Asking Characters Questions

THE TRUTH OF THE MOMENT

The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.  To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it.  An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played.  This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution.  The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving.  This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next.  You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.

PRACTICE

Answer these questions for the other major character in your scene.  If you don’t know what the actual answer is, use your intuition and role playing ability and from what you do know project answers.

A. Who is the love in this person’s life?  Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with which he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice.

B. What is this person fighting for?  What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.  

C. What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?  

D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.  Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines).  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.

E. What opposites exist in this person?  What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need). 

F.  What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?  Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?  What is it?

G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?  Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.

H. What is the source of this person’s importance?  Reputations, money, power, title?  Answer that for your subject.   

I. With what place does the person have a close association?  It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car.

J. What is intriguing about this person?  (When I think about my father, how similar we are and how different we are fascinate me.)

–Michael Shurtleff, Audition

USING OPPOSITES

 Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and my fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality. The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  Find romance; it’s everybody’s secret dream.  Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.

–John Lehman

EMOTIONAL BEAT

PRACTICE 

A.

The scene:                  A man and a woman are discussing the future of                   their relationship.

Man’s objective:          He’s very upset because he fears that she wants to break up with him.

Woman’s obj:              She realizes that she no longer loves him.  However, she has some feelings for him, and she doesn’t want to hurt him.  As gently as possible she’s breaking up with him.

B.

The scene:                  A mortgage banker has just informed an applicant that her request for a loan has been denied.

Applicant’s obj:            She’s fallen in love with a house that she desperately wants.  She’s trying to convince the banker to process the loan.

Banker’s objective:     This applicant’s credit report shows a history of delinquent payments, and she just can’t take a chance on her.

C.

The scene:                  Two hosts of a party have just said good-bye to their last guest.  It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Player one obj:            This person’s exhausted and would like to go to bed now and leave the mess until tomorrow.

Player two obj:            This person is wide-awake and wants to clean up everything and recap the events of the evening.

THE EMOTIONAL BEAT

Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.

–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story

THE TRUTH OF THE MOMENT 

The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.  To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it.  An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played.  This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution.  The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving.  This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next.  You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.

ACTION!

To act means to do, so you must always have something specific to do onstage or you will immediately stop acting.  This is why physical action is so very important for the actor.  Simply defined an action is the physical pursuance of a specific goal.  Physical action is the main building block of an actor’s technique because it is the one thing that  the actor can consistently do onstage.   

1.         An action must be physically capable of being done.

For example, “pleading for help” is something you can begin to do immediately.  Everyone knows how to do it.  On the other hand, “pursuing the American dream” is not something you can pick up and do at a moment’s notice.

 2.         An action should be fun to do.

By fun we don’t mean something that makes you laugh, but something that is truly compelling to you.  This includes things you might never actually do offstage, but that appeal to your sense of play.  The point is to find the action you want to do. 

 3.         An action must be specific.

            Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.”  The specificity of an action

such as “extracting a crucial answer” will bring you to life much more than the vagueness of “finding out something.” 

4.         The test of an action must be in the other person.

An action is the physical pursuance of a specific objective, and that specific objective must have to do with the other person.  In other words, by looking at your partner, you should be able to tell how close you are to completing your action. 

5.         An action cannot be an errand.

An errand is an action that has no test in the other person.  “Delivering a message” is not a good action because you do not have to look at your partner to see if you have accomplished it.  Too quickly and easily accomplished, an errand is boring for you to perform and for the audience to watch.  The action must be something it is possible to fail at; you cannot fail at an errand. 

6.           An action should not presuppose any physical or emotional state.  You can’t artificially induce a physical or emotional state (e.g., hunger, anger, sorrow, drunkenness), because they are not within your control.  Any action requiring you to put yourself into a certain state before or during a scene will force you to act a lie.  “Making a jerk know how mad I am” is a bad action because you cannot do it unless you are angry.  A better action would be “putting a jerk in his place.” 

7.         An action cannot be manipulative.  This type of action gives rise to the attitude that “I can do whatever I want to you, but nothing you do is going to affect me.”  In other words, you make up your mind ahead of time how you are going to play the scene and allow nothing to sway you.  An action such as “making someone cry” is manipulative.  An action such as “forcing a friend to face facts” might very well make your  partner cry, but the crying is more likely to be the honest response to your carrying out your action, rather than the result of your manipulation. 

8.         The action must have a “cap.”  The cap is that specific thing you are looking for that will mean that you have succeeded at your action.  For example, “to get a friend’s forgiveness”  is an action with a cap.  You know when your partner has forgiven you by his behavior toward you. 

AS IF’S 

An “as if” helps the actor gain a fuller understanding of the action he/she has chosen for a given scene.  It also gives the actor a clear sense of the consequences of not completing his action–which is to say, it sets the stakes in the playing of the scene.  The way to achieve these things is not by investing in an emotional state, but by crating for yourself a tangible, personal stake in the action you have chosen.  The means of bringing the action home to you is the “as if.”  The “as if” is a memory device which is a way of sparking yourself to invest fully in the scene.

examples

action:   to implore a loved one to give me another chance.

as if:       I’m persuading my fiancee not to break off our relationship after she discovered I had an affair while she was away. 

action:   to show an inferior who’s boss.

as if:         my new secretary started reeling off her rules to me the first day on the job and Ii told her she’d better follow my rules or she’d be looking for a new job.

 action:   to make amends for bad behavior.

as if:       I’m apologizing to my best friend’s parents for showing up roaring drunk at their twenty-fifty anniversary party and making a loud-mouthed ass of myself. 

The “as-if” is there to get you away from the fiction of the script so that you can find parallels directly accessible to you and thus easy to act on.  Once you have used the “as if” to personally invest in a given scene, the lines and attendant physical activities therein are simply tools to aid you in executing your action.

The great debate throughout the history of acting is whether the actor must feel what his or her character is ostensibly feeling at any given moment.  The bottom line is: What does it look like to the audience?  The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.  At a certain point the writer may require and actress to sob over the death of the lover of the character she is playing.  All that is necessary is that the audience believes you are upset.  The audience will not know hat you have said you are doing in your scene analysis.  You may be playing a scene in which your character is dealing with his girlfriend, but your “as if” has to do with your brother.  What the audience sees is someone with a need to get something from the other person in the scene, an it’s understanding of that need will be based on the elements of the play, since that is the only information it has to go on.  The audience comes to the theater set to believe the story.  The actor comes to the theater to help tell the story, not by tricking himself into believing things he knows aren’t true, but by applying the tools he has developed to create an illusion.

                                                                     –A Practical Handbook for the Actor

Notes Left Behind

from NOTES LEFT BEHIND: THE LANGUAGE OF SUICIDE

By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999)

A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck.

Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.” I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window.

I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could understand it I would be in possession of something profound.

TIPS

description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge) use of motion

introducing characters (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or action,

description or inner response that identifies the opposition

dialogue: summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden

                   dialogue (subtext)

                   Dialogue “do’s and don’ts

                        Do

                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use  structure to shape the sequence of what is said                

                       don’t

                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken (no subtext)                       

 developing characters:  pick minimum characters to convey scene                

events trigger action, action leads to discovery

ACTING DYNAMICS

John Lehman pretending to be David Mamet

     The story may not be credible to someone who has gone blind but the subject is the realationship between the husband and wife and that dynamic seems true. In order for something to be dramatic there needs to be a tension between people in a scene that makes the audience wonder “Who is going to win, who is going to lose.” The characters (author) uses whatever they have to get their way. Tone of voice, body language, facial reaction. And readers hang on these elements as clues to the outcome.

