- by Diane Grant
By Diane Grant
This computer is new and even getting to the email has been an adventure and one I’m not happy to take. I seem to spend so much of my time lately wrestling with machines and devices and things that talk to me but don’t tell me what I want to know. But here goes.
I can’t believe that it’s 2019 and even worse, the second month of 2019. I know that we’re supposed to be thankful for every day. I am thankful for every day. (Even the cold, blustery, rainy days.) But January 2019 was the month that I was supposed to be greeting everybody in Italian. “Hello,” I would say in Italian. “Welcome!” And even more proficiently, “Do you think the rain will stop?”
I fell in love with Italy when I became a huge fan of an Italian series, with English subtitles, called Don Matteo (Father Matthew). Don Matteo lives in a beautiful city called Gubbio. His home is a rectory which he shares with a collection of recurring characters, all of whom meet in the rectory kitchen. He spends his free time solving mysteries. He rides a bicycle, sometimes through fields of tall golden sunflowers, helps all and sundry, drives the local police quite mad (except for his pal on the force) by solving all the murders before they do, and of course, speaks Italian. He’s also very handsome.
2018 was the year that I was going to learn Italian. I mentioned that way back to my husband and daughter and even as I heard that intention coming out my mouth, I knew I was in trouble.
Delighted, they bought CD’s – 1,000’s of them in big boxes with photos of happy men and women on them speaking fluent Italian, and books with lined pages in them for making notes in (Italian) and practicing, practicing, practicing.
Will I ever learn? Just as I finally settled in and cracked the first CD, we changed TV sets and bought a beautiful 50”. Which brings me back to my first paragraph. To date, I haven’t been able to set it up with Roku, the device with which I watched the MHZ Choice Channel that carries Don Matteo (and many other enjoyable other programs from Italy and Germany and France, etc. ) Furthermore, the Web tells me that the latest episodes of Don Matteo haven’t been subtitled. And last week, my husband found an article saying that the program will now be shown in L.A only on Tuesdays at 5:15 pm.
Of course, there is always Tosca. I have that CD, too. With the lyrics in translation.
I imagine that a lot of you know already about Julia Cameron’s wonderful book – The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. I found it in the library. I don’t remember when that was or why I saw it but it saved me.
I’ve been so discouraged and blocked that I didn’t think I’d write again.
My play, The Last Of The Daytons, which actually won a prize in 2017 – the SantaBarbara Playfest – is dear to my heart and relevant to today and I can’t find a theater to produce it. I know I’m far from alone and have been writing a long time but for some reason, the lack of a home for this particular piece stopped me in my tracks. (There’s only a finite number of places to submit.)
“What is the point?” lurked under everything I started. And I didn’t continue. I didn’t write in my diary or talk into my recorder.
I did read the book.
The Artist’s Way is decades old and still an international bestseller. There are a lot of blocked artists out there! It takes you through a twelve week program designed to help you unblock and start writing freely again.
Ms. Cameron believes that creativity has a spiritual foundation and that “the bedrock tool of a creative recovery” is an exercise called Morning Pages: three pages of longhand writing about absolutely anything. Lined pages are perfect. Write them first thing in the morning, and don’t show them to anyone. They can be about anything and there is no wrong way to do them but it takes practice. Sometimes I get busy (like now) and don’t write until later but when I don’t sit down and race across the page, I miss it and feel as if I’m cheating myself.
You’re not supposed to look at those pages until some time has passed. I began on August the 13th and will read them on October the 13th. Maybe I’ll find out something I didn’t know about how I approach things, maybe there will be a clue as to how to proceed. Maybe the fear and anxiety about starting something new will disappear or at least lessen.
Since I started writing them, I’ve already begun a new play, well, I’ve a setting and four people, maybe also a mysterious lady in a plumed hat, maybe, maybe. But it’s a start.
She also suggests that you make an “artist’s date” with yourself once a week. Do something, go somewhere, for yourself, by yourself, something not related to domestic chores or something for work, something that’s out of the ordinary daily routine, something out of the neighborhood.
See how it feels.
I’m sure the pleasure of seeing or doing something new would be beneficial and fun but I’ve found this the most difficult. I think that underneath that anxiety about taking that time off is a feeling of not being allowed. It wouldn’t be productive after all, would it?
