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Archive for May, 2012

Toni Morrison said this the other night on the PBS NewsHour. Here’s the context from taken from the interview.

JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?

TONI MORRISON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was?

TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.

JEFFREY BROWN: More?

(LAUGHTER)

TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.

I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.

I have to say, I’ve been feeling this for some time about a lot of fiction. Adult fiction, YA fiction, Middle Grade fiction, all of it has been feeling rather bloated around the middle. I don’t know where writers pick up the literary equivalent of a spare tire (perhaps it’s MFA programs?), but whatever it is undermines a lot of good books that always leave me feeling like they could have been just that much better with a trim.

It is the middle of many books that are the problem. And from a writer’s point of view, middles generally are a problem. Starting out, you pretty much have to know where you’re beginning and where you plan to end up and then somehow connect the dots. There are various philosophies about this – the general divide is between “pantsers” who write but the seat of their pants, so to speak, and “plotters” who detail every step of the way – but no approach I know of has an advantage over the other. I have followed detailed outlines and I have winged it and it both cases revision has shown that many of my problem came from a flabby middle.

The one revelation I had about middles came when I was working on my creative thesis in grad school. I was working the story from both ends inward, a path I chose because I wanted to have the story elements “mirror” each other in a balanced way, when I got to the point that, in my mind, was one of those “cross that bridge when I get to it” moments. I had always assumed that the incidents and characters would help define what I needed to do to bridge these moments but I suddenly felt stumped. I was certain I had reached the point where I had no middle act, that the story required an additional element that seamlessly fused the two parts… and that I’d have to go back and weave these new elements into the two halves I’d already created.

Then a voice in my head asked: Do you really need to say anything more?

All it took was some slight changes to account for a leap of time and the two parts melded as if I’d planned it all along, and in my subconscious maybe I had.

Now, it goes without saying that I’m no Toni Morrison, but she’s right about the fact that it is harder to write less and make it “more.” Economy of language, or dialog, or scene and symbolism, boiling down those words into a condensed space makes it all the richer. It is easier to sit and write and throw it all out there on the page, much harder to weed and trim and make what’s already good that much greater.

Less is more. It isn’t a new thought, but perhaps it could become a renewed pledge taken to reassure readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Number 1 Rule of Creative Writing 101:

 Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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Books don’t care who they’re seen with, only that they be seen for who they are, deep inside.
Strip them of their dust jackets to hide their contents and they don’t care, the reader is the one who is embarrassed and deceptive.

A book will be loyal and faithful in your possession, but think nothing of being sold, traded, abandoned, borrowed or lent.
Perhaps this is what bothers people about libraries and why they don’t like funding them.
Stacked with hundreds of thousands of faithless books, a brothel of the printed word, books are cheap and easy.

For children, books will endure scribbles, mauling, gumming, and whatever harsh abuse is meted out.
They understand that is a part of their purpose.
For adults, books hold their tongues for such behavior though they also hold grudges for a long time.
Some paper cuts are not accidents.

Books like to travel and aren’t fussy about their accommodations.
Packed in suitcases, in backpacks, stuffed into jacket pockets, it’s all the same to them.
Lucky are the books that open up to find themselves at the beach or poolside.
Every time they are opened they see the world anew, every page gets its own personal vista with a reader in the foreground.

Books are narcissists, they stare at their reflection in our eyes, but only because they know this is the only chance they get to see who they are.

Novels longingly dream of being textbooks, repeatedly used and referenced and pawed at by clumsy scholars; textbooks secretly wish for the novel’s life of luxury and lounging.
Auto repair and computer manuals outlive their purpose; dictionaries outlive their owners.

Though their content may be of any political stripe the physical book itself is a collectivist unit, each part pulling for the good of the whole.
Books do not mind this arrangement, their various pages and binding materials understand they serve a higher purpose than their individual parts.

They have no religion, but all books believe in some form of reincarnation.

