Want to help us make a story?

Lathgertha_by_Morris_Meredith_WilliamsIn six days, Vince and I are going to take A Big Risk. We’re going to get on a plane (Vince hates flying) and go to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There we’re going to hand a script to a room full of people, most of whom I haven’t met (first-draft readings take a pint of my blood), and we’re going to read it, rehearse it, record it, and make a serial podcast out of it.

This is Jarnsaxa Rising.  Ancient Norse Gods use humans as pawns to battle each other. When an ancient giantess takes human form to engage in eco-terrorism, a corporate team tries to stop her, and learns who the real enemy is.

Vince testing our portable recording setup.
Vince testing our portable recording setup.

The script is stylistically different for me, in narrative and in craft. I’ve never written science fiction or fantasy before. Adjusting to audio drama is also new for me. Vince has done a lot of sound engineering and still experiments with it for fun. He’ll be performing all of the sound engineering and writing all of the music. We made a sketch comedy podcast episode to prove to ourselves we could do it. Now we’re getting involved with other people and going on a journey.

Carin Bratlie believed in me enough to produce Traveling Light years ago, and now we’re going to go take a leap of faith together again. She’s assembled a solid, smart cast, and she’ll be directing.

Now’s your chance to be part of our trip.

We are 14% funded on the Indiegogo campaign that will fund this project. The podcast will be produced and be available online for your listening pleasure this autumn, whether we reach our funding goal or not. As I write this, twenty-one people have said, “Hell, yes, I want to support this story.” You can join us.  

They say life is a bowl of cherries in Minneapolis.
They say life is a bowl of cherries in Minneapolis.

Right now I feel like my viscera is all clenched up in the center of my chest from excitement and anxiety. I’m rewriting the big final battle of the story, and I want to make everyone proud.

Things are looking up!

Georgia O'Keeffe, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz. Good things are happening.

I’m pleased to announce that Wide Open Spaces will be read as part of the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival this summer!

Wide Open Spaces is the play that I wrote about Georgia O’Keeffe, and her personal changes that made her the painter we know today. It has forty-some odd characters played by eight performers, and takes place in one room and all across America over three years, so this is going to be a good experience. I’m really excited about this, and grateful that the festival coordinators see what I’ve seen in this story.

Philadelphia’s never had a theatre festival specializing in work created by women, before this year. Ms Fest at Plays & Players was a huge success, so the energy of supply and demand is high for a women’s theatre festival.  Currently, the PWTF is raising funds to make the festival happen, and you can support this project.  They have four days left to meet their fundraising goal, and donations are tax-deductible. 

I know so many people who complain at being left out of opportunities. There’s so much “they don’t want me because I’m too (x, y, z) for them” that I hear, and I want to be in a culture of saying “yes, and.”   This is one of those times where we can step up and build the sandbox in which we want to play.

Speaking of building your own sandbox, progress on Jarnsaxa Rising continues. In addition to the script, I’m working on “meet the artist” posts for the podcast’s blog. Every time I open up my e-mail, see the performers’ headshots and read their bios, I get all warm and giggly inside. This project is going to be Really Good.

And, of course, if science-fiction-fantasy podcasts are your thing, you can join us on the journey.

IMG_3686 And last night it rained, finally, so the garden is getting wild again. The red lilies are blooming and doubling and trebling, and the morning glory vine has started to fight with the lavender, but they’re no match for the mint, so I have to get in there and break up some of this battle.

 

 

Mint vs. Lavender vs. Morning Glories. QUIEN ES MAS MACHO?
Mint vs. Lavender vs. Morning Glories. QUIEN ES MAS MACHO?

 

 

 

Things that keep me awake at night

Lathgertha_by_Morris_Meredith_Williams Once upon a time there was a playwright who was really, really bored.

She sent a Facebook message to a friend, a director, who was never bored, halfway across the country. The message was, “I need something new to write about, throw me a prompt.”

The director said, “Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges. They discover that the wind farm has become sentient. And hungry.”

The writer said, I like this, and she researched and thought and imagined. Five years later, we have this:

Smøla Wind Farm, Norway. Photo by Bjørn Luell.
Photo by Bjørn Luell

Jarnsaxa Rising

It seemed like a great play idea, with multiple characters and the wind turbines themselves being played by actors who rotated giant rain sticks, as if the gods and humans and everyone were all embodied in the wind turbines. But the story was too unwieldy. It made more sense to break it into episodes and do it as a podcast. So, basically, it’s a science fiction fantasy revenge tragedy that takes place in a dystopian future and the ancient past.

and that’s what I’ve been up to lately.

round box brooch swedish So, I’m writing the script. I’m eight episodes in, with hopefully only two more to go. although two of the episodes may get merged into one. Vince is doing all the sound engineering. Carin is directing, she’s found a cast, and we’re going to Minneapolis to record it in July. We’ll edit the files in August, and launch the podcast in the fall.