     One of my favorite books for writers isn’t even directed to them. It is called “Handbook for Actors” by NYU students of the playwrite David Mamet. Now he has written numberous books about writing and about the theater, but this one by people he was teaching cuts to the chase in a way his other explanations don’t. The book lists some terms for creating drama on stage that I think work just as well on paper. Here they are. We will talk more about them and apply them to some examples in upcoming posts. But first read through the list and think about what these mean in terms of your own writing.

TERMS 

action:  The physical pursuance of a specific goal. 

analysis:  The process whereby the action of a scene is determined.  It is derived from  these three questions.

1.   What is the character literally doing?

2.   What is the objective of what the character is doing in the scene?

3. What is the action like to me?  It’s as if…

 as-if:  The answer to question 3 of the analysis. It is a simple projection that makes specific for you the action you have chosen in step 2 of the analysis; it is a device serving to bring the action to life for you.

beat:   A single unit of action.  A scene (chapter) may have one or more of these. 

beat change:  The point during a scene where a new action begins. It occurs when a new piece of information or an event takes place over which the character has no control and which by its very nature must change what the actor is doing. 

cap:   The event or condition indicating that an actor has succeeded in his action.

 character:   The illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the writer and director combined with the actions and externals of the actor. 

given circumstances:   Any piece of information or activity written into the work or demanded by the director comprising the imaginary framework within which an action is performed. 

living in the moment: Reacting impulsively to what the other character(s) in a scene does, according to the dictates of your action. 

objective:  The single element that defines what the character is doing in a scene, without which the scene will not work. 

subtext:  What is going on underneath the text. For example, if on the day your husband ides, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of his death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is everyday. Nothing of the subtext is ever going to occur unless the actor puts it there. 

through-action (goal):   The single overriding action that encompasses all the actions an actor pursues from scene to scene, from the beginning of a play to the end.

WRITING OUT LOUD

  

Here are four quotes that I pretty much live by:

 

“That which hinders your task is your task.”       –Sanford Meisner 

“Literary art does not exist in books.  It’s locked up in them, yes.  But because of its unique nature, this art form which is shared by writers and their readers is actually experienced in the theater of the readers’ and writers’ imaginations.” 

                                      –Robert Bahr, Dramatic Technique in Fiction 

“Characterizations fail because they ignore, or simplify, the complexity of the human spirit.  I think you learn by self-examination.  Within you are the seeds, the possibilities, of all the people on the whole face of the earth…  In you are cruelty, rascality, perversion, and, I’ll add, the opposite sex.  And in you are nobility and goodness and regularity and all the virtues.  The one difference between your endowment and that of any of your fellows is one of degree.  Some of you won’t believe this, but I think it’s true.  The difference is only one of degree.  Man and woman are joined in the human spirit, and villain and hero, and the ugly and the beautiful.  So learning human nature is learning yourself.  The writing of a novel is self-exploration, self-discovery, self-realization…”

                                    –A.B. Guthrie

 “Go for broke.  Don’t do the scene like an exploratory operation: It is life-and-death surgery.”

                                 –Michael Shurtleff, Audition

What I want to do now is share somethings I have learned about writing from studying  acting techniques. But first let me give you two one-minute plays. 

NEW YORK TELEPHONE CONVERSATION by David Johnston 

The two actors are separated on stage.  The woman is dialing a telephone.  The other phone rings.  The man picks it up.

HE:      Hello?

SHE:   You louse!  Creep!  Son-of-a-bitch!  You break up with me over the machine!  Over the machine!  I wish I had a gun!  I wish I believed in the taking of human life!  I’m seeing you as a hamburger on my plate!  Chew, chew, chew!  I’m seeing you as a pair of shoes!   No, wait.  I didn’t man that.  It’s just that you made me so mad.  You really wounded me by not talking to me in person.

 HE:      I’m sorry.

SHE:    What? 

HE:      I’m sorry.  I treated you in a shabby way.  I should never have broken up with you over the phone. 

SHE:    You’ve never said you were sorry before. 

HE:      Things had ended and I treated the whole situation in a cowardly manner. 

SHE:    Right. 

HE:      I’m not worth the salt in your tears. 

SHE:    No.  You’re not. 

HE:      Forgive me.  It’s the only way we can both get on with our lives. 

SHE:    I forgive you. 

HE:      I’ll always love you. 

Both hang up their phones 

SHE:    Dammit.  I still love him. 

HE:  Now, who the hell was that?      

                                                            (CURTAIN)       

EATING HOMELESS PEOPLE by John Lehman 

The setting is around back of the house. A man is standing next to a window ledge that is about shoulder high. On it is an imperious, tortoise-haired cat.

CAT:  What I want is obedient people!

MAN: Listen, Madeline, the bowl wasn’t empty. There already was food in it.

CAT:  When I come to this window I expect more than food. I want some attention.  Attention must be paid!

MAN: When you jump up on the window, I get up from…

CAT:  Didn’t you see that Tina Turner movie? Do you think Hillary Clinton has to knock on the outside of a restaurant window when she’s hungry?

MAN: Yes, but Tina Turner is a big entertainer; and Hillary Clinton ’s the first lady. And you…you’re just…

CAT:  I am just what? Why don’t you go ahead and say it? I am just…the Artist inResidence…

MAN: Artist in residence?

CAT: …bringing grace and beauty into your shabby lives.  And do you think Tina or Hillary would eat something called, Alley Cat?

MAN: It says, it’s,” just good food.”

CAT:  Would you eat “just good food” if it were called, Homeless People?

MAN: I guess not.

CAT:  You don’t know how bad it is do you? You’re living in a world of tripping, sprawling, snoring, peeing, pooping d-o-g-s.

MAN: I’ll try to be more attentive.

CAT:  Come when you’re called, damn it.

MAN: Yes, Madeline.

CAT:  And no new dog until you get rid of an old one.

MAN: Yes, I understand.

CAT:  And those overnight visitors—your children—taking all the good rooms while I’m out here in the cold. That’s got to stop too.

MAN: OK, OK.

CAT: Let’s get this straight once and for all. Just what part of “meow” don’t you understand? 

                                                                        END

The following was a submission to Rosebud. Read it and then let me ask you a question about it.

 From Venice, Late Summer by Vincent Zandri, Rosebud, Winter 1997

      “Feel this one,” my wife, Margo, tells me. Her voice is soft but insistent. I hear the movement of her hands on the table in this café, the rain steady and loud against the canopy above us, but gentle against the cobblestone pavement on the square. I hear glasses clinking, plates sliding across the small, metal tables. I hear the shuffle of forks and knives. I hear the steady murmur of voices, but I listen only to my wife.

     “Try harder,” she says.

     I cup my hands and lay them side beside, palms up, on the table. She touches my fingertips and I feel the tingle of her fingernails and the cold metal table against the back of my hands and knuckles.

     “Look at me,” she says.

     I begin to laugh. She tells me to keep my head straight, and it suddenly comes to me: my eyes are drifting again.

