Sunday, March 04, 2012

As a writer and a person I think a lot about structure and mess. As a person I think about it because…well every morning I wake up and there it is. Our room, which, however many times I pick up my clothes and re-shelve my books, and wipe dust off the surfaces, regains its untidy aspect almost immediately. I clean and then I turn my back and there it is all over again, the discarded clothes, old letters, a handful of change, BART tickets, the phone recharging, photographs, earrings, scraps of paper with a few cryptic scribblings, the last months’ worth of New Yorkers which I haven’t read yet...

This is life where the law of entropy wins despite our best efforts (and okay I don’t always try all that hard to fight it.)

And then there’s art, where we (artists) are trying to structure things, impose a pleasing order, construct a “plot” on top of this chaos.

I thought about this again when I read the complete script of Sons of the Prophet, a brilliant play by Stephen Karam which was reprinted in American Theatre magazine. I love this play! And if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you what it is “about.” It’s about a lot of things: fate, family, grief, being gay, guilt and consequences, the universality of suffering, sports, media and commerce, small towns, Lebanese-American identity…

There are no neat wrap-ups in Sons of the Prophet, no good guys or bad guys, and at the end of the play nothing is resolved. The hero with the mystery ailment is still struggling with his failing body—his illness has neither been properly diagnosed or cured. The kid whose prank resulted (possibly) in a death is neither punished nor exonerated. Everyone just kind of limps on.

Karam’s dialogue reflects the entropic theme of the play. Characters interrupt each other constantly, characters speak in fragments and ellipses, and one character usually begins to talk before the last one has finished speaking. Sentences are left unfinished, awkward moments are left awkward and no one knows how to navigate the big things in life, like intimacy, or taking care of the frail and helpless.

Why do I find this kind of work so satisfying? I think because it mirrors my own life. None of my personal plot-lines have resolved either. Yes, things have happened, big things—marriages, births, deaths,--and little things, publications, illnesses, job changes—but the fundamentally mysterious nature of existence remains a mystery to me. And mostly what goes on day-to-day is just this intriguing tangle of voices and memories and wisps of conversation and impressions and anecdotes.

I haven’t had the courage to make a play out of these things, which are more like poetry than a “well-made play.” Because I am naturally a rather floppy kind of person, I have really wanted to master structure, wanted to learn it and play by its rules. Structure is essential. But there are several kinds; one is the overt scaffolding of plot, which we can all recognize: inciting incident, conflict, hero’s journey, resolution.

The other is a more-deeply-buried organic organizing principle which pulls images to it the way redwoods attract the fog which nourishes them, by some mysterious natural process. This more internally-driven structure obeys the laws of the subconscious rather than the conscious mind and leads to conclusions which are imagistic and open-ended. Like life.

Monday, August 01, 2011

What I am is a story-hearer. More than that, a story-elicitor. And sometimes, a story-composter, in that i take other people's stories, turn them over, and discover the little new potatoes growing voluntarily out of the mulch they threw away back there when they didn't know the value of it.

I zero in on people's stories. Hone in like a laser beam. Too intense. Too nosy. I want all the details. I was the kid who asked the inappropriate questions. Not just the sexual ones--the overly-personal, probing, sensitive questions. Of course in the time and place I was raised, a lot of things were considered inappropriate which have since become no big deal. But I'm interested in what is a big deal to people. the stumbling blocks, the obstacles, the overcoming, the worst moments, the best moments, the moments when clarity emerged.

This is what I do in my classes and consultations with people who want to write their stories. This is the thing that is effortless for me to do; ask those questions, look under those rocks.

It always amazes me, how much willingness I am met with by the students. I guess they are a self-selecting group. mostly they come to the classes because they want to tell their stories. They are courageous and willing to dig deeper.

I know plenty of people who either have written a book-length memoir, or are in the process of writing one. I look at my own life, and I don't see a book-length narrative there. What would the central theme be? I went in search of meaning, adventure, encounters with reality? There have been numerous small adventures, and I have written about them in small essays. My dad wants me to do a book of non-fiction. But I can't think of what the story would be. Perhaps my story is simply one of listening to other people's stories and perhaps that is enough.

As I write this, C is cleaning out his car. We are going to leave early for Ashland tomorrow, to see my dad and stepmother and to see plays. I have finished the Recruiter--now called Human Error--and sent it to a few places. I finally finally finally finished. it/ I had announced the final draft so many times no one believed me any more. My friends had received too many emails, with : this is the final version, followed quickly by another email stating, "No--this. No--this."