I’ve been taking a Coursera course, called Sagas and Space, about Norse culture and how they thought about themselves. It’s been inspiring and helpful, particularly Terry Gunnell’s guest lecture on “Spaces, Places, Liminality and The Supernatural in The Old Nordic World.”

I’ve been learning a lot about Indiegogo. This is our campaign, in case you like this and want to help. We’re just over 5% funded, with 41 days to go. I get about two messages a day from people who want me to pay them to retweet the campaign or add it to a directory. which feels like adding my needle to a haystack.

woman holding-headphones-listening-to-music
“OMG! This is, like, SO much better than Serial!”

Tonight, I have writer’s block. I know what needs to happen next, everything is outlined. As I write, I feel like I’m stumbling. There’s a lot of new things that I’m learning: writing purely for audio instead of live audio-visual performance, using episodes, using non-linear narrative. some information is missing, and I don’t know what it is, but without it, I can’t confidently move forward. I’ll get it, I just have to find it. I also know that writing doesn’t come from inspiration, inspiration comes from writing.

Fortunately, I have a really good cast, good people who have said, “sure, I’ll climb aboard your wagon.” I just want to make sure I don’t disappoint anyone.

I wanted to go to bed early tonight, so I can get up early tomorrow. It was hot today and it’s supposed to be hot tomorrow, so I’d like to have some of the cool hours of the day at my disposal. I want to get up early, pull weeds and water the flowerbeds before the rest of the world gets moving. The local amateur pyrotechnic aficionados are setting things off, which upsets the dogs. They’re being pretty good about it, but I can hear them shuffling around anxiously.

I think I’m just going to lie down and listen to an audiobook, and hope that settles me down.

Anyway, this is what’s keeping me awake lately.

Hide and steek

Today I took a huge risk, which un-nerved me to my very core, the name for which not even Autocorrect recognizes. I tried steeking.

Steeking, for those of you who aren’t knitting geeks, is the process by which knit material is cut and sewn to make it into something else or smaller or whatever. In my case, I had pretty much given up on the project, and figured I had nothing to lose by trying out the process.

I tried knitting a hat, using Plymouth Yarns’ Gina in 0001. I wanted a loose, slouchy hat which would cover my ears, without mushing my hair irretrievably flat against my head. So, I looked at Bohoknits’ Sockhead Hat (which is a terrific pattern) and modified it to accept the different gauge of this thicker yarn.

I also wanted a diagonal rib for the 4″ band at the hat’s brim, because I think it’s more interesting to knit.  Unfortunately, despite measuring my melon and taking careful notes, I ended up with a giant family-sized salad bowl of a hat.

My head is smaller than a 2-liter soda bottle. I promise.
My head is smaller than a 2-liter soda bottle. I promise.

In this case, a normal person who wanted a hand-made custom-fit hat should do one of two things:

1) Get an expert to make it for you.

2) Frog, or unravel, the knitting, and start over.

Unfortunately, when it comes to clothing myself in cold weather, I am more stubborn than rational. So, I know that if you run wool through the washer on a warm cycle, it will shrink. This process is sometimes called felting, and sometimes called tragedy.  I decided that this hat was so big it could afford to participate in an experiment in shrinkage. So, not only did I run it through a clothes washer on a hot cycle, I ran it through a hot dryer.

diagonal rib and stockingette stitchesFor what it’s worth, let me show you how pretty the stitches looked before felting.

Thank you.

I also have to say that this yarn is as soft as a baby lamb’s earlobe. I knew felting would take away that feel. But baby, it’s cold outside.

So, a risky hot water wash and hot air dry later, I ended up with a hat that felt more tightly knit, but, guess what, was EXACTLY THE SAME DAMN SIZE. This is truly a testament to the resiliency and durability of Plymouth Yarn. I’m sure they make a yarn specifically for felting projects. If you want a yarn that won’t get ruined in the wash by mistake, I recommend this. And yes, it’s 100% wool.

Meanwhile, I still had a fuzzy floppy fruit bowl.  I thought, I give up. I can’t frog it now, because it’s about 50% felted. I tried wearing it, and it flopped and any breeze threatened to blow it off my noggin. Finally, I folded up part of it and pinned it with a safety pin to make it fit more snugly.

Then I remembered steeking. I’d read about it in some knitting books, but never actually done it, nor seen it done. I looked up some YouTube tutorials on the process, and saw that it required more skill and foresight than I had for this project. Today, I said, screw it, I have nothing to lose at this point.

IMG_3287

 

I measured out how much had to go, turned it inside out, and sewed a row of stitches across the hat, making a dart.

IMG_3289Then I took a pair of scissors and a deep breath, and cut the extra part off.

