Sunday, August 25, 2013

Confessions of a Copy-Editor @ SF Theater Pub Blog

One reason that postings here have been so intermittent is that I've been busy this summer copy-editing two anthologies of plays:
  • the Bay One Acts anthology, which will be available for sale in the lobby and is also a reward for our Kickstarter donors. A $25 donation gets you a ticket to the festival AND a copy of the anthology. Such a deal!
  • Heavenly Bodies, an anthology of plays from the 2011 Olympians Festival, including my own Pleiades. Needless to say, I'm really excited about this one, and will post more details (publication date, etc.) as I have them.
And, for my latest Theater Pub column, I decided to write about my adventures as a copy-editor of play anthologies. Read all about it!

I've spent so much time copy-editing lately that it affects the way I see the world. I've become ever more conscious of typos in the things I read for pleasure. Moreover, after I read that New York Times article about new research indicating that Shakespeare wrote some 325 lines of The Spanish Tragedy, my takeaway was "Just think, if copy-editors had existed in Jacobean England, we wouldn't have this proof." (The text of these lines is riddled with errors and misprints, but the researcher thinks that most of them came about because the printers had trouble reading Shakespeare's messy handwriting.) So perhaps I shouldn't beat myself up if an occasional typo slips into the books I edit? Writers' typos and errors are unique, personal signatures; and as a copy-editor, you develop a very intimate relationship with the text.

And two different friends recently sent me that Onion article about "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." Thing is, though, I'm a freelancer. I have no stylebook. I make my own rules. I'm an outlaw gunslinger, and it's a lonely world.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Obscure Sorrow of Turning 26

"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."
—Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
I turned 26 last month. This, I'd thought, was not a particularly remarkable birthday to celebrate—turning 25, a quarter century, is what gets all of the hoopla. Yet in recent weeks, I've seen several references to the idea that one's twenty-sixth birthday marks the end of foolish youthful hedonism.

There's this humor piece on The Hairpin, "Thank You So Much For Being With Me to Celebrate My Twenty-Five-and-Twelve-Month Birthday," by Julia Meltzer:
As a twenty-five-and-twelve-month-old, it is completely appropriate that I spend Saturday nights locked in my apartment with the five of you and two boxes of Franzia playing Settlers of Catan, Drinking Rules Edition. Max and Joe, I still think that longest road trade was sketchy! No but seriously, when I turn twenty-six that will all be over. I will start going to casual dinners at sophisticated restaurants with friends I haven’t seen in soooooo long, having One or Two Cocktails, and heading home to watch an independent film with my serious boyfriend before knocking off a quick journal entry and falling asleep in a haze of contentment. 
(As many 26-year-olds do, I alternate between the "watching indie films with my serious boyfriend" phase of my life and the "drunken Settlers of Catan" phase. Nonetheless, I relate to what Meltzer is saying about the gap between our real lives and our ideal lives. It's one of my favorite subjects.)

Then there's this, from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Midsummer, n. A feast celebrated on the day of your 26th birthday, which marks the point at which your youth finally expires as a valid excuse—when you must begin harvesting your crops, even if they’ve barely taken root—and the point at which the days will begin to feel shorter as they pass, until even the pollen in the air reminds you of the coming snow.
(Are you familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I only just discovered it, but it is the best. It puts words to all the secret aches and regrets and doubts that characterize life as a sensitive soul in the 21st century, yet so often go unacknowledged. The kinds of delicate, poignant, but universal emotions that I want to write plays about.)

Maybe this is just confirmation bias, turning 26 and then suddenly becoming more aware of/interested in other writers who talk about this.

Or maybe it's that I was born into a huge cohort of Internet-equipped, navel-gazing youths, all full of So Many Feelings, all convinced that we're the first people ever to feel this way, and compelled to share our uneasy angst with the world. We're attending our five-year college reunions, and listening to the new Vampire Weekend album, and watching things like Frances Ha and Girls that speak to the anxieties of our generation; and we link to Buzzfeed articles about "growing up in the '90s" and wallow in nostalgia for a childhood that suddenly feels so far away; and I'm amazed that we don't all melt into one quivering blob of jelly, overwhelmed by the weight of all these obscure sorrows.

(Nota bene: I originally typed "quivering blog of jelly." A Freudian slip.)

And when the more practical voice in your head speaks up to tell you that nostalgia is a foolish waste of time, that your life is actually going pretty well, that you have no reason to castigate yourself for being an "irresponsible youth" because you're a type-A perfectionist who's had maybe two hours of true irresponsibility in your entire life... well, it can be tempting to wish that that voice would just shut up, even though it speaks the truth. Angst and nostalgia are so seductive, and it seems like it'd be so beautiful to stand with everyone else, in confusion and misery, and feel All the Feelings.

