Category Archives: playwriting

the Price of Settling…

by Robin Byrd

There is a cost for everything – the biggest question is how much do you want to pay?

Lately, I have been researching a lot of things that seem random and disconnected – history, geography, post-traumatic stress, women’s issues, world class lies, isolation, and COVID. As a writer, mining for story is a regular event.  The problem, this time, is the mass intake of information and not knowing what it will be used for.  With all this extra knowledge, I feel like I should map directions to a new project.  I am just not sure what that project needs to be.  There is usually an arrow that lights up “go this way” but this time there is no arrow just continuous downloading of information. 

Questions, I am asking myself:

If you find out something was a lie, how do you handle the material that you wrote based on that lie?  Is it now considered a fictional account? 

Do you settle for what you now know to be false and leave it as is or do you correct it? 

What will it cost you to leave it?  Sleepless nights, self-esteem, integrity, or simply a ripple in time…

What is the price of settling, if you do nothing and just move forward?

What is the cost if you go back with what you know now and rewrite?  Rewrite.   That’s a word that triggers anxiety, it’s like losing your whole identity.  Paradigm shifts are hard especially when they are tied to your life and your work.

The act of writing can be an act of purging… I just want to always write my truth even when it changes, even when the bread crumbs that have just now become visible lead me to a place I had no idea existed.

I guess the price of settling to me is worth revisiting… it’s more about getting a sure footing in order to move forward and less about what it costs to get that sure footing…

A visit with a ghost and then, sometime later, rebuilding from ruins

The ruins of our garden shed

by Cynthia Wands

This year we lost our garden shed. We didn’t misplace it, but the loss was complete and unmistakeable. From years of slow moving soil erosion, and a rotting roof, the entire structure fell in on itself. And on it’s side. And down the hillside.

And yes, this does remind me of some of the scripts I’ve worked on. Initial promise. Lots of adjustment. Then total ruin. At least that was the worst case scenario I had in my head.

But back to our shed. The original owner of our little cottage built the garden shed, some eighty years ago. We found out that he was quite a character, even if we never met him in the flesh. Early on, we did have a visit from him as a ghost. But I’ll get to that in just a minute.

This owner, we’ll call him Mister Cottage, was a caretaker for the golf course across the way. He was staff, maintaining the grounds and the buildings, and when they rebuilt the main clubhouse, he reused many of the discarded bits to make our house. This included the old wood frame windows, which shimmer, and tink with cracking sounds when it gets cold. The welded together metals cans that served as an exhaust vent in the attic. And the Buick hand brake that continues its use as a door handle to the deck. He was inventive and determined, and he was successful in building this little cottage with a massive fireplace and a wonky kitchen. The story goes that he died in this house. We should have paid more attention to that part of the story.

But Mister Cottage loved his shed. It housed his giant table saws, and tools and lumber. It didn’t see much use for tending a garden, but it was the engine of his industry at the cottage. And this year, after eighty years of rain, the occasional earthquake, and raccoons, the shed had enough.

The garden shed waits for it’s reincarnation

So, for my playwright friends. You know the part in the process, where we look at the arc of the play, how does it move along, what actually happens, and how does it get there? This is the beginning of all that. It is the beginning of all that hard work.

During this pandemic solitude, Eric and I spent several months rebuilding the little shed. It was a slow, labor intensive process, pieced out by how much we could afford to buy things, and manage the work. Like in writing: IT WAS SO MUCH WORK. Everything took longer, and was harder, more complicated than it seemed.

And there was a strange sense of rewriting history as we worked on it. The table saw had been given away, the cement floor broken up, the roof rebuilt. But the painting part. Yes the painting. That’s when the odd things began to happen.

I wanted to paint the entire shed white. A very nice paint. All white everywhere. Eric helped me set up all the painting props: the tarps, the brushes, the rags. And it took weeks. I would spend hours painting the walls, the sides, the ceiling. And the paint would disappear. As in not show up on the walls, sides or ceiling. I would paint it again. Same thing. I went through 5 gallons of white paint. I had the feeling that Mister Cottage did not approve. Because we had been through this issue of interior decoration years ago.

When we first moved into the house, it was – spartan. We repainted walls, filled it with paintings and mismatched furniture and cooked smelly curry dishes, and listened to loud jazz, and played charades with friends where there was lots of yelling and laughing and banging about.

We started to notice that sometimes, overnight, things were moved around the house. Certain paintings on the walls (and only the paintings with naked people) were always tipped to one side. Things left on the counter appeared on the table. Things on the table appeared on the counter. You could hear the floorboards in the hallway creak, as if someone were walking away from you. You could hear things go bump in the night. Lights suddenly turned on in a room when no one was there.

