Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Once the kids got out of school at the end of June, I found a pretty good writing groove by waking up at 5am and working until they woke up. (Okay, not every day, and some mornings it was 5:30...) This usually got me 2+ hours of very concentrated writing time. I love writing first thing in the morning, because I don't have the cares of the day swirling in my mind yet. (By the end of the day, even by mid-morning, my brain is firing in a million different directions).
I had a pretty productive month revising my new novel, doing major rewrites of five or six chapters.
Now, starting yesterday, the kids are in camp for the next four weeks. I was pretty excited about this and the idea of a block of time every day for writing (no need to get up at 5am, right?).
The reality is that the chunk of time is a little smaller than I thought. My son has to catch his bus at 8, and then I take my daughter to art class, which lasts from 10-2, then it's time to pick up my son from the bus at 4. 10-2 is a nice four-hour block. Except for the walk to and from art class (deduct 15-20 minutes). And lunch (deduct 15-30 minutes--usually closer to 30, because I read tiny bits of the Sunday paper). This still leaves a good three-hour block, which is a luxury, I know.
But the tricky part is that a block of time with no kids around strongly attracts meetings, errands, chores, e-mails, house projects, etc. (Any parent will confirm this for you.) It's a common phenomenon for people to quit their day jobs to write, and then all of a sudden find they spend less time actually writing than they did before. (I'm sure this syndrome has a name.)
Luckily, I'm used to working at home, but this week has already shown me that I need to be more careful and protective of that small block of time. If I don't make a conscious effort to stay focused, especially starting so late in the day, I'm sunk. Just like for the 5am sessions, I need to clear off the desk, shut down the e-mail program, turn off the internet browser, and force myself not to check them for the duration (I rarely succeed at this for 3 1/2 hours, but I can make it for two hours).
By the time camp is over, I should have the system, schedule, and discipline in place (and then will need to start a new regimen).
((Big bonus for me--this weekend I have a getaway to the Cape with my playwrights' group at the house of a close friend. I try to go into these weekends with a strong plan for what I'm going to write/revise--otherwise those big gaping blocks of 4-5 hours of writing time are incredibly intimidating.))
Saturday, July 28, 2007
First off, I agree that the Firehouse Contest charging a $15 fee and requiring four copies is just dumb. I (like many of us) have written at length about why contest fees are a bad thing for both theatres and playwrights.
However, I don't think nasty letters and e-mails will ultimately solve the problem. Small arts centers like this are trying to do the right thing when they put together a festival like this. They want to have a role in helping developing new plays. Unfortunately, they need some (gentle) education about how best to do this. As playwrights, our ultimate goal is not to condemn and close down all groups that dare to charge a fee, but rather to continue their interest in working with playwrights and new plays, but to have them do it in a way that's more appropriate.
Keep in mind that theatres do not necessarily share our high opinions of new plays and playwrights. Many small community theatres are perfectly content to continue producing old standards, or plays that have been successfully produced in New York. To them, playwrights are odd creatures, with prickly demands (they never want anyone to change their words, they want to be paid, they want to know when rehearsals are scheduled, they want their name and title spelled correctly, etc.). These theatres know that when they do a new play, their audiences aren't sure what to expect, and it'll be hard to get people to buy tickets.
Some of them know about readings and contests and think it'd be a good idea to do one. But they don't know how. They didn't think about how to pay for it. Lots of contests in life require fees. Lots of everything in life requires fees. Contests for screenwriting and fiction regularly charge fees. Fishing contests, basketball contests, soccer tournaments. They all charge fees. So they see this as normal.
So, what are we to do? I think there are several options:
1) Don't submit to contests that charge fees. Pretty simple. If no one signs up, it sends a message.
2) Send and e-mail or letter, stating why you're not submitting. The Binge could put together a template, though the ICWP (International Centre for Women Playwrights) already has a basic letter that could be slightly modified and be useful.