As a matter of fact, today is my five-year anniversary of moving to San Francisco. I love it here, and I also realize that during these five years I have matured, ridding myself of many of the self-delusions and false beliefs that held me back, and generally becoming a much happier, better-adjusted person. I'm more outgoing and confident; I have a better understanding of others' motivations, as well as my own. In many respects, I feel like I lead a charmed life (for which I try to cultivate gratitude). This anniversary should be cause for a (responsible) celebration! Yet my joy is tempered with a sense of "Okay, Marissa, you've had five years as an aimless flâneur; now it's time to get down to business, figure out what you want out of life, purge yourself of everything extraneous, and for God's sake, start saving for retirement! You are going to need to push yourself a lot more in the next five years in order to accomplish everything you want to do in your twenties."

In the first blog post I ever wrote after moving here, I quoted Angels in America: "Heaven is a city Much Like San Francisco."

And now, five years on, I'm saying to myself, "The Great Work begins."

And here's another question: now that I am 26, am I too old to refer to myself as a girl? My blog header calls me "a girl with an answer for some things and a question for most things," and in my Twitter bio I'm a "would-be girl-about-town," but at what point does that word start to become ridiculous when applied to a grown, adult woman?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Makes a Play a "Marissa Skudlarek Play"? And Other Thoughts on Personal Branding

In my latest piece for San Francisco Theater Pub's blog, "Branding Upon the Brain," I contemplate the pros and cons of branding yourself as a writer. Is branding a means of identifying and promoting your strengths, or is it a distraction? Does branding yourself mean pigeonholing and caricaturing yourself?

(Does asking all these questions make me sound like Carrie Bradshaw?)

This piece ties in rather well with this marissabidilla post from 2010, "What kind of plays do you write?" Funny: in the older post, I wrote, "Being a young writer, I am fortunate that I can hedge and say 'Well, I feel like I'm still learning, and finding my voice.' But I don't have too many more years in which I can get away with this." How right I was. It's three years later, and I feel like I have passed the point where I can just smile winsomely and say "I think I'm still finding my voice."

After my post went up on the Theater Pub site, I received a very kind and thoughtful Facebook message from a friend who wished to comment on it in a non-public way. While I respect my friend's desire for anonymity, I also really liked what s/he had to say, and I don't want the message to get lost in the depths of Facebook. And when someone tells you something really smart about your own work, I think you have the right to post it on your blog. This is what my friend wrote:
Your work as I know it has a strong brand and a strong feeling to it, from the pregnant lady drinking a beer to the '40s movie star, and it's related not to how you tell your stories (place, time, style) per se, but to what you tell stories about. At least so far, I would say your work is marked by an obsessive exploration of how social expectations prevent selfless connections between people. I see that in almost all your plays: the war between the selfish and the innocent, or maybe between the selfless and the cruel, sometimes between those tendencies within one person, set in a terrain of social/historical confines, looking at how these absurd or arcane social norms are a breeding ground for cruelty and frustration. It doesn't mean you can't try something new and keep growing, but that particular subject matter seems to matter to you in most of your plays, and there's nothing wrong with being pretty sure about what matters to you!
I love it when other people can explain me to myself. Seriously, this is explains so much about my body of work, both its flaws and its virtues. (When writing about "the war between the selfish and the innocent," you have to be careful not to tip over into melodrama, hyperbole, or gratuitous cruelty.) It explains why I am so proud of Pleiades and why feel, somehow, like only I could have written it. It explains why I write so many plays that take place in different eras — the deeper purpose that historical fiction serves for me as a writer. Heck, even the first play I ever wrote, Deus ex Machina, was about greedy, selfish television producers versus an innocent teenage girl, and the absurdities of peer pressure and media influence.

And it's odd, isn't it? I say I don't want to brand myself because I don't want to constrain myself — yet my brand, it seems, is writing about people who feel constrained, and therefore dissatisfied and unhappy.

Also: in my Theater Pub column, I make reference to my participation in the ATLAS Program for Playwrights, a career development initiative. In July, at the ATLAS Playwrights' Showcase, I spoke a little bit about my work and read the first five minutes of my play Beer Theory (which is definitely about "looking at how absurd social norms can breed cruelty and frustration," oh boy). Local actor Don Hardwick attended the showcase and recently wrote it up on his blog. Thanks, Don!