“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

30 June 2011

The poem as a stream of conciousness.

what I write is crap today

this is my lunch break:

standing in the kitchen wiping up
masala leftovers
the edges of my right hand
catching drips
as it rubs the crust
of naan
streaks on the side of a takeout container
I waste the quiet daylight
sending cell phone images
of my cats
over the lines I never use to make phone calls
there is a portrait of our rabbit
leaning against the dining room wall
I took it down
because seeing it up
made me cry
packing it away makes me
feel worse
if that were possible
she died last year in her handmade cage
we could not save her from
the water
she could not keep inside her
our parents must worry about grandchildren
we have filled the void
meant for tiny human fingernails
with whiskers and the clippings of translucent claws
and I cannot imagine the pain
losing a child would bring
it is my husband’s birthday today
if the writing will not flow
then I will have to set my work aside
celebrations trump inspiration
when there is love in this house
sometimes I worry
the Gods
the furred creatures of the world
when our wars consume
their omnipotent energy
there is nothing left
for a whisker
a translucent claw
I hope for fields of leafy greens
and piles of strawberries in the Beyond
wherever that fluff of cotton
hops to now
writing will not surge forward
when I am morose
but there is something about birthdays
which makes me weep
when I think of all the
whose birthdays are over
we lost our grandfathers this year
three of them
they could have told us perhaps
if it hurts to die
if the light which went out
of their eyes
was traveling forward
toward something even brighter than
a dying spirit
if there is anything brighter than that
after all
we always talk about death as a loss
because I think we know
that we know nothing
about that Beyond place
if it is leafy
if it is sweet
maybe it is we who are lost
I think
wherever those eye lights are going to
they have surely found their way
by now
I hope so

14 June 2011

Where do your ideas come from?

Sometimes when I'm searching for information on the topics pertinent to my work, I stumble upon something which proceeds to become my work. These are rare, precious discoveries. Most of my writing springs from multiple sources-- a massive river formed by smaller tributaries. The tributaries feed into my larger concept over time, filling it out and giving it horsepower. A small tributary might turn a small water wheel, but the larger river will power Hoover's dam.

I can get caught up in the magic of those tributaries. It is so thrilling to discover something pertinent, something that motivates me to make changes, something that explains a character to me. Characters are very much like real people... you don't know everything there is to know upon first meeting them. They don't arrive fully-formed; they have to grow up first. I've been acquainted with some of my characters for years and I still discover things about them that surprise me. And even though these surprises are wonderful, I don't ever want to lose sight of the river's source. Because that is what gives my work focus.

My newest project has a very embarrassing source. I think it best to put it out here now and get it over with, before I become too invested in the story to admit its inception. The new book was conceived after viewing a music video for Beyonce's song "Run the World." I am not in any way anti-Beyonce; I think some of her music is quite good. But the song "Run the World" sucks. It's just not good music. The message of the song is so childish and silly. "Who runs the world? GIRLS!" This is patently untrue. Girls do not run the world. Very old, very white men in tailored suits run the world. They also run the banks, the universities, the hospitals, and the space program.

The music video, on the other hand, is incredibly provocative. The imagery is glamorous and post-apocalyptic, when it doesn't even seem possible to be both. There are lions and hyenas inserted for no apparent reason, except perhaps as examples of animal societies in which females totally overpower the males. Although, in that case, it seems ironic to use a male lion rather than a female lioness. Maybe he serves the same function as Beyonce's randomly inserted male back-up dancers. "Look at this enormous male predator! He is lying at my feet! Girls rock!" Or maybe his mane was just pretty.

Anyway, what really struck me was the way that the women "fought" their male counterparts. They wore skimpy little outfits more suited to the beach than to combat. They undulated and licked their own fingers. They caressed the male soldiers' chests. Also, they had no weapons. The men carried guns and wore flak jackets; the women carried flags and wore makeup. It seemed to imply, at least in my overly analytical brain, that this hypothetical war would be won through sex. Or perhaps the withholding of sex. I find myself incredibly intrigued by the concept.