And sometimes Thaitu, the Abyssinian cat, would jolt up and watch something move across a room, eyes bugged out, and then she would look at us as if we were idiots for not seeing it. Whatever it was. And then one night. I heard bumping and scraping in the kitchen, and got up, and turned on the lights. They flickered for a moment, and Thaitu appeared next to my ankles, fluffed up like a porcupine. The room was cold, really weirdly cold. And I knew he was there, and he was making it known that he was not happy.

Thaitu let me scoop her up, and I held her as I realized I had to be the one to do this. So I told him. I let him know that we loved his little house, and appreciated everything he did to build a home that was lovely and we would always take care of it. And we were going to hang the artwork with the naked people on the walls. And we would have parties and loud music and smelly food. But he had to go now. Because it was our house now.

And he left. The noises stopped. The artwork was left alone. And we thought we were done. Until I started in on the garden shed. And the paint wouldn’t show up.

I would paint a coat of paint and it would vanish. As in not appear. After three coats of paint it finally started to show up.

Three coats of paint. No really. This is what three coats of paint looked like.

After five coats of this damn white paint – it started to appear. We hung new lights. We put up shelves. And hooks and things.

This did remind me, again, of writing plays. Sometimes you write for a character to appear. You write and write and still, they don’t seem to have a form, a color, a point of view. And then, after a lot of rewrites and hearing them talk out loud, they start to show up.

The garden shed starts to show its color. White.

So, here’s where the playwright’s metaphor gets stretched a little thin. The tools had to audition for their place in the shed. No, seriously. My thought was, we only had so much space in the shed. Only so many tools could be included.

Auditions held for The Garden Shed

But much to my surprise, and perhaps related to my hotly contested abandonment issues, every tool was included in the final organization.

All tools are included.
The beginnings of the shed

So. There we are. The Garden Shed of Mister Cottage has begun a new life.

Very much like a new chapter. A new scene. A new act.

It means my garden can be supported with the tools, and the space and intention to do better work.

Just like a playwright.

And with that, I will go pour a glass of wine and celebrate.

The front walkway of the cottage.

Sometimes an image can help you breathe…

by Cynthia Wands

Was it just yesterday – really – yesterday. Saturday, November 7. I felt like I had this heavy pressure on my heart for weeks. But on that day, starting at 8:36 in the morning ~ we had phone calls, and messages, and tweets, and emails and Zoom sessions with family and friends. And that’s when I realized I had been holding my breath.

The 2020 Election had been “called”. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had been declared the President-Elect and the Vice President-Elect.

I watched television from Tuesday, November 3 through Friday, November 6, waiting for the results. It was excruciating. I went to bed, then woke up, then slept on the lumpy couch to watch exhausted newscasters play with projected numbers and revised projected numbers. Could Biden’s numbers go up? Were all the votes counted?

It felt hard to take a deep breath. It was hard to look away, but it was also hard to keep watching. I felt like I had been here before, waiting, for a long time, for something catastrophic or incredibly wonderful to happen. Either or. It felt like four years ago.

Four years ago, Eric, my husband went through a stem cell transplant at the City of Hope hospital. We’d been watching his cancer numbers climb (70% of his bone marrow had multiple myeloma cancer cells) and after a lot of research and soul searching, decided a stem cell transplant was his best choice. That’s when I noticed I was holding my breath. A lot.

During the weeks of preparation for the stem cell transplant (pre-meds, an implanted Hickman port , dozens of blood draws) I learned that all this work they were doing was to get him ready, was to help him survive the days after the transplant.

All his white blood cells would be affected (okay, killed off) by the chemotherapy/transplant procedure, and then, afterwards, the white cells would start to build up again. That was the plan. There would be a countdown of how his body would recover from the transplant, how his white blood cells would come back. According to the treatment plan, 7-10 days after the transplant, we would see his numbers go up.

So he had the transplant. He seemed to do well. But after nine days in recovery at the City of Hope hospital, his white blood count was still 0 -.1 (A normal white blood count is 4.5 – 10)

This was not good. He had several blood transfusions. My twin sister was staying with me and everyday we kept watching his numbers, worried that his recovery wasn’t kicking in. If his white blood count was still 0 after ten days, he would have to be transferred to another hospital setting, and another treatment plan would be suggested.

That’s when I noticed that I was holding my breath a lot. Waiting. Waiting for the numbers to go up. Waiting for the white blood cells to kick in. Waiting for him to survive this stem cell transplant.

And on the tenth day after his transplant, his white blood count rose to .7 – not even 1.