And here’s what I got:

me wearing my hat, after steeking.
Yes, that is a giant Darth Vader Pez Dispenser on our tchotchke shelf.

 

I like it. It fits, it’s comfortable, it looks cute. I am running it through another hot wash to see if I can get the new stitches to felt and mush with the rest of the yarn, so that seam will be more durable.

So, yeah; it’s been a while since I’ve last posted here. I’ve been applying for jobs and submitting scripts to opportunities. My track record has averaged one submission a day since last May. So far I’ve had a few good things come back (for example, The Wreck Of The Alberta had a reading with Athena Theatre Company, and it went Really Well, they’re good people). But it must be reading season, because I haven’t heard much lately.

Stay warm and safe.

A public service announcement regarding your health and well-being.

tumblr_m9so5cg1iF1revsmeo1_500  ‘Tis the season for complaining about the heat, and keeping our mouths shut about one of the least fun by-products of summer: Other People’s Odor.  Sure, a little bit of someone’s musky personal scent is nice if you’re intimately involved, or would like to be.

Unfortunately, this time of year means that more often than not, you get exposed to an awful lot of the following:

  • Bacteria Stink
  • Cologne Stink
  • Both.

tumblr_mt59p7HiLO1qeyvhfo1_250  Or, at least, I seem to get exposed to an awful lot of the following, so please consider this a PSA from myself and most of the people who work with the general public during the summer.  There’s something about my workplace’s “movies and air-conditioning available at no cost to you” policy which attracts a lot of Pungent-Americans.

Being introduced to you in an olfactory way, before I can see or hear you, is not fun.  Sometimes it’s like having your open palm plastered up against my face without warning. Other times it’s more like your foot.  In urban environments, with a lot of car exhaust, open trash containers, and so on, bacteria in the air will be more likely to stick to your skin and grow smelly, without your being aware of it.

I’ve known a lot of people who say that deodorant and anti-perspirant are toxic and harmful. Another thing that’s harmful is not being clean. I don’t care what kind of magic crystals or baking-soda pastes you want to rub all over your tender parts, if you don’t start the day with a clean slate, you’re going to smell disgusting.  Even if you live on a diet of home-grown shredded carrots, alfalfa sprouts and springwater, and are directly descended from Saint Bjorn of Liliodeur, the bacteria on your skin will mingle with your nice healthy sweat and turn it into The Army Of Stink.

Which brings me to my next point.

It seems that the warmer and more humid the weather in this magic valley between two rivers becomes, the more people think artificial scent will cause a cloud of welcome to manifest itself around them.

Octopus running away saying NOPE
Overused? Maybe. Get you to pay attention? Possibly. How I feel? YES.

Remember how I said that if I smell you before I can see you, it’s like introducing yourself to me by booting me in the face? Okay. If I can smell your cologne, perfume, rare Arabian body oils, or what have you, it’s like having a pot of warm mystery chemicals dumped on my face. Some of you are so generous with your application of mystery chemicals that it leaves a trail behind you.

Flower, the Disney skunk character
Flower is cute. You might not be.

If your smell precedes you and leaves a wake, that is not good. It’s gross. It’s as if you’re an animal marking its territory. It’s gross if you’re dirty and smell like it, it’s rude if you’re spreading a chemical hangover, and it’s double plus creepy and sickening if you’re mingling bacteria, body stink and chemicals.

When I was but a wee lass, I remember reading in Cosmopolitan magazine, “Use scent to invite, not repel.” This is an odd thing for a magazine to have printed in it when it was full of paper cards painted with enough perfume samples to choke the censer department of the Vatican during Easter Week, but I digress.  Further, it said that if you could smell the perfume, you were wearing too much, because we can’t really smell ourselves generally. True, by that point, it’s too late. (Yes, I read Cosmo when I was a kid. I learned early about the war on women.)

 

Uncle George Takei's personal fragrance is a clean, bright, light scent.
Uncle George Takei’s personal fragrance is a clean, bright, light scent.

All human beings have their own scent, caused by genetics, diet, exercise, and local temperature. Layering the trendiest liquid on your skin isn’t going to make people like you any more or less (provided you were awesome to begin with). But sometimes it is kind of fun.  Drom Fragrances’ perfumer Kevin Verspoor offered these perfume-application tips to Allure Magazine. 