Make no mistake, books can feel.
When a page is torn you will hear it hiss its disapproval, but a spine will crackle and snap with nervous excitement like knuckles bent-back before the piano recital.

In another time pages were bound by arranged marriages, lovers locked in an embrace that only a reader could separate through a surgical procedure along the outer edge.
Today we no longer insist on the marriage of a recto and verso or in deciding which is which – page numbers exist for our convenience, not the book’s.

For that matter, books make easy alliances with those they are shelved with.
Should they fail to yield their position or go peaceably alongside others in a new arrangement it will not be the fault of the book.
No book has refused the company of another book by choice.

Books keep their secrets.
They hide marginalia, preserve flowers, conceal money, hold recipes, adopt news clippings and bury love letters all without betrayal.

They do not like the weather too dry or the air too humid.
Books swell or become brittle with discomfort at either extreme, much like their owners.
That said, books adore inclimate weather, as it tends to cause their owners to seek them out.

For all these and many other reasons, books will continue as long as mankind does.

After all, they are made in our image.

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Yeah, that’s right, get ready for it. Spandex and roller boogie and perhaps even leg warmers and headbands!

Okay, maybe not, but it’s just as plausible as most dystopic fiction out there. And for proof, I now draw your attention to one of my favorite topics in the history of late 20th century American cinema, science fiction films of the 1970s.

What the heck was in the water back then?

There were movies about killer robots (Westword, Futureworld), movies about population control (Logan’s Run), movies about what was called “the greenhouse effect” back then (Soylent Green, which was also about population control), and of course, the reign of Charlton Heston as king of all things dystopian-to-come (Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, uh, Earthquake). In a decade that started with A Clockwork Orange (Cold War dystopia!) and The Andromeda Strain (killer viruses!) then ended with a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (virus from space!) and Mad Max (Cold War dystopia!) there had to be something that would pull us out of the doldrums.

And then along came disco.

Okay, so disco was a simultaneous response to the world, a response that also begat punk rock, but there was huge crossover. So much of the idealistic imagery of the future in 70s sci-fi movies looked like disco outfits — lots of white polyester and feathered hair — while the darker stuff looked like a fashion template for crusty punk squatters. But in the end, wherever there was a dark movie about sanctioned cannibalism there was a new Donna Summer dance tune or a Bee Gees hit!

If YA had been around back in the 70s — and I mean, as huge a market as it is today — I have no doubts teens would have gobbled up books like much of the dystopic sci-fi movies out there. I know, because I was there, and we were hungry for it. I also have no doubt those imaginary books would have been made into movies not unlike the ones that were made that all the teens saw anyway.

So to those adults wringing their hands about how “dark” YA has become, or worried about the boom in dystopic fiction I say fear not. This too shall pass, and in its wake we can expect there to be a rise in mindless pop confections to counter-balance all the darkness. Pastels and fern bars and a return to campy decor is just around the corner. Heck, for good measure, let’s have Woody Allen team up with Dianne Keaton one last time for Annie Hall 2: Electric Boogaloo where the two senior citizens kvetch about New York like nothing has changed in the last 35 years. Maybe Jeff Lynne can collaborate with Olivia Neutron Bomb* for a return trip to Xanadu.** Perhaps the old guard major networks can revive the oldest reality shows they ever created, Battle of the Network Stars, just in time for the Olympics.

Because maybe nothing has changed.

Mostly.

.

.

edited:

* This was a nickname that combined two of the greatest threats to our well-being in the late 70s, the omnipresence of Olivia Newton John and the threat of a neutron bomb which we were told would destroy populations by leave the buildings in tact – as if that were a reassurance!

** Shortly after I wrote this post, but before I updated it to the interwebs, Donna Summer died. The original line here was “Giorgio Morodor and Donna Summer need to get back into the studio STAT and show these girls what it means to work hard for the money.” As much as I mocked Donna Summer as a teen she did, indeed, work harder for the money than many singers these days. 

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“You were wrong, David. You were wrong about everything!”