     “Here, Nick..” She takes hold of my hand with her warm, soft hand. She sets an object into my palm, presses it into the skin and folds my fingers around it like a fist. She takes her hand away. “What do you really feel?”

     What I touch is simple: a small metallic band and a jagged stone—Margo’s wedding ring.

     What I feel is not so simple. My wife of three years makes me feel like a child learning to speak, learning to walk. What I want to say is this: after six months of total blindness I can do better. I’ve made some progress. I mean, I remember the simple shape of a wedding band.

     “I’m ready,” I tell Margo. “Ready for something more difficult than wedding rings…”

Now when I called the author and told him we wanted to use this piece, he told me that would be fine but there was something I should know. He said he had read it to a critique group he belonged to and one person in the group was blind. That person said, It isn’t anlything like what you describe. If you were the editor/publisher would you go ahead and use the piece? Why or why not?

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Creative Non Fiction – Final Part

 Five Steps to Getting Published 

1.   Discover what you’re good at, what makes you unique.

  • Find an audience (your focus group).
  • Think about how you can expand upon it. 

2.   Do market research.  (How do magazines/publishers make their  money?)

  • Writer’s guides (Internet)
  • Bookstores
  • Advertising Rates & Data (demographics available at every library)
  • Publisher catalogs 

3.   Position your writing (in terms of audience) or yourself.           

  • Have an organized way of communicating this (do a spread sheet of who you are sending where)
  • Evaluate results and reward your success. 

A Few Extra Hints 

  1. Treat getting published as part of the creative process
  2. Look for back doors (get to know people)
  3. Go to readings and make contact
  4. Have a writing marketing partner
  5. Go public with your effort
  6. Help someone else get published

 Recommended Books 

  • How To Get Happily Published, Judith Appelbaum, HarperPereneal (1992)
  • The Self-Publishing Manual, Dan Poynter, Para Publishing (1996)
  • Guide To Literary Agents, Donya Dickerson, Writer’s Digest Books (1999)
  • Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Barbara Kuroff, Writer’s Digest (1999)
  • Be Your Own Literary Agent, Martin P. Levin, Ten Speed Press (1995)
  • How To Write A Book Proposal, Michael Larsen, Writer’s Digest (1985)

Dear Workshop Participant, 

I am pleased to offer you these additional products and services. 

  • A special discount on a two year subscription to Rosebud.  A one year  subscription costs $20, but if you call or return this letter you can receive two years (6 issues) for $30 and this includes Best of Rosebud. If you don’t already receive the fastest growing magazine of short stories, poetry, essays and art, here is your opportunity to do so for a special unadvertised price.  This offer is good for 30 days. 
  • I also provide individual critiques and one-on-one writing coaching.  I have helped writers of both fiction and non-fiction improve their work and increase their chances of publication. A recent client had five agents out of eleven request to see his book based on the query letter we fashioned together. 
  • A two-page critique of up to ten pages of your work (prose/or poetry)   costs $40. 
  • A detailed critique of three chapters (up to 50 pages) and query material you are sending to agents or publishers is $120. 
  • Review of a book length manuscript with chapter by chapter criticism,$350 to $1,200 depending upon length. 

Please call 1-800-786-5669. I will be glad to answer all your questions and, of course, there is no cost or obligation. My e-mail is santerra@aol.com

Please check www.damngoodbooks.com for a complete listing of my books (which can be purchased through t he web site) and www.manuscriptcoach.com for samples of individual critiques I have done for others. I also offer free on-going writing workshop at this web site,  www.coolplums.com

I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with you during this workshop.  I wish you continued success with your writing.

Sincerely, 

John Lehman

John Lehman

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 7

Before your work is done.

Dynamic non-fiction should move with Efficiency and be Tantalizing to readers and publishers.

 

Deep Writing 

By Eric Maisel 

Writers in the real world tend to make one of the following choices:

  1. “I do not care about success in the  marketplace or access to the marketplace. I am writing my work the way it needs to be written.”
  2. “I care about success in the marketplace and access to the marketplace, but still I mean to write my work the way it needs to be written. Perhaps a miracle will occur and my poem, story, article or book will be wanted despite its disregard for commercial expectations.”
  3. “I care about success in the marketplace, and I will strive to make my writing commercially viable. This may mean that my ideas may cease to exist in their original form and that only a portion of their depth will be retained. But I can live with that.” 

Deep writing is one thing and career  considerations are another, but it is hard not to want to think about both and find some way to craft a happy marriage between them. I am straddling the fence, advocating neither the purely personal nor the purely commercial, because both choices leave a lot to be desired. With the first, the likelihood is great that what you write will not be wanted or will be wanted in a limited way, and psychological pain accompanies this outcome. With the second, you may well feel that you’ve violated some important ethical principles and are likely to experience psychological discomfort as a result. The most satisfactory path is to strive to marry the deep and the commercial in such a way that your truth gets told and also reaches a wide audience.

Before you go too far, try to answer each of these:

A. Working Title

     Alternative

     Alternative

B. Tag Line

     Alternative

C. Primary Audience

    Secondary

D. Features (these are things the book offers—like, “eight steps to better writing.”)

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

E. Benefits (these are what the reader receives—like, “will make your work more appealing to readers and editors.”)

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

F. Urgency (Why is this subject important now?)

G. Your Image (What makes you the special person to write this?)

 

 

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 6

THREE CONTEMPORARY FORMS OF NARRATION 

1. Simultaneous

In Hiroshima, John Hersey describes, by turns, what each of six people were doing at 8:15 AM , the precise moment of the blast. Through this narrative approach he is able, not only to suggest the range of experiences of Hiroshima survivors, but to re-create the horror of the detonation in the reader’s mind—again and again and again. 

2. Sequential

For his book, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote uses overlapping but forward moving sequences of action. He counterpoints events in the last day in the lives of the four members of the Clutter family with those of the murders. 

3. Interior Monologue

A substantial part of Gay Talese’s article on Floyd Patterson, The Loser, utilizes internal monologues, the reporting of a person’s internal (often unspoken) thoughts and feelings. The writer needs to be very close to his or her subject for this intimate approach to be credible. 

Hiroshima by John Hersey 

    At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the

atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was setting down crosslegged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next–that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. .

    The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto got up at five o’clock that morning. He was alone in the… 

In Cold Blood

 By Truman Capote 

    Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives…

    Passing through the orchard, Mr. Cutter proceeded along beside the river, which was shallow here and strewn with islands—midstream beaches of soft sand, to which, on Sundays gone by, hot-weather Sabbaths when Bonnie had still “felt up to things,” picnic baskets had been carted, family afternoons whiled away waiting for a twitch at the end of the fishline. Mr. Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile and a half from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance…

    Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes—that was his notion of a proper “chow –down.” Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him—a Phillips 66 map of Mexico—but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick. Be he was sure to show up; after all, the purpose of their meeting was Dick’s idea, his “score.”

    “Good grief, Kenyon! I hear you.”

    As usual, the devil was in Kenyon. His shouts kept coming up the stairs: “Nancy! Telephone…” 

The Loser

 By Gay Talese

     And I keep thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra…thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen p.m. to watch a certain movie on The Late Show. But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning…

    …And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, `You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, `Viciousness is not important now, don’’ think about it now: a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows” maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.”