So, that was the source. That was the mountain top full of melting ice. Since then, many tributaries have worked their way into my work (this article, for example, and this book). Many more will continue to do so as time goes along. As writers, we are honor-bound to acknowledge these sources (if only in our own heads). Is your source a kids' movie? The motel you stayed in last winter? An uncomfortable memory from college? Find your way back there, from time to time. The source is so important. It is rare. It is precious. Don't get lost in the tributaries... you can be side-tracked upstream, and never make it to where you most wish to go.

09 June 2011

From a formerly-raging teen.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece entitled "Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?"

Here is a quote from that article:

"Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care."


Alcoholism, self-harm, suicide, and depression may have "periods of vogue," but they are also real, quantifiable mental illnesses. To pretend that kids are going to jump on some kind of self-harm bandwagon might make the parents of the kids doing so feel good ("See? We're not to blame! It was the fault of books!"). Realistically speaking, even teenagers who try destructive behaviors because they read them in books are already dealing with underlying issues. Happy teens don't start gauging themselves with paperclips. Happy teens don't start shooting cocaine. Happy, well-adjusted teens don't try to commit suicide.

Books are powerful, but they aren't that powerful.

Anyway, I'm not going to spend a lot of time going into this (although believe me, I could) since many other writers whom I respect have already done so. I'm just going to direct you to their intelligent commentary and let you make decisions for yourself.

Because, you know, thinking for ourselves is the point of being human. Isn't it?

Colleen Mondor - "Maybe, finally, the books teens read are being honest"

Laurie Halse Anderson - "Stuck between rage and compassion"

Linda Holmes - "Seeing Teenagers as We Wish They Were: The Debate Over YA Fiction"

07 June 2011

An award ceremony, Chicago-style.

    Last night, my husband Casey and I attended the Joseph Jefferson Non-Equity Awards, which everyone lazily refers to as “the Jeffs.” It has been described to me as Chicago’s version of the Tony Awards, which actually isn’t much of a compliment to the city of Chicago. There were dollar-store electric tea-lights wreathed in sparse plastic flower petals lining every table. The “light buffet” consisted of chopped-up fruit on skewers and slices of tortilla wrap stabbed with frilly toothpicks. A raggedy red carpet led in from the street, but there was no valet to park our car. Casey suggested we walk out into traffic in an effort to arrive regally. I nixed that idea. To add crudity to bad taste, the event had a cash bar. We even had to pay for my orange juice.

    So to equate this event in any way with the Tony Awards is laughable. I counted four award recipients wearing jeans (recipients, mind you, as there were a great many more among the nominees). We were crammed together like sardines, feasting on day-old cookies served on tiny plastic plates, and we were sweating. It was unbearably hot. The sound system sucked, the projections were awkward, and at one point the wrong name was read off the award-presenter’s cue card. The announced recipient got up, gave her acceptance speech, and then the emcee had to inform us all that “Surprise! There were two winners!” There were not. The attempt to save face was mortifying for everyone present.

    The entire night took me back to college and to our yearly departmental banquets, organized primarily to hand out scholarships and reward those deemed most likely to succeed. Those “most likely to” never made much sense to the student body, since the community of adult voters seemed to covet good looks and sweet dispositions over talent and drive. Tickets cost money—$25 a head, which is big money when you’re an undergrad—and everyone paid the cost. We knew those awards weren’t really that important, but we took them very seriously. Nervous 18-year-old girls picked out evening dresses and pimply boys looked up YouTube videos to learn how to tie their neckties. The event was always dry, it being a university setting, but we ate an excellent buffet with real silverware and remembered to put our napkins in our laps. It was an honor to be asked to be a presenter. When it came time to hand out awards, we all slid a little further forward in our seats.

    The details are not what really matters here. What matters, as my designer and director friends can appreciate, is the atmosphere. Those awards mattered because we made them matter. Human beings must grant personal importance to something (a person, a place, an event) in order for that thing to be important. We control the atmosphere, and in turn the atmosphere grants us the mood, and that mood will color everything that comes after. Are the Jeff Awards important? Important enough to warrant plates the caterer has to wash? At least two spotlight operators? Itchy suits and uncomfortable shoes? If they are, then we must prove it. If they aren’t… well, what the hell is the point if they aren’t?