I lost face. I lost credibility. I injured myself, my shoulder, with too many hours at the computer. I lost track of how many drafts I put the thing through. I stripped it down to the studs, not once, but three or four times, eliminating major characters, adding other ones, completely changing the plot, the chronology--everything about the story changed except for a few essentials, which I held onto.

They were stories I had been told, which I felt responsible for, like stray animals that had shown up on my doorstep. One was the story my friend Bob, an organizer who worked at a center advocating for soldiers who wanted to get out of the military told me, about a young man who had been told that the only way he could come home would be if he agreed to act as a recruiter at his old high school. I've been holding that story for about 12 years.

The other story I heard more recently, at a writing retreat. A fellow artist who knew the subject matter of what I was working on told me a story about a soldier he knew who was about to re-deploy to iraq. He woke up one morning to see his wife standing over him holding a gun. "I was trying to figure out where on your body I could shoot you to maim but not kill," she told him. She was so desperate to keep him Stateside,. to keep him safe, she was willing to shoot him.

Those two stories form the basis of the play. Onto their skeletons I hung all that I have learned about marriage these last few years. I am so relieved to be done that it almost doesn't matter what happens to the play now. Of course I would love for it to be successful and for me to make some actual money. Actual money is a refreshing concept. But whatever it is, I did the best job I could and now I'm free to move on to the next thing. And that feels incredible.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day, and we had our second harvest of lettuce from the garden. The leaves are so fine and light green like silk. I said to C, "How'd you like to have a dress made out opf this?" he said "Lady Gaga probably already does."

Thich Nhat Hanh says we should celebrate interdependence, not independence. i was raised in a family that valued independence, and given praise for doing things by myself, being a big girl, all that. oldest of four children, it was probably easier for my parents for me to become independent as young as possible. I think I learned a kind of fake independence in order to gain approval. Pretend you are independent. When i was single and dating this was a big deal. Independent women are more attractive. No one wants to be saddled with a clinging codependent vine.

The truth is I have never felt truly independent, although I do much of my work alone. Before Christopher I depended heavily on my friends and family; now I depend on him. Not to do things for me that I can do myself, but to be there. I like to feel people's there-ness. I've heard it said that you should (one should) depend on Spirit to fill those desires and needs for contact in those most intimate places where even a good lover cannot always reach. I've been reading Be love Now by Ram Dass and Meditation for the Love of it by Sally Kempton. Both great books.

Ram Dass depended absolutely on his guru in all things. His guru Neem Karoli Baba led him through the thickets of maya (illusion) to realization of pure love. It was a childlike relationship of absolute dependence. other cultures have very different values on independence than Americans do.

Kempton makes meditation accessible from the inside out. She teaches practical ways to focus the breath in the heart and to follow it through ever more subtle pathways. I am reading her very slowly and trying to practice, though I prefer walking meditation and swimming meditation to sitting meditation. I sit too much anyway, in front of the computer...

So far this has been a movie summer: we watched Hunger which came out in 2008, a stark, poetic look at Ireland's troubles and the martyrdom of Bobby Sands. Then Michael Collins, an over-produced bio-pic which taught us more about Ireland's history, It's funny, I grew up in the Boston area at a time when the Troubles were very prominent in the headlines, yet there is so much I didn't know--and still don't--about the English occupation of Ireland.

Then the past two nights I've been to the movies and seen bridesmaids--which was hilarious and fresh, except for one Apatow-inspired gross-out gag involving food-poisoning in a bridalwear shop--and last night we saw Midnight in Paris which was irresistible. I finally forgave Woody Allen for marrying his stepdaughter, it was that good. We both floated out of that movie on a fantasy-cloud of Paris in the 20s, although as Christopher pointed out, it was a pretty scrubbed and sparkling Paris, minus all the shell-shocked and wounded vets from World War I, the orphans and beggars, the TB and all the rest of it.

I am struggling through the last 15 pages of the last revision of The Recruiter--this time I mean it, I swear. Love Shack is done, done. done,. done, done. It's cooked. Put a fork in it. Somebody publish it. I love the poems in it, I'm proud of them and I am ready to move on. I am ready to move on from The Recruiter as well, I've got another idea for a play beginning to nudge my consciousness and an essay or two that wants to come through...

C was re-reading Richard Brautigan last night and this morning I looked through his book: The Pill vs. The Springhill Mining Disaster. Trout Fishing in America. there's some great poems in there.

And of course the whole point of Midnight in paris is, it's always easy to idealize a bygone era, but there's creative ferment going on here and now. These are the best of times if only we know what to do with them. Emerson said something like that. Emerson also wrote an essay called Self-Reliance. My dad was big on Emerson.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I lucked out in the dad department. Lucked out big time. My father was born to be a dad. Impossible to think of him without beings to care for and nurture. Now that the four of us are all grown up he nurtures the hell out of his grandkids. He's there for birthdays, holidays, in the audience at their recitals, soccer games and school plays. And he nurtures his garden; patient, steady, attentive, on hands and knees, weeding, watering, transplanting.