  • Applying scent to your pulse points intensifies the chemical reaction, because your veins provide heat. (Oh, wait, what was this whole thing about already? Not choking other people to death during the warm season?)  Even if the label says “body spray,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you should spray it all over your whole body.  He also suggest applying the scent to spots lower on the body, such as the back of one’s knees, further from the general population’s nostrils, to give it time and distance to dissipate.  I apologize to the vertically challenged.
  • Layer. Verspoor suggests layering a favorite cologne mist over a scented body wash or lotion.  In my opinion, be aware of what you’re adding and how they mix. If you’ve added Marlboro smoke, Budweiser and garlicky pizza to your body on a hot day in the last hour, no quantity of Hugo Boss will make you smell good.
  • A little dab’ll do ya, just like Brylcreem and Chinese Five Spice. Give the scent an opportunity to mix with your body’s chemicals and make a unique smell, don’t shove everyone’s nose into the bottle. You don’t need to re-spritz throughout the day.

tumblr_muxdhmDqNg1s8a3u9o1_250Please, out of kindness to your fellow summer-sufferers, bathe. The Axe Effect is (mostly) a lie. Hosing yourself down with a variety of unguents won’t hide your stink, it only makes it worse.  We know you know where the nearest public restroom is. Neither deodorant nor cologne should be a substitute for water.

Actually, nothing should be a substitute for water. Remember; hydrate, bathe, don’t overdo it.

For more information about How Deodorant Works, James May has a straightforward explanation for you.

Thank you. Have a wonderful day.

an august return

ompf-logo-2-copy  I hate admitting to being excited about plans at the outset, because I’m always afraid I’m going to jinx myself. But, I have to say I’m pretty excited about The Second Annual Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival. 

Last night, Dominic D’ Andrea sent out the e-mail explaining the groupings of scripts and pairing with directors, and just reading it feels really, really good. Dominic D’Andrea is one of the hardest working men in show business: he produces these One-Minute Play Festivals all over the country. They’re not just specialized by city or state; INTAR Theatre has partnered with the OMPF to create the One-Minute Play Festival of Latina/o Voices twice. The focus and energy of last year’s Philadelphia show was contagious enough to sell out all three performances. Remembering how much fun it was to watch and be part of, and looking forward to this new show, is making me feel all twitterpated.*

One of the goals in writing a piece for the One-Minute Play Festival is to reflect or explore a issue or trait unique to the host city, in a simple, powerful theatrical moment. So, basically, it’s a living haiku about our experience right now. They take longer to cook up and picture in your brain, than they do to actually write. When you write them, you have to write them so they’re actually much shorter than a minute, to give the actors room to breathe and be aware in the experience.

This is why we write plays, so we can take a plan and hand it off to other artists and see what they do with it.

Anyway, I’m excited, and based on the names and information I’ve seen so far, this promises to be a really good show. It takes place on August 3, 4 and 5 at 8pm, at the Adrienne Theatre. Yes, they’re school nights, it’s summer, deal with it. All the good stuff happens on weeknights anyway.  I get more excited over new plays than babies or jewelry.  This is going to have over a hundred new plays.  Whee!

——————————-

*Don’t know the word “twitterpated?” Neither does Autocorrect.  Walt Disney’s 1942 movie, Bambi, provides a pretty good working definition.

What’s the one weird trick for absolute success?

Oh boy! One weird trick!  Dermatologists hate me! Mortgage lenders curse my name! Why? Because I know the one weird trick that will help you, yes, YOU, pay off your mortgage, get rid of your wrinkles, reduce back and belly fat, and crack your script into shape to ensure total and immediate Hollywood screenwriting success in just minutes!

All of this is a gross exaggeration for comic effect, but you knew this, Gentle Reader. However, it’ll be interesting to see if my SEO skills result in some interesting search engine terms leading readers here.

Once upon a time, I knew a struggling actor, beginning playwright, and reasonably successful waiter. Just one? This one in particular, let’s call him Phil, had some bad networking habits. He was a schmoozer, and he was pretty good at getting into conversations about the business of making art with people more advanced in their career than he was. If you’re in any aspect of art-making, this will probably sound very familiar to you.

This is the guy he would usually bother. he has the patience of mountains, yet somehow Phil would still find a way to test it.
This is the guy he would usually bother. He has the patience of mountains, yet somehow Phil would still find a way to test it.

Inevitably, once some cheap wine or craft beer was flowing, and people were warming up, he would find whoever it was in the room that seemed to be the most advanced or successful in their career, corner them, and interrogate them, asking, “what’s the one thing, the one thing, the one piece of advice you can give me?”  By then his interrogation had driven away anyone else, and the interrogated would be shuffling and hemming and hawing, until finally they muttered something about perseverance, and said anything Young Torquemada wanted to hear so they could slip out of the conversation.

What was never clear (to me, anyway), was whether:

A) he only wanted to know one thing, because he didn’t intend to take up too much of their time with his request for professional guidance

or

B) he thought there was one secret to success, one ring to rule them all, which could be easily summed up in one simple weird trick, task, or dance move.

The reality, as anyone with half a brain knows, is that there is no one weird trick that will get anyone where they need to go. While it’s true that someone’s life can be ruined with one weird mistake or choice, getting where you want to go takes many steps, lessons, and actions over time. Very few people get this until they’ve learned it the hard way (myself included). That’s why I’m using a bold font. 

