Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Power to the Characters

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story, Now playing in a theater near you, Revision, Story material on September 30, 2010 at 6:32 am

I’ll have my coffee in a few minutes. First, I must note something relating to the powers of the writer.

Power Number 1: sending a miscreant, anarchistic character into banishment i.e. cutting and pasting most of her scenes into a separate file – the equivalent to offering the character a time out in her room, prior to hitting the delete button, if she doesn’t keep on threatening she will commit suicide, and never deliver. The other characters – and the writer – have run out of patience for the time being. The rest of the story proceeds without her; we’ll see how she deals with her problems, or doesn’t, in a few more chapters. If all else fails, the cast and crew will send her flowers.

Power Number 2: making the person housing a resident writer sound remarkably wise. In the photo above, all I meant to do was snap a picture of the river and go on with my afternoon walk. Halfway across the footbridge, I meet a woman coming from the opposite direction with a need to talk about her life, her health, her children, her general take on life. I listened and made the appropriate comments, as required. Still and all, there was the matter of a walk still to be taken, while the woman carried on about aging, and how people expect women to behave, past the age of fifty. At which point the resident writer piped up with a line spoken by a character in an old, old draft. It was based on that  Beatles song “When I’m sixty-four” (will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m…). “I turned sixty-four the other day,”  I said. From there, I moved straight into plagiarism of that draft character of old:  “Everybody else seems to know what that means, but I don’t. I’ve never been sixty-four before, and never will be again. I intend to discover on my own what it means to me.” Lo and behold – t’was the nugget that woman happened to be expecting.

Those are but two of the powers resident in a writer. There are others but for this morning, I’m satisfied knowing even characters banished from drafts, or left to languish in unfinished ones, still hold unspeakably potent powers, with or without coffee.

Hopefully, with coffee, the writer will also manage to make something worthwhile out of today’s bout of revision.

Give me your poor, your miserable, your ill-humored wretches…

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story, Now playing in a theater near you, Story material, Theater on September 29, 2010 at 7:21 am

Some days start with a powerful dream image; or a few insistent words in my head; or a bit of music. Other days – this one, for example – there are so many images, so many words and so many musical threads I need to let them all simmer down; something like a kid discovering a mountain of gifts under the Christmas tree: where to begin? Which one to pick out first?

The most insistent image this morning – possibly, because of where I stopped revision yesterday: a bit of the collar on a shirt I favored almost thirty years ago. The shirt is long gone but the stories that attach to it live on in my head.

The most insistent images last night before falling asleep:  a small house I photographed during my walk. I spent the following hour fantasizing entire episodes of an imaginary life in that space  for a fictional character yet to come.  The second image awaited me when I came home:  a gypsy encampment on a bit of a downtown parking lot; what struck most was the contrast between the tall, unyielding buildings and the flapping canvas of a circus tent. The need to belong, and to lay down roots. The need to escape, and to feel footloose. The magnetic loop formed by those two main poles on the inner compass.

Story-wise, the best piece of news landed during the night: should one of my more fractious characters not fit into the final version of the story I’m revising, I know where her energy can be put to good use in a story I began a few years back. I was thinking of one specific actress when I started writing this character’s scenes in the present draft, only to discover she had been shoved offstage by two other sources of inspiration:  another real-life aging actress, and a real-life aging nut from the same theater crowd I worked with, one or two lifetimes ago. I don’t mind dropping characters from a draft, if it’s for the good of the story; but as with cooking, I hate when good things go to waste. So relax now, character mine: if you get moved into a smaller role in this story? Your name will be up in lights in the next one.*

* As testimony to this being a serious commitment on my part, I hereby dedicate today’s photo to said fictional character. The title of Manu Larcenet’s illustrated album, On fera avec well expressing that character’s  “oh yeah, gee, thanks” approach to Christmas gifts, and to all other things joyful or life-sustaining.

The title of this post being in thanks to the spirits of the night for their advice  on how best to draw some humor out of a character singularly devoid of any trace of same. Yes,  she gets to play it straight.