And yes, it was not 1 or 2 or 4.5 – but it rose more than it had in the entire ten day recovery period. So he was allowed to go to the next stage of treatment. I was still holding my breath. After 14 days, he was allowed to go home. Where he has continued to survive, and to go on to different drugs and treatment plans.

But I remember holding my breath. Waiting for numbers. And this election felt like that.

So I followed twitter feeds, and the television, and my phone. We were watching the numbers go up. In Nevada. Arizona. Georgia. Pennsylvania. And this damn Electoral College voting.

On Saturday morning, November 7, at 1:35am I saw this on the television screen:

I decided that I better stop watching the television. I left the lumpy sofa and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up, turned on the television, made some coffee, and then looked at Twitter on my phone. That’s when I saw this:

It was 8:36am in the morning.

I wanted to take a deep breath, but I was afraid my lungs would burst.

I was afraid that I would blink, the moment would pass, and it wouldn’t be true. Or that it would be true, but that it would turn out to be corrupted, and then become sadly untrue .

It was a moment that I had thought would change everything. It was a moment that I thought would feel like relief and validation and a sense of accomplishment. But it didn’t feel that way. I just felt scared to breathe.

As the day went by, it seemed more real. It almost seemed true. I heard from family and friends, and saw dancing in the streets, and heard church bells ringing in Paris in celebration, and saw fireworks in London to cheer the election results. I was able to join the Zoom meeting of the playwrights workshop that I love, and we read scripts where we forgot about an election, and projected votes. And little by little, I felt better.

But truly, it wasn’t until I saw this, on Saturday night, that I was able to really breathe. And cry. And laugh.

The first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States: Kamala Harris

And then there was this image:

The first speeches from President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamal Harris

Here they are. Both of them wearing masks. At a historic moment in history, they are showing up, making the best of it, and trying to breathe.

A good example of what we need to do, to get by in this present moment.

Analysing your script

What do you do after you’ve finished writing your script?

Well, you can have friends read it, which these days can be quick and easy. Just read it on Zoom. A reading is helpful because after weeks of reading it to yourself and laughing at your own jokes, it’s time to let it out into the world to see if people think you’re as funny as you think you are. I say this, because I have found the play and fun again in writing a script.

If you’ll remember from an earlier post, I would write in a situation for my play that may have nothing to do with the story, but had to be present. That for me was a shirtless man. I’m not sure why that started, but it made for interesting storylines and justifications on why this character had to be on stage the entire time. Lately, I’ve found other things that make me giggle and may not make it into the final script, but to get me through the first draft, I need something. Which helped me get through a first draft. But when you have a reading of your play, your listeners may not understand that particular line and don’t find the joy in it that you do. For me that conversation came in the form of working with a dramaturg. I had included a line from a country song as part of dialogue and the dramaturg pointed out how it made her feel about the character and their relationships. Which was interesting because all I was hearing was the complete song with was more than cheating, which is what my dramaturg got from it. With further discussion I found a line that was even better and I imagined it being said out loud.

After the first read through of the script, the dramaturg asked questions of the actors of their understanding of the play. This was supremely helfpul because I was thinking “no one is going to get what I’m saying”, but they did. Success. As I fielded questions and comments from the actors and dramaturg, the storyline became ever more obvious to me and a few more tweeks would satisfy me.

I have one more meeting with my dramaturg, in which we’ll discuss some of the notes she took during the reading. While looking at them, I think of them from the perspective of an actor. I wonder how much of my own story am I bringing in my character decisions that actually are in no way related to the script at hand.

This first read through was also helpful as I have been having a love hate relationship with stage directions. After taking a writing class earlier this year, where the instructor made us keep our stage directions to a minimum, I was all in. Set the scene and let ‘er go. But now, I am adding some back in. Tell me, does it matter that the lines I wrote there is an argument happening, and as the actors read it, it was so tame. Do I need to add she moved aggressively towards her to make the point of a fight? and will the director care about that? will the actors see the fight coming? Do I have to add more !!!!!!!!! to emphasize the point I am trying to make?

Oh, did I mention this is just a 10-minute play. 10-minutes that I felt I really had to stretch to make happen, but after the meeting with the dramaturg I’m up to 11 pages. Woo hoo! You mean you can’t read my mind and see what I’m trying to say? That’s probably better anyway. Right?

So I am off to complete my edit so they can start rehearsal. But there’s just one thing. What’s another way to say “hill of beans” because right now I’m making up colloquialism I’m sure exist. Suggestions appreciated.

Keep writing!

Jennifer

I Miss Going to the Theatre

I miss going to the theatre. 