    The fact is: I enjoyed myself last night. My husband and I got to dress up, which we like to do. We were with a lovely group of people from Caffeine Theatre Company (who should not be held responsible for my commentary on the night). The musical performances from each of the nominated musicals were fun and performed well. I didn’t even mind the crush of people too terribly, since I was so pleased to see a large turn-out from the Chicago theatre community. Overall, I’d go to the Jeffs again. I hope I get the opportunity to do so.

    But I also hope that the way we reward our theatre artists will improve. And I hope that those artists will learn to take themselves, their craft, and the city more seriously. It’s rather chicken-or-the-egg, isn’t it? Do we blame the fact that we dress and act like college students on the reality that our event is sub-par? Or is the event merely living up to the beer-and-brats Midwestern attitude that keeps Chicagoans so scruffy and sloppy? It’s not just about the debatable merits of tennis shoes and exposed bra straps. It’s about how we perceive the gravity of our own accomplishments. The Jeff Awards are the highest honor available to Chicago theatre artists, and so the ceremony should be conducted accordingly. There’s nothing rad or rebellious about treating this event like a joke. It certainly doesn’t prove how big or blasé you’ve grown to be; if anything, it makes all of us smaller. If we want the world to take Chicago theatre seriously, we have to show them that we take ourselves seriously first. It’s a basic rule of business, and the business of theatre should not ignore it.

    The city of Chicago is a haven for artists of all kinds; it is poor repayment to act like the work we do only warrants plastic flower petals and a cash bar. I want Chicago to stop thinking of itself as a Second City, and start to take the international artistic accolades it so richly deserves. But this city can’t do it without your help. Think of this as a call to arms: From now on, wear a jacket and tie to your own goddamn opening. Proofread the freaking programs. Stop referring to your performance spaces as “crappy little church basements.” We've earned the right to think of ourselves as professionals, and to treat our own efforts accordingly. If you can’t think of these things as a right you’ve earned, think of it as a display of respect for the city which has given you her trust.

03 June 2011

Book two, still chapter six.

    Rhetta emerged from the oak trees with a very self-satisfied expression. A few paces behind, hanging his hooded head, walked a familiar figure. His tanned skin was obscured by smears of mud, but it could not disguise the black marks across his face. The three-wolf guard trotted at his ankles, driving Clever out into the open.
    “Well, of all the addlepated--!” began Marte, lowering her bow.
    “Hostler Clever,” Finn cut in, “what in the God’s name are you doing here?” Llyde was visibly confused as the dogs began to lower their guard.
    At first, it seemed Clever might not answer at all. His cheeks were flushed and, although he did not fidget, he was consumed with nervous energy. It radiated out from him, making the pack dogs scratch and snap and shift their weight uneasily. Finn had learned the art of silence; he waited for Clever to calm himself enough to speak.
    “You left,” Clever finally mumbled. He glared at them all from the cover of his cloak hood, daring them to disagree.
    “Yes,” said Finn. “We are returning to the capitol.” He ran his hands across his face and grunted in frustration. “What are you doing here?” he repeated with waning patience.
    “And you’re gonna go all that way, by yourselves?” said Clever.
    “What are you doin’ here?” cried Marte. She returned her bow to its position across her slim back, but her eyes shot arrows all the same.
    “Look, all you left without a word,” said Clever. “Marte’s been packin’ for days but won’t say why. Then I hear it’s th’ capitol callin’, and you three answerin’ th’ call, and I got to thinkin’—“
    “Yes?” prompted Finn.
    “I got to thinkin’ that maybe I’d better come too,” he said. “Just to keep an eye out. Only maybe I wasn’t allowed.” He adjusted the pack on his shoulders warily.
    “So you snuck after us?” said Llyde.
    Clever merely shrugged. “Sneakin’ is a way to put it…”
    “Clever,” said Finn, “I’m afraid I still don’t understand. Why did you think you should accompany us?”
    “I got uses!” cried Clever. “You’ll need help with th’ horses and hounds. You’ll need someone to watch your backs, since Gods’ only know why you brung a soft-hands scholar and a little girl!” Marte made an angry noise which he ignored. “’Sides, I’m bound to you, ain’t I?”
    “You’re bound to the country, Clever,” sighed Finn. “To Duragand. It’s not a personal attachment.”
    “It is to me,” replied Clever.