Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Caution : Crazy/Busy day ahead

In Circus, Local projects, notes, Revision on September 30, 2013 at 6:01 am

Seems to me  another coaching session got thrown into the mix for today, right after the 1-2 p.m. workshop. If so, the less I think about the day, the better my chances of seeing my way through it.

An interesting question raised at yesterday’s meeting of the collective responsible for the town’s Street Festival: growth. What kind? The organizers volunteer their time. The street artists get paid symbolic amounts; a few other contributors make a few euro. How do you keep the volunteers from burning out. And how do you avoid the other kind of loss of soul of the bigger-better-professional venture variety. No answers as such but a few of the initial volunteers said they’d like to see the Festival, for a change. Hm… dealing with suppliers, cooking up and serving some six hundred meals over two days? Greeting and guiding the street artists to their allotted spots, fixing the glitches, frayed wires and tempers? Lifting and carrying benches, tents, props, sound systems…

Woke up to thoughts about the astronomical concept called The Great Attractor. A sure sign I’d rather take it easy people-wise, work on revision and move ahead on notes for the next story. (The Great Attractor being the Great Something – or Great Nothing – toward which our local group of galaxies seems to drift at a speed defying my powers of imagination.)

I’m clicking on the categories Revision and Notes as a gesture of faith i.e. I’m assuming I’ll have energy left for one or the other at the end of this day. If all else fails, I’ll call Plonk & Replonk to the rescue.

Somewhere in the black hills of revision, there lived a…

In Circus, Current reading, Drafts, Music, Revision, Theater on September 29, 2013 at 7:53 am

Trying’s the only way to find out. Thus far, I’m  not convinced changing verb tenses is a hot idea, at least not from the characters’ perspective. Why? Because, in many instances, it forces the writer to use verb tenses these specific characters wouldn’t consider using. To my mind, this attracts more, not less, attention to the writing itself. Later on in the story, a few of the characters would even speak their inner dialogues in past perfect and future perfect. But the folks in part one, and the beginning of part 2? Framing their dialogue in variations of the past tenses feels contrived. The effect: as if watching the scenes from a distance, instead of having the action erupt and swirl around you, the way it does in street theater, for example.

The most useful part of the exercise, thus far: some improvements in sentence or story structure. I’ll continue working on a parallel version. Where they seem to work best, I’ll reintroduce some of the changes into the previous draft. Then, I’ll compare both versions, and push whichever works best even further off the cliff.*

Street theater: too many words in the exercise I saw yesterday. Some of the vignettes worked well, when the actors appeared in windows, acting out contemporary versions of commedia dell’ arte. The crowd in the street loved it. In fact, the window and balcony scenes were the best part of the show, to my mind. The best of all: a woman appearing at the third floor window, put off by the gathering at the foot of her building. One floor below her, the actress at the second-storey window had pulled a face quite similar before launching into what the French call a pantalonnade – the woman, her lover, unexpected arrival of the husband. A Punch and Judy show with humans impersonating the puppets.

The fourth wall. It exists in street theater as well – one of the toughest  forms of acting. Small children  race through this fourth wall. The audience gets drawn into the acting; believes the angry driver threatens a crowd of children. Except the kids break into song and dance on the car. Relief. Applause. Further down the street, a catapult shoots red clown noses out of large garbage bins, after a song-and-dance Ode to Recycling.

And so on. Timing, you say? Reducing drag to a minimum?

* Excerpt of a video shown at the presentation that followed the performance: musicians recording sounds and music to a Tom and Jerry cartoon.   Tom plays such a mean bass, it sets the floorboard to thumping. Jerry races over with a lit candle in a dish. The candle bops along to the foot of the bass. The bass catches fire, burns up, leaving Jerry in mid-air plucking one last string that goes boiiiiiing.