3) Keep educating theatres (which is really what #2 is about)
4) Direct some of the energy that's currently being focused on theatres charging fees to the real culprit: Lack of arts funding in the United States. Our country spends less per capita on the arts than most other industrialized countries (I'm trying to get the stats, but am having trouble finding the exact numbers at the moment). Part of the reason theatres charge fees is that they're short of cash. Instead of writing a hot blooded note to a theatre company, write a passionate letter to your state rep or congressperson about increasing funding for the arts. You can go to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies to see information about advocacy and state agency spending. (An overview is here .) Overall, states spend a whopping $1.21 per capita on the arts. Federal spending is less. Many other countries spend orders of magnitude more than we do. (Please post suggestions about other useful web sites)
5) Don't post info about contests that charge fees. Don't post about the listings to this list, or send the listings to your friends. Make it very hard for info about the contests to get the word out. Keep telling Gary Garrison that's he's doing a good job for excluding fee-chargers from The Loop and the Dramatist. Encourage other publications to do the same.
Most of all, keep perspective. Fees charged by tiny theatres are not the biggest issues facing playwrights. Media coverage, royalty rates, arts funding, lack of risk taking by producers, and other issues have a much bigger impact on our ability to practice our art (and possibly make a living).
As for the comment the guy at Firehouse made about thinking that playwrights should pay actors and directors to do their work. Well, sure, in a way he sounds like a bonehead. As in, your theatre should be paying the actors, directors, AND the playwrights, bonehead. However, there's also something to be said to his statement. When I put together a reading of my work, I make a point of paying the actors and director, whenever possible. Often it's just a token, and sometimes I don't have the money. My writers' group pays our actors $15 every time they come to read with us (six of us chip in $80/semester) to show them that we value them as professional actors. It's not much, sure. But it's important that playwrights realize that it's not just an honor for actors and directors to work on our plays. They're doing us a service, and their talents and efforts need to be recognized.
Now, if a theatre puts sponsors the reading, I expect them to responsible not just for paying me, but also for paying the actors and directors. If I wanted to pay them myself, I'd put together my own damn reading.
Anyway, that's way more than my two cents.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Went to Brookline Booksmith (actually it was at the Coolidge Corner Cinema) for a reading by author Jasper Fforde, who has a new book, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels is just out. There were probably 150-200 people who paid $5 each to hear his one-hour talk, and then they all waited in line 45 minutes or so to get him to sign books. And he was great. Very funny, as you'd expect (demand) if you're Fforde fan. When you hear him talk (very fast), you can begin to understand how he's able to create his two series on such a consistent basis, and why people like them so much.
He had a great list of ten principles that he uses when writing (though I don't remember them well enough to quote them). He said a lot of useful things, but one that I really liked was that first he wrote his books (feeling completely unqualified to do so). Later, after they were published and he did book tours and answered people's various literary questions, he figured out what he'd actually done.
(This points to a potential problem with the way that new plays are developed, in that quite often full-length plays have readings, where there are talkback sessions with the audience, which are all fine and good. But the expectation is often that somehow the playwright will use these to "fix" problems with the play. But maybe (I'm not the first to mention this), theatres should work together with the playwright to produce the play in whatever way seems to make the most sense. And then, after the play is actually produced, the playwright can engage in pleasant Q&As and everyone can think about answers to the questions about what is happening and why.)
In my recent post about fame and fortune, I, of course, said that they don't really matter that much to me anymore. Which is mostly true. But I'm also a little full of crap. I tell you, I'd sure like to have people lined up around the block to hear me talk and buy my books. And I'd like to have them name city streets after characters in my books (like they've done in Swindon, the setting for the Thursday Next series), or host an annual Gabridge festival (there is apparently an annual Fforde FFestival in Swindon).
And I'd like to have it all happen and still come across as funny and witty and unspoiled as Jasper Fforde. He's clearly having a ball writing his books, and he seems tickled that so many of us enjoy them as much as he does.
While, as I pointed out in my previous post, it takes a lot of luck to have a successful book published, Jasper Fforde's success also shows how hard work and ingenuity can turn a few strokes of good luck (and a very clever book) into something far more.