The Good Life

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story, Now playing in a theater near you, Revision, Story material, Theater on September 28, 2010 at 7:04 am

So much depends on how the characters first show up, and how much freedom you allow them in their first run through the first draft. The simile, this morning, being to that first cast meeting where actors are asked to improvise on a theme; each one of them comes at it with his or her best lines from previous roles, favorite mannerisms or whatever handy crutch is available to mask the anxiety of that first experience. Maybe the contracts aren’t even signed yet; maybe this is still an audition in disguise. In any event, everybody is trying hard to impress, some even harder than others. Some straight out of another acting job where they played a heavy; others grasping at this first tentative role after years of playing the background blur in an action-packed commercial.

Assuming the writer has the courage and the patience to put up with the hams, the throat-clearers, the hysterical ones and the sullen ones resident in her head, she gets a semblance of a first draft – either a complete one, or one far enough along to warrant settling down for a heart-to-heart with it. The present English-language draft and I are at that stage of the proceedings. The writer is blessing the invention of automated cutting and pasting; cringing at some (some?) of the characters’ verbal excesses; at some of her own sloppiness; and so on. At the same time, the writer is watching with some amazement as the material that came at her in such a discombobulation of scenes and snippets of scenes starts taking on a kind of shape. It’s still too early to tell if the final will hold together in anything resembling the notion behind it all. The notion persists through thick and thin – as vague and tantalizing as an appealing shape in a foggy landscape. That’s good enough to keep on going.

Have you ever been inside a theater while rehearsals were ongoing? At that point where  the technical crews are arguing for some time to get the set up to specs, while the wardrobe mistress insists on getting the fittings over and done with, and the actors are arguing about a change in the order of scenes to be rehearsed? Does any of it look or sound as if it will produce anything other than total chaos and a chorus of boos  on opening night? At that point in time, nothing says it won’t; just as nothing says it will play to standing ovations, or do an honorable run before folding without a trace. All that’s holding it together at that point is the vision in the director’s mind, the undying loyalty of his technical assistant and, possibly, their shared knowledge  no one will fund their next crazy venture if they don’t pull this one off.

All of which, for some, constitutes what is described in the title of this post.

Photo: one of the spots outside the town of Béziers where one of the characters first showed up in my head, back in 2005. If I were to assemble a photo montage for each of the characters in this draft, I would either give myself full credit for even attempting to bring it off; or go sit by the side of that river, asking myself what ever possessed me to try in the first place. (I prefer the first option. Onward, and so on.)

Spaces, again

In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story on September 27, 2010 at 6:52 am

Spaces are definitely the main topic on my mind, these days. The above photo illustrating for me some of the cultural differences in the delimitations of what is deemed a private and a public one.

Two things about the photo: first, the fact of barring both visual and physical access to a private space. The French do a lot of that: gates, hedges, shutters, heavy doors with no windows (or heavily grilled ones). The message being: keep the Vandals out (I’m using a cap on the word, since the protective mood has deep roots in history, yes? Definitely.)

The second aspect is even more interesting, especially for someone born and raised in North America, as I was: you may think the private space behind this decrepit door is not fit even for errant cats. You may be right; then again, you may be totally off the mark. While the flaunting of material wealth is gaining ground in some of the newer developments, many people still maintain the old practice of reserving the goodies for the inner circle. Two reasons for this, both related: 1) if you don’t flaunt it, your neighbors won’t be envious and 2) your neighbors will be spared the pressing temptation to contact the local Treasury about your material wealth seeming somewhat excessive. (In this too, History casts its long shadow.)

The surprise often comes once you have stepped into the private space. You may find a rundown place with traces of better times past. You may also wander in awe, from room to room, taking in the artwork, the furniture, the objects, and a walled-in inner courtyard that would have made Spain’s Moorish leaders swoon. There are a few such places I’ve visited in this town. Not the emphatic pseudo-palaces of former tannery owners; quieter, more discrete spaces, behind nondescript facades and unimpressive doors and shutters. The interesting thing being the change in attitude in the people who live there, between their own guarded street persona and their easy approachability, once the door is closed on the outside world.

Important for me to remember, since the story may be written in English but the characters in it are mostly French.