Me, waiting in a stairwell at the Temple Performing Arts Center, to go get my degree.
Me, waiting in a stairwell at the Temple Performing Arts Center, to go get my degree.

This past Thursday, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting from Temple University.  It was crowded and hot and fun and thrilling, and a big vindication of all the hard work I’ve done over the past four years. Now I have a bunch of scripts, an MFA, a rail pass, and a copy of Writing Movies For Fun And Profit. I can take the train anywhere I want (at least through Sunday at midnight, and as long as I’m not planning to go past more than 2 SEPTA transit zones).

I also have a lot of new neural pathways burnt into my brain, from a four-year regime of writing, rewriting, reading, reciting, reiterating, re-reading, re-rewriting, researching, rehearsing, late nights, early mornings, too little sleep, too much coffee, and occasionally too much bourbon.  I’ve built some good habits and learned a few things. Which means I think now is the only time in my life that it’ll be fresh in my mind to address the question I was asked, back at the beginning of this process:

“Why do you need to go to graduate school to be an artist?”

IMG_2359
This is what I do. Not only do I make puppets, I sew berets and knit scarves for them.

It can be assumed that art is subjective, originality is more important than craft, that meaning is in the perception of the beholder, and maybe learning too many of the conventional rules of art-making can destroy creative impulses. Therefore, graduate school could, effectively, stifle real originality and creativity.  There’s the NYC vs. MFA debate (as if New York is the only city in the world where anyone does creative work and gets paid for it), where some people feel that rather than attending grad school, young people should get a job in their preferred industry and do it until they become successful.

Some of this is true. Some of this is not. I would make the argument that work and education need to co-exist. The ivory tower can insulate and stifle, and the working world can make you honest, but wear you down as well. You need both to improve as an artist.

Prior to applying to graduate school, I had a pretty good cultural education. I had worked in a lot of theaters where I had the opportunity to see world-class plays, music, dance, and whatever the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, for free, as long as I didn’t mind standing in the back. I heard Randy Newman play from the trap room underneath his piano, I saw the first production of Anna In The Tropics from 8th row center in a 300-seat house, I’ve been hugged by Dael Orlandersmith and kissed on the cheek by Tom Stoppard. For ten years, I absorbed all the culture I could, read tons of scripts,  and sold probably thousands of tickets and subscriptions.  Through this experience, I learned a lot about playwriting. Some of it I learned in weekly writers’ workshops and self-producing. Some of it I learned by seeing what shows were selected every season and where, and what wasn’t.

One does not simply walk into Mordor-blank
You’re thinking it. Right now. Yes, you are.

The biggest thing I learned is that if you don’t clean up real pretty, you don’t get asked to the dance. The competition for what I wanted to do was so fierce that if I didn’t have the MFA making me stand out, anything else that would was probably The Sarah Kane Solution.*

Right before I started graduate school, I was asked, “How is going to graduate school going to make you a better artist, something which relies on originality?” and I finally said, “I don’t know, but I have to try, because I can’t work the overnight shift at the big-box craft store for the rest of my life.”

So, here’s what I did learn in graduate school, how it changed me, and why I would advocate a mix of graduate school and “real-world” work in order to improve as an artist.

IMG_2046  First of all, as Polly Carl said, it’s a terrible idea to go directly from your undergraduate years into a graduate writing program. You need to go out and make mistakes and get scared in order to fully understand risks, stakes, consequences and motivation. Many playwrights who come from Ivy League universities produce scripts which suffer from the consequences not of the stakes needing to be higher, but the consequences of your protagonist not reaching their goal be a fate worse than death. If you spend your summers playing piano and tending bar in Brooklyn or Prague while reading poetry, or using the word “summer” as a verb in Cape Cod, you don’t know what a fate worse than death is. You need to get lost in very bad neighborhoods, and find your way home all by yourself.  You need to run completely out of food but still scrape up enough change to buy enough kibble to keep your cat alive. You need to work double shifts for a bad boss and too many customers and ache like you’ve been beaten with hockey sticks with no end in sight. You need to get so broke that you will do anything to get enough to eat, and then do that anything. You need to let time and tide and experience work on you. You need to learn the hard way who your real friends are.  Then, when you do get a good job, survive the night, see the sun rise, sink your teeth into that excellent meal, you need to let yourself feel real, heart-warming gratitude and pay it forward.  After all that, you’ll have something to write about.

IMG_2369  Secondly, it is true that graduate school insulates you from the “real world,” but this is a good thing. Effectively, it is a safe space to make creative mistakes. If you make mistakes in a job, you get fired, so you learn very quickly not to make mistakes. What you’re really learning is what your boss, client, etc. wants to hear or see. So, you might not create the most meaningful or affecting work, but you might create what gets you paid. Then you’re making the work that makes the groupthink happy and innovation doesn’t happen. Next thing you know, you’re buying up creativity books and going to seminars on “Five Highly Effective Ways To Think Outside The Box And Move Their Cheese.”

