know: an election determines Barak Obama to be U.S. President, you move into a new apartment, Bob Dylan goes electric – sunrise, sunset.  At the brink of each new frontier, searching for our place between moving forward and turning back, we stare long into the abyss.  Some folks see their future as a successful medical doctor or teacher or engineer; but what does the writer see?  A great “Inky Black” of nothingness?  A world of typewriter ribbon (where available), pencil shavings, and a callused thumb-and-forefinger?  Paper cuts?  Rejection letters?  Or, (har-har) a paycheck??

I see the blank page.  Always a blank page.

To many, the blank page is tantamount to a red brick wall, but to me it means promise, potential, adventure.  It leaves room for the loops and swoops of handwriting; or maybe it leaves itself open for art – a skyscape, a portrait, a charcoal rubbing, or even lyrics.  It is a symbol of clarity – a pulpy reminder of the “Om” – a place to meditate.  Sometimes I find myself liking the blank page too much – the blanker the better – and I get swallowed up by the idea that anything can be there but nothing is.  If anything, it is a place that isn’t my apartment, a place locked high and away from the rain (and sun) down in the street.
But that’s dangerous thinking.

Or is it?

Recently, my apartment has not had that “magic” that writer’s try to keep locked in.  You know what I mean.  Most writers have an office, a kitchen table, or at least a strip of wood that they drop on their laps, turn to their fans (or, if starting out, loved ones) and say “this is where the magic happens.”  Norman Mailer worked in his Provincetown attic, Hemingway had two desks (one for standing and writing, the other for sitting and writing) above his Key West garage, and all poets corner themselves in coffee shops or strip clubs.  Until recently, I had such a place at home: a humble desk made too long ago by someone I’ll never meet.  At this modest facility I composed my play, Quiet Cowboy, and hatched countless one-acts of varying oddity and length.

One day, inexplicably, it vanished.  Not the desk, of course, but the “juju,” the “mojo,” the “great flash of fire” – it’s as if my imagination went up like a match to tissue paper and the little puff of smoke in the aftermath took the shape of a skull and laughed – nay, cackled! – before dissipating into the ether.  The apartment, not the paper, became my new brick wall.  Not one to be discouraged, I kept at it, diligently putting words down on that consistently blank page, learning again to hate each forced letter, phrase, and phony exchange of dialogue.  I would read my so-called progress and balk nightly.  Well, I thought, so much for that MFA.

But then came vacation.  I wasn’t going anywhere, but a close group of creative friends decided on a week-long jaunt to LBI.  My good friend (and publisher/designer/writer/hula-hooper-extraordinare) Jen asked if I could watch the family bird … at my house.  I agreed cheerily, and he soon arrived (chirpily) in his very own travel cage.  His name was Bananafish, and his passion was to peep, toot, whistle, and chat away in my loft.  At first, he seemed put off by this, an unwelcome transition.  But we soon watched movies together (Bananafish likes Red River with Monty Clift and John Wayne), enjoyed spinning a few records (like me, his appreciation of John Prine and Tom Waits is boundless), and basked in each other’s appreciative company.  Before long, we were making music together – I played at the guitar, bongos, and toy accordion with all of my heart (and skill, of which I have less than I do heart) while Bananafish found joy as an accompanist.  I whistled tunes like “I’m Lookin’ Over a Four-Leaf Clover” and the theme song to The Great Escape, and when he didn’t look puzzled, the good ol’ B-fish (as he came to be known) would sing out a reply.  We greeted each other each morning, and as I came home each night his chirps called to me from down the hall.

In a matter of two or three days it struck me: the musicality, the magic of my apartment at large, was back.  There were songs and stories in the rhythmic “beep, beep, beep” of the microwave, in the scraping of plates, at the running of water, and with the wind rushing through trees outside my window.  I could write at the old, anonymously-built desk again.  In all, I found my muse again thanks to an animal companion.  And although the little critter is back at Jen’s (likely chirping up fugues like nobody’s business), I still have a compulsory whistle around the house.

Did Mailer’s poodle stir up tempest after tempest of novel-writing?  And how about Hemingway with his infamous cats – could they have helped him recreate war, big-game hunting, and fishing with the elderly?
Meanwhile, I sit and sing and stare at the blank page.

And look at how it fills up.