What Saturdays are for

In Animals, Circus, Current reading, Revision, Theater on September 28, 2013 at 7:45 am

On the drive back – and after discussions and comments from several other people – we turned the matter over, sideways, backwards one more time. Why does the intro to Célestin not work? (Sidebar: I didn’t know the character in my friend’s solo number was called Célestin – the name I chose for the clown persona of one of my characters. Welcome to Serendip. Capital city: Serendipity.)

Why his intro doesn’t work. First two answers: wrong choice of music. Plus, the audience gets no sense of the drama about to erupt. The unthinkable. Mimes do not talk. If they do, something huge must force them to break the Number One rule of their art.

After years as a member of a travelling theater: alone and with minimal set-up. No circus tent to assemble, no intricate stage set, no child-sized puppets to bring to life through the maze of a three-storey building. No energy provided by other actors in close proximity going through the intricacies of rapid voice changes and split-second changes of ground levels behind the scene.

From his stupendous vocal and dramatic range in Dans l’Oeil du judas to this thirty-minute solo performance where voice is a telling dramatic feature because it doesn’t belong.  After he dropped me off and after he asked me to read him some of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita in English (and after I told him no reader in love with Jim Harrison’s work can afford not to read Returning to Earth, in whatever language), the question  lingered. Why doesn’t the intro work?

My basic questions, this morning, concerning my own work: verb tense, plus good old Chapter One in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.  Striking the right balance between showing and telling. Narrative summary vs immediacy.*

In film or theater, music as illustration or as argumentative counterpoint. In last night’s public work-in-progress, the first selection did neither.

In revision : Once you know where the story takes the characters i.e. somewhere around the ninth, tenth or twentieth revision, which order in the scenes works best for the meander through the maze. How do you get the right mix of frustration and pay-off?

“What, exactly, makes a scene a scene? For one thing, it takes place in real time. Your readers watch events as they  unfold.” (p. 7). Nu?

Slow monkey reflex: good old scratch of the occiput. With luck and stealth, minimal interactions with others until late this afternoon. I need a Plonk & Replonk type posting on my door maybe, such as :

Do Not Disturb – Monkey brain at work.

Depends who’s reading and why, depends who the writer is addressing

In Local projects, Music, notes, Querying, Revision on September 27, 2013 at 7:44 am

An interesting question to which I can’t zip off a breezy answer. Why do I start with such a scene? Of what possible interest to a reader? Why the present tense?

The answers that come to mind don’t cut it from the viewpoint of eventual publication. A basic message I’ve received ever since my first foray out in fiction, in French. The answers make me look like a pompous ass or an naïve idiot – make that a concatenation of both, I don’t mind. The first book was written for two female ghosts – one based on personal memories of someone who passed through my life over sixty-four years ago. The other, someone I never met but whose photo was done in Siberia, in the early nineteen hundreds.

I work with people who will never read a single word I write. Either because they can’t read, period. Or because they don’t know two words of English beyond OK and Super. I write because of the things they do and say. Things that infuriate me or astound me. Things that leave me speechless when they happen, with no other recourse than attempts at conveying their effects on me later, in front of a computer screen or the blank side of a sheet of paper.

After the struggle with a nine-year old who may turn into a full-grown bully – but, then again, who may take another direction – an upstream swim through small children rushing in from recess. The tiniest of the lot grabs my leg. Beams up at me. “You made N laugh! You played games and he laughed!” This had to be over two years ago, when the little shrimp was three years old, sitting on his mother’s lap, and laughing at all my  jokes. The little shrimp is the nine-year old boy’s kid brother. N is the eldest brother, the good boy in the family.

I write about people like the nine-year old. People like the little shrimp, and others of the same ilk. I know they’d be thrilled to know they exist in stories. Maybe they do know, in ways I’ll never figure out.

Me, Myself and iPhone

In Circus, En français dans le texte, Local projects, Music, notes, Poetry, Querying, The Art of Peace on September 26, 2013 at 6:53 am

Not an experience for the faint-hearted. Before your morning coffee? I give myself two bonus points. One for civility, the other for fortitude.