(I did buy myself an ice cream cone a couple of weeks ago but don’t know if that counts.)
I think I can, I think I can.
The book gives you exercises after every week and I know I can use them so I’ll go back to the library and take it out again. And I’ll go now and write those Morning Pages!
By Diane Grant
I just saw the documentary “RBG,” by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, about 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who took the oath of office on Aug. 10, 1993, becoming the second female jurist on the nation’s highest court.
(Even though Sandra Day O’Connor sat on the U.S. Supreme Court for twelve years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed, the court did not have a women’s bathroom until Ginsburg pointed it out.)
The documentary blew me away! It is so positive – a testimony to responsibility, persistence, intelligence and grace, and an inspiration for us all. I have the book Notorious RBG on hold at the library and am waiting eagerly for a feature film called “On the Basis of Sex,” with Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg, her husband, scheduled for the fall.
Justice Ginsburg’s life is so full and her career and family life so successful (her husband was the first boy she had ever gone out with “who cared that I had a brain.”) that I’ll leave it to people to see and read about.
Just a few things. She became the director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU. She was a top student at Cornell and Harvard and became a member of the Harvard Law Review.
It’s the gender equality cases that she argued that so interested me. She won five of the six cases at the Supreme Court that aimed at laws that treated men and women differently and her work has changed lives for us all, dealing with instances when not only women but also men and families were victims of discriminatory laws.
She experienced discrimination herself. While at Harvard Law she and the few other female students were asked how it felt to be taking up the spots of more-deserving, qualified males. Upon graduation, many firms were not interested in hiring her, despite her high honors. She would later write, “The traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot—that combination was a bit too much.”
One of the cases she won involved a portion of the Social Security Act that favored women over men because it granted certain benefits to widows but not widowers. She wrote the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Virginia, which held that the state-supported Virginia Military Institute could not refuse to admit women.
In the Trumpian pro-deportation era, she played a hand in striking down legislation that allows certain noncitizens to be expelled and at 85, she continues on the Court,working sometimes until four in the morning and continuing to make a positive difference in our lives.
I’ll stop going on. Go see the movie!
Listen to this achiever on What It Takes
A couple of days ago, a friend at work gave me a book by Agatha Christie called Passenger To Frankfurt. And I thought, “Goody. I can romp through that.” In the Introduction, I found one of the best articles I’ve read on how to write.
I think most of us forget that Christie was a woman playwright. She’s become more of an institution than a writer. People say, “Oh, an Agatha Christie play, ho hum,” as if they know all about it – dated, formulaic, boring. Community theater. “I mean, The Mousetrap,” they mutter. (Not long ago, I wrote a ten minute play called Name Recognition, in which I trashed all those community theaters that refuse to look at a new play and instead produce The Mousetrap over and over.)
She wrote nineteen plays, eighty crime novels and short story collections, two memoirs, and six novels under another name. She invented characters that stick in your mind, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to name only two.
How did she do that? This same friend who gave me that book, also came up with a quote from Christie about how to start to write. “All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.”
To the question of “Where do you get your ideas from?” Christie answers, “You merely say firmly, ‘My own head.’” You look. You listen. You keep up with what is going on in the world – the great events and the passing events of the day – bad and good.
She insists that the setting in any work is real. It can be described. It can be felt and seen.
She goes for a ride on the Orient Express. Ah hah!
She has tea in a Chelsea cafe. In the cafe, she sees one girl pull out a handful of another girl’s hair.
The setting is real – the cafe. The characters will be invented. The girls become hers. Who are they and what were they quarreling about? She begins to have an idea about them. If an idea seems attractive, she tosses it around, works it up and gets it into shape.
And then hard part begins – writing it down and turning it into a plot. But she has something to work with, something to build on.
It doesn’t happen overnight. In her autobiography, Christie talks about how strange it feels to have a book growing inside you, building up all the time. For one of her books, she says, it took six or seven years before it all fell into place. Suddenly, the characters were already there, in her head, just waiting in the wings, and she wrote the book in just three days.
I’d forgotten the thrill of observing something, some interaction, some conversation, some quirk, some incident, and putting it in my notebook for use later until suddenly, it becomes insistent. (Agatha Christie sometimes had five or six notebooks!) I’ve been thinking instead, “I have nothing to say, nothing to write about.”