That was the pronouncement made by my younger daughter as the final credits rolled for the season finale of the TV series Smash on Monday night. What I was wrong about, specifically, were my predictions about the show’s story arc. To be fair, my guess was made after the first or second week, when I saw a lot of potential in the various elements and couldn’t imagine the show would get almost instantly stupid.

I was not an actual fan of the show, though something more than a casual viewer. Apparently there’s a love-to-hate contingent out there but I never really followed the armchair quarterbacking that has become almost de rigueur of any TV series these days. But given the scope of what the show set out to accomplish — a backstage story of the creation of a Broadway show — I didn’t feel it was out of line for me to expect something more than a fifteen week version of an old MGM musical.

So what did I expect? I expected that they wouldn’t tease out the lead for the show-within-a-show all the way up to the very end; I thought they were going to stumble with funding and lose the director back to his old show, taking the rising star with him (his Eliza Doolittle as it were); that Smash would become a show about two separate shows with torn allegiances going up against each other, each becoming competitive in their successes; that the finale would involve the Tony awards where the two battling leading ladies were up against each other and when they announced the winner… fade to black, see you next season!

What we got was a very drawn out process of a show in workshop that was held together with preposterous sub-plots. The adoption of a Chinese baby, by the least realistic family on TV (and a teen son who was unarguably the show’s worst actor); the constant need to give the competing leads opportunities to sing popular songs to fill in for true emotions in storytelling; a determined producer whose lines were clearly written by a computer sampling dialog from old movies and phoned in by a sleepwalking actress… and in the end the show barely-but-miraculously makes it through its out-of-town previews with hints of Pregnancy! Suicide! Divorce!

How could I have expected anything more from TV?

So I won’t return to Smash for its second season, and maybe one day someone will develop the backstage drama worthy of Broadway that is also quality television.

Until then there’s always Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.

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Late at night, when the world is quiet, my Muse decides to lure me to the rocks of morbidity. The Muse creates doubt as often as it feeds me ideas. I tried to wrestle with some of these ideas in a blog post late last night, and wisdom had taught me to schedule the post rather than update it immediately.

Because I knew that this morning I would remember what I’d written and want to delete.

Most of it anyway.

What I’ve salvaged was this mini monologue from the film version of S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish. Benny, the soda jerk played by Tom Waits, delivers what is essentially the theme of the movie, which is about time.

Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

I’ve thought a lot about those thirty-five summers for the last thirty or so years, and I’m getting to the point where those perpetual thirty-five summers might not be so perpetual. They’re getting to be more of an outside number. Remember that thing I said about my Muse being morbid?

Time.

Time to start thinking about how to maximize those thirty-five summers.

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Maurice Sendak left us this week and in his wake many people came forth with stories about the man and his impact on them, some as colleagues, some as readers. It would be fooling to claim this as a “top five” but these are the ones that stood out for me this week.

Illustrator Paul Schmid did a fellowship with Sendak a few years back, and on his blog he recounts the last visit he made. The key to the man, and the visit, was his ability to cut to the chase. “She didn’t capitulate.”

Art Spielgelman, creator of Maus, spoke with Sendak back in 1993 about his book We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy. “You can’t protect kids, they know everything.” (Catch this while you can, before The New Yorker locks up behind its pay wall again).

Scholar and author Phillip Nel remembers his contacts with Sendak while working on his dual biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss. “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.” Also: the birth of the rumpus.

Nel also gathered a collection of illustrators tributes to Sendak. Most of these are lovely, though I’m a little confused by Harry Bliss’s graveside tribute from children’s book characters who came before Sendak. Wouldn’t characters who benefitted from Sendak be more in his debt of gratitude?

And bookseller Sarah Rettger remembers Sendak the local who would visit her store. I am still curious to know if he ever bought a book, and I do mean ever. Could Sendak simply call a publisher and say “I’d like to see…” and like royalty he’d receive it by overnight express?