I hella be reminding myself of the last performance I went to live. Little Shop of Horrors at Pasadena Playhouse with MJ Rodriguez (POSE) and Amber Riley (GLEE). That was October 2019. I can’t even account for missing Parable of the Sower and Talents at UCLA which happened right at the beginning of the pandemic lock in ( I couldn’t go because I couldn’t justify spending the money- parking, tickets, gas and so on was looking at about $150 for a date night with boo thang, but also excessive). Today, I regret not going. I heard it was amazing. I’m worried I won’t have another opportunity to see it again. Or any live performance for that matter. 

I miss going to the theatre. 

Buying themed drinks that never get me drunk. Leaving right before the talkback to have a real talk-back in the parking lot- in safe company of course. Inviting my friends to come with me whose only experience in theatre are liturgical plays. Seeing what they thought about the lights and the set and other things they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to think about had they not been invited fulfills me. Theatre offers community, perspective, and insight to future possibilities, especially shows like Parable of the Sower and Talents which is about surviving the future. And though I can produce and direct the shit out of a stage reading, as my sister Naynay tells me, “It’s just different with all the design elements.” I agree. Sometimes for me, it’s knowing that the cast and crew have worked their ass off on the show for months that were full of meetings, rehearsals, auditions, and the show! 4-12 week run, 3-4 shows a week and each performance different than the one before. AHHHHH I miss it so much. 

I miss going to the theatre. 

But I for sure don’t miss the casual racism I often experienced at the theatre. White people laughing at Ms. Celie being called ugly, or white women expecting me to cry (performatively) when slave owners kill their slaves, or being asked for my ticket 38 times before I reach my seat. I don’t miss watching shit that doesn’t care if me or people who look like me are reflected in the show because we aren’t the target audience. 

I don’t miss not being considered an expert in the field, even after being a published and an award winning playwright. I have my MFA in writing for the performing arts and interned at one of the largest LORT’s in Los Angeles (Center Theatre Group). I’ve had a feature reading of my one act play, the first one act I ever wrote with no revisions made, performed at the Kennedy Center, our country’s national theatre. I spend most of my spare time reading and refreshing my memory of important Black theatrical practices to sharpen my skills for sport. I’m an expert dammit! Though I miss seeing plays live, I do not miss the culture of the theatre scene who constantly reminds us that their love and respect for our work is conditional (with monetary value and bragging rights of course) and has nothing to do with Black people. UGH! I know I’m not alone here. 

I don’t miss theatre culture. 

I didn’t need for another Black person to die at the hands of state power to see that theatre companies don’t give a shit about us. It wasn’t their silence or lack of change in leadership that told me but one look at their staff and season lineup and it’s clear. It bothers me and it has been bothering me for some time now. It bothered me in community college when I asked the director of the department if we could do Ruined by Lynn Nottage and she claimed we didn’t have the people for it (without ever looking). It bothers me come February, when my story is all of a sudden “important” and need to be shared, just in time for Black History Month. As a playwright, it all messed with my head and made me feel like I’m not good enough or working hard enough on my craft. I would compare myself with young Black playwrights who are winning the game right now like Michael Jackson (2020 Pulitzer Prize winner of Drama for hit musical A Strange Loop), Jermey O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play). I’d be hella hatin’ on them like “It’s because they went through the white institutional canons of literature like Columbia and TISH.” followed by anger that my university did not get my shit on Broadway and then embarrassment, that I was salty in the first place of those whom work I cherish and value. Then I start blaming myself again… I’m no good. 

I started reading an anthology on the Black Arts Movement (BAM) some time last year and it really brought me out of this theatrical funk. Amari Baraka, founder of the movement, felt the same way back in the 60’s. Inspired by Malcom X and John Coltrane (the way I’m inspired by Dr. Sadiya Hartman and rapper Noname) BAM was born. Baraka was exhausted of the limited range of Black art that can only exist under the thumb of oppressors. He knew his work had value that was being overlooked because of it’s radical anti-state political messages that sought to make theatre goers uncomfortable (as racism made him feel). BAM is my shit though. It realigned my mission and really forced me to ask myself what I wanted as a playwright. Do I want to make a career out of being on Broadway/Off Broadway and becoming as big-time as I can be? Do I want to eradicate white supremacy from Black art? What can I do to ensure future survival using my power as a creative and my writing as a weapon, foundation and testimony? Today, a lot of people never even heard of BAM though will praise the art that emerged from it (Soul of a Nation art exhibit which is full of visual art that emerged from BAM or inspired by it, placed in museums that once considered such work intolerable with no mass appeal). Poets, playwrights, actors, painters and so many other fine artists gathered to seek refuge and peace with like minded company of their time and more than anything, that’s what I want: artistic community. 