Imaginary Spaces

In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story, Sanford Meisner on September 26, 2010 at 7:53 am

So: WordPress was down; the draft of this post got wiped out or sent off to cyberspace limbo. No matter: the main point being the imaginary space behind the door in the photo. Not only is the space itself entirely imaginary, but there are objects in it the writer will never share with any reader whatsoever.  The principle being the same as for an actor  placing a fetish-object in the drawer of a chest, or on the shelf on the set in which he or she will play a scene. Call it preparation, as Sanford Meisner does, or call it any other thing that inspires my desire to write this specific scene or story, unshared secrets are a key element for me in fiction, just as they are in real life.

By unshared secret, I don’t necessarily mean something so traumatic as to be unspeakable, nor something so silly as to be downright embarrassing. I mean treasured moments – be they symbolized by a thing, a scent, a word, an expression – that give meaning to whatever is expressed.

In this particular story, some of those imaginary things live within the imaginary spaces behind the door pictured above. Knowing that is an important step in moving forward on revision, and in completing the story also.

Space (the sharing of)

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, Music, New story, Visual artists on September 25, 2010 at 6:54 am

The sky cleared over Briatexte last night, just before the vernissage. Had the downpour continued, we could have repaired with the drinks and nibbles under the arcades that form the perimeter of the town square, but the photo ops would have been more limited. As it was, the usual glomping of bodies happened in front of the favored drink (pastis) and the most popular nibble (goat cheese pizza from the local pizzaman.) I learned the town’s mayor is a chef by profession, and the artist on exhibition mentioned he wanted to buy some of my photos for his portfolio. We must speak about it again in two weeks’ time; I raised no objection to the principle, nor to its application.

For reasons unknown, the spirit of revision landed on me yesterday. After months of rejecting all thoughts of reading through my draft in my usual, orderly approach, I started reading (and correcting) from the top. The interesting part? Discovering how the characters have evolved, from their first glimmer to their actual state (the draft isn’t finished, the final push is yet to come). The challenging part: getting the storyline to emerge out of all the extraneous material – it’s a bit like getting a wild-haired bunch through a serious session of hair trimming and shaping, or building a film out of a mountain of rushes. The story is there; now, to get it to make sense to a reader.

As much as I can work on a draft in just about any condition – noisy, quiet, crowded, solitary – revision is another story. The sound of loud and insistent conversations, or constant interruptions about mundane issues drive me to the fine edge of exasperation – you know, that fine, fine edge where you practice inner mantras such as: “dogs snarl comma people smile”, or “and a one, and a two, and a three…”, followed by the appropriate response? Which is probably why I keep another draft handy for my less refined expressions of impatience and outright despicable displays of ill-humor. Sound cue: Joan Baez, singing “We Shall Overcome” – you hear the fine, fine edge in there? It’s on youtube, if you want to listen.

My favorite listening right now is to François Castiello, the accordeonist in Bratsch, interpreting Victor’s Doina. And to Bratsch itself – as ever, one of my favorite musical ensembles. No problem in sharing soundspace with them whereas sharing same with my neighbor – she of  the yapping dog? Visions of violence hover. Space is a mysterious thing.

The Escape Hatch

In Contes d'Exil, Dante Alighieri, Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story on September 24, 2010 at 6:11 am

Never mind what “they” say, no matter who your collection of  theys may be. If there’s an escape hatch, it’s there for a purpose. I used it twice yesterday, when the nonsense in my head became unbearable. At the local level,  someone amused himself or herself by playing anonymous phone caller. You’re in the middle of a scene, your mind on hold while it locates the word you need in the messy place you call your mind; the phone rings – annoyance number one – you answer, and someone does a snicker or something that sounds like one. Once is a bother; five times is a mindbender – at least, in this mind it is. After that, you return to the cyberworld a bit frazzled; conspiracy theories start to bloom in your head like mushrooms after a spot of rain, and there’s no room for all of them in the draft on which you are working. Time to escape.