My query must have riled this agent. I can’t imagine any other reason why someone would take time out of a busy schedule to deliver a flurry of sucker punches. Bad case of nerves, maybe. The late hour. The unspeakable gall of characters expressing themselves in the present tense, not to mention pov violations, and my lack of appropriate writing credentials from appropriate writing programs. Plus, dear characters mine, what the agent considered your creator’s use of someone else’s name in vain.  No, not God’s in any of his incarnations. A human whose name I used with appropriateness, at least, to my mind.

My characters and I had a bit of a laugh over that one while we sat on the bench, at mid-point of the footbridge. I won’t lie by saying I did a lot of laughing over the morning email encounter.  My characters, living the shabby and shadowy lives of registered, State-labelled losers, did their best to cheer me all the way home, one leaden footstep after the other. “You think we’d like to sit with a bunch of strangers who’d throw epithets at us? You think we got the kind of clothes that cut it at book readings and conferences whether video or live? You think we got the figures and the haircuts and the nail polish to get by the bouncers? Not to mention the fearsome throng of would-be published writers, polishing the teachers’ apples?” In other words: publishable, at what cost – not meaning coins of the realm.

Of course, I had to laugh. Maybe  you  have to live here to get the joke. Plus, the sucker punches were delivered off an iPhone. Why does this add an extra fillip of irony to the exchange? Because I tried to sign up for your basic quasi hobo-level cellphone service the other day. Privilege denied. Mine isn’t a credit card, it’s a debit one. For some reason, the only bank in France willing to shelter my account considers me a poor risk for a monthly debit of four euro and fifty centimes.

I hear a chorus of low, slow-voiced olé and scattered  hand claps in the background. Reminding me I have to find some other time and place for reading lessons to my Gypsy friend.

“Impose ta chance, serre ton bonheur et va vers ton risque. A te regarder, ils s’habitueront.” (René Char). Ou pas, c’est selon.

The door opens, twenty faces look up

In Animals, Food, Local projects, notes, The Art of Peace on September 25, 2013 at 6:58 am

Thus far, the teachers I’ve encountered at the local collège run a gamut – the first term I leave undefined for the time being until I’ve found or eliminated the extenuating circumstances. The last term in the list: delightful.

But as a corps? Sitting at the long table in their common room, head bent over their home-packed lunches? Looking up like a flurry of furry animals caught off-guard by an intruder? I had an urge to sit down with a concerned look and ask if I’d missed the funeral. I didn’t, of course; I excused my foreign presence in their midst, and collected the key to room five fourteen.

Later, at a point where things were cooking in room five fourteen, the door bursts open. “Who let you in?” the man needs to know. “I did.” – “How did you get  in?” – “I collected the key in the teachers’ room.” Something tells me I’d have been one of his students, I was good for a full day expulsion for talking back. But I’m a sort-of/almost teacher on a formal mission. Drats. Foiled – this time. When I returned the key, one teacher sat, correcting stacks of papers while another provided moral support to a colleague over the insufferable behavior of one of the inmates – sorry, residents, no, I mean eager young minds on a quest for knowledge. This, in September. Can’t wait to see how jolly things will be in the cold drenching rains of November.

At suppertime, over a bowl of fusilli with a quick mix of putanesca sauce, one of the characters informed me I mustn’t let her die before she’d had some say in what’s going on. If the writer killed her off before she’d become anybody‘s darling, she  would haunt the corridors and play poltergeist. Ah. Shades of the blinking lights and smashing tureens in you? Not even close, came the answer with something of the curled lip to it. The girl has attitude. For the why? I don’t know.

I return to that first impression when I opened the inner door to the teachers’ room. We’re all here. Somebody else showing up: has to be bad news. The principal’s calling a meeting; a student’s in seizure, there’s panic in the halls, there’s…

“Dolce color d’orïental zaffiro…”*

In Dante Alighieri, Local projects, Music, notes, Poetry, Visual artists on September 24, 2013 at 8:27 am

Rows of computers – the main reason why the teacher assigned you the room. Except you’re denied access to the main screen. Plus a technician rushes in to tell you the system is down for adjustments DO NOT TOUCH A THING!

