Thursday, November 20, 2008

Last night we went to dinner at the home of C’s favorite colleague and his wife. We walked into their apartment and a lovely familiar voice filled the room, singing I Could Drink A Case of You. I couldn’t figure out how they had gotten a copy of Carla’s Extraordinary Renditions, the CD which has this song on it. But it was the radio, KCSM Jazz station. This couple has a great sound system and her voice was crystalline and gorgeous, surrounding and lifting us like wings.

I don’t write about writing in here very often because writing involves a lot of sitting still and sipping tea or coffee and putting down some words and then changing them, and then restoring them back to the original. I forget who it was who said watching a writer work is like watching paint dry, but that’s how it is.

I always love movies about writers. Remember Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia, throwing the typewriter out the window? It’s a completely unbelievable scenario, but fun to watch, and the actress looks much cuter than the real Lillian Hellman ever did. You can see the screenwriters struggling animate what is, at heart, an internal process. But I have been writing during this period of almost no teaching work, and this is the update.

I’ve had two more essays accepted; one by The Sun, called Baggage: A Love Story, about the process of two middle-aged people making room for each other (Dede the cat has a starring role.) And another essay, On the Court, to MORE Magazine, about playing tennis as a metaphor for relationship. I am really proud of the On the Court essay, I think it’s one of the best-written things I’ve done. I used David Sedaris’ essay Journey Into Night from the New Yorker as a model for describing an ordinary environment, and paid more attention than usual to place descriptions.

The Sun also accepted another poem, “Greedy,” and Hanging Loose has taken my long poem “Sustain,” so that’s all good. The poetry manuscript is out at a couple of places and I know it’s a finalist in at least one contest, but it’s been a finalist several times before without hitting the jackpot, so we’ll see..

I signed a contract with an agent to market a book of my essays! Twenty years worth of essays, mostly published in The Sun, but a few in other places. She said (and I agree) that I’ll need to write some connective material, to link them. And there’s the task of re-editing the works. I have two new essays, one about Carla, and one about the women’s self-defense classes I’ve been taking that need a few more drafts. The women’s self-defense essay is just about done, the Carla piece needs a lot more work.

And I’m in the middle of a new play, a play I’ve been trying to write for a couple of years. I started it in spring of ’07, when C and I had first started dating—originally we thought we’d try writing a musical together. That idea hasn’t been shelved and the scenes I wrote have languished in my computer for the past eighteen months.

I’m rewriting it now, not as a musical, but as a straight play, and the characters are coming to life. It’s an exciting and unnerving process—unnerving, because I really don’t know what happens next. I don’t know the secret of one character’s parentage, I’m not sure if a marriage I’m writing about will endure or not, I’m not even sure if a certain character might not be the Devil in disguise. People are saying unexpected things, and I’m holding back the development of two key characters until a little later in the play when they can have their revelations.

As I write I’m so grateful to John Patrick Shanley for being my teacher these past few months—I’ve read and absorbed every word of his plays. He’s given me a lot of permission to let everyone speak from the gut, to let things be more emotionally real. Plus I think I’ve absorbed a lot of structure, not through analyzing it but through experiencing it, which is how I learn best.

What I’ve been reading: 13 by Shanley (plays); Dirty Sexy Play and other plays by Shanley; Moonstruck and other screenplays by Shanley, Psychopathia Sexualis by Shanley, Doubt by Shanley, Defiance by Shanley, etc. I’ve also read August: Osage County by Tracey Letts, which is a great play that won the Pulitzer. I’ve got a volume of Sarah Ruehl’s plays next to my bed which I’ll start on next. I’ve also got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which I haven’t cracked open yet.

C and I arm-wrestle each week to see who gets to read The New Yorker first. This week there’s a great short story by Edwige Danticat about Haiti. I’m still struggling to read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—I know it’s a significant and beautiful poetry collection, but it’s hard for me to crack. I’ve just bought Matthew Dickson’s Great American Poem.

We finally watched The Kite Runner, which was wonderful, and I asked C to order Scarface from Netflix because JP Shanley (aka God) said the screenplay influenced him as he was writing Moonstruck. Specifically he said (in the introduction to Moonstruck) that he felt Oliver Stone really loved all the characters he wrote for Scarface.

I thought Al Pacino’s performance was amazing—I lived in Miami for a year following the Mariel boatlift, and he looked, dressed, and sounded like a real Cuban refugee. He must have done meticulous research. But I couldn’t see the great love for the characters that Shanley was talking about. They are all a bunch of more or less miserable people, dope fiends, dealers, gangsters—and they all end up dead. The last act is a siege of Al Pacino’s drug kingpin palace—there’s a memorable scene of him nose-down in a mountain of cocaine, and then the last scene where he is shot and topples off the balcony into his ornate swimming pool, the water darkening to blood-red around him.


Anonymous said...

I just "googled" you after reading your memoir "The Widow's Summit" in the October issue of More Magazine. It was good to read, how the three of George's wives can get along. More people should be so decent with each other.

Alison said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Yes, decency is a blessing.


Jennie Brown Hakim said...

Dear Alison,

I read your essay in the Sun, "Baggage: A Love Story", and it was a magic moment of "I know how *that* feels."

Like you, I have a musical C in my life, a middle-aged love story that still surprises and delights me. We both have baggage and flaws; we are not the marble-smooth tablets of youth. But "Love demands this: a balletic, impossible leap over the river of your worst fears." I am glad I took that leap -- the best parts of life are not always the "safe" ones.

Happy new year to you, your C, your friends and your writing!