This morning, I open Purgatory,  my favorite of the three books in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and look for the first quote that feels right for right now: “Lo naturale è sempre sanza errore” (what is natural is always without mistake), I read. Precisely.  Dante’s Purgatory is all about art. Wandering from place to place, taking in the paintings, and the sculptures, the colors and the shapes of words? Lo naturale è sempre sanza errore. So yesterday, I reverted to type. First, I escaped to my neighbor at the photo shop; he printed up a book cover for me (free of charge, a gift, don’t tell his boss). The book itself doesn’t exist yet, understand. The story is still winding its way toward me. But the book has this particular cover for me, made up of a photo I grabbed the other day, plus the title and the author’s name. For the time being, it serves as an escape hatch for those things that don’t fit the present draft; plus, it’s in French, and a totally different approach for me to writing in that language.

Part of escape hatch number two is pictured above. The magical clearing in the forest to which I repaired when the nonsense in my head reached a second peak in the same day – one peak being more than enough to send me into a spin. The place I photographed isn’t really in a forest; it’s the center square in the neighboring town of Briatexte, twelve kilometers from here. The banners in the plane trees are by Robert Barthez; I don’t know the name of the sculptor who did the ceramic fountain with the lion’s head on it.

All I know is: I wandered around, snapping away, while a group of old women sat off under the arches of the covered walkway, discussing riff-raff and how best to protect one’s self from their ways. One of the women informed the others she has removed her name from her mailbox, in order to preserve herself from the riff-raff; I’m still pondering that one because it makes no sense to me. Do anonymous riff-raffers only attack mailboxes with names on them? I must think on these things.

Meanwhile,  back to topic: were I ever to publish a new edition of Dante’s Comedy? I would use the photo above as a cover to Purgatory. Then, I would move into, and take residence in, Canto XXVIII, 77-78; where a young woman is laughing near a river and telling Virgil and Dante: “Voi siete nuovi, e forse perch’ io rido”, comincio ella, “in questo luogo eletto a l’umana natura per suo nido,…” (“I see you are new here, and the reason why I laugh,” she began, “in this place chosen by humanity to be its nest,…”). Of course, she’ll invite them to cross the river, and make their way into Paradise. Whether she be trustworthy or riff-raff  herself, personally, I’m happy enough to keep on wandering through my personal versions of  Dante’s Purgatory.

When it gets crazy in your head? Escape, child, escape into other people’s nonsense and beauty, as often as you possibly can. Amen.

Things you need for the long haul

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, New story on September 23, 2010 at 6:08 am

It’s that time of year again: la rentrée littéraire is upon us. La déferlante might be a better word for it, that word describing a massive wave – smaller than a tsunami, but with plenty of water power nonetheless. Books by the truckloads. The established names. The new and promising. The one-book wonders. The poets. The cooks. The novelists. The essayists. The experts, the advisors, the recycled politicians. All there. All having managed, one way or another,  to put the words together in such a way they appealed to somebody in the publishing world who was convinced there was some commercial interest to the venture.

I’m sticking to the notion of commerce here, not because I think editors and publishers are heartless accountants by definition. I’ve never heard of a business that prospered on love , enthusiasm and kindness alone, that’s all. Besides, my basic preoccupation this morning isn’t with editors or publishers; it’s with writers and how they manage to sustain their own enthusiasm through the whole goddamn process of getting a book written to their own satisfaction, let alone to anyone else’s. I look at the book covers lined up on the photo. It doesn’t even matter whether I like the author’s work or not. I look, and I ask myself: how did they do it? How did they manage to keep their own vision intact? How do they keep on doing it? It’s a mystery. At least as bizarre as that theological notion of the Holy Trinity invented by Catholic theologians.

All right. So: things you need for the long haul. Some space, and some time in which to have the dreams in the first place, to hear the voices in your own head, to write down whatever nonsense they come up with. That’s for starters. Some sense  or notion of what matters and what doesn’t – to you, personally, and to the characters you are trying to capture in words. Somewhere in your gut, some holy or unholy conviction that what you’ve got to say matters enough to keep on trying to nail it, day after day after day. After that? Some luck, maybe; some kindness from the Fates or whatever you want to call the influences on your personal circumstances. Some space, and some time in which to keep on tending to the dreams, and on listening to the voices.