    …And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep…but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling `Hey, Jack,’ or `Hey, Al,’ or `Hey, get those four-pounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, `They’re not ready for you yet.’ So you lay there…and wonder, `Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now?’ Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight…you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago…and you remember that time at two a.m. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby…and then you get mad and ask: `What am I thinking about these things for?’…and you try to sleep…but then the door opens and somebnody says to somebody else, `Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’

    …And so then you know it’s about time to get ready…You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, `Good luck, Floyd.’ And you think, `He didn’t have to say that; he must be a nice guy.’

    …And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, `What am I gonna be when I come back this way?’ Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s The Star Spangled Banner, and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings…

…How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout…Was I fooling these people all these years”…Was I ever the champion?…And then they lead you out of the ring…and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast…but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end there was no dressing room there…and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, `Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room…’

    …In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston, didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me, and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, `What happened?’ and then they started pounding on the door, and saying, `Com’ on, Floyd, com’on out; the press is here, Cus is here, com’on out, Floyd…

    …And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, `I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched The Late Show…I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition…

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 5

NOTE HOW THESE ARE DONE IN THE CREATIVE NONFICTION PIECE THAT FOLLOWS THEM.

description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character) 

introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

dialogueemotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue. 

realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story. 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description. 

Dynamic non-fiction is visually Memorable. 

Notes Left Behind: The Language of Suicide 

By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999) 

    A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck. Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

    The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

    I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.”

    I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window. I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could  understand it I would be in possession of something profound.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 4

THE EMOTIONAL BEAT

    Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

    In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

    That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.                          

–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story

 description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character) 

introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

dialogueemotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue. 

realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story. 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 3

Seeing below the surface.

Dynamic non-fiction relishes personality.

CHARACTER SUBTEXT Answer these questions for the major subject(s) in your piece: 

A.  Who is the love in this person’s life?   

Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with whom he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice.  

B.  What is this person fighting for?   

What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.   

C.  What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?   

D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.   

Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous.  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.  

E.  What opposites exist in this person?   

What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need as well).  

F.  What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?   

Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have? 

G.  How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?   

Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.  

H.  What is the source of this person’s importance?    

Reputation, money, power, title?  Answer this for your subject.   

I.   With what place does the person have a close association?  

It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car. 

J.  What is intriguing about this person?   

(When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and how different we are.)  

A TRIBUTE 

By Mike Royko (from Sez Who? Sez Me)

    If a man ever reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley and Chicago. 

    In some ways, he was this town at its best—strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful.

    In other ways, he was this city at its worst—arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless, suspicious, intolerant.

    He wasn’t graceful, suave, witty, or smooth.  But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco.

    He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big, and powerful.  This is, after all, Chicago.

    Sometimes the very same Daley performance would be seen as both outrageous and heroic.  It depended on whom you asked for an opinion.

    For example, when he stood on the Democratic National Convention floor in 1968 and mouthed furious crudities at smooth Abe Ribicoff, tens of millions of TV viewers were shocked.

    But it didn’t offend most Chicagoans.  That’s part of the Chicago style—belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.

    Daley was not an articulate man, most English teachers would agree.  People from other parts of the country sometimes marveled that a politician who fractured the language so thoroughly could be taken so seriously.

    Well, Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding.  Maybe it’s because so many of us aren’t that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language.

    So when Daley slid sideways into a sentence, or didn’t exit from the same paragraph he entered, it amused us.  But it didn’t sound that different than the way most of us talk.

    Besides, he got his point across, one way or another, and usually in Chicago style.  When he thought critics should mind their own business about the way he handed out insurance business to

his sons, he tried to think of a way to say they should kiss his ass  He found a way.  He said it.  We understood it. What more can one ask of the lan- guage?

    Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways—loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer.  You do something for someone, they do something for you.  If somebody is sick, you offer the family help.  If someone dies, you go to the wake and try to lend comfort.  The young don’t lip off to the old; everybody cuts his grass, takes care of his property.  And don’t play your TV too loud.

    That’s the way he liked to live, and that’s what he thought most people wanted, and he was right.

    But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods–suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry, and bullying.

    That was Daley, too.  As he proved over and over again, he didn’t trust outsiders, whether they were long-hairs against war, black preachers against segregation, reformers against his machine, or community groups against his policies.  This was his neighborhood-ward-city-county, and nobody could come in and make noise.  He’d call the cops.  Which he did.

    And, for all the swinging new life-styles, that is still basically Chicago.  Maybe New York will let porn and massage houses spread like fast-food franchises, and maybe San Francisco will welcome gay cops.  But Chicago is still a square town.  So City Hall made sure our carnal vices were kept to a public minimum.  If old laws didn’t work, they got new laws that did.

    On the other hand, there were financial vices.  And if somebody in City Hall saw a chance to make a fast bundle or two, Daley wasn’t given to preaching.  His advice amounted to: Don’t get caught.

    But that’s Chicago, too.  The question has never been how you made it, but if you made it.  This town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived.

    If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn’t offend most Chicagoans.  The people who came here in Daley’s lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff.  The niceties of the democratic process weren’t part of the immigrant experience.  So if the machine muscle offended some it seemed like old times to many more.

    Eventually Daley made the remarkable transition from political boss to father figure.

    Maybe he couldn’t have been a father figure in Berkeley, California; Princeton, New Jersey; or even Skokie, Illinois.  But in Chicago there was nothing unusual about a father who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head.  Daley was as believable a father figure as anybody’s old man…

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 2

Dynamic non-fiction delivers unexpected drama.

NAVIGATING MY EERIE LANDSCAPE ALONE

We want "heightened reality."

Now, as I stroll down the street, my right forefinger extends five feet in front of me, feeling the ground where my feet will walk.

Before my right hand would have been on a steering wheel as I went down the street. I drove to work, found shortcuts in strange cities, picked up my two daughters after school. Those were the days when I ran my finger down a phone-book page and never dialed Information. When I read novels and couldn’t sleep until I had finished the last page. Those were the nights when I could point out a shooting star before it finished scraping across the dark sky. And when I could go to the movies and it didn’t matter if it was a foreign film or not.

But all this changed about seven years ago. I was driving home for lunch on what seemed to be an increasingly foggy day, although the perky radio deejay said it was clear and sunny. After I finished my lunch, I realized that I couldn’t see across the room to my front door. I had battled glaucoma for 20 years. Suddenly, without warning, my eyes had hemorrhaged.

I will never regain any of my lost sight. I see things through a porthole covered in wax paper. I now have no vision in my left eye and only slight vision in my right. A minefield of blind spots make people and cars suddenly appear and vanish. I have no depth perception. Objects are not closer and farther; they’re larger and smaller. Steps, curbs and floors all flow on the same flat plane. My world has shapes but no features. Friends are mannequins in the fog until I recognize their voices. Printed words look like ants writhing on the pages. Doorways are unlit mine shafts. This is not a place for the

fainthearted…

– by Jim Bobryk (Newsweek, March 8, 1999)

USING OPPOSITES 

Here’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them farther out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and the reader’s fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  In the example above, we get the contrasts between the sighted and the unsighted world.  Remember whenever you have two conflicting things, intensify both. 

Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  In out example we, the reader, are imagining how we would react. And in general, it’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 1

Eight Secrets

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”                                                   –E.L. Doctorow 

John Lehman

What are the forces at work below the surface that affect editors and publishers? Discover, for example, how each book or article must offer a tacit promise to an audience and how to shape your work to make it memorable. Use these eight techniques to find the best subjects, develop them most effectively and market the results for quickest success. John Lehman has presented writing seminars in dozens of cities throughout the country. He is a book reviewer for Book Lover Magazine and is a columnist for BusinessFirst. He has had articles in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Omni and more than fifty other consumer and trade publications. He is the founder and publisher of Rosebud magazine.

Dynamic Non-Fiction:

1. Offers a tacit Promise

2. Delivers unexpected Drama

3. Revels in Personality

4. Is visually Memorable

5. Gives content Shape

6. Moves with Efficiency   

7. Has a title that’s Tantalizing 8. Can be readily Marketed 

 Dynamic non-fiction offers a tacit Promise.  

The Rats on the Waterfront 

By Joseph Mitchell 

    The biggest rat colonies in the city are found in run-down structures on or near the waterfront, especially in tenements, live-poultry markets, wholesale produce markets, slaughterhouses, warehouses, stables and garages. They also turn up in more surprising places. Department of Health inspectors have found their claw and tail tracks in the basements of some of the best restaurants in the city. A few weeks ago, in the basement and sub-basement of a good old hotel in the East Forties, a crew of exterminators trapped two hundred and thirty-six in three nights. Many live in the subways; in the early-morning hours, during the long lulls between trains, they climb to the platforms and forage among the candy–bar wrappers and peanut hulls. There are great colonies of brown rats in Central Park…

    The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can out-think any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria. They will bite babies (now and then, they bite one to death), and they will bite sleeping adults, but ordinarily they flee from people. If hemmed in, and sometimes if too suddenly come upon, they will attack. They fight savagely and blindly, in the manner of mad dogs; they bare their teeth and leap about every which way, snarling and snapping and clawing the air. A full-grown black rat, when desperate, can jump three feet horizontally and make a vertical leap of two feet two inches, and a brown rat is nearly as spry. They are greatly feared by firemen. One of the hazards of fighting a fire in a junk shop or in an old warehouse is the crazed rats… 

House 

By Tracy Kidder 

    Jim Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.

    Locke’s transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber. Then, bending over, putting one eye to the lens of the transit and squinting the other, he transforms his view of this patch of open ground into a narrow, well-lighted tunnel divided by cross hairs. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, in another context. “The art of civilization is the act of drawing lines.” And of course it has also been the act of drawing level ones.

    This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college  and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter…

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Final Part

 

JOHN:   QUESTION: Can writers fly?

     Despite being able to leap effortlessly from one subject to another, writers are not bats, but if they are on some kind of flying device like a plane or a helicopter, yes writers can fly.

What I’m suggesting is there are eight stages of the creative process:

 1. In the first stage we absorb the world and its experiences through our senses and intuition.

2. In the second our unconscious dreams and fantasies put these in a form we can handle.

3. As we take ownership of the subject our empathy grows for the characters or people who are part of the story and we further invest our feelings in their conflict.

4. Next we make this tangible as a short story, poem, article, play or book, giving it dramatic structure that heightens those emotions.

5. Fifth, we test its effectiveness on others through classes, readings, and critique groups—clarifying, refocusing, reinterpreting.

6. In the sixth stage we incorporate that feedback into our project often mirroring a larger theme beyond our original scope.

7. We find an audience through being published or performing the piece.

8. And finally, encouraged by success we return to the initial stages and do more of the same at an even deeper level. 

John grabs a sheaf of papers. He begins to read

Or to put it more simply, you are what you dream.  “You Are What You Dream” is the name of my short story I wrote last year.

You Are What You Dream

     When the twice-divorced John Larkin introduced himself at a downtown business card exchange to an attractive woman easily fifteen years younger than he was, he surprised himself by saying his name was “Jack.”

     She had a million dollars worth of tortoiseshell-colored hair, a soft, serious face and teeth that were even and strong and very white. She wore a faux fur jacket and skin-tight leather slacks. But her most unusual feature was one he could not see.   

     John Larkin suddenly remembered twenty-five years earlier, on the first day of boot camp.  A man waiting in line, Skip, had introduced himself to John and John had given his name, “John Larkin.” Moments later when they were joined by two other new soldiers, Skip had told them John’s name was “Jack.” He probably had had a friend, John, who went by “Jack” or perhaps—this was only a few years after the presidency of John F. Kennedy—he thought that this nickname was universal. It wasn’t. But instead of correcting him, John thought, “Why not be Jack.” It had a tough, aggressive ring he liked. Rash.  And so for the month and a half of crawling under barbed wire, breaking-down and re-assembling weapons and binge drinking every Friday night he was “Jack.” He could have been sent to combat in Vietnam. He even hoped he would be. But when reporting to his subsequent hospital administration position in Kansas, “Lieutenant John Larkin,” was the name written on his assignment orders. It once again seemed right.

     That’s why, so many years later it was strange he would say his name was “Jack.” But then he thought, as he had before, “Why not?” He knew the consequences of being “John”—the nothing person everyone dumped on. For once he wanted to be the guy who grabbed what he wanted. This was his first mistake.

     Perhaps she was hearing impaired or had been born with deficient vocal chords, but the volume and tone of her voice was like she was holding her nose when she talked, or pronouncing words she’d never heard anyone else say. It was the voice of a cat that had somehow learned to speak

     Cats are my business, she said. “Cass aaaa maaa bizzzz-nesss.”

     “I’m a dog person myself…” Jack was self-conscious. At first he had been embarrassed by the unexpected peculiarity of this woman’s speech, now he was trying to show he wasn’t. As he looked over the business card she had offered him, this was the best he could come up with. “Though it’s not that I don’t like cats. I do. But I’ve never had one myself. And I’ve never heard of a cat spa.”

     Then a strange thing happened. It was as if she were a silent-screen actress and the ballroom was flickering in black and white. Words, sound, didn’t seem to matter. It was the look in her large eyes. It was seduction.

     In his movie version it would have meant getting a room here at the hotel, ordering a bottle of champagne, peeling apart the crisp sheets and getting cozy under the covers of a king-sized bed. But Jack found himself in her feature, pulling out of the Sheraton’s parking lot as they headed to the address of the Meow Spa and Cat Salon off of East Washington Avenue.

     He smiled, remembering the old Steve Martin joke about how his cat enjoyed being bathed…though the hard part was getting the hair off your tongue afterwards. Maybe there was something kinky going on, but Jack was too horny to care. He wanted to press this little prize into the corner of a leather couch in the spa waiting room and pump the hell out of her while from cages in the other room cats in heat yowled.

     The Meow Spa and Cat Salon was located in the old Humane Society building. Jack had been there once when his Norwegian Elk Hound wandering in the park had been picked up by the police. They had not called him and Jack had been frantic. Then the next day, to release the dog, the Humane Society was demanding he pay for its overnight stay. Jack had argued, “You never phoned me he was here. In fact I called and no one knew anything about Orson, my dog.”

     “The dog was riding in the back of the squad car most of the afternoon,” the suddenly attentive woman behind the desk had tried to placate him.