So, okay, yes, in grad school you get some playground time, and this is necessary in order to learn new ways of thinking.

When I wrote plays back in 2009, I used to type drafts directly into my computer, maybe very rarely handwriting if I had to.

IMG_2365
Just before MFA Playfest, May 9, 2014. Audiences are the best thing EVER.

Now, I storyboard and collage through idea generation, use a whiteboard through organizing my thoughts and structure,  type in Final Draft, and scribble throughout the process on paper. I also listen and talk out loud. I’ve traded various iterations of the same sentence back and forth with director Liz Carlson to find the right blend of craft and intention. We had a great time trying to figure out which was better, “lie back with your bed full of cupcakes,” or “lie back in your bed full of cupcakes.” I’ve done improvisation and used puppets to find new ways of telling a story. I learned from the most powerful brains in art-making fields, all with widely varied perspectives and methods.  If I had been in a for-profit work world, the opportunity to learn from leaders, make mistakes and try again would never have happened.

It’s true that Mark Foster of Foster The People honed his skills in commercial jingle writing, and John Hodgman sharpened his scholarly sensibilities as a literary agent.  However, these artists also were able to use grassroots and non-traditional media to create their own sandboxes. “Pumped Up Kicks” garnered its initial success via a free download on Foster’s website. Hodgman wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and now hosts his own podcast, Judge John Hodgman.

This dog has a frog. Were I cornered at a beer-and-cheap-wine fundraiser, by someone like Phil, and badgered for the “one weird trick to ensure success” (See how great my SEO skills are? You guys can stop spamming me now),  there would be a lesson I learned the hard way, to which I would refer.

In my second year of graduate school, I was working on a docudrama, which I grew to loathe. It dealt with a brutal murder, a woman falsely convicted via the court of public opinion, and her exoneration. The source material was so savage it gave me nightmares.** Writing this play was Not Fun Anymore.

IMG_2296  Now, if you have a situation where you work nine to five and make your art on the weekends and in the evenings, you can, and probably should, walk away from it when it’s no longer fun. If you’re doing it for love, and the love is gone, don’t stick with it. If you’re making a project for money, and you don’t love it, you’ll take the path of least persistence and do what the money wants. Client wants a beagle with mustard-colored ears on the label, you’ll make the beagle’s ears mustard-colored, even though you know caramel would be better. But, in this situation, failure to take this painful situation and not give it the honest illustration it required, would mean disappointment from people I admired, and in myself.  It would have been failure without honor. I needed to rely on craft to carry me through the emotional pain of this project.

IMG_2228  So, I dropped back, took a good look at the project, and thought about what it was that brought me to this project more than anything else. The idea of being tried in the court of public opinion was the one thing of which I could not let go.

I invented a new character, Lucky Moskowitz. Lucky is a 35-year-old lesbian who wears a lot of black, has black spiky hair, big blue eyes, and runs Lucky’s Gas n’Gulp out by the Interstate. She comes from a Chicago family of cops, but moved to the heartland to get away from a painful past with a mob-related former girlfriend (none of this ever came up in the play, but it sure is fun). Lucky gave me a means to tie together the disparate strands of the play and move the plot forward. Everybody comes through Lucky’s Gas n’ Gulp, and everybody’s got an opinion.  Lucky’s presence allowed me to look at the story in a new way.  The point is, eventually, you will hate a project so much that it is impossible to continue in the same way you always have. Then, you have to get perspective, and either find or invent a new personal point of entry into the work.

IMG_2363  Then you have to do it again and again and again, using the right tools and with the right people, until it becomes second nature. Then you have to forget all that, back up, take a good look, and just do it.

I don’t think an MFA alone is superior to real-world work, or vice versa. Neither is superior or inferior to building one’s own sandbox and using new technologies to find an audience. I think all these components have to work together. I do know that I’m definitely a better, more confident artist with more tools and techniques for play writing and screen writing now, after four years in the playwriting trenches at Temple University, than I was in 2010, left to my own devices.

Picard has had enough of your weird tricks.
Captain Picard has had enough of your weird tricks.

I believe that the one weird trick for absolute success is going out there and finding it for yourself.

That statement may seem like an oversimplification, and I don’t mean it that way. I could not have the portfolio of scripts, confidence, or neural pathways burnt into my brain without the teachers I had at Temple University, or the colleagues. I am deeply grateful every day for their work, skill, and talent.  What I mean is that the journey is the destination, and the goal is the work is takes to get there.

———————-

*Which would make a brilliant band name.