Jasper's made a tremendous effort to connect with his fans. Just take a look at his web site--he clearly enjoys the interaction with the folks who read his books, and he gives them a lot of material to look at between releases. He sends out e-mails to his e-mail list about when he's going to make appearances on tour. And in person, he's so entertaining. He definitely gave me a valuable lesson about how to make a book reading into an event worth remembering. I've done a few (mostly for very small audiences) and I know I have a lot to learn. He's given me something to shoot for.
In some ways, the playwrights in the theatre blogosphere provide our fans (what few we have) with ways to hear from us on a regular basis. But much of what's written tends to be for other playwrights. I know theatre is different from novel writing--i.e. locally produced, rather than broadly sold--but it is important for us to keep thinking about ways to communicate with our audiences between shows. How can we use the web to provide additional info/material/value to those folks who see our plays and are interested? Some writers are making progress on this, but I know I have so much room to improve (...it all takes time, we're all short of time, I know, I know).
Anyway, here's hoping for a long line at my next reading (or production). And yours, too.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
The question of does it matter if your work is remembered, or if it will even be widely seen or noticed is one I've thought about a lot. As an artist, I definitely strongly desire for my work to be seen and remembered. Writing, is after all, partly a passion to communicate with an audience.So, is it [Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat] a good painting? Shama thinks so. It is a painting which has outlived both its artist and its purpose.As someone who creates things, what are we to make of that? What is the purpose of art--fodder for tomorrow's advertising (I remember my horror when I realized that Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies would be remembered as "Smurfberry Crunch is fun to eat."Is it better that it be remembered at all? There are countless pieces of art in all fields which will disappear without even a poor imitation to their name. I am depressed just reading lit mags, thinking of all the people who will never see this poem or this story, or this drawing.It stops me from creating. Clearly it doesn't stop others--I put this out to Writing Life x3 and Mirror as people who actually do create and produce things in there spheres.
The remembrance part: I don't think too much about that anymore. However, I recently bumped into someone from
Do I think about potential audience when writing? No, and yes.
At the very start of a project, when I'm framing some of the basic direction of the piece, I am conscious as to whether it has a remote chance of being published and widely seen or read. I don't only pick projects that I think will be bestsellers or huge Broadway hits. (As if I'd know.) But I wouldn't spend 2-3 years on a project, if I didn't have some idea that it could reach an audience. Sometimes I realize later that my assessment of potential audience was complete self-delusion. A great deal of writing day after day is just finding ways to keep that bubble of self-delusion comfortably inflated. (The world will be happy to deflate the bubble once the final draft is complete.) (I spent 5 years writing a full-length play about the history of the creation of the English Bible. I'm glad I wrote it. It's had good readings and workshops and done well in competition. But I've had to accept that it might never be widely produced, or might (note the self delusion creeping in--the proper term here is probably) never be produced at all. )
Once I've committed to the project, though, I have to write the truth of the piece for me, whatever that is. (That sounds so hifalutin, doesn't it?) The production or publication process is so drawn out, that there's no point in trying to second guess the market, or even consider the latest fads, while I'm writing. Who knows what will fascinate people by the time I'm done? The trick is to get whatever depth out of it that I can provide. That, and a bit of good luck, is the only thing that gives it a chance to reach people after that.
As for them remembering it later, again, I think that's luck as much as quality. Or maybe, as discussed in this post by Mirror up to Nature, the luck has a lot to do with the rest of the life of the author and where he or she fits in with society. What's the story of the author and the times? I don't know. Once you're a writer and have lots of writer friends, you know there are scads of talented people out there with great manuscripts that will never be widely read. The bullshit story told to beginning writers--if you write something great, it'll get published/produced/staged--is a fiction designed to keep the pipeline producing more work for the producers and publishers to choose from.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Monday, July 23, 2007
Our story: my father-in-law purchased book #7 for us, from a bookstore in CT. We live in Boston. This meant that he would have to mail it to us, on Monday or Tuesday, and we'd get it by the end of the week. To be honest, I'm third in line in our house, behind my wife and daughter, so I didn't really care. But Tracy really, really, really couldn't wait until the end of the week, and we didn't want to buy an extra copy. So Saturday morning, she drove down to Connecticut and her father met her half way, and she picked up the book at an exit somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Now we have our copy, and my wife gets to read it before and after work, and my daughter reads it during the day. They're struggling not to talk about it in front of me, and we're all on careful media diets to avoid spoilers.