     “Humane Society, hah. What a joke. You people aren’t good for anything except killing animals!” he’d screamed, and they had dropped the overnight charges.

     But that rage was still there, Jack realized, as they pulled in front of the out-of-way building along the railroad tracks. All parking spaces for the Meow Spa and Cat Salon were empty.

     She unlocked the front door and ushered him in. There was a small lamp lit on the ultramodern reception desk, the rest of the room was resplendent in art-deco shadows. There was no couch.

     Here’s what they teach you in the army, it’s called “An Estimate of the Situation.” Take stock of your surroundings, assess your existing resources, set priorities, act decisively, evaluate results. OK, Jack thought, there is no couch but the building seems to be empty of other people. Bang her and leave. Don’t even think about this after it’s over. However, one question did gnaw at Jack: How had she gotten to the business card exchange without a car?

     The woman stepped over to a large metal door. She let her faux-fur jacket dangle and fall to the floor. Then she began to unbutton her blouse. Jack felt like he was again watching a black and white movie—but now it had become one of those ancient porn booths where you inserted a nickel and a pulsating Parisian beauty stripped off her clothes. In that moment this woman seemed to unleash all the wild desire he’d ever felt. She kicked off her shoes and was stepping out of her black-leather pants. There was a skulking, feline quality to her movements as she pulled one leg then the other free. She caressed herself and looked directly at Jack. He was staring at her breasts and at that inviting patch of fur between her legs.

     That’s when he did something stupid—his second mistake. He hurried out of his own clothes as if he and she were two animals preparing to mate in the woods. And when he saw that Mary Pickford-look of slight alarm cross her face, he felt himself grow hard as a dog’s bone. But before he could reach over to touch her, she had opened the steel door to the back.

     Beckoning to him with her outstretched finger she slowly slipped out of view.

     Jack, completely nude, followed her. Mistake number three.

     When the door shut behind him, he felt a moment of panic. He was in some kind of hallway and it was completely dark. But he could hear footfalls of the little tease ahead of him and he had already seen all of her body he needed to.   

     The end of the corridor. Then there was a ninety-degree turn right. Down this hallway he became aware of metal bars on either side of him. He heard breathing.

     “Uuuuu arrrr  wha yrrrrrrr dreeeeam,” her strange cat-like whisper seemed to summon him. He sensed he was standing in the entrance to some kind of enclosure. As he stepped forward he heard its door clang shut behind him.

     War, to those who have never experienced it first hand, seems to be about noble causes. They imagine the soldiers who participate as exhibiting valor. But only people at a distance have the luxury of such sentiments. For men going into battle it is something else. Something less noble. Less rational.  Something more real.

     The fluorescent lights blinked on. Jack saw he was in a barrack of naked men, like dogs in cages, smelling death.

JOHN:  So what happened?  It’s over. You’ve arrived.  Where?  THE WRITER’S CAVE.  The Writer’s Cave, now we’re ready to begin.

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Part 6

WRITER AS REDEEMER. 

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JOHN:  QUESTION: Can a writer be killed if one drives a stake through the writer’s heart or chops off his or her head?

     Yes, but that would also kill regular humans if one does the same to them. By the way, killing a writer is murder and murderers are arrested and put in jail.

     Each year I teach at a kind of back-to-nature folk school in Door County called “The Clearing.” Last summer in the short story workshop we read a story by Joyce Carol Oates called Images and I thought it might be interesting for all of us to write some scenes like she did:

He stands up as if addressing a class.

     “So you see the problem in creating a scene between two people in a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction is getting into the mind of the second character—the one who is not a stand-in for you and your sensibilities,” I tell the class.

John in an aside to the audience.

     Blank faces of the workshop participants stare at me.

John, as if to the workshop.

     “I mean,” I continue straight-faced, “you have to become schizophrenic.”

John in another aside to the audience.

     No response.

John, as if to the workshop.

     “Crazy,” I bellow.

John directly to the audience.

     They laugh.

     The exercise I am giving them is to write a dialogue between two people in which one person—an unlikely candidate for the job—is trying to seduce another.

John to the students.

     “You need to look at the motivation of each,” I insist.

John, back to the audience.

     Blank stares.

John (to the students).

     “For example, in the Joyce Carol Oates story we just read, the adolescent

girl—a surrogate for the author—wants to break loose from her family and the small town where she is going to school.

John explains to the audience.

     Heads nod in agreement. Who doesn’t want to break out of their environment? Start a new life, not as someone else but as the real you who you never got a chance to be?

As if at the workshop again.

     “But what about the pedophile teacher she is smoking cigarettes with?” Garret asks—an intentional or unintentional jab at instructors.

     “Yes, what about him?” I repeat the question, using a teacher trick of responding to a question with a question in order to gain time to think of an answer.

     “He should be reported to the authorities,” Hugh pipes in. Hugh is a former grade-school principal.

     “Well, yes,” I say. “But that’s why we have fiction, so we don’t all wind up in jail. But in the context of the story what is his motivation?”

     “He’s just a loser,” Heidi answers. She could play the story’s strong female lead in a movie version.

John stands at the podium, lost in thought. Finally to the audience, and himself.

     Am I the loser? What the hell am I doing? Where am I going with this?

 John, getting a grip, plows forward.       

     Plato wrote about a cave in which the philosopher sees only shadows from a fire. He moves outside to discover truth in the blinding glare of the sun.          

     Freud gave this a literal twist—bringing our neuroses from their unconscious depths to the rational surface.

     But wait. We may want to bring the truth out into the open but initially we need to go inward…into the writer’s cave. It’s there we will discover truth. When we do emerge it is the audience who keeps us from being self-indulgent and merely projecting our feelings onto other people and events.

     Am I saying that when I change the encounter with Orson Welles or when Lorine Niedecker writes about one thing when she may have other things in mind and when Bergman’s art searches below the surface to address subjects he needs to bring out into the light…that this is some kind of terrifying journey?

     Well, you are what you dream.

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Part 5

Undercurrent of the foreboding as John explains.

         It may be dangerous to do this with someone else’s work, but as writers it is key to our uncovering greater depths in our own. In time, anyone can become a good writer; but to become a great writer, you must learn to become a great reader of your own work.  

         My making Orson Welles central to a poem about my marriage shows me that I want to “direct” my relationship with women. Not that this is a conscious process. As one writer says: “I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it. But I must not know or I will kill the story by controlling it. I work to surrender” 

Something in the water 

like a flower

will devour 

water 

flower

The stage goes dark.

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BOB: Part Four ,  THE WRITER AS DEVIL

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JOHN:    QUESTION: Are writers visible in mirrors?

         This goes back to the Christian notion that any creature lacking a soul would not produce a reflection in a mirror. But, actually, with a few exceptions (and I think we all know who they are), writers are visible in mirrors, although interestingly enough, they are often quite discomforted by their own reflection.

John returns to the laptop again…almost trance-like.

         In his 1966 movie, Persona, Ingmar Bergman explored the symbiotic relationship that evolves between an actress suffering a breakdown and the nurse in charge of her as the actress recuperates on an isolated, island cottage.      

          As I watch it now, its implications begin to haunt my life.     