**I dreamt that I was employed by a tourism board to find all the haunted houses in a given area, witness the ghosts living out their own murders, write them down, and make it into a book to sell ghost tours. After describing the dream to my prof, Bob Hedley, he suggested I take a couple of days off from the work.

IMG_2228

 

The beauty of borrowing

This past Tuesday was National Library Workers’ Day, which I completely missed because I didn’t even know it was happening. It’s the first time I’ve actually been something when there was a holiday to celebrate it. Now I know.

Melk Abbey Library, By Emgonzalez (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is not where I work. But holy crap, that’s really beautiful.
I love my job. I love helping people get access to the information they need. I’m ill-equipped; I’m a part-time student worker, so I don’t have a degree in library science, and my research methods are choose-your-own-adventure more than anything else. “I don’t know; let’s find out,” is something I say an awful lot.

Here’s the only thing about my job which bothers me. It’s very simple. I never hear the words “borrow” and “lend” enough.

I work in the Media Services department of my university library. Our area involves mostly DVDs, some videotapes and CDs, a few cameras, iPads and Kindles. They are things which have a  wider reputation of being available to rent, through stores, than to borrow, through libraries. So, the most frequent question I hear is,

“Hey, is this where I go to rent a DVD?”

This question is followed closely by, “Can I rent a camera/iPad/Kindle?”

I used to just say, “sure,” but the inner semantic police officer living in the spot between my neck and spine would shriek, “NOOO! You can BORROW it! We don’t RENT!”

I made it through four months at this job, hearing those questions several times a day, and stifling the urge to correct it. The odd thing was at the end of a lot of transactions, the borrower would say, “This is free?” And I would say, “Yes,” strangling an urge to go off on a rant about tuition dollars, state funding for education, and how there is no such thing as “free.” But these are kids born after 1993, after the Borders/Barnes & Noble/Blockbuster/Best Buy boom, when the thing to do on the weekends was to go to your local big-box store and buy things. They probably think libraries are for nerds, old ladies, and nobody else.

Finally, in the depths of Winter Break, I thought, I know what’s wrong. This isn’t a question of grammar being prescriptive or descriptive. This is a question of meaning, and a question of intention.

“Rent” has implications of money exchanged for a product. It’s like buying, but temporarily. When you rent something, you pay a certain amount of money to use something for a given period of time. If you need it for more time, you pay more money. If you never return it, or if you lose or ruin it, you pay for it. Essentially, the idea is that you pay to have the right to own something temporarily, and if something goes wrong, you just pay it off, or lose a deposit.

“Borrow” implies trust. The lender receives nothing in exchange for letting the borrower use the item. It comes down to a sense of one’s personal honor and pride. If I lend you my book, that means that I feel that you have earned the right to be trusted with that book, you will take good care of it while you have it, and you will return it at an agreed time in the same condition which I gave it to you. Or, you will show me that the object is okay, and we’ll agree on another time for you to return it.

I think “borrowing” in many ways makes people uncomfortable. While we have the object, we know that we have responsibility along with it. We have to make sure we know where the book is, we have to make sure it doesn’t get bent up or ripped, we can’t dog-ear the pages or write notes in the margins. In the case of a DVD, one probably has to be even more careful; you have to make sure it doesn’t get scratched or broken, you have to make sure the case is shut and locked before you throw it in your backpack, you have to put it someplace where it won’t get used as a drink coaster or get stepped on.

Much easier, then to rent something: if I behave irresponsibly, I’ll just buy my way out of trouble. People are used to having to pay library fines, so they probably link this in their mind with rental fees, in some way. But they aren’t the same thing.  Use the product, enjoy it, and return it on time, and none of your hard-earned dollars need leave your hands. It’s a beautiful thing. Then someone else gets to use it for its intended purpose, instead of it cluttering up your home.

Some people feel that it’s a good idea for kids, when they’re young, to establish good credit by getting a credit card, using it for a very few purchases, paying the balance in full every month, and building good credit habits (as well as a solid credit rating). Libraries are much the same thing, except without those interest rates and profit schemes.  With a library, you prove that you are who you say you are, and we will give you a card. That card allows you to borrow information, use it, and give it back. We’re trusting you to take care of it. You can get in the habit of doing things like making sure that DVD case really is locked before you toss it in your backpack,  that you put your library materials somewhere that you can find them when you’re finished with them, and that your daily route involves stopping by to drop it off.

And then you’re part of a circle of knowledge and shared responsibility.

So, now when people come up to the desk and ask if they can rent a movie, “I say, “No, but you can borrow a movie.” This little flash of joy pops into their eyes, as they realize they’re being trusted to be a responsible person, and not a schmuck.

At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s so lonely in the basement of the library sometimes.

Media Services Bear is here for all of us.
Media Services Bear is here for all of us.

