Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two From The Millions

The Millions is one of my favorite websites. (Can't believe it wasn't on my blogroll, an egregious omission that I have now rectified.) Here are two recent posts of theirs that I found particularly worthwhile:
  • The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia's Novel Crisis by Cathy Day. This article is about how America's MFA writing programs focus on crafting short stories and offer no guidance on crafting novels, and the problems that this causes both for aspiring writers and for the reading public. As I read it, I couldn't help thinking of the blog post I recently wrote about playwriting books, and the conversation that Tim struck up with me at Theater Pub after seeing my post. There is something similar in the deficiencies that exist in the teaching (in MFA programs) of fiction writing and the teaching (in how-to books) of playwriting. These methods do not necessarily produce the kind of writing that audiences/readers most want. They define things too narrowly (you must write a minimalist, realistic story of 8 to 16 pages! you must write a realistic play about a single protagonist struggling to achieve a single goal!) and force some writers into a box where they don't belong.
  • Beverly Cleary's Dispatches from the Golden West, by Lydia Kiesling. Kiesling's experience of reading Beverly Cleary's two memoirs--A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet--basically mirrors my own. These are great books to give a girl who has outgrown "Ramona Quimby" and wonders what life was like for an American girl/young woman in the 1920s and 1930s (these are real-life "American Girl" books, yo). I wrote about them briefly here. Like Cleary, I am a proud Oregon girl who moved to California as a young woman, and this article has me thinking that I should reread My Own Two Feet now that I am living in the Bay Area.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Midwinter Music Mania

Coming to an iPod near me in the very near future:
  • Cleopatra: Arias from Giulio Cesare, by Natalie Dessay (to be released February 8). Man, I was looking forward to this as far back as two and a half years ago, when the word first surfaced that Dessay would add the role of Cleopatra to her repertoire. She's my favorite opera singer, and Cleopatra's "V'adoro, pupille" is perhaps my favorite Handel aria. And now she's recorded it!
    Dessay is also currently performing in a production of Giulio Cesare in Paris, at the Palais Garnier. Must resist the urge to look up cheap flights to France...
I'm so excited about both of these albums! I feel as though I'm back in college! -- the era when I discovered both of these artists. Blissful afternoons of sitting on my dorm-room quilt and listening to the Decemberists and Dessay -- I really don't do that often enough, these days.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Shavian Teacup

I bought this teacup the other week at a massive garage sale on Castro Street. I'd been wanting a vintage teacup or two for my mantelpiece, because I am just that kind of cutesy-boho girl, and teacups are very useful for storing loose change or other random items.

There were lots of teacups at the garage sale, but I found myself drawn to this one, almost feeling sorry for it. No one would buy it unless their initials happened to be G.B.S., and what were the chances of someone with those initials showing up at the rummage sale? The poor teacup would get smashed and thrown on the rubbish heap, probably. O teacup, in your youth how proud you must have been of your gilded monogram, and now that monogram would be your downfall!

Then I realized that the monogram matched that of a writer I admire very much!

"So... there's no chance that this actually belonged to George Bernard Shaw, is there?" I asked the British man who was overseeing the garage sale, as I handed over my four dollars and bought the teacup.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Suite Française": The Alpha & the Omega

I have seen Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, referred to as "the first great novel of World War II," because Némirovsky wrote it just a year or two after the events it describes. Its two parts deal with the invasion of France in June 1940, and the occupation of a small French village in spring 1941, and Némirovsky had written it all by summer 1942, when she was taken to Auschwitz. I have also seen it referred to as "the last great novel of World War II," because the manuscript was not published until 2004. And really, after reading an such an authentic novel of World War II, what modern fiction writer (likely born long after World War II ended) would have the hubris to write a novel dealing with that war?

Though I am a Francophile, I resisted reading Suite Française because I was almost suspicious of its backstory, which tended to overshadow the writing -- the rediscovered manuscript, Némirovsky's tragic murder at the hands of the Nazis. In such circumstances, the novel itself wouldn't have to be any good in order to become a bestseller. But finally, I picked up a cheap used copy, and I'm so glad I did. Because Suite Française is indeed a good novel; it is valuable not only as a historical document, but as art.