         An actress—played by Liv Ullman—freezes up in the middle of a theatrical performance of Electra, thereafter refusing to speak. We aren’t told why. She watches as the nurse, Bibi Andersson, chatters away about her troubled sex life. Then comes the weird moment on the screen in which the two women physically merge into one.

John puts on the woman’s wig.

          Bergman said that making the movie saved his life. Most of its significance, I believe, centers around the photographic combinations of their faces while at the same time in a way transferring personalities between the mental patient and her lonely nurse.

          For a while the two women really seem to become intermingled. Suddenly, through the silence of the other woman, the nurse is able to put herself in that actress’s place and understand the world with its senseless violence through the other woman’s eyes. 

           That sounds much like something a writer would do, doesn’t it?

           I now live in the country with my second wife who one day meets a younger woman, Liviana, who resembles Liv Ullman a little. She is walking to town, a mile and a half away. At first she seems mildly retarded to Talia, my wife, but in reality she has a severe hearing problem. Liviana’s speech is garbled and she consequently says very little. For some reason my wife thinks this is profound.

           What I don’t understand is that when my wife spends time with Liviana, she comes to believe that the silent young woman may have a spirituality she has been searching for in herself. 

          All of her life, ever since my wife was a little girl, she has had a deep and profound love for God. She sees this as about changing consciousness in our lives and unhinging and unlimiting ourselves so that we can be all we can. She believes that ultimately that is the reality of God awakening in human form.”

John shrugs his shoulders. He is oblivious to where Talia is going with her words.

In any case…what I really want is to learn something about Bergman and Persona or, even better, gain some insight into the creative process.

           Bibi Andersson had been Bergman’s mistress, now Liv Ullman was assuming that role. The plot of the movie makes no sense in itself. Movie critics have been arguing over its meaning for nearly 50 years. But as a symbolic representation of Bergman’s evolving relationship with the two women, it is as sharp and clear as a writer’s image in a mirror. What we in the audience are seeing is not the characters played by Bibi and Liv but the artist’s projection of his own feelings onto them.

Somewhat pointedly.

 …Is this just another case of a male projecting his feelings onto females?

          Maybe, but maybe it’s more, and even goes beyond this film. What if a soul must navigate this world of suffering before reaching its ultimate destination? What if a person must embrace pain as intimately as someone would a lover? Meet pain and be annihilated by it? Make pain, illness, sickness and the diseases of humanity their own?

         …To recognize this passage is necessary to the divine process by which all things are born, all things die, and all things are once more made new.

         So for me, Liv, or should I say Liviana, came to represent…

         …One who steps forward, not to console, but to complete the devastation—to destroy all vestiges of false hope. I’m not talking about Liv or Liviana now, I am talking about something beyond them. What I have in mind is a female with fiery eyes, pointed teeth and a sharp, lolling red tongue.

Grabs the sword.

         She carries a sword in one hand which she wields with abandon. She lops off the heads of both angels and demons. She drinks the blood of the vanquished. All things are transformed in her and returned to the earth. They are rendered harmless in her…in time. She is time. She is Kali, destroyer of false hope.

         She is the Hindu figure named for kala, which means “time”?

         She was first born from the forehead of the goddess Durga during a battle in which this, the Great Mother, was called upon by the male gods— Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva—to protect the earth and all its inhabitants from the forces of evil.

        Kali steps forward, not to console, but to complete the devastation that has already started.

        Follow her into the mouth of the wolf. Through its enormous jaw. Past its razor teeth is a tunnel that leads down into darkness.

         She is naked because she is ultimately pure and unashamed. And, she has three eyes in order to see past, present and future in one glance…to pierce through illusions. She is dark because she is not separate from the ultimate void out of which all things are born and into which all things die. Her tongue is extended because she desires blood and the life force of sex

With animation.

          She wears a skirt of severed arms because they are instruments of power. And her hair is untamed, because each hair represents one of her followers, all of whom will run wildly in different directions trying to find their way back to her. We must chop off the head of illusion.  Through art we must know that life and death are one.

John as if he is reading an historic account. 

          In that original battle, Kali had not stopped with slaughtering demons. She continued her rampage, threatening to devour everything on earth. That’s when the gods sent down Shiva himself—the lover to the Divine Mother in her many forms. Shiva laid himself down on the battlefield in Kali’s path. She stepped on him. She felt his power under her feet. She stopped, looked down, smiled. The balance of the primordial Feminine with the primordial Masculine had been restored.

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Part 4

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BOB:  Part Three,  WRITER AS ESCAPE ARTIST

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JOHN:    QUESTION: Do writers (who are known to stay up all night and sleep all day) burst into flames in sunlight?

     Sunlight renders writers with their hyper-dilated irises, blind. It also causes neural pathways to fire randomly in the writer’s brain, creating an extreme epileptic reaction. As dramatic as this reaction may appear, it will not be enough to start a fire, though some writers do sunburn easily.

Back to his own saga.

     So I decide to dump the title “Unearthing the Writer as Vampire.” No big deal. But what should I change it to? I don’t know. 

     Six months after the Centennial I’m able to get a national distributor for the Niedecker book.  But the book doesn’t prove particularly successful. Her work isn’t uplifting in the same way that a popular song or a decorative painting might be. These are not poems to be recited at graduations or anniversaries. That’s because there are troublesome things deeply ingrained in them; though even here she’s selective.

     She writes about her working-class husband, but very little about her philandering father who “kept” another family (a mistress and her daughter). He bought silence from his mistress’s husband with gifts of land. Can you imagine? Their land. Lorine’s land.    

     She criticizes her deaf long-suffering mother, but not Louis Zukofsky or Cid Corman whose friendships she courts over her lifetime.

     They both eventually dump her.

     She writes about Paul—Zukofsky’s young son—not about her aborted twins. 

Looking directly at the audience.

Or is this true? That she did not write about them?

     Someone who lives a life of metaphors can easily substitute one person for another when, for her own mental health, she needs the kind of distancing art provides. Her father and her husband do meld together, as do her mother and her, and the live child and her dead twins.     

     It’s complicated. But her writing is full of clues.

     Wilderness

You are the man

You are my other country

and I find it hard going

You are the prickly pear

You are the sudden violent storm

the torrent to raise the river

to float the wounded doe

 

     What is clear is that she not only chose subjects that are difficult, but ones that have multiple layers of meaning offering some kind of personal resolution.

     I think there are different, identifiable stages to the creative process—from the first in which we absorb the world and its experiences through our senses and intuition, to a second in which our unconscious dreams and fantasies put these in a form we can handle,… through to an audience-testing phase and eventual publication or performance.  

     And what is the purpose of the journey?

     To dig deeper and deeper? To write poems no one reads?

     No, Lorine is infatuated by Louis Zukofsky for some reason and fantasizes about a life with him. She makes that dream a reality or try to. But he doesn’t want the pregnancy…

… so through poetry she creates an alternative—projecting her feelings onto Paul.

     But that is not acceptable so Lorine eventually turns to another subject—the man who becomes her husband late in life who is less able to object to her treatment of him in her work.

     Albert O. Millen was a hard drinker, 60, divorced. He’d lost his right hand in a printing press accident in Oshkosh in his 20s, and when she met him he was a maintenance painter nearing retirement.

     Millen bought a grey cottage a few lots east of her cabin as a place to live and fish.

     Lorine’s father was a hard drinker and he had been a carp seiner.