Developing Black Light Arts Collective (BLAC) has been the most rewarding experience of my life. The goal is to put on plays that centers a Black audience. Host learning engagements that centers a Black audience. Read and engage with work that centers a Black audience. It’s so specific and doesn’t have to call for BIPOC participation because we are BIPOC, mostly B. I’m so proud of the collective and what we are doing and who we are becoming. We launched on June 19th (Juneteenth) 2020 with a rewritten virtual performance of my one act play Comb Your Hair (Or You’ll Look Like a Slave) directed by Chicago hotshot Kyra Jones, who later partnered with collective member and young Hollywood professional screenwriter Angelica Rowell for a Pilot Writing workshop where 30 Black folks participated to strengthen their craft. We hosted a phenomenal poetry workshop with published living icon Morgan Parker who offered wisdom and new work to the community (where they also received Parker’s book of poetry Magical Negro for attending the workshop for free). We are currently preparing for winter with workshops that centers sustaining mental healthiness during the holidays with a team of mental health professionals who are also artists. This january, we will host a free workshop led by the creative nonfiction mastermind, Hanif Abdurraqib (where we will also offer free resources). We are launching our first zine collection at the end of October where we gathered some of the most electrifying work by local Black artists to speak on the 5 human senses and honestly, it’s the bomb (like y’all need to be sure to get a copy when it’s out for real, for real). To keep my passion for theatre and all Black art ignited, I co-host a weekly radio show on Radio Tirado with my good friend and theatre expert Erika Alejanndra called New Black Math. Named after the famous essay by Suzan Lori Parks, each week we discuss Black theatre and the ways in which we fit in and want to stand out. It’s my favorite thing to do right now.   

I miss the theatre. 

But more importantly, I miss the possibilities of it’s creativity being fully unleashed and shared amongst marginalized people groups, saying “I see you, shit I am you,” offering itself as a sacrifice of love and reflections.

Art is powerful in that way.

I need that.

Perspective

by Analyn Revilla

One, among many, memories of my father was he was a collector of things!  He collected books, collected coins, watches – he just never threw anything away.  But his worst collection was his video recording machines (Beta and VHS) and they were all hooked up to the TV – all seven or eight of them.  It was way too many for one household and one man.  He was the master of these machines, and no-one was allowed to use them.  This irked me to the max, and I asked him why he needed so many video recorders and pretty much alluded that it was a kind of sickness.  Needless to say, you can picture, that he and I butted heads on everything.

So what I was trying to tell my Dear Father was to get perspective.  Perspective is everything in terms of figuring out if you’re crazy, normal or out of this world.  

A few days ago I commented to someone, “Hey, there must’ve been many periods in history when there’s been a pandemic, and probably complicated by social issues.  With my limited knowledge of history my example is the Middle Ages with the Bubonic Plague and the land owners and serfdom.  Here we are again, pretty much playing the same story.  

I am not downplaying the personal stories of loss, humiliation and suffering.  We are all experiencing the effect of the freak show.  Each and every story is real and deserve empathy.  How else can we grow as individuals and as a community of human beings?  We have the capacity to evolve because we’re gifted with tools to be more than what we think we are.  But we have to use those tools to transform to a higher level of consciousness.  Again, imagination is a tool, and another one is perspective.

Without perspective we can lose ourselves in the vortex of emotions and confusion.  Meditation is another tool to observe from within what’s happening inside and out; and outside and in.  Knowledge is another tool.  Having a perspective of history and the movement of humans from hunters to gatherers to information workers, artists, farmers and service providers allows us to let go of the fear that we’re not enough, and there’s not enough to go around.  

A recent make-over of my abode in South Los Angeles resulted in sorting through boxes of books, memorabilia, clothes, shoes, CDs, laptops, musical instruments (including seven guitars and downsized from a larger collection).  Now talk about the fruit not falling far from the tree.  I am my father :-).  I’m able to recognize the heap of things I’ve collected and see that I am repeating the same story.

And I can actually relax and let go of my anxiety that I’m not normal.  My father was normal.  I’m OK and he was OK and you’re OK too.

The Art of the Cover Letter

by Kitty Felde

There’s only one thing worse than trying to write a synopsis of your play: writing the cover letter that goes with it.

Many theatres and contests have moved to online submissions with no place to fill in the extras that don’t fit the categories in the form. That’s a shame. Standardized submission forms eliminate any opportunity for you to show more of yourself, making it more difficult to stand out from the crowd.

But if you’re given the opportunity to submit by email – or even help the U.S. Postal Service survive by sending a paper script – you need a great cover letter.

