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TRAVELING MUSIC

Among the greatest gifts of retirement is discretionary time, and Susanne and I are about to exercise our discretion again. We’ll be off for a cruise of the Greek Islands tomorrow, thence to Tunis to visit relatives. The Tunis landing will give us another continent to scratch off our list (Hey, it’s not very far into Africa, but it’s still Africa.), leaving only Australia and Antarctica to go. Not bad for a couple of middling professionals who never hit Europe till after the age of forty.

All that time among antiquities, goats, lamb, and feta should be a great source of inspiration. Another Salammbo anyone?

See you in a couple of weeks.

TOURING

 

I’ve been blessed recently with a plethora of out-of-town guests, all of them hungry for an insider look at San Francisco and the bay area. I have an interest in and some knowledge of the city’s history (click on the “Writing” page of the “Writer Working” website and see the first chapter of The Maxwell Vendetta.), so I enjoy showing folks around. it takes some time, and the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park began to get a little tedious about the tenth time through, but I generally get much more than I give; and I’m reflecting this morning about how much the process resembles that of writing, which is after all nothing more than an inside tour of the artist.

Like every character and plot and outline of every story I’ve ever started, no matter how much I plan and think I know, unplumbed depths remained. And I’ve heard the same from many other writers. Sometimes it’s my own explorations that open new horizons. Sometimes it’s a reader/visitor’s question that sets me off in a new direction. I thought I

‘s about finished The Maxwell Vendetta, was ready to set down the final turn of plot and move into the denoument. It turned out I was like the kid in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” When I came to what I thought was the last intersection,  I saw not my destination, but more miles, more twists and turns to navigate before I reached the end of a road I thought I’d planned all by myself. Just so as I was descending the section of Lombard Street billed as “the crookedst street in the world” with its brick paving and splendid view of Telegraph Hill, Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, et al, did one of my passengers ask how the street came to be. I’d always assumed it was just part of an old wagon road whose switchbacks made it possible for horse-drawn vehicles to navigate the steep slope. But San Francisco has plenty of other–steeper–streets that drop and rise plumbline-straight up and down other hills, so why would this be different? Google, of course, led me to the answer quickly. The crookedst street in the world was a chamber of commerce gimmick constructed in 1923 as a tourist attraction. There is actually one other street in S.F. that has more turns and a steeper drop, but –location, location, location–has no views and is in a relatively isolated part of the city. So image trumps substance once again, and we need to question even the most obvious aspects of our characters and plots and to pay attention to the observations of that most valuable of creatures–the naive reader whose innocent questions lead us to new assumptions.

And then there are the renegades who have no wish to visit the fabled urban wonders, who find the city dirty, fast, and noisy, But who love tall redwoods, rocky shores, and raw oysters with horseradish. For them, it’s on to Point Bonita, Muir Woods, Point Reyes, Stinson Beach, Bolinas. That tour, too, is part of who I am and what I do, just as my contemporary flash fiction (Again, see the “Writing” page of Writer Working.) is as much a part of my interior as the historical narrative that fascinates me so. And each journey leads to more discoveries, more questions, whose answers lead to . . .

 

TOURING

I’ve been blessed recently with a plethora of out-of-town guests, all of them hungry for an insider look at San Francisco and the bay area. I have an interest in and some knowledge of the city’s history (click on the “Writing” page of the “Writer Working” website and see the first chapter of The Maxwell Vendetta.), so I enjoy showing folks around. it takes some time, and the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park began to get a little tedious about the tenth time through, but I generally get much more than I give; and I’m reflecting this morning about how much the process resembles that of writing, which is after all nothing more than an inside tour of the artist.

Like every character and plot and outline of every story I’ve ever started, no matter how much I plan and think I know, unplumbed depths remained. And I’ve heard the same from many other writers. Sometimes it’s my own explorations that open new horizons. Sometimes it’s a reader/visitor’s question that sets me off in a new direction. I thought I

‘s about finished The Maxwell Vendetta, was ready to set down the final turn of plot and move into the denoument. It turned out I was like the kid in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” When I came to what I thought was the last intersection,  I saw not my destination, but more miles, more twists and turns to navigate before I reached the end of a road I thought I’d planned all by myself. Just so as I was descending the section of Lombard Street billed as “the crookedst street in the world” with its brick paving and splendid view of Telegraph Hill, Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, et al, did one of my passengers ask how the street came to be. I’d always assumed it was just part of an old wagon road whose switchbacks made it possible for horse-drawn vehicles to navigate the steep slope. But San Francisco has plenty of other–steeper–streets that drop and rise plumbline-straight up and down other hills, so why would this be different? Google, of course, led me to the answer quickly. The crookedst street in the world was a chamber of commerce gimmick constructed in 1923 as a tourist attraction. There is actually one other street in S.F. that has more turns and a steeper drop, but –location, location, location–has no views and is in a relatively isolated part of the city. So image trumps substance once again, and we need to question even the most obvious aspects of our characters and plots and to pay attention to the observations of that most valuable of creatures–the naive reader whose innocent questions lead us to new assumptions.