So, thanks for Agatha Christie, I’m getting out my notebook again. If only I could take a ride on The Orient Express. Well, there is always the Metro line. There are lots of stories there.
I am a box office manager at a theater. Most of the time, I can handle everything with ease – maybe do a little playwriting during a shift, maybe get in a little reading – loved A Gentleman In Moscow – EXCEPT for twice a year when there is a Children’s Show.
The Youth Show has always had about 20 to 25 children in it – the current production has 36, ages 8 to 14 years – and they are wonderful. They work very hard with energy and joy, shepherded about by a few teenagers, and they continue to amaze me. During the rehearsal period, which uses the entire theater – the rehearsal room, the patio, the auditorium and the lobby, I can hear incessant drumming and lines read and songs sung and one day, somewhere in there, enjoyed the synopsis of Titus Andronicus on someone’s phone – EEW, SO GROSS! Later on, I found out 13 facts about Frederick Douglas because one of the girls was writing a paper on him and my computer was up and running. A small girl told me that 2 negative minus 2 negative is 2 positive. Who knew?
The children are supported by their exceptionally hard working and cheerful parents who build the sets, make the costumes, do the makeup, serve the food and clean up and on and on. And it’s all volunteer.
However, I don’t know if most people know this, but children have not only parents and grandparents but uncles and aunts and school teachers and school friends and neighbors and most of them want to come to one or two or three of the shows or maybe to all of them. Some people will reserve 20 tickets at a time. But the parents who book the tickets are dealing with people who change their minds!
And even though we have listed only 70 seats a performance on the online site – an inefficient operation called Ticket Leap – so that we won’t sell out, when those are gone, the rumor immediately goes round that the show is SOLD OUT even when there are 125 seats in the theater. The parents’ pain is palpable. NO!!!!
I am in a booth that is open to the lobby and inevitably when I come in to work, a parent will follow me. I can be taking off my jacket, putting down my purse, opening the place up and someone will say to me, “I know you’re not open yet but do you have two tickets for the Sunday matinee? Ideally, I’d like four.” There will be somebody behind her who says, “Isn’t that show sold out?” and the first person will say, “How would she know? She’s not even open yet!” And I will say, “That show is sold out,” and will hear “You’re kidding me. Right?” Wrong.
The lobby is adjacent to the box office – there is no door or window separating it – and the crowd is LOUD so that the person shouting through the box office window at show time from outside can’t be heard. Over the years, I’ve become somewhat adept at lip reading but am not always sure what’s been said. Opening night is the most chaotic but you would think after the searching for seats and the fear that we won’t have enough, that everybody would be in and happy by at least ten minutes after curtain – when someone will rush in from the auditorium and demand an answer to “So when did we allow reserved seating?!!!!”
After a stint, I lie in bed, thinking about the Monarch Resort Hotel in Pacific Grove just a block from the sea. I’m there, with my husband, watching the flickering embers from the room fireplace and contemplating the May arrival of the Monarch butterflies, which will fill an adjacent lot – thousands of them – none making a sound. It’s a beautiful dream, broken only by the sound of my husband, who teaches school, muttering in his sleep. “Sit down,” he barks.
By Diane Grant
I might have written about this before. It’s been a while and I’m glad we’re all back. Thank you lafpi!
The Palisades Playwrights Reading Festival will be in its ninth year next April. It is produced at the community theater in the Pacific Palisades and for three Tuesdays in April 2018, it will again be presenting staged readings of three new plays.
We ask for submissions until January the 1st and every submission is read by the committee and discussed.
No playwright is paid, and the only money that changes hands is a five dollar fee at the door, which covers the wine and refreshments. The festival now has a growing number of people who come to the readings, which are really well received with a Q&A afterwards, if the playwright wants one. And everybody has a good time.