So that’s five. The plus-one is my own personal recollection of growing up alongside his new releases in the 60s and 70s, and one book in particular that spoke to me then and still does. It probably doesn’t merit being in the same company of the other posts above, but its my blog, so there.

Seems everyone had a favorite memory or story to share in tribute. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

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…Poof.

Without a pop but with a whisper, Maurice Sendak packed his valise of sadness and crossed the ocean to join the place where his Wild Things were born.

To say I grew up with Sendak is to say I grew up within the sphere of his influence, as the books he both wrote and illustrated were published as I was becoming a reader. I was always slightly behind each new publication, discovering titles a few years after they were published, though they were and still are ever-fresh to my young eyes. The strongest, oldest memories would be of the books in The Nutshell Library (“Alligators All Around,” “Chicken Soup With Rice,” “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre,” 1962) but also there were the older books he illustrated for Ruth Krauss’s books “A Hole Is To Dig” (1952) and “Open House For Butterflies” (1960). In all these there is the whimsy of childhood but also the darkness that haunted much of Sendak’s work, a darkness that is a part of childhood more often excised by overprotective parents (and lately publishers). This very darkness, this undercurrent, is what anchors Sendak’s illustrations in a world instantly recognizable by children.

Why do his books stand the test of time? Look at the pictures.

The touchstone, of course, is “Where the Wild Things Are” (1964), a deceptively simple and subtle exploration of childhood play and anger management. It was and is the birthplace of much modern American children’s literature, much the same way that “The Great Gatsby,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” or “Main Street” could be argued as the beginning of a 20th century American literary tradition. Though for all Sendak’s cantankerousness, his outspoken disgust with being labeled a “kiddie book” writer, I think of him more as the Hemingway of children’s books. Without becoming too Freudian (is this possible with Maurice Sendak?) he simply is “Papa” to the world of children’s books. Seuss may have taught us all to read and think, Sendak taught us it was okay to feel.

Everyone has their favorite, but the Sendak book for me is “Higlety Piglety Pop!” (1967), a longer story featuring Sendak’s beloved dog Jennie who  explores the world and discovers her true passion as an actress. Based ever so loosely on a nursery rhyme, the key to this story comes in its subtitle “Or, There Must Be More to Life.” Jennie has everything she could want as a dog – a warm bed, plenty to eat, loving caretakers – but as with all children she must go out into the world and find out who she really is. That she ultimately becomes an actress spoke to a younger version of myself wondering about the life of a creative person out in the world, gaining experience. School, home, these were safe places, comfortable enough, but they didn’t speak to my spirit and they didn’t help me understand my place in the world or how to get there. While I certainly didn’t set out to model my life over that of a dog in a children’s book, I did need to leave home and put myself in some uncomfortable life-changing situations in order to learn about myself and what I wanted to do. I only wish those lessons could have been learned as quickly as Jennie learned them.

“Higlety Piglety Pop!” is an odd book of Sendak’s, more of an intermediate reader and to my knowledge the longest work of fiction he published (he wrote plenty of essays published as “Caldecott and Co: Notes on Books and Pictures,” 1988). While the book does end with the titular nursery rhyme acted out in picture book fashion, what I always loved was that Sendak took the time to flesh out the backstory to the drama. He probably could have illustrated the ditty as a picture book and told the same story, but just this once he wanted there to be more to the story, just as Jennie had wanted more to life. I did not know that this was Sendak’s valentine to his beloved terrier until many years later; it read to me, a young reader, like a fairy tale about a life. If it was nonsense it had the sense of what life looks like to a child, full of adults making rules and decisions arbitrary to a child’s eyes. There was danger and adventure and a mop made of salami. What’s not to like?

Recent interviews with Sendak around the publication of his most recent book “Bumble Ardy” (2011) showed his as a sad and tired man. He had lost too many loved ones and it seemed obvious that his art no longer brought him enough happiness to counterbalance the sadness.

Maurice, thank you for the wild rumpuess, the journeys through night kitchens, and all that chicken soup with rice.

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