For years, I dashed off a couple of paragraphs in the “enclosed please find a copy of my play XZY for your reading pleasure.” Then my editor – the guy I married a million years ago – read me the riot act. I got a half hour lecture on the importance of cover letters. He should know. He spends days crafting the perfect submission letter to go with his book manuscripts. So I asked him to help me with my submission email for a new Fina Mendoza mystery novel. As a result, I got two kind, but personal rejections, but also a pair of “send me more”s.

Children’s books are not plays, but the cover letter format works for both. I’ve pasted my latest cover letter below and highlighted the elements that (I think) make it work.

Dear Mary Jane, – I think in this day and age, we can get away with first names.

I’m Kitty Felde, author of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” and host of the Book Club for Kids and producer of The Fina Mendoza Mysteries podcast. – It never hurts to lead with your most recognizable credit. Since publishers are looking for writers with their own “brands” these days, this is what I chose to include at the top. For a play, I might instead list my most current production or the best-known theatre or director.

Now you get to brag for a paragraph or two:

These months of lockdown have at least been good for both my writing and my podcasting. Because Covid has changed everything, especially live theatre, do acknowledge the existence of the pandemic.

On my multiple award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast, a trio of young readers discuss a novel, interview the writer, and hear a passage from the book read by a celebrity. When the schools shut down this spring, both teachers and parents discovered the podcast. Our episode downloads exploded, jumping more than 200%. Then The New York Times profiled us, writing: “This virtual gathering space for young readers feels more vital than ever in the social distancing era.” And even before the pandemic, The Times of London named us one of the top ten kidcasts in the world. – Go ahead and include links to your reviews and website. Why not? They don’t have to click on it, but they might.

I also adapted “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” into an episodic podcast. This summer, I was invited to make a presentation at the high-profile Bay Area Book Festival – virtually – to talk about both the book and the process of turning it into a podcast. In addition, right before the entire city shut down, the Los Angeles Public Library hosted me at a live author event. And then after the shutdown, I was featured in a “LAPL Instagram Live Author Conversation.” – Don’t be a “girl,” too humble to talk about your accomplishments. Brag, brag, brag. Nobody else is going to toot your horn for you.

Now, in my old journalism days, this would be called “burying the lede.” You may want to put this paragraph at the top, but like any good playwright, I chose instead to set the scene, introducing the characters (me) and then launch into the story – or in this case, the reason for writing:

I have completed the second book in my Fina Mendoza mysteries series set on Capitol Hill. My contract with my current publisher just expired at the end of August. The rights to the first book in this series reverted to me at the end of the contract.

And here’s where I mention the specifics about why this particular publisher – or theatre – is perfect for my work.

I’d very much like to bring both books, and subsequent ones in the series, to a new publisher – one with a track record of getting books into libraries and classrooms.

I’m quite proud of my work on the first book in the series. I secured fine blurbs from the chief tour guide of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, several members of Congress, NPR First Lady Susan Stamberg, and children’s writers Leah Henderson, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, and Gail Carson Levine. I did more than a dozen book talks at various venues in both Washington and Los Angeles. And I got a terrific review from Kirkus. – More bragging. It may be overkill, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Here’s where you pitch the play or book itself. Note that I didn’t give a blow-by-blow of all the action in the story, just the highlights:

The second book is called State of the Union: A Fina Mendoza Mystery. In “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza,” 10-year-old Fina, a recent transplant from Los Angeles to Washington, solves the mystery of the legendary Demon Cat of Capitol Hill. In “State of the Union,” our intrepid young detective must track down a mysterious bird who poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. It’s also the tale of tensions in the Mendoza family as Fina’s outspoken grandmother joins the family in Washington, combat in Congress as lawmakers struggle with immigration reform, and even rivalries between a pair of congressional dogs that Fina walks after school.

When you submit a non-fiction proposal, you include an extensive marketing plan. Do you have a marketing plan for your work? Something that – besides the excellence of the writing – will help a theatre sell tickets? Or in this case, sell books?

I believe this series can be quite successful for three reasons. First, it fits solidly into the middle-grade mystery novel genre. Second, our protagonist is a smart, strong, brave young Latina who can serve as a role model at a time when many parents – Latinx and otherwise – are looking for such a heroine. Third, it’s just the thing for parents who want their children to learn a little something about the U.S. Constitution and national politics and the ways of Washington. There’s quite a dearth of books for young readers, both fiction and non-fiction, that tackle the workings of our government. That’s why the Library of Congress, the gift shop for the House office buildings, and at least three of D.C.’s independent bookstores carried the first book in the series.