I'm told that approximately a good chunk of all blogs have mentioned Harry Potter this week, so I guess I'm part of the club now.
Friday, July 20, 2007
I've gardened for years, and in Roxbury I helped manage two local community gardens. Last year, we moved to a pleasant condo in Brookline for various (good) reasons. We have no yard, just a tiny bit of flower space out front. No garden. No community garden within a logical distance. Our old garden isn't much more than a mile away, but I'd need to drive there much of the time, and commuting by car to one's garden seems perverse to me.
All this pastoral longing is in part thanks to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I just finished reading. She and her family moved from Arizona to a family farm in Virginia. Once there, they decided to attempt to eat only food grown locally, for an entire year. They grew vegetables in their garden, raised chickens and turkeys, and bought other produce from local farmers (and gave up bananas and citrus). As she describes their year, Kingsolver writes a lot about the many problems with our current industrial food supply, our unhealthy American food culture (or lack thereof), and her deep ties to farming and family.
It's one of those books, where you feel like they're just the perfect family, living in a little eden. Of course, they have money to help pull this off (she's a bestselling writer and he's a professor) and already owned the land. They seem so content, you can't help but want to go buy some whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized) and a few other ingredients, and make some cheese in your kitchen. (I really am going to do this this summer, I swear.)
The stuff about food really hits home for us, because our family has been working hard to eat much healthier over the past nine months or so, going mostly vegan and cutting out most processed foods. We bought a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, for local, organic produce. And it's been working.
Kingsolver's book covers some of the same ground as Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, which was a more compelling book for me. Kingsolver tends to wander, and I started her book with the thought that this year of eating locally would be a fresh adventure for her and her family. But they'd already been on the journey for a while, so it lacks a crisp sense of discovery.
For an outsider's trip to a simple life, it's worth reading Better Off by Erick Brende, about an MIT grad and his wife who give up the modern life and go to live in an Amish-like community. Or if you want an intense connection with the land and a different way of looking at the connection between farming, farms, and nature, I'd suggest Wendell Berry or David Kline's Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer's Journal.
We've been known to suddenly pull up stakes and change our lives, but I don't think it'll happen this time. The need for racial diversity and the necessity of the right special needs school program for our son will keep us in place for many years. Plus, Tracy loves her job (and her short commute). Still, I'll always have that tension of wanting to live closer to the land. Maybe someday we'll retire to a small farm somewhere (or a house in the country with a big garden) (near the ocean) (or Paris).
Regardless of where we live, it's essential for us, and for America as a whole, to come to grips with the fact that our industrialized agriculture system is unhealthy for all of us. Small sustainable farms produce better quality food, use less oil, enhance the environment, help bolster our communities, and empower our citizens. With current agricultural policies, our government is actively undermining family farms and enriching large corporate agricultural concerns. The result is an epidemic of obesity and rising environmental hazards from pesticides, fertilizer and topsoil runoff, and irresponsible use of antibiotics and genetically modified organisms. A huge of amount of oil is used to ship all those bananas and off-season produce from countries half a world away to our local Stop and Shop. Buying local (as much as possible, and eating produce that's in season), like Barbara Kingsolver, is a good way to make at least a little bit of a difference.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I made my first submission to EAT back in 2001, then gave up for a few years (thus ensuring my plays couldn't be chosen), started submitting again in 2005, and now I've gotten in. I saw a production of the fall festival last year and thought they did a good job.
This show comes at a good time, because my fall production schedule was looking, well, completely empty. That's never a good feeling. The hardest part about spending more of my time writing books these days is the slow pace of production--it takes me a while to write a novel, and then years to get an agent and publisher and have it reach readers. I'm grateful to theatre for providing me with a sense of immediate feedback and, as long as I keep getting productions of these short plays, a sense of staying in touch with an audience (even though theatres are super slow to respond, the theatre business sucks, blah, blah, blah).