All of the plays have something interesting about them, the subjects are diverse, and some stick in the mind long after. We had a play about a submarine crew underwater after a nuclear war called The Letter Writer, by Steve Yusi, that people still ask me about. We’ve had romantic comedies, one by Don Gordon, about the issue of two license plays marked PANACHE, one by Jim McGinn, called Vincent O’Shea about a man who never looks older; a look at end of life issues called Reprieves, by David Reuben, a gerontologist as well as a playwright, and a dark comedy by Virginia Mekkelson, called The Losers Club, about an office, a crocodile and Bad Bosses.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter. The theater will not consider producing any of these plays! I don’t think it is because it is a community theater, although it may be. But it is reflective of such a large problem for all of us. I have a play called The Last of The Daytons, which is read over and over. Years ago, it had a wonderful reading at Theatricum Botanicum as part of their Seedlings program. (Thank you, Jennie Webb.) It’s had several staged readings since and an almost production in Memphis.
This year it won the PlayFestSantaBarbara. First place, with prize money! The festival was a weekend affair of workshops and readings of new pieces and the company at Santa Barbara presented a brilliant reading after a very helpful rehearsal with a skilled director. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the theater and I’m so grateful for it.
(Check out their website for new submission dates. The competition is closed for 2018 but will probably be taking 2019 submissions in the New Year.)
So, The Last of the Daytons is ready to go, as are the others we’ve read. The trick is finding the production company that loves it, wants it, and has the money and time to produce it. I’m looking.
Submit, Diane, submit!
In the meantime, if anybody would like to submit a play the Palisades Reading Festival, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Diane Grant
I’ll finish with Walter Kerr’s demonstration of good dialogue – the difference between general language and the way we speak. He says that detail, detail, and more detail is what you are after and quotes two different passages from plays by John Steinbeck – Burning Bright and Of Mice and Men.
I’m putting it in here mostly because I can never read the excerpt from Of Mice and Men without crying. It’s that good!
Burning Bright is about a man who is afraid he can’t have children and he’s talking to a friend:
JOE SAUL: A man can’t scrap his blood-line, can’t snip the thread of his immortality. There’s more than just memory, more than my training and the remembered stories of glory and the forgotten shame of failure. There is a trust imposed to hand my line over to another, to place it like a thrush’s egg in my child’s hand. You’ve given your bloodline to the twins, Friend Ed. But I….
FRIEND ED: Maybe you should go to doctors. There might be a remedy you haven’t thought of.
JOE SAUL: What do they know? There is some dark curse on me and I feel it.
FRIEND ED: On you alone, Joe Saul? Do you feel singled out, pinned up alone? It’s time we sing this trouble out into the air and light, else it will grow like a cancer in your mind. Rip off the cover. Let it out. Maybe, you’re not alone in your secret cave…
JOE SAUL: I know. I’m guess I’m digging like a mole into my own darkness. Of course, Friend Ed, I know it’s a thing that can happen to anyone, in any place or time. And maybe all these have the secret locked up in loneliness.
Steinbeck wrote another play about loneliness and friendship, Of Mice and Men:
His characters, George and Lennie are eating dinner.
GEORGE: There’s enough beans for four men.
LENNIE: I like ‘em with ketchup.
GEORGE: Well, we ain’t got any. Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God Almighty, if I was alone, I could live so easy. I could go get a job of work and no trouble. No mess…and when the end of the month come, I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why I could stay in a cat-house all night. I could eat any place I want. Order any damn thing.
LENNIE: I didn’t want no ketchup.
GEORGE: I could do that every damn month. Get a gallon of whiskey or be in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool. And what have I got? I got you. You can’t keep a job and you lose me every job I got!
LENNIE: I don’t mean nothing, George.
GEORGE: Just keep me shovin’ all over the country, all the time. And that ain’t the worst – you get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out. It ain’t bad people that raises hell. It’s dumb ones. You crazy son of a bitch, you keep me in hot water all the time. You just want to feel that girl’s dress. Just wanta to pet it like it was a mouse. Well, how the hell’d she know you just want to feel her dress? How’d she know you’d just hold onto it like it was a mouse?
LENNIE: I didn’t mean to, George?
GEORGE: Sure you didn’t mean to. You didn’t mean for her to yell bloody hell, either. You didn’t mean for us to hide in the irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us with guns. Alla time it’s something you didn’t mean. God damn it, I wish I could put you in a cage with a million mice and let them pet you.
GEORGE: What do you want?
LENNIE: I was only foolin’, George. I don’t want no ketchup. I wouldn’t eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me.