Got a second play that a theatre might be interested in? Why not pitch it, too? You never know if they a project under contract that’s too similar to your first masterpiece that you pitched earlier in the letter:

I also wanted to let you know that in addition to my Fina Mendoza mysteries, I’ve been working on a second mystery series also set in Washington, DC. This one takes place at the turn of the last century. Our amateur detective is Quentin, the youngest child of President Theodore Roosevelt. He terrorized the White House with spit balls on the Andrew Jackson portrait, bringing a pony up to the second floor in the elevator to visit a sick sibling, and dropped snowballs on the heads of the Secret Service. I’ve finished the first few chapters of Murder on the Potomac: A Quentin Roosevelt Mystery.

Get personal. Don’t be afraid to show something about yourself. This paragraph includes a bit of bragging, a bit of marketing, and an admission that I’m new at this genre:

This mystery writing thing is a sort of second act for me. I had a long career as a public radio journalist, with NPR and KCRW and KPCC in Southern California, including stints as a field reporter, U.S. Capitol correspondent, and talk show host. Three times my journalist peers named me the “Los Angeles Radio Journalist of the Year.” And I’d like to think I’m still something of a public figure in Southern California – which, as you know, is both the largest book market in the country and home to millions of Latinx.

Remind them to look for the attachment:

I’m attaching an e-manuscript for the second Fina Mendoza mystery. I would also be happy to snail mail you a copy of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.”

It’s always nice to end with a compliment:

Thanks so much for your consideration. I’ve so enjoyed diving into the mystery genre. And I would love to continue to build my writing career with the help of a wonderful agent like you at XYZ Representation.

Most sincerely,

Kitty Felde
Phone number

Don’t be afraid of length in your cover letter. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just skim to get to the bottom.

These are just my thoughts about what to put in a cover letter. I’d love to see what works for you!

Reminiscents

by Constance Strickland

Granny passed away Saturday, September 5th, 2020 in the evening surrounded by her kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren. A Titan who only spoke truth and never bent on who she was. A powerful woman who worked hard her whole life, but I didn’t know her whole story. I listened and knew the basics and granny never spoke the whole past, it came in pieces and I never got her full story. I can only honor my granny by urging other women to tell their stories. Do not leave your story up for grabs nor to be washed away by time. As I continue to absorb my mother’s story; I find and tell my story and through those actions, I may just tell my granny’s story too. Tell your story even if it seems you have no story at all. Archive your life, leave it for the future, leave it for those who come after. Undisputedly.

I come from a stock of women who tell their own stories in code. 

Each never fully aware of their self-power. 

Nomads__

Who walk with their ideas of freedom stamped upon their foreheads.

So__

I paint my face to reveal the brutal scars of war.

The mirror no longer my enemy-

is now, my friend.

I recognize the contour features of my ancestors,

My reflection revealing how much I can bear.

Memories of tribal wars, broken stories, and abandon homes.

Yet, what still to lives in memory is

the deep crescendoing laughter of song, and dance filled with hope.

For now__

I fight to eat and the chance to dance. 

I begin to realize my reflection is her face.

I know the woman who appears before me.

Silent. She does not speak. 

Silent. I do not speak. 

This stranger so familiar

I can’t touch her. 

She is cold. I reach out to hold her 

 I can’t reach her…

this woman

who looks like me.

What lingers, a women’s fear of death and life?

No___ 

She still remembers:

There once was a time when she came through space like fire!

A bright, fierce, unstoppable Afro haired girl

covered in wildflowers-

wearing…

a tattered dress, listening to an old beat-up boombox.

Soooo freeeee

Addie Mae Brown

The Ritual of Self-Destruction

by Chelsea Sutton

I’ve been having a hard time focusing my thoughts lately. When they do coalesce, they tend toward the negative. My ego has been battered and beaten in the wind. About a year and a half ago, I had a decent sense of who I was, what I wanted to do, and where I was going.

Now? I spend most days swirling in negative thoughts.

I’m very sure my friends are tired of asking how I am and what they get is a heavy sigh and a “Oh, I’m fine…” thick with the drama of someone who has just survived an island of dinosaurs.

And while negative thinking does not help one feel particularly motivated or empowered to write that next Great American Play that could not possibly be produced before 2025 at this point, positive thinking feels rather naive right now.

Look at the Goldblum and forget.

But it is not positive thinking I need. I’m realizing that before the pandemic – and actually months before that, in spring 2019 – I was doing okay because I had ritual and routine in my life.

I grew up Lutheran and did the Confirmation thing and the teaching Vacation Bible School thing and mostly hated it all, but continued to pray up until maybe my early 20s. Theater became my new church around that time – it was my ritual, my routine, the way I connected with myself. And now…?