Némirovsky displays a masterful command of the techniques of fiction writing -- controlling the narrative flow, writing in different voices and from different perspectives. For instance, there is a chapter told from the point of view of a Parisian housecat encountering the countryside for the first time as his owners flee the Nazis. A scene that could easily turn melodramatic (it involves a German officer telling a Frenchwoman that he loves her and will never forget her) is saved from melodrama by being told from the perspective of a little girl who observes the two adults, but is too young to understand what's going on.

One of the blurbs in the front matter of my copy compares Suite Française to Flaubert in its "indictment of French manners and morals," and I'd have to agree with that. Like Flaubert, Némirovsky is snarky and ruthless, though not without moments of beauty. The first part of Suite Française, "Storm in June," demonstrates how, in the face of the German invasion, the French people occasionally behave in noble and self-sacrificing ways, but more often are unscrupulous, selfish, and snobbish. The middle- and upper-class characters work all of their connections in order to stay well-fed and sheltered, and when they can't work their connections, they steal from those less fortunate. A young priest attempting to lead a group of orphaned juvenile delinquents to safety ends up murdered by his young charges. (Even the name of the orphanage, the Penitent Children of the 16th Arrondissement, is a snarky joke. The 16th is the wealthiest arrondissement in Paris; it is like saying "The Penitent Children of the Upper East Side" or "The Penitent Children of Pacific Heights.")

As suggested by its title, "Dolce," the second part of Suite Française, is gentler and more reflective. In its depiction of a German officer quartered in the house of a young French woman, it reminded me of another wartime classic, Le Silence de la mer by Vercors. Interestingly, both works use a trope that has now become a cliche -- that of the Nazi who is redeemed through his sensitivity to art and music.

Némirovsky planned a further three parts of Suite Française, which would have linked the Parisian characters of "Storm in June" to the provincial characters of "Dolce," and it is a pity that she was murdered before she had the chance to write them. Still -- believe the hype, and the too-good-to-be-true backstory of the manuscript of Suite Française. We are very lucky that this accomplished writer was able to transform her experiences of World War II into artful fiction, before she herself perished.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

$10,090 from 44 Donors

A few months ago I blogged about The Sunset Challenge, the Magic Theatre's campaign to raise $10,000 from donors to go toward the writing and production of a new play by Octavio Solis. I donated $20.

I was just digging through some papers and discovered the letter acknowledging the receipt of my contribution and the success of the campaign. It said "Magic Theatre was able to raise $10,090.60 from 44 donors."

And that took me by surprise: the number of donors is so much lower than I had expected. If every donor had given the same amount, the mean contribution would be $230. And because I, and likely others, had given much less than $230, that means that most of the money had come from just a few people. (Did the 80-20 rule came into effect: 80% of the money coming from 20% of the donors?)

I know that $230 or $250 is not an insane amount of money -- you don't have to be a millionaire fat cat in order to donate $250 to a charity or an arts organization. All the same, it is hard for me to imagine having $250 (or more) lying around and giving it to a theater company and feeling 100% sure that I had made the right choice. Maybe it would have been better for me to buy something useful with it? Or bank it, put it towards a longer-term savings goal? Or donate it to help the denizens of the Haiti refugee camps, or to protect the environment, or...?

But $20, I can spend without guilt. And I was truly excited that the Magic Theatre seemed to want my $20 for the Sunset Challenge. It solicited my donation on Facebook, it made the project sound like a community effort... a collaboration between a San Francisco writer and two San Francisco theater companies to write a play that takes place in a not-so-well-known neighborhood of our city. And so, after all that, I must confess to being really disappointed that only 44 people donated, and that many of them had to have given substantial sums in order for the math to work out.

I know it's churlish of me to complain about this; the Sunset Challenge achieved its goal, and I'm just looking a gift horse in the mouth. But, when I gave my $20, I thought I would be one of many proud first-time donors to the Magic Theater. And yet there weren't so many of us, after all...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dei ex Machinae

So, the first full-length play I ever wrote bore the title Deus ex Machina. My one-sentence description of it was, "A satire about the influence of the media on teenagers." In it, an average American teenage boy gets picked to host a tawdry television show (some unholy mash-up of American Bandstand, Total Request Live, and a softcore porno), causes sexual awakenings in millions of girls across the country, dumps his innocent hometown girlfriend for a scheming temptress, becomes as greedy and venal as the producers of the TV show, and does nothing to stop the airwaves from filling up with more and more lubricious junk.

