Thursday, April 29, 2010

Laughs from Around the World

Working long hours this week and finding amusement in bizarre news articles from around the globe:
  • From Phnom Penh, Thailand: Five-Legged Pig Kills Gardener. "This is the year of the tiger, so why did the old man die of a pig bite?" (thanks to my friend Margi for the link)
  • From Montréal, Québec: Language Cops Nail Store for English-Only Sex Toy. "The April 19 ruling came after a failed six-year effort by the Office québécois de la langue française to get the store to stick French labels on Sleeve Super Stretch boxes."
And, much closer to home, and not a news article, and almost more painful than funny (because it is so incisively accurate): How to Move to San Francisco, by Elissa Bassist, writer and editor for the "Funny Women" column on The Rumpus. Seriously, has she been reading my mind for the last 20 months?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Man Who Turned Me Into a Lyric-Writing Snob

Terry Teachout's loving blog post in tribute to his friend, the lyricist and jazz historian Gene Lees, alerted me to Mr. Lees' recent death--and also made me realize that Lees has had a major influence on the way that I think about lyrics and songwriting. Indeed, if you asked me to list some books that permanently altered my outlook on life, I might have to include Lees' The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics.

I have always written songs, though never in any organized fashion (I can go years without writing any and then crank out two in a month; it all depends on whether I feel inspired). And when I was in high school, I went through a phase of wanting to be a musical-theater songwriter, and asked my parents to give me a rhyming dictionary for Christmas. (Doesn't that seem almost quaint--though this happened less than ten years ago? Nowadays, teens will just rely on online rhyming dictionaries, and not desire a physical book!)

And, fortuitously, my mom bought me not just any old rhyming dictionary, but the one compiled by Gene Lees circa 1970. Not only did it have extensive and easy-to-consult pages of rhymes, it also contained an essay by Mr. Lees, about 40 pages long, about the basic tricks of writing lyrics and the pitfalls to avoid.

I read the essay several times over Christmas vacation that year and can still quote parts of it by heart: "Ee is an easy syllable to sing on sustained notes; that's why there are so many songs with lyrics about 'you and me / by the sea.'" Or "The hardest thing about being a songwriter in English is that there are only five words that rhyme with 'love,' while in French there are over 40 words that rhyme with 'amour.'" Lees had strong opinions and high standards, and was determined to impart them to all of his readers. He's the person who convinced me that any songwriter who rhymes "pen" with "gem," or "another" with "lover," ought to be shot on sight.

In short, Lees turned me into a total snob about lyrics for several years there, and while my standards have relaxed a bit (I like listening to a good mindless pop song sometimes, OK?), he also inspired me to pay more attention to craft in my own lyric-writing, and also to have fun with it. Have fun with sounds, alliteration, onomatopoeia and other echoes. To look for unexpected turns of phrase, or twists on old clichés.

I didn't know that Lees was also a respected writer about jazz, but his essay in The Modern Rhyming Dictionary was so clear and persuasive, and had such an impact on me, that I'd be curious to see some of his other nonfiction writing. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Short-Play Crash Course

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that one of my priorities, these days, is to amass a good portfolio of short plays, because that's the way to get noticed as a young writer in this town. Trouble is, I've never been particularly good at writing one-acts. Indeed, I am not even sure what makes a good one-act--what do other people look for in short plays? What do I look for in them? Most of the time, when I read or see plays, I'm reading or seeing full-lengths... I just don't have enough familiarity and comfort with the short form!

So I am trying to give myself a crash course in writing short plays. And a big part of this is going to involve frequent attendance at "ShortLived," "the nation's largest audience-judged playwriting competition," which is going on right now, sponsored by PianoFight Productions. Every two weeks, a new slate of one-act plays is produced, and the audience votes for their favorites. The top vote-getters survive until the next round; the rest are eliminated.

What better way to learn about the one-act form: to see a variety of plays, learn what works and what doesn't, and most importantly, see what the audience responds to?