Before the pandemic, I was struggling with finding some solid ground in this new chapter of life. But one thing I kept doing was driving to my grandmother’s house is Anaheim once a week and spending 12 hours shopping, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. She needed the extra help, and I felt useful. Since the pandemic, she is living at my parents’ house (which was always the plan) and that routine fell away…

I didn’t stop praying because I stopped believing in God or the interconnectedness of the universe or ghosts or whatever. I’m skeptical, but I also just bought two Tarot decks and watched the whole of the new Ghost Hunters on Hulu. So, you do the math. But the ritual of praying stopped having meaning for me. Before the pandemic, going to a theater had started to wane in meaning too. Even the act of writing feels more like work than magic.

I’ve defined my life in terms of being “a writer.” My whole identity is wrapped in that. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when certain things don’t work out, when Theatre seems to have said “no thank you” to me in general, and when our industry is on a perpetual pause, AND the film industry, AND all of our terrible dirty laundry is being aired out, one has to wonder if defining oneself by THIS is such a good idea.

My routine these days is just my to do list. Endless check boxes that lead to nothing.

When all your meaning, ideas of success, and curiosity is wrapped up in things that are outside your control, where does that leave you?

We are in a period of self destruction. And rebuilding. On both macro and micro levels.

I have had these three tabs open for the last couple days in preparation of writing this blog.

Highest grossing movie this week was Jurassic Park. A movie nearly 30 years old. An indication that the Hollywood machine has halted….and that stories of self destruction are pretty damn relevant.

This week, Center Theater Group laid off half of its workforce.

The PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship, which was a life-changer for my career and, well, life, has been canceled for next year. It’s unclear if there will ever be the money and support to get it going again.

These are all twisted up together in my head. It has something to do with finding meaning and priorities and community. Something to do with a ritual of destruction. Something to do with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park actually being a hero and not the villain like we are led to believe.

Last time I was at my grandmother’s house, I found this photo (below). This, perhaps, more than anything else right now, feels like this moment to me. A world overexposed and erased. But enough of an airplane left to fly into the fog.

Life finds a way.

The Search for Water…

THE LONG HOT SUMMER

At rise, inside a 1960s apartment building.  Hundred-degree days, a waning water supply and the dire need to stay in a creative space, the protagonist gathers the almost empty bottles; she pours them into one bottle, scavenges for more in bags around her home.  She can make it to the day before payday if she rations herself…  Inside an old purse she finds a five-dollar bill stuck between two receipts.  PROTAGONIST breaks out in a victory dance, slow and off beat, dehydration is cruel.

PROTAGONIST (singing)

HOT DAMN, WATER, WATER

WHAT? WHAT? WATER, WATER

                           (pause)

——–

I could have never imagined that the world would start to have hints of the BIRD BOX or the BOOK OF ELI real time and that in the midst of “working from home,” the competing stress factor would be water or the lack thereof.  So yes, I danced around a bit then promptly left for the store to restock.

The dehydration lasted a few days longer than expected, symbolically tied to the minimal writing I have been doing.  My whole self has been crying out for community…  I took a webinar on grief through Hedgebrook just for that reason.  The Webinar, “The Sixth Stage: Possibilities for Awe and Wonderment When Writing Grief” with Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili, and its ‘holding space’ was a profoundly refreshing experience.  Hedgebrook offers a lot of webinars that can be a source of gathering during this time.  This was my first one which I took on grief because I seem to be living there as of late.  Grief encompasses real estate like a swarm of bees heading home to the honeycomb looking for the sweet refuge of its cavernous walls.  Hovering over loss like a tornado, it’s the bitch that won’t go away easily, not without a fight, not without drawing the last bit of blood.  With the death of one of my cousins and one of my dear friends, my body which has been keeping score has begun to scream, “do over, do over.”  There’s no such pleasure…

What’s left is what’s left. Or, is there a way to change something – some part – of this madness?

Maybe the do over is in the expelling of the stinger and the adding of salve and alcohol.  It does help when you write about it.  Even when there’s so much of it that it can fill two lifetimes, writing moves it on it way.

I am missing the pieces of me frozen in the walls, my fingers and toes have started tingling, waking up, moving, they don’t know there’s no such thing as do over’s.  Maybe I won’t tell them, maybe I’ll just wait and see if this leads to deep welled water… deeper than this grief. Maybe it’s flowing upward from underground just waiting for me to believe so it can burst forth…

There is a wonderful article “Letter from Oakland: Black Motherhood in Sleepless Times by Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili on the Literary Hub site at https://lithub.com/letter-from-oakland-black-motherhood-in-sleepless-times/