OK, I was an angry, elitist teenager who thought that pop culture was exclusively for idiots, and despite being a liberal Democrat, I wrote a play that might win approval from social conservatives (for its "pop culture is a cesspool of sex and violence! hookups will be the ruination of America!" message). But it was, at least, a fast-moving and darkly funny play, maybe even a good one -- it won a national contest. I say all of this as preamble, mainly because I'm really surprised I've never mentioned it on this blog before.

Anyway, the (somewhat pretentious) title came about because the literal meaning of "deus ex machina" is "god from the machine," and I thought that my peers were treating their TVs (machines) like gods. False gods, greedy gods, gods who demanded human sacrifices -- but gods nonetheless.

And now, I just learned that a new novel about reality television, by Andrew Foster Altschul, is about to be published -- and it's titled Deus Ex Machina. The Rumpus is promoting it right now as their book club pick (Foster Altschul is their books editor) -- go check out their interview with him and other coverage. Also mentioned favorably on Bookslut, it sounds dark and existential and cynical -- I mean genuinely so, whereas my play was sentimental with a veneer of modish cynicism.

Perhaps this speaks more to my own solipsism than anything else, but due to the good press and weird title-connection, I'm putting Deus Ex Machina on my list of books to read...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Playwriting Books - The Real, The Rare, The Imaginary

I've been wanting to write about how I find most playwriting books unsatisfactory. You see, most playwriting books are written for the broadest possible audience -- geared toward people who've never written a play before, nor have thought much about dramatic structure. Which is understandable; publishers will sell the most books and make the most money if they publish for neophytes.

But, see, if you've taken a playwriting class or read one or two standard playwriting texts, you already know all the stuff that's in them -- Drama is Action, Drama is Conflict, Drama is Choices, Dialogue Reveals Character, etc. (Of course, sometimes it takes years of practice to fully integrate these lessons into one's own writing. But at least one has been exposed to these fundamental principles.) Also, the typical playwriting book will teach you how to write a play that is impeccably crafted and formatted, but that is not the same thing as teaching you to write an interesting play.

So what I want is not a book on Playwriting 101, but Playwriting 202 or 303. My ideal playwriting book would also take into account the way that some plays these days have a really freewheeling structure and others are structured on intricate, formal lines -- rather than assuming that every play will tell a realistic, linear, chronological story. It would also include examples of scenes from classic and modern-classic plays that, in the opinion of the author, do not work, in addition to examples of scenes that do.

This book would include such chapters as:
  • Unconventional Punctuation and Layout: Pretentious or Poetic?
  • If "Drama is Conflict," Is There a Place for Direct Address? If "Drama is Storytelling," Why Do You Need All That Dialogue? An Investigation
  • Realism and Magical Realism: When Should an Angel Crash through the Ceiling?
  • Political Correctness and the Theater: Colorblind Casting, Race-Specific Roles, And All That Tricky Stuff
  • Writing the One-Act Play: The Art of the Gimmick
  • Structural and Linguistic Tricks: Can a Play Be "Too" Clever?
OK, most of these questions have no "right" answer, which is why most playwriting books don't choose to address them. No one wants to issue a definitive ruling on any of these questions. But, you must understand, I like really opinionated books. I want the author to set himself up as an authority. Even if the author ends up arguing a point that I vehemently disagree with, I want him to support his arguments well and make them as forceful as possible, so that I can take even more pleasure in arguing against him. I want a playwriting book written by a well-read, witty, but fundamentally cranky person. (The same goes for etiquette manuals. I hate how etiquette books have gone from saying "Use this fork, don't use these slang words, and for heavens sake don't slouch," to saying "It doesn't matter how you eat and talk and gesture, as long as you are friendly and considerate!" The whole point of an etiquette book is to learn exact codes of behavior!)