Meanwhile, the angry voice on the P.A. system shoots out names. You recognize them; they’re on your list. The angry voice is telling them to report immediately to Room five eleven. IMMEDIATELY.

A few extra adults have invited themselves for the initial meeting. They hover while you try to adjust to the fact you won’t make a clever presentation on the computer screens.

The conscripted ones appear. Minus one boy who’s been expelled, and another who raised such a stink about the event, the prof excluded him from the project. Welcome, boys and girls to this new and exciting adventure in learning. Thirteen and fourteen year-old boys. Forced to attend an event during recess. With a bunch of hovering adults interrupting the presentation to tell them this whole thing is healthier and more fun than Bran Flakes, so will you shut up and listen to what the lady’s saying?

Added feature: the lady (hello, that’s me over here) happens to know some of the particulars in the boys’ family and school histories. The whole thing: ludicrous. Once the boys have impressed one another with their powers of disruption, they rush out en masse as soon as I tell them they may have been forced to attend, but nobody’s forcing them to stay.

Four girls survive the presentation, and decide to give the school paper experience a try. Next meeting: today at one. In another room. With access codes to the computers. We may not overcome but we are no longer afraid. For the time being.

After finding a line from the German expressionist film Nosferatu singled out on my community blog yesterday, I recalled several other references to bridge crossings and ghostly ones approaching the narrator. I also remembered some of the  lines in Canto XXVIII of Dante’s Purgatorio where he invents a second river from which to drink. The first being the traditional Lethe the waters of which erased all memories of life’s concerns. Dante’s invention, the Eunoe does one better: it resurrects memories of the good parts of living.

No eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Music. Poetry. Emotions. Words. Colors. Shame, embarrassment, risk, losing, winning, etc

Of the three parts to Dante’s Commedia, Purgatory is my favorite because it has so little to do with the theological version I was taught in school.

At the end of her introduction, his French translator, Jacqueline Risset writes: “Le sens de l’aspect “paradisiaque du Purgatoire peut donc se lire ainsi : le paradis est double, et l’un des deux est sur terre – message hardi du Florentin en exil, porteur d’ailes, Dante Alighieri.”  (The meaning of the paradise-like aspect to the Purgatory can be read thus : paradise is double, and one of the two is on earth – a daring message from the wing-bearing Florentine in exile, Dante Alighieri.)

And now, back to earth-earth, for better, worst and all the stuff in between.

* We’ve left Inferno at last. On to the best book in the three: Purgatorio.

I wish I knew why

In Music, notes on September 23, 2013 at 5:16 am

Nothing to ease the body or soothe the mind, this morning. The cold, blunt knowledge I’ll be dealing with a fractious group of teen agers at around one p.m. I don’t have a natural gift with teens; even less so with groups of teens.

The story: not collaborating. The feeling of swimming against an undertow. Missing the point. In fact, missing the story altogether. The best option available, for the time being? Befuddlement. The word itself I like. Small mercies accepted on par with larger ones right now.

Something I don’t understand. Whether huge or small makes no difference. The metaphorical car does not start. The good old spirit – I’m not talking about the bottled kind. Enthusiasm. All right, forget enthusiasm. Curiosity. Discovery. Will?

Laughing at myself, out of sheer habit. An impossible proposition except in the most exceptional cases. The blunt thank you at the end of Nina Simone’s song. The realization she’s just bared her soul to strangers and all that’s left for her to do is to leave the stage or segue into another song.

Sharing what there is to share. Word count says I’m at less than two hundred words. If at first you don’t succeed, how do you learn to try better or in ways with some chance for a tiny miracle, maybe?  Small. No water into wine. Ease, maybe. A level of confidence in your own skills. A level of certainty the undertow won’t win. You’ll find the extra surge of energy somewhere. The story will pull you if you can’t pull it.