And then there are the renegades who have no wish to visit the fabled urban wonders, who find the city dirty, fast, and noisy, But who love tall redwoods, rocky shores, and raw oysters with horseradish. For them, it’s on to Point Bonita, Muir Woods, Point Reyes, Stinson Beach, Bolinas. That tour, too, is part of who I am and what I do, just as my contemporary flash fiction (Again, see the “Writing” page of Writer Working.) is as much a part of my interior as the historical narrative that fascinates me so. And each journey leads to more discoveries, more questions, whose answers lead to . . .

CUTTING AND TRIMMING THE SCRIPT

 

One of my incarnations is that of director in educational and community theater.  Although the gig it doesn’t have the romance and cliff-edge risk of professional theater, it offers opportunities and rewards not open to the broadway/off-broadway crowd. For one thing, I don’t have the liberty of casting strictly according to the demands of a particular script or production because non-professional theater often requires using who turns up whether they exist on the written page or not. Thus, have I put many Shakespearean males through figurative transexual surgery because the ratio of males to females auditioning is almost always in reverse proportion to those listed in the dramatis personae. At the moment I’m engaged to direct a production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime for a community theatre group of mostly senior citizens. My joke is that I’ve gone from working with casts (high school students) who won’t remember their lines to casts who can’t. Thus, for the sake of both cast and audience, we slice the script down to essentials. I’ve done the same with high school casts, of course, more because the original scripts (particularly musicals) often require more technical facilities and expertise than we could muster. Professionals don’t normally have this freedom because they’re subject to copyright restrictions in a way that amateurs aren’t. Actually, non-pros should operate under the same rules, but no one watches as long as you pay your royalties as required. The current theater group is free of all requirements, though, because they don’t charge admission. So much for the business part of things and on to my artistic point.

The process of cutting a play always leads me to thinking about my own writing and how much of it can be pared away without losing the essence of the story. I will probably end up cutting 50% of Once in a Lifetime and still have a viable, entertaining production. Of course, we will lose many enjoyable characters and moments, elements that probably helped make the original 1930’s broadway production a real seller. However, beneath all the topical satire is an engaging and exciting story of love and show business which is the core of everything. None of us wants to cut out the stuff that entertains and enlightens. We certainly don’t want to cut out the stuff that sells. However, none of it is worth much without that story, and I think we can never ask too many times  what a particular  piece of writing is about and whether we’ve strayed from the central premise. If you can cut 50% without getting to the heart of the story, maybe you’ve buried it and it’s time for an exhumation.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? WHERE DOES IT GO? 9/6/06

Francine prose has written, apparently, the latest craft book classic. Reading Like a Writer is getting great reviews, and though I’ve read only chapter one, the commentary seems right on. Prose expresses doubts in her opening pages about the possibility of teaching “creative writing” at all. She speculates that such musings put her in danger of fraud charges from all the students to whom she has purported to do that very thing. My first blog explored this subject a little, and Prose’s book has set me thinking on it again, especially since she traces the development of her own skills not to MFA programs, but to that hoary bogeyman of all inspiration and creativity–English teachers.

Being an old English teacher myself, it comforts me mightily that someone from that vast audience I’ve harassed over the years might have taken some inspiration from all the lectures and assignments. But what comforts me even more is the notion that writing skill is develops not so much from devotion to cant and terminology (“action/voice/character-driven,” “the occasion for telling,” etc.) as from attention to fundamentals of syntax and tone and diction combined with careful and joyful reading, reading, reading. Successful writers don’t seek out the cubbyholes containing general principles of great books, drawing them out and dumping into their own work. Instead, they find individual examples that will best instruct one’s own work. Prose quotes general principles such as avoiding dubbing characters with similar names, then tracks down examples where great authors have violated that very rule to great effect. It’s not that rules don’t matter, it’s that their application and interpretation matters more. It’s like trying to interpret oracles. We need to become Tiresias if Thebes is to prosper.

Want more? Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton is another example of a book which, though very different from Prose’s, can help guide you along the same path. To paraphrase that little prayer–grant me the power to use the ideas I can, to let go of the ones I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sitting up