This is all influenced by my just having read Stephen Sondheim's guide to lyric-writing, Finishing the Hat. Sondheim writes such direct and straightforward prose -- he's eighty years old, he's a certified genius, he's got nothing left to prove, so he's just going to call everything like he sees it. He's incredibly opinionated, and not afraid to provoke disagreement; for instance, plenty of people are taking issue with his claims that Alan Jay Lerner and Ira Gershwin were bad lyricists. However, it is these kind of pronouncements that make the book such a compelling read, and a future classic. Sondheim offers precepts, and arguments, and refuses to accept received wisdom, and doesn't repeat the same-old same-old. I guess I want a playwriting book that will do the same.

As a postscript, however, let me say that I recently heard of a playwriting book that sounds like the exact opposite of the "ideal" book I just described, and which I am now clamoring to read. It is The Human Nature of Playwriting, written in 1949 by Samson Raphaelson. I saw it mentioned on the Onion AV Club, recommended by TV critic Todd VanDerWerff. Writes VanDerWerff:
Samson Raphaelson was the screenwriter for, among others, The Shop Around The Corner, and in the spring of 1948, he met with a bunch of students at the University of Illinois to teach a class that was ostensibly about being a playwright, but ended up being about much more, like why we construct fictions, and the worth of personal experience in made-up stories. The book The Human Nature Of Playwriting collects nearly everything said in the classroom, and it becomes so much more than a writers’ guide. Raphaelson and the students almost become characters, the experiences that make up their plays become very real, and the bonds they form are unshakable. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue any sort of career as any kind of writer.
Well, it is so rare to see a playwriting book recommended in a mainstream publication (OK, The Onion AV Club likes to think of itself as "alternative" rather than "mainstream," but it's not a specialty theater website, is my point) that my interest was piqued at once.

Unfortunately, The Human Nature of Playwriting is long out of print, revered by all who read it, frequently stolen from university libraries, and thus available only for the high, high price of $350 on Damn!

As described by VanDerWerff, Raphaelson's gentle, humanistic playwriting book sounds like the opposite of the cranky, opinionated playwriting book that I described above. But it also sounds sui generis, possessed of a unique, honest voice... and I guess that's what I really look for in everything I read, be it plays or playwriting manuals or etiquette books. Most playwriting books in existence are impeccably crafted (and somewhat boring), and they'll teach you how to write an impeccably crafted (but perhaps boring) play. Maybe I'd rather have messy, opinionated books and messy, soulful plays.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Dog Days Are Over

I often feel the need to mark the New Year with some kind of ritualistic gesture. For instance, in 2010, something inside me compelled me to celebrate the New Year by going to the beach, taking the train out alone, dipping my foot in the Pacific Ocean. (My emotions were running hot at the time; perhaps I needed the calm and cool of an ocean vista.) Not nearly as crazy as a New Year's Day Polar Bear swim, but I guess I can understand the impulse that drives people to do that.

This year, an equally strong force compelled me, when I woke up this morning, to go out onto my back deck with my iPod -- still in my pajamas, my feet bare on the wet wood of the deck -- face west, and sing along to "Dog Days Are Over," by Florence & the Machine.

I can't quite explain it. By my personal standards, 2010 was not the dog days. It was a remarkably busy and exciting year for me -- there are whole swathes of 2009 that I don't remember at all, but 2010 wasn't like that. I successfully infiltrated the theater scene; I made my San Francisco playwriting debut; I did box-office for the first Olympians Festival and got named a writer/associate producer for next year's edition of the Festival; I even acted a bit! I celebrated 2 years living and working in San Francisco; I got a new day job; I moved into a different room in my apartment so I have bay windows now; I saw a lot of theater, read a lot of books, started a new blog on a lark. I've learned a lot about myself, and know that I won't stop learning any time soon; but I also feel stable and secure in my own identity -- I am no longer finding myself or trying new personae on for size. This time last year, I remember having a strong feeling that 2010 would be a memorable year for me, and that proved true.

And yet. And yet, I was ready for 2010 to be over. Maybe I'm ready for a year that's a little more peaceful. Or, despite the great things that happened to me in 2010, I also fell into some bad habits (falling asleep with the light on, leaving unopened mail sitting on the corner of my desk). My New Year's resolution is to stop sabotaging myself -- and the corollary of "stop sabotaging yourself" is "be good to yourself."

I don't have any strong feelings about what 2011 will hold, the way I did about 2010. But I don't really mind. And in the meantime, starting the year off with "Dog Days Are Over" can't hurt.