And, it was good news for a numbers guy like me, because it put my 2006 acceptance rate just over 10%. This keeps my streak of double digit acceptance percentage steady since 1999 (take out 1998, and it goes back to 1995). Nobody cares about this, of course, but somehow it makes me feel better.
(The photo is from the 2004 Boston Theatre Marathon Production of Den of Iniquity, where it was an audience favorite. Joseph Zamparelli Jr. and Karen Woodward Massey pictured.)
Saturday, July 14, 2007
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
- Buckminster Fuller
Friday, July 13, 2007
On the rest of my walk, in addition to picking up a few extra pieces of trash off the ground, I got to wondering what our current president will be like in his (not soon enough) retirement. I guess he'll be out mountain biking and trimming brush, on his own expansive ranch.
I like the idea of making sure the people we choose for our leaders are also capable of being good neighbors, who can lead by example, on the simple as well as the complex.
I think everyone in the theater wants to be a genius. I've never really met a theater artist who thought people were better than them at their particular field. I've met the best director in the world 20-30 times, the best playwright twice as often a and the best actor? I meet him everyday. And even those of us who are humble, deep down have a belief that what we personally do is "true art" it's "real theater" and so in the rehearsal room we believe it should be respected. So, you often end up with a room of people who think they know more than the others around them and are saying "prove it to me, that you're so good" in every note session.
(Confession #1) I used to be this way. I thrived on attention from productions and achievement and desperately wanted to be "important" in some artistic sense. I felt sure that someone would see my stuff and pronounce that they'd found the next playwriting prodigy. Or at least I hoped they would.
(Confession #2) I'm not a genius. Over the years, with experience, I figured out what the rest of the world apparently already knew.
This turns out to be a pretty helpful realization, because it saves a lot of time and energy, which I can then put into making the project of the moment, be it a play or novel or screenplay, better. (Yes, I still practice my Academy Award or Pulitzer Speech while washing the dinner dishes, but not quite so often anymore.) I'm a pretty good writer, I'm a hard worker, and I'm getting better all the time. I make a point of trying to work with other writers who are better than me (I'm definitely not the most talented writer in either of my writing groups).
Would I like my work to reach a broad audience and have a wide-reaching cultural impact? Sure. But it might not. In our culture, we're conditioned to want to play in the Superbowl or the World Series or the Masters. And win. I went to MIT, and there's a certain expectation there, just as part of the culture, that you'll get out of school and go do something earthshattering. Change the world.
In the end, though, the real writers are those who, when they figure out they're not going to win the Pulitzer, don't quit and get a job making a ton of money, but just keep getting up every morning and writing pages. I'm relieved to know that I'm a real writer (even if I'm not a genius).
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Also, the quote he lists from Ben Cameron's farewell speech to TCG (who was quoting from Anne Bogart's book, A Director Prepares) is well worth reading. In fact, I'll post it below:
* Do not assume that you have to have some prescribed conditions to do your best work.
* Do not wait.
* Do not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind.
* Work with what you have right now.
* Work with the people around you right now.
* Work with the architecture you see around you right now.
* Do not wait for what you assume is the appropriate, stress-free environment in which to generate expression.
* Do not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom.
* Do not wait till you are sure that you know what you are doing.
* Do not wait until you have enough technique.
* What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors.
Makes sense to me. I've tried to act this way in the theatrical and artistic life. It's good to be reminded, though. I think it applies to any sort of endeavor, any sort of art. I meet plenty of writers who say they're waiting for the right moment, to have enough time, to have a cleaner desk, more inspiration. Then they'll write their books, their plays, their essays. Bogart has it right. Don't wait.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
1. I've been working on my novel every day. (Usually at 5am.) Free time and energy are in finite supply over summer vacation, but I've done a good job at sticking to my plan of getting up early every morning to write. I'm making lots of progress, but I haven't been answering many e-mails or following blog discussions or much of anything else.