I have some playwright friends whose plays will be produced in ShortLived, and I want to see their works and cheer them on, but that's not my primary reason for attending. And I'll probably run into some people I know in the audience, but I haven't actually made any plans to go to these shows with friends. I'm not there to be convivial, or to be entertained--though of course I will be grateful if I end up having an awesomely fun time. Primarily, I will be there to learn, and observe, and improve my own craft.

I know I sound a bit grim and calculating, when I put it like that. But I have always heard it said--and believed it, too--that the best way to learn is by doing, and by exposing yourself to as many different facets of an experience as possible.

A long time ago I read a sci-fi novel called The Diamond Age, and I don't remember it very well, but one element of it has stuck with me. The book is set 200 years in the future, where the most popular form of entertainment is virtual-reality interactive movies, called "ractives," and one of the characters in the novel wants to become a professional "ractor." (Some of the roles in these virtual-reality environments are taken by paying customers, average Joes, and the others are taken by professional performers.) She trains herself in the art of "racting": every night, after working a boring day job, she spends some money and takes a role in a ractive. But she doesn't spring for the high-quality, thematically sophisticated ractives, which are more expensive; she goes for the cheap, trashy ones that are geared toward the lowest common denominator. Because the important thing, for her, is to rack up hours of experience, and become completely comfortable with her chosen profession--she'll go out there, get her hands dirty, and do what she has always dreamed of doing.

For whatever reason, this moral stuck with me. Perhaps it contributed to my (somewhat neurotic) belief that I ought to see as much theater as I possibly can, every night if I could hack it, because even if it's bad or cheap theater, I will learn from it. At any rate, it's something I've been thinking about a lot, in recent weeks, as I read cheap plays from the used bookstore and make plans for doing theater in a bar. This is the time of my life to get out there and hone my skills. I can't wait for ShortLived tomorrow night.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

De Beauvoir's Doppelganger?

Looking through a recent New York Times slideshow of photos of Simone de Beauvoir, a thought occurred to me: Someone ought to film an English-language biopic about de Beauvoir, and cast Olivia Williams in the leading role.

De Beauvoir:


The resemblance is good and Williams is just the right age to play the part (she's 41--the same age as de Beauvoir was when she published The Second Sex). And, having just seen her in The Ghost Writer, where she plays the wife of a former Prime Minister, she's proved she can portray a formidably intelligent woman who is partnered with an even more famous and powerful man.

The Ghost Writer is a darn good film, by the way; you should go see it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What to Read During Proxy Season

So, it's "proxy season," the busy time of year at my job. I work for a company that writes reports about corporate shareholder meetings, and the annual meeting of something like two-thirds of American companies takes place in the springtime, so there are a few months where we are absolutely swamped. As during all busy, stressful times in life, I must be hyper-vigilant about keeping sane and healthy. And, among other things, this requires carefully regulating what I read for pleasure.

I should note that there are two different kinds of stressful periods in life, which require different attitudes toward literature. If your stress results from having to do lots of different kinds of things in the course of a day--if you're constantly rushing from one event to another, with barely five minutes to catch your breath--books will be a low priority. You'll want to read something that relaxes you, but is not too long or gripping or involved. Magazine articles work well for this; also plays, if you like reading them. (As much as I love the theater, I cannot sink as deeply into a play as into a novel.)

But if your stress results from doing one, very dull thing for nearly twelve hours a day (say, data entry work in a cubicle), and traveling almost nowhere except to shuttle between your office and your apartment, that's when a good novel can save your life. Whenever you leave the office, for lunch or at the end of the day, you want to be able to open up a book that will immediately transport you to another world. In a way, you need to derive the same intense, absorbing pleasure from your book that smart children experience when they read novels.

So, that means that you shouldn't try to read anything that's dry, or brittle, or minimalist, or grim. But books that are too antic or high-spirited can also be a problem. Last year, during proxy season, I tried to read The Satanic Verses but had to put it down after 10 pages because Rushdie's style was far too manic--it stressed me out! Books that require too much mental energy, too much parsing, are also unacceptable: I love David Foster Wallace, but not at this time of year. A setting with a bit of glamor, exoticism, or foreignness, compellingly evoked, is a great advantage. This can also mean fiction that comes from and/or takes place in the past--and thus lets you escape the 21st-century workday world. And, because during proxy season, you don't have the time to waste on mediocre entertainment, the book has to be good. For this reason you may prefer to read time-tested classics, rather than new fiction.