 

Illness, health, and creativity

I know nobody’s looking at the Internet on a Friday evening in Spring (and if you are, please, step away from the screen and go enjoy some fresh air). But, I’ve had a cocktail, and since I haven’t posted anything here for a while, now seems like a good time as any to post.

Plague Doctor, Rome, 1656  I’ve been way underground for a while, and here’s why. First of all, I had the black plague. It’s possible I may be exaggerating for comic effect. I had pneumonia for a little bit over a week, probably a by-product of the weather vacillating wildly from warm to cold and back. In any case, I lost several days in bed manufacturing sputum of many colors. I learned something very interesting in the course of this illness.

If you take an SSRI, as many of us do (I think Zoloft will be OTC by 2020, but that’s just my opinion), you may want to consider its interaction with your over-the-counter cold medication, specifically, dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant). It clearly states on medications such as DayQuil and Mucinex DM that this medication should not be taken in conjunction with any medication that is an MAOI. I may be the exception to all of this, but, to make a long story short, the combination of dextromethorphan and sertraline resulted in a case of restless leg syndrome which should have made me eligible to join the Rockettes. Hence, what should have been a 5 to 7 day recuperation period stretched into 10 days because I had to take 36 hours with no medication which suppressed symptoms (other than antibiotics)  to let things get out of my system, which meant I couldn’t sleep. The moral of the story is, Cough Syrup Is No Joke.

Know your drugs, know your doses. It’s elementary.

But I digress. Here’s the heavy lifting which I’ve been doing this semester.

Walter Lowenfels  I’ve been writing a play about poet and journalist Walter Lowenfels. He lived in Paris during the 1930’s, hobnobbing with such literary luminaries as Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. After the Depression hit, he returned with his wife, Lillian, to New Jersey, where he worked in his father’s butter business by day and wrote poetry by night. In the 1940s, he moved his family to Parkside, in West Philadelphia. There, he edited the Pennsylvania edition of The Daily Worker and was active in the Communist Party and the Civil Rights movement. In 1952 he was arrested for violation of The Smith Act, allegedly for trying to overthrow the government, and briefly held at Holmesburg Prison. The case was thrown out for lack of evidence; apparently the FBI does believe the pen to be mightier than the sword.

Lowenfels lived a multifaceted life, stretching between the demands of his family, his community, and his art. In the play created for my Seminar in Community Arts Practices, we’re exploring how he maintained that balance, via the metaphor of  his kitchen table. The play, Walter’s Table, will be presented as part of the Radical Jewish Culture symposium, at Paley Library, on Temple University’s main campus, on April 25 and 26. This production stars Philadelphia veteran actor David Ingram (most recently on the Wilma Theater stage in Cherokee).

Georgia O'Keeffe, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz.  My thesis project is the real elephant in the room. The working title is Dream Of Wide Open Spaces. To make a long story short, from the fall of 1932 to the spring of 1934, Georgia O’Keeffe stopped painting. During that time she had a physical and emotional breakdown, lost all her appetite for creativity, and gradually found her way back to become the visual powerhouse we know and love.  As I’m working on this play, I am madly in love with The Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library at Yale University, which holds much of Georgia O’Keeffe’s correspondence. Reading her letters in her handwriting, and interpreting the nuances with which she wields fountain pen or pencil is an adventure in and of itself. I’m also reading My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz by Sarah Greenough, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle, Georgia O’Keeffe by Roxana Robinson, and O’Keeffe and Steiglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler.

Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur, 1934
Black Hollyhock, Blue Larkspur, 1934

My process has been to read, read, and read, either before going to sleep for the night, or while on the train commuting, and then either sleep or go for walks, and let the data roll around in my head. Unfortunately, I know what it’s like to be creatively frustrated, as O’Keeffe was during that period, and what it’s like to be in a relationship with un-chosen non-monogamy. I also know what it’s like to be sick, and not to trust one’s own body,  and have to regain that trust. So I let things marinate, and then get up early in the morning and write what makes the most sense.

It’s a slow and painful process, but so far, I feel pretty good about it.

Coming up in the next month, Liz Carlson and I are banging our heads together again, for Temple University’s MFA Playfest. Liz will direct the play which I wrote as an independent study with Ed Sobel this past fall, The Wreck Of The Alberta. It’s a family drama about the weight of history, mental illness, puppetry and the secret life of objects. I love working with Liz, and our previous collaboration, Fox Haven was very successful, so this should be a good time.

Finally, if all goes well, I get to graduate in May. I will be wearing a cap, gown and hood made from the equivalent of approximately 23 recycled plastic bottles. I’m pretty tall, so let’s say 25.

So. That’s all the news that’s fit to print right now. Hopefully, I’ll make it through to the other side with two good scripts, and I can write about something other than balancing art with one’s mental health, someday. Right now I’m really feeling the experience of being on the fence between mentally healthy and productive, and crazy and frustrated. But, I’m walking the fence one step at a time.