What do you say about a guy whose favorite book is Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? Who would himself sit on an egg for months if he had to because that's just the kind of guy he is?

My father is gentle and funny and thoughtful and smart. He loves books, flowers, bridge. He loves to make bread and soup. He never met a carbohydrate he didn't like. He has slowed down with time, but the truth is he was never very fast. his virtues are more about endurance and patience than flash or speed. He lives from a deep well of generosity.

These days he can often be found in an armchair falling asleep behind the New York Times. A working-class kid who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, he aspired to read his way through the library, beginning with A. He has always revered knowledge and learning. We had many many family outings to the Science Museum or to Art museums. HWhen my youngest brother got a PhD in Science, Dad was so proud he cried.

There were four of us and we each got different things from Dad according to our different personalities. With me he read and talked about books. he taught me cribbage. We went to Art museums together, and we stayed up on election eve together, filling in all the little boxes of electoral votes in the chart the Boston Globe provided. We hiked the White Mountains of New Hampshire together--he'd wake me at 5 in the morning and we'd drive for a couple of hours, stopping at a diner for breakfast and continuing on for a long day in the mountains.

He took my brothers to ball games, and attended their sporting events. He played games with all of us. He loves jigsaw puzzles and crosswords. He timed my sister's sprints with a stopwatch. He took them on their own hiking trips and museum visits. He has breakfast with my brothers once a month, drives two hours to my sister's house to hang with her kids. The grandchildren climb all over him. They call him "Papa." He is putty in his granddaughters' hands.

There aren't really words to describe this man. He is basically a column of potent love with some skin around it. The light shines very fiercely out of his aging face. He has had some hard times in his life, but nothing has dimmed or diminished that essential sweetness. There aren't really words, and there are no gifts that can be given to adequately say thank you for this. It is a gift that has to be passed on.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Okay, it's been forever since I've blogged, I know. Christopher mentioned it to me last night. And a nice reader wrote in inquiring if everything was okay.

Everything is okay. Everything is in process: bodies, manuscripts, work life.

Begin again. It's not quite nine in the morning, gray soft fog blanketing everything, the early birds done with their singing and C off to one of his last few days at work. I'm here with my cup of coffee working on the poetry manuscript again and working my way through what I swear to God will be the final revision of The Recruiter.

We put in a garden a few weeks ago--we were late doing it, but it has rained all the way into the month of June here, unseasonably late, so I think we'll get away with it. If I were more techno-savvy, I would post pictures of our raised beds with the chicken-wire fence around them to keep the feral cats from using it as a litter box. We have lettuce and kale and sunflowers, all started from seed, and a pepper plant and a tomato plant, started from seedlings. Every morning and evening C hangs over the fence and gazes at the plants. First they appeared as tiny green stars in the black dirt--pounds and pounds of topsoil, lugged in huge bags from Costco. Now they are recognizably becoming something. In a few weeks we'll be making our salads with them.

My father is an avid and patient gardener. I have been a notorious neglecter of plants. So many pots of lavender, purchased with high hopes, set out on the front porch and forgot to water. So many fragrant corpses, returned to the compost bin. I have managed to keep my potted ficus alive for twenty years. And grown a huge fig tree from a small sapling--just a stick really--in our front yard, and a big fruitful persimmon, also from a tiny start.

I guess the metaphor here is with creative projects. Some of them flourish, some of them don't. Some seeds stubbornly refuse to even poke their heads above the soil, and you are left staring at a pot full of empty dirt. others are eaten by unknown pests who come in the night and nibble holes in their beautiful leaves. Some seem to grow almost independent of me, like those fruit trees--stick them in the ground, give them a little water when they're young, and they give fruit for years and years. I don't know how it works, not really. I just know that this is what I do; I tend the work. I witness it, I futz with it, I obsess over it, I neglect it and come back to it--I always come back. And not everything that I tend grows. There have been some heartbreaking disappointments. But in the end, I trust that if I keep coming back, something bears fruit. And I want to be around to savor it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Clear, bright mornings; dazzling sun, bright blue skies, unseasonable warmth.

For the last week I have been drawn up to the hills again and again, walking the same trail I have walked a million times before. I meet dogs, lots of them, some with a muddy tennis ball in mouth, others just wagging ecstatically to be free. If a dog is outdoors, unconfined, bounding over hills, he or she is happy. It's that simple for them

I try to be present: oak and redwood and laurel and bay trees, bending for the light. the light! The hills unfolding all the way down to the bay. It never stops being magical, and yet I am capable of walking through it without seeing it if I don't stop and make myself notice and breathe.

