Sunday, November 05, 2006

SUN for the first time in days, beautiful sun!! I went up in the hills and smelled the fresh bay leaves, and the rich smell of freshly-rained-on grass. Mmmm...

The poems have been coming. My friend Don Helverson says this is my best work. I hope I can keep it up. Taught yesterday--New College--Personal Essay workshop. It was fun. I worked with Cheryl Strayed's essay "The Love of My Life" which appeared in The Sun and was also selected as one of the Best American Essays for either 2002 or 2003. I have come to my own appreciation of what a personal essay is, or can be, organically and intuitively, the way I come to almost all my information, so it's a challenge for me to break it down and figure out how to teach it.

I remember twenty-five years ago, when I was in college, working on a complex essay for French class, I visualized it as three poles with snakes sliding around them. The three poles were the "points" of the essay--the stuff I had to hit. The snakes were the live things. I have since forgotten the content of the essay--was it on Baudelaire and Valery? I don't know. But the moment when the form came alive for me remains an exciting one.

But how do you teach that? How do you say, "Well, it's like there are three snakes writhing around and that's the life force in your essay, but you need the poles to anchor and structure it."

I do intuitively know that there's something important about three. Three layers to a quilt, three strands in a braid. In fact, though I did mention the snakes, I focussed on the braid, because that's how I see good writing, as a weave of different elements. A straight story is too thin. There needs to be theme and variation. Digression and a return home.

And then my students told me yesterday that another teacher of theirs, Brian Teare, had taught them the Aristotilian model for essays; something like Pathos, Ethos, and Logos, which corresponded roughly to what I was talking about: you have your narrative element, your experience; and you have your theory element, your opinions about what happened. And then you have something else. the third element may vary. Could be another text, which you drop pieces into as commentary on your text. Could be a sub-plot or a counter-story. But there's something magic about the rule of three.

It made me feel good and humbled to learn the academics of it from my students even while I was teaching them my experience of it. I learned how to write essays by writing them. And I learned by being edited--heavily edited--by editors at The Sun. Other places too; I've been writing feature articles for newspapers for twenty-five years. So it becomes like making bread without a recipe; you just feel it.

I saw Grace Paley read, years ago, and someone in the audience asked her about her stories with their charming digressions and seemingly effortless shifts. "Oh, you know," she said vaguely, gesturing with her hands. "You just feel it, and you feel, it needs a little more weight here, a little less weight there."

There's no recipe. Each essay is its own unique "problem" that you the writer set up, and which you the writer have to resolve. (I say that facing two essay ideas that are poking around inside me, nosing their bellies...) Sometimes I've worked a year or longer on an essay with an ambitious, complicated structure. They are as much of an art form as any other.


G and I went to see Not a Genuine Black Man at The Marsh Friday night. Finally. It's a one-man show by Brian Copeland and it's been playing for years and I tried to get him to go see it last year--when it was only ten dollars a ticket, incidentally--and he wouldn't.

But luckily for me, G has a "harem"--our joking term for his cadre of older, mostly Jewish, intellectual and artistic women friends who will kick his conservative butt when on a regular basis. The Harem was unsuccessful at getting him to see An Inconvenient Truth ("Why should I pay ten bucks to have Al Gore depress me?"), unsuccessful at getting him to go to Brokeback Mountain, ("I'll rent the video,") but is now working on him to read The Color of Water (great book! Read it!)

And the Harem toldhim he should go see this show. So he did. Now that Brian Copeland has gone to NY with it and has a movie deal and everything, it costs $25.00 a ticket. And it was worth every penny.

For almost two hours he has you teetering between laughter and tears, recounting memories so bitter you want to choke, and the next minute turning jokes on himself, on black people, on white people, on the whole crazy system. He's witty and sweet and sharp and delivers an amazing show night after night--for four hundred shows so far, I think. I don't know how performers like Carla and Brian Copeland do it, all alone on the stage, giving and giving their enormous energy. True performers are a different breed. I'm not one of them. I like performing, I'm comfortable on stage, but I don't have the drive to do it encoded in my blood cells like they do.

Last night I performed with Wing It!--a very sweet little down-home ensemble evening of us just having fun with each other--and tonight I'm giving a poetry reading in the city. Then G and I will watch the Sopranos on DVD and eat popcorn--it doesn't get much better than that.


Vicky said...

I have not heard of Brian Copeland, but what you write reminds me of my friend (well, acquaintance, and I haven't seen him in years) Kyle Hefner (no, no relation), who wrote and performed a one-man play called Whiteface. Let me back up. My ex-husband worked with Sue, and Sue and Kyle got married, and we were invited to the wedding. It was kind of interesting to see all the African-Americans on Kyle's side of the church, since he was white. Except, as it turned out, he wasn't. Kyle LOOKED white, but was actually black. His show was about the pain he experienced growing up as a conundrum. It was excellent - sad and funny, and ever so poignant. One story he told has always remained with me. In middle school, he dated a white girl, and enjoyed hanging out at her house with her family. Then her mother discovered that he was black. She never let her daughter see Kyle again. Heartbreaking.

Kyle is (or was when I knew him) a working actor. A good one. If you ever saw the Jerry Seinfeld episode about the fake Jerry, Kramer, and George - he was the fake George.

Thanks for bringing back some memories, my dear.


Alison said...

Wow, what a story, Vicky! Did youe ver see the movie or read the book The Human Stain? It was about that same subject. Brian Copeland looks black. I mean if you met him you wouldn't have a moment's doubt. But he was accused of "not being a genuine black man" by a caller to his radio show because he didn't "sound" black--he uses correct English, etc. The play covers that issue plus a bunch more. It was interesting how initially resistant to it G was. He hates to see anything where black people are portrayed (or portray themselves) as victims in any way. He didn't like the production of Fences by August Wilson that we saw for the same reason, "Black people standing around talking about how hard it is to be Black. Don't we have any other stories?" Which I can understand. But I think Copeland's show manages to walk that line between pathos and humor. His quick wit and artistry turn even searing situations into comedy. He's coming down your way soon to start filming the movie version of the play--with Morgan Freeman, I heard.

Much love,

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