You will see that a certain kind of novel from the early- to mid-20th century fits most of these qualifications quite well. Not the high modernists--Hemingway is too flat and sober; Faulkner and Woolf too convoluted. But authors like Edith Wharton, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh. (Proxy season is not the time to feel guilty about wanting to read only books that take place in an upper-class, moneyed milieu.) The kind of book that you would enjoy reading if you were sick in bed, propped up on nice pillows and with someone bringing you a mug of tea whenever you wanted one.

Contemporary fiction can work, too, if carefully chosen. Maybe The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which has the added bonus of a theme about why people escape into novels and comic books. Or, at the very beginning of proxy season this year, I read The Secret History, which also fits my qualifications: absorbing plot, glamorous milieu, intelligent but unobtrusive writing style. And then, because I saw a review that compared The Secret History to Brideshead Revisited, I moved on to reading the Waugh novel; which, as I said, is an even better example of an ideal proxy-season book.

I had excellent success reading The Age of Innocence during proxy season last year, noting that perhaps I liked it especially because it's a novel about being hemmed in by social convention, and I was reading it at the time of year when my own life is most hemmed-in and circumscribed. (I followed it up with The Custom of the Country, which didn't work so well--it is almost too mean-spirited, its heroine too disagreeable, to serve as a pleasant escape.) So, this year, I thought I might try The House of Mirth. However, there was not a copy of it for sale at my local used bookstore.

As I stood at "Wharton" and worked backward through the alphabet, I soon alighted upon a novel called The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. And, reading the following back-cover blurb, I decided that it sounded like an ideal book for proxy season: "A real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book--full of incident, full of family delights, full of parties and partings, strange bits of London... West's is a world that is a delight to enter and to live in, warm and vital, and constantly entertaining."

The Fountain Overflows was written in 1957 and takes place in Edwardian England. Semiautobiographical, it is based on West's own childhood. Just the way I like my proxy-season books, it has a classic and unobtrusive writing style, and it successfully transports me to another time and place. I'm about halfway through it at the moment and I do wish it had a bit more of a plot--it is very episodic. Still, it eminently fits my qualification of being the kind of book that I would like to read if I were sick, the kind of book that appeals to my inner child. As a little girl, I didn't mind if books were episodic, as long as they gave me a sense of what it would have been like to be a little girl growing up in a different era. And there is something nice about leaving work after a long day, cracking open The Fountain Overflows, and becoming a ten-year-old Edwardian girl, playing with dollhouses and eating roasted chestnuts and going for her first-ever ride in a motor car...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

April is the Cruelest Month

Last year around this time I wrote a post titled My Soul is Fettered to an Office-Stool. And yeah, due to the nature of my job, it's happening again now: work is going to consume my life for the next four weeks or so, and posting may get sparse around here. Actually, I can think of at least ten things on my to-do list that ought to take priority over blogging, at the moment:
  1. examining every one of my stray thoughts to see whether I can turn it into a short play (because I feel that I need to build up an arsenal of one-act plays)
  2. writing said plays
  3. doing my taxes
  4. making my room/apartment more beautiful and livable
  5. reading (plays, novels, The New Yorker)
  6. seeing theater
  7. attempting to have a life and see friends
  8. writing about said life in my pen-and-paper journal
  9. taking long walks whenever the weather is nice enough
  10. getting enough sleep
  11. trying to squeeze all of these activities in while working till at least 8 PM nightly, and sometimes going into the office on weekends!
Actually, the challenge of goal #11 excites me; to triumph over this cruelest of months! And if I succeed in that, perhaps I will have some good thoughts/stories/opinions to share with you on this here blog. But maybe that won't happen till the merry month of May...