I am almost almost done with this (I hope) final revision to the play. I have been uncharacteristically neurotic about it--I pride myself on a workwomanlike attitude about writing, "Just do it," a la Nike commercials, without drama or fuss or whinging about writer's block. That's how I like to see myself. But in truth, this play has brought up all my writing demons, including the ones I like to pretend I don't have: the dare-I-say-this? the who-am-I-to-write-about-this, the is-it-any-good, and is-it-even-worth-it demons.

Inside myself I am vowing not to do another big project like this. One-act plays from now on. Poems, the shorter the better. Essays. But not something book-length, not a full two-act play, not something where you have plenty of rope to hang yourself with in terms of structure, character development, etc. No, no, no. What are you, crazy?

At the same time I am making a big effing deal about how much I am suffering over this play another part of my mind knows that it is actually fine, that I'm just trying my best to be faithful to these particular characters, getting to know them better, neither demonizing nor glamorizing military service (hopefully), but presenting real human beings caught up in something bigger and more terrible than they had bargained for. And what they do with that. And I also am caught up now in having bitten off more than I could chew, emotionally or spiritually, and now I am having to chew it. Slowly and thoroughly. or at least try to. I owe myself that much--I owe these characters whom Ihave been working with for four years that much.

At the end of the day it's just work, I tell myself. Finish the thing and move on.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

And now I'm trying not to go into blind rage and hatred after the sickening shooting of Gabriella Giffords in Arizona today. Notice how I want to just blame Sarah Palin for her map with the addresses of Democrats targeted with bulls-eyes. And to see the video of Giffords talking about how it felt to be targeted that way, to hear her saying, "She (Palin) needs to realize that her words have consequences..."

I want to say some very ugly things right now. But I'm trying to be mindful that words have consequence, that every bit of hysteria or hate speech contributes to the nasty circus that American politics has become. I will say that I am going to continue to oppose Palin and her ilk with every breath in my body, but I will try to do it with a modicum of civility and reason. And that I have been driving around with Kirtana's CDs in my car stereo: Falling Awake and This Embrace, songs of the divine feminine, awakening, and compassion.

I listen to these CDs over and over because they are about the only things I can stand to hear. When I turn on the radio and hear the news of the day I so often feel sick at heart. Even the wonderful cultural programming that I normally eat up seems too "head-y" to me--my heart is really hungry for melody, for soothing, to be held in something greater than the political or social preoccupations of the moment. When i listen to kirtana's haunting lyrics and achingly-sweet voice, something inside me lets go. Something inside me can begin to imagine not being so identified with my opinions, my achievements, my thoughts. I begin to begin to be able to imagine what it might feel like to live in my heart...

Poems have been coming thick and fast the last couple of days, after a several weeks hiatus. I took a little time off from writing poetry in order to focus on the play some more. Now I'm in a new place with the play--more on that in a minute--and the poems are back. I notice the lines are longer, more complicated, and the poems feel thicker and meatier now (excuse me, vegetarians.) I started life as a verbose, overly narrative narrative poet and gradually weaned and edited myself down to a style that was lean and mean and honed. Then I began to long for a little more rope, the luxury of expanding, expounding, exploring. And lo and behond, it took a while, but these new poems seem to have become fuller in an organic way.

Of course it's too soon to tell yet, really,. I have to let their wings dry, as Ruth would say, and that takes at least a few weeks.

back to the play, I finally got the bright idea--actually I think it was Christopher's bright idea--to interview a military recruiter in the flesh. Looked on a web site called or something like that and found out there is a recruiting station right in Alameda, not that far from where I live. It's in a tiny strip mall on Blanding right off Tilden Way, a route I've taken a thousand times. The other day I just wandered in to the office and asked if I could talk with someone. The recruiter I ended up visiting with was a woman, petite, around forty years old, with a killer silver manicure. Nothing, and I mean nothing, like my character.

I don't feel comfortable posting all the details of the interview here--I will probably write about it later, after I've digested it-- but it was interesting. I felt like we were circling each other in a seduction dance. Not that either of us were trying to sexually pick up the other person, but we were both just trying to get a bead on each other: who is this woman, and what does she want (from me?) Since I am too old to join the military and have no kids to offer up, I didn't feel like I really had any leverage, that is, anything she wanted. Except, i guess, the power of the media, which in my case is pretty paltry. then again, wars are fought in the court of public opinion, and words are powerful. Sarah. Words are powerful. Let's just all remember that.