GEORGE: If they was some here you could have it. And if I had a thousand bucks I’d buy ya a bunch of flowers.
Walter Kerr says, “The difference in the two is in the words. In the first, the words remind us of nothing real: the second is specific and the words crackle.”
So I’m looking for that moment that crackles, that puts down that first sentence, that leads me to a protagonist and an antagonist and a struggle between them. That leads to me a story.
People advise me, “Doesn’t matter what it is. Write a line a day.” “Take a walk.” “Meditate.” “When you are most frustrated, that’s when the ideas will come.” “It happens to everybody.”
So I think I’ll have a glass of wine and watch Chopped.
by Diane Grant
What I did was go back to a book on playwriting written called How Not To Write A Play by Walter Kerr, who was a playwright in the 40’s and 50’s, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a critic for the New York Herald Tribune and the Sunday New York Times.
His mantra is, “Avoid generalities. Be specific.”
The beginning of the work arises from something specific, from seeing something or hearing or remembering something concrete that starts your imagination working.
It can be just a glimpse of someone – an old acquaintance laughing, a man crying in a corner, two women jogging, one talking on the phone. It could be a piece of landscape – that enormous, bright supermoon in November, for example. It could be a snatch of dialogue.
My friend, Madeleine, collects things she’s heard on the street and publishes the results every year during the holidays. She just loves to listen. I love to listen, too and I really recommend carrying around a recorder or a notebook so that you can catch something you see or hear that astounds or delights or amuses or just interests you.
Just recently, I looked at my notebook and found two men walking down the street arguing and the one said, “Of course, your Dad thinks Jesus is magic.” Another day, I heard a woman shouting into her phone, “Well, the drugs aren’t working so I’m not going to pay for them.” I heard a man screaming at his wife, “This is my time. Don’t you understand? This is for me! My time!”
My husband and I were at lunch not long ago and heard a full bearded man talking to someone in a big wide brimmed black hat about how he could get her a radio show with an international following because he knew the King of Jordan’s sister. All he needed was some start up money. The person in the hat never spoke, we never saw the face, just the hat.
Where could that lead me?, I thought. Who was the person in the black brimmed hat? Was she old or young? Maybe she was very beautiful. Was she crying? Was she smiling? Was she listening? Maybe the person in the hat wasn’t a woman!
I could do a little research perhaps. (I’m a great fan of Wikipedia.) Does the King of Jordan have a sister? Aha. He has six and he once had a bit part on Star Trek. King Abdullah’s Sisters.
Walter Kerr’s advice is to let all the pieces start to come together and don’t yet criticize. Keep your eyes and ears open and see where they take you. Put down details. One phrase may lead to another, one association to another, something will jog your memory which will connect to something else, and gradually you will have accumulated material to work with. You will put it all together to tell a story.
Maybe the situation would start me off. Maybe, King Abdullah’s Sisters has nothing to do with the King Of Jordan. Other characters might appear, a waiter who knows that the bearded man has run a tab that has to be paid, or a street musician who serenades them, or a woman who says, “Marguerite! At last!”
I don’t want to start with a theme. I can never enter those contests that ask you to write a ten minute play that has a theme to follow – Holey Moley, Curves Ahead, Time Forgot, etc. My brain freezes.
However, recently, I forgot that and thought I could write a play about the friendship between Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson. (And that’s probably when my writer’s block started).
In the afternoon of October 12, 1952, Paul Robeson visited Einstein at his home on Mercer Street in Princeton and they talked for six hours. Einstein was not well and very discouraged and it’s said that he was re-energized by that visit.
How inspirational, I thought. I kept seeing the last moments of the play with Einstein at the piano and Robeson singing.
I read all I could about them and their mutual activism. And the play just sat there. Dead.
I was trying to write about two historical figures, two geniuses I had nothing in common with, had never met, and never would meet – I, a white woman with no mathematical ability or scientific ability like Einstein’s, who speaks only one language, not twenty, like Paul Robeson. (I do sing.)
But the problem wasn’t that I was trying to write about historical figures. I was starting not with specifics but a theme, a generality. I was going to write about altruism and the efforts of two men to help change the world.
And it didn’t work. Back to the book!