I wish I had something better to say but I don’t. Undertows use up a lot of energy. How to say I love you. Which ones of the characters can manage to say it right, at least once.


In Animals, Music, New story, notes, Poetry on September 22, 2013 at 8:16 am

Sometimes, a day leaves you with impressions so disjointed, you don’t know which end to grab. You talk and talk – or do the equivalent in writing – searching for the place where the experiences  amount to an emotion; an understanding about an event or a relationship. At other times, the day is so rich with theme, a similar problem shows up. How can you manage so many riches?

On my way to the afternoon workshop: the certainties of the chromatic scale. The certainties of four-beat time. Both drifting out of a small recording studio near the river. The workshop itself, a learning experience. How much guidance interferes with the process? How much supports it? Why are these people here, writing? What are they trying to say? Stranger yet: why do they choose to write in a workshop? Do they write on their own? A bit, not at all?

Then: the complexities of Indian musical scales. Two musicians teaching two small children. Followed by a mesmerizing performance on the tabla at a given hour – no sooner, no later, these vibrations are suitable for evening, the musician explains later. Once the instruments are packed, once the other musician has explained how the reed in the shehnai comes from a specific marsh grass that grows in only one part of India: food, wine, good talk, long conversations under the stars.

A performer, excellent mime and actor; long the second in a professional company. Stepping into his own compositions. Uncertainty. A woman with little else to her name than a horse. A writer on the cusp of another story. The tabla, made to crackle like hard rain or moan like a bellowing sea.

No longer someone’s apprentice. Setting out. Gone from the old setting, not yet in the new one.

In the dream, a film maker friend and  his wife, jogging in a long slanting rain, similar to the lines in Apollinaire’s poem Il Pleut.  Their pace, quick and practiced.  Soon, they would overtake me and be gone.

Writing. Making music. Moving the words and emotions through the fingers.



A trail in the grass

In Games, Local projects, Music, notes, proto drafts on September 21, 2013 at 6:47 am

Like kids. The parent has one foot in the house. “He hit me! I didn’t even do -” – “She started it! all I said -” – “Teacher says I don’t bring the money tomorrow morning, I can’t go to the -”

Parent sets the second foot in the house. Bone weary. The finds in the mailbox don’t augur well. The boss chewed hide all day – random bites out of whomever he approached. The raise: denied. If the parent can make it to the hall table; dump the mail; hang up the raincoat and the handbag; the parent can give some thought to cooking dinner.  Before or after delivering an all-point broadcast to the three – wait, a minute, who’s that fourth kid over there?

The two paragraphs above: an apt description of the bits and pieces I’ve accumulated thus far in my attempt to get the latest piece of fiction going. Or pieces, as in short stories. Although my short stories always run into other short stories, causing snarl-ups and traffic jams I then relabel as novels.

What causes the stuporous feeling of staring at a screen instead of moving the fingers on the keys. Bone weariness doesn’t explain everything. In fact, the weariness lifts like a fog dispelled once the fingers take over. Clear out this bit. Set this other one aside. Cut a path through the kudzu, damnit. Get a sense of who these characters are in relation to others wandering across the screen. Who lives where. With whom. Does what in the evenings. And so on.

Even three words on a piece of scrap paper. Even three words you’ll ignore so you can find fifty others better suited to the new adventure. Three words to clear away the fog. Or four. Or fifty. No matter. Poke them into the ground with a stick. Trace them in invisible ink with your finger on an office wall. Swirl them, stir them, bend them. Whatever.

Which one of the Spanish poets said it? The line about you build the road by taking the steps out into the wilderness.


A first for me. I’ve taught translation classes in a Cont Ed university program. I coach children and adults in basic language skills. I’ve joined writing workshops. I’ve never lead one before.

Reminder to myself: give the folks time to get their bearings. Don’t swamp them with stuff, ideas, suggestions. Breathing space. Confidence space. Laughing space.

Plus the promise this evening of an impromptu session of… tabla? cithar? A surprise gift, in any event.