2. I've been scraping paint. We have a bathroom window, set right in the shower stall, that needs many layers of paint removed, before I repaint it. Turns out this project that I thought would take 2 days will take at least a week. I usually like household projects, but stripping paint sucks. I suppose I could look at it as a metaphor for revising a novel: I peel off layer after layer of accumulated gunk, trying to get to the really good stuff underneath. It's hard work. It requires great patience. No one is paying me to do it. It'll be aesthetically pleasing when I'm done. (Nah, that doesn't really help.)
3. I've been catching eels. And tadpoles. And little green crabs, jellyfish, frogs. The kids and I (and sometimes my wife) have been doing a good job at getting out the beach or ponds or wherever. The eel was really cool. I turned over a rock at the beach, up near the SalemWillows amusement area, and there it was. I've never even seen one before. I was able to scoop it up in my bare hands, but it was incredibly slippery. (I felt like a triumphant hunter landing a unique beast, until two little girls wandered by with five of them in their little bucket.)
That's about it. I'm a slacker.
I don't have much scheduled, production-wise, for the rest of the year. There's a staged reading of Pieces of Whitey on August 16th, at the Cambridge Public Library (Central Square branch), and then after that dead silence. I know something will come up, but the quiet times are always a bit unsettling.
Friday, July 6, 2007
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Visit http://www.nyc99.org/ for more info.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
I wish he'd talked a little more about exactly how we got into the health care mess we're in, and offered a few more ideas for how we might get out of it. But it's funny, entertaining, moving, and thought-provoking. Certainly not a perfect film, but that's not what I was looking for.
We've been pretty lucky with our health care coverage so far, but we've also had to fight with our insurers to get various tests for our son covered--some of those fights we won, and some we lost. People complain about long waits in countries with socialized medicine, but we've experienced that here, too (waiting more than a year for some evaluations). We've been lucky to have some resources to pay for tests that insurance wouldn't cover, but it's definitely been (and will continue to be) a strain on our budget. Lots of Americans aren't as lucky as us.
Expect to see the establishment come out hard against this film, because Moore's not just saying that socialized medicine is a good idea, he's also saying that there's lots of things that other industrialized countries do/offer (like better childcare for working families, more vacation time, cheaper college education) better than ours. People with money and power get what they need and more, in our country, but access for the working man is highly restricted. And oddly enough, there is no true labor party in our system (the Democratic Party is far from being such an entity).
It seems strange to me is that the discussion of politics, not just party politics, but real political ideas and viewpoints, seems to be mildly taboo in our culture. I don't know if it's just me who feels this way, but this seems a very dangerous thing.
Moore has me thinking about the big issues confronting the United States at the moment. My list would be:
- The war in Iraq and our outrageous military budget (we spend more on defense than all other industrialized countries, COMBINED. This week's issue of Newsweek lists our 2006 military budget at $560 billion. After us comes: UK $57.6 billion, France $55.4 billion, China $35.3 billion, Russia $24.9 billion, India $22.4 billion, Israel $11.3 billion. Why do we need to spend so much more?
- Our idiotic healthcare system. (A national healthcare system makes total sense to me. A for-profit, insurance-based system seems an idiocy that enriched a few people and corporations, with little incentive for actually making people healthier.)
- Race relations. (I actually spend time working on this already.)
- Money in politics. Campaigns should be publicly funded. Corporations should be banned from campaign contributions altogether, ASAP. The campaign finance system we have seems incredibly corrupt.
- Rising class divisions. The concentration of increasingly large amounts of wealth in the hands of a few people seems likely to cause increasing instability in our society.
- Global warming, use of fossil fuels, and our industrial food chain. These link pretty closely together for me.
- Our current paralyzing culture of fear.
Anyway, go see the movie. It might get you thinking.
You don't have to be a playwright to join up, and you don't have to write a play. I'm going to be working on rewrites to my novel. It's just a nice way to have a little bit of camaraderie and accountability (and fun) while also getting a little more work done. (This should be especially helpful in July.) There are about two dozen writers signed up so far (mostly from the Binge). Check it out.