There’s probably a whole lot more you need, but this being written for purposes of getting myself going for one more day of it, it’s good enough to go.

“Comment dire, …”

In Drafts, Hautvoir, Irish Mist, Local projects, New story, Once in a parking lot, Visual artists on September 22, 2010 at 6:08 am

(painting by Robert Barthez)

The French use exclamation marks and “points de suspension” liberally. Since the first language I studied grammatically is French, they tend to show up liberally in my English writing also. Interestingly, English usage seems to be creeping into my French writing, with shorter, more elliptical sentences intervening where longer, more descriptive ones were the ‘proper’ way to do things – at least, when I was taught the rules. Rules change, of course. For example, Number Two Son writes the way the French wrote before spelling rules were codified; the same word may appear, spelled three different ways in the same sentence. Or the masculine form of a qualifier will be applied to a feminine noun; a pronoun denoting the singular, matched up to a verb in a plural form. The sentiment comes through, but I’m glad to hear most of his professional presentations are done in the oral form.

I met a painter by the name of Robert Barthez yesterday, as he was setting up part of his exhibition in the Graulhet médiathèque. Among his works: a series done on the French indefinite pronoun “on” – meaning somebody, someone, or nobody in particular. (Usage is slipping on this one; “on” is now regularly used to mean “nous” – we, us.) Barthez matched up “on” to a collection of head shapes and verbs – “on” becoming a sort of Everyman expressing everything in verb form. If laid out end to end, the entire series becomes an installation five kilometers long.

“Comment dire, …” – the title of this post – is a verbal crutch meaning “how should I say…”. Used with maddening frequency by some, to the extent of becoming a verbal mannerism denoting a quasi-aristocratic disdain for the commonplace. Frequent users of “comment dire, …” will take five minutes to tell you   “the  – how should I say…- parcel from  – how should I say, … –  your cousin should  – how should I say, … – arrive within – how should I say, … –  a few days.”

There is such a character hovering on the horizon in the emerging French draft that is slowly gaining a foothold on the side of the English-language draft the writer is attempting to follow through its meanderings. The interesting thing for this writer being how the French writing voice she has used sparingly in the last few  years has evolved right along with the English one – as if the voice itself had reached maturity at a very specific moment, whether it be used in one language or another. Were I a stage director, I could even mark with an X the exact spot where that voice found its grounding, so to speak.

Today: meetings and work on a conference planned for the end of October at said Médiathèque; and riding along with whichever of the characters decide to take center stage on one or both of the drafts.

When there’s nothing left

In Drafts, Irish Mist, New story on September 21, 2010 at 5:08 am

It can be It – as in Life, Fate, Circumstances. It can be Them – you know, them out there. It can be Them acting on behalf of It. Whatever. That last little thing you were saving for a rainy day? Gone. Somebody zipped off with it to buy dope or cat food or milk for a starving child. That ultimate hope or shimmering promise that saw you through the grimmest times? What hope? What promise? Who are you and what are you doing on these premises?

When I took this shot yesterday, a man stopped and asked me what I was doing. I said I was taking a picture of the contrast between the brown leaves and the blue of the gate and of the sky. He looked at me with something I cannot name, except to say he then crossed the street, to point and laugh at me with another man. Theirs was not friendly, good-humored pointing and laughing.

It’s a stupid incident, and the shot itself isn’t even that interesting. What is interesting is the mind space involved – the place where you feel so vulnerable that even two perfect strangers pointing and laughing at you strike you as Official Delegates from the World of Real. You deal with it by saying: bunch of idiots. Or any variation thereof. But there you are with your stupid camera and your stupid ideas – not to mention your even dumber dreams – making two idiots feel better about themselves because you were photographing a tree with brown leaves set against a blue gate and a blue sky. Which only goes to prove it doesn’t take much either way to drive humans to extremes of ridicule, despondency, despair and/or any other state of being you care to mention.

Working your way out of despondency. Joseph, thrown into the well by his great bunch of brothers – good pals, every single one of them. Not to worry, he’ll get the last laugh, yes? Of course he will; that’s why it’s his story and not his brothers’. I just wish somebody had spent more time detailing the part about getting out of the well.