     Lorine, were you trying to regain Zukofsky through his son, Paul, or get back your father through a poem about Al?

Or were you, yourself, the child you wanted to save?

Something in the water

like a flower

will devour

water

flower

 

Undercurrent of the foreboding as John explains.

     It may be dangerous to do this with someone else’s work, but as writers it is key to our uncovering greater depths in our own. In time, anyone can become a good writer; but to become a great writer, you must learn to become a great reader of your own work.

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Parts 2 & 3

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John is suddenly exasperated.

     Did I forget that we had a marital property agreement, and at the time of our divorce—our kids were gone and the two of us were barely talking to one another.

     She didn’t steal anything from me.

     If anything, I was misrepresenting the situation for my own purposes. I was stealing from her.

John, now more detached.

     In his essay on the Orson Welles movie masterpiece, film critic Roger Ebert says of “rosebud,” “it explains everything…and nothing.” Who heard the dying Kane say the word before his death? The butler says, late in the film, that he did. But Kane seems to be alone when he dies; and the reflection in the broken paperweight shows the nurse entering an otherwise empty room.

Directly to the audience again.

      Do writers, use events to mirror things that have different meaning for them later on? Like vampires, take the blood out of the actual situation and transform it into something that gives them…what? Immortality?

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BOB: Part Two, WRITER AS ILLUSIONIST

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Lighter in spirit than the first.

JOHN:   QUESTION: Will religious symbols ward off writers?

     Holy water does not affect writers other than it gets them wet, and getting them wet might really aggravate them. The same is true of religious symbols.  Simply holding them up in front of a writer will do nothing.

      I’ve learned, from years in advertising, to do a little test-marketing before jumping into projects with both feet, so when a publisher I’ve known for a long time asks me what I’m up to these days, I tell her I’m putting together a presentation called…

John delivers this title directly to the audience with over-the-top enthusiasm.

      “Unearthing the Writer as Vampire.”

Now more reflective.

     When she doesn’t even slightly acknowledge this, I realize with a start that what I have is a “guy idea” that women (who are a high percentage of the writers I come in contact with) will not be intrigued by. But is this a subject restricted to males? I remember Lorine Niedecker and my first experience with publishing.

John now very much in reminiscent mode.

     A little over 20 minutes down the road from where I live in Wisconsin—and 60 years ago—there was a woman who scrubbed floors in the Fort Atkinson hospital and spent much of her life beside a flooding river in a barren cottage without electricity or running water. Unknown to those who came in contact with her, she also wrote relentless poetry which today is included in the Norton Anthology alongside such literary giants as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams.

For example:

Fog-thick morning—

I see only

where I now walk. I carry

my clarity

with me.

     Now there are various small collections of her poems and two books of correspondence she had over a 20-year period of time, but nothing that correlates her life with her work. I figure this is something I can handle and since we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there may be a marketing opportunity for a short, inexpensive paperback that I publish myself. I call the book America’s Greatest Unknown Poet.

John holds up a copy of the book.

     Lorine tells us, “I had set my sights beyond Blackhawk Island…and my connection to that other world was Louis Zukofsky—a young New York intellectual making waves.”

     Here’s how Zukofsky’s friend, Jerry Reisman, described her first meeting with Louis:

John dons an old fashioned cap.

     “In the early 1930s I lived in the South Bronx with my parents and was a physics major at CCNY. Louis Zukofsky and I were close friends. Frequently, on weekends, I rode the subway to his Manhattan apartment and did my homework there.

     “I had read most, if not all, of his letters to and from Lorine Niedecker. Neither Louis nor I had ever met her and we both looked forward to her impending visit. I believe Louis expected her to stay, at most, two weeks. The year was 1933.

John looks at an imagined Lorine Niedecker.

     “When Lorine arrived, she and Louis exchanged shy greetings and Louis introduced her to me. Of course she already knew about me from Louis’s letters. Later, when she began to unpack her things and Louis saw what she had brought—an ironing board and an iron, for example—he concluded that she was prepared to stay a long time. And…

John holds up an iron.

…he looked a bit worried. He had not planned to have a long-term live-in relationship with Lorine.”

John paces around a bit. Then nervously comes back to the audience.

     Well Louis Zukofsky and her hit it off OK. In fact, she became pregnant.

     Lorine wanted to keep the child, but Louis insisted that she terminate the pregnancy.

     She pleaded, “I’ll have the child in Wisconsin, raise it on Blackhawk Island and never bother you for support money or anything else!”

     But, Louis was adamant.

     Nothing remained but to find a reliable abortionist and the money to pay for the operation.

 

John removes his cap, he is now back to the present thinking about Niedecker in the past.

      One of Reisman’s cousins recommended a female doctor. Her fee was $150—a lot of money in those days.

     Lorine got the money from her father.

     After the operation, the doctor revealed that the patient had been carrying twins.

     Lorine named them ‘Lost’ and ‘Found.’

     Physically, she recovered quickly, but…

     …In her poem about Mary Shelley, she wrote:

                             Who was Mary Shelley?

What was her name

before she married?

Who was Mary Shelley?

She read Greek, Italian

She bore a child

Who died

and yet another child

who died.

Directly to the audience.

     Do we men realize what women go through?

     Mary Shelly gave birth to four children, and only one of them survived to adulthood. Her first died eleven days after its birth. The next, born a year after, died of malaria, and a third perished from dysentery the following year. During her fifth pregnancy, Mary miscarried and nearly lost her life.

     And then there were Lorine’s twins. She ached for them all the years of my life

      As I am researching my America’s Greatest Unknown Poet book I discover that Lorine went back to Wisconsin.

      And Zukofsky? He eventually got married and had a son, Paul, by his new wife. During the period of his son’s childhood, Zukofsky’s letters are full of accounts of Paul’s antics. Lorine used these anecdotes to write poems about Paul, which also suggest an embedded homage to Zukofsky.

     Louis feared she wanted  to lay claim to Paul with her words. Perhaps she did.

John plodding ahead.

     She continued to exchange letters with him over the next ten years, often more than one a week—a correspondence that is for each of them, their greatest output.

John becomes deeply distracted.

     No wonder her novel Frankenstein showed Mary Shelley ‘s real-life preoccupation with pregnancy, labor, paternity, and death. In 1815, shortly after the death of her first baby, Mary Shelley recorded this entry in her journal: “Dreamed that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived.”

     And your work, Lorine, showed a preoccupation with Louis’s son, Paul.

     You sent Paul a book and said you hoped he would read it each summer. Did you want to connect with him, in some way, on an ongoing basis? You wrote:

     FOR PAUL

Paul

now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

I thought now maybe Paul

growing taller than cattails

around Duck Pond

between the river and the Sound

will keep this book intact,

fly back to it each summer

maybe Paul

     Niedecker’s For Paul poems created a ‘family’ composed of the Zukofskys and herself. At first, Celia and Louis welcomed her attachment to Paul, and the child apparently enjoyed her attentions too.

Sadly shaking his head.

     But her choice of Paul as a focus for her poems went…awry. His wife claimed her poems for Paul pressed into the Zukofskys’ privacy. And in 1961, when two of the poems were to be published in her volume, My Friend Tree, Louis asked that she remove the overt biographical content from the titles and dedications.  She did.

John, now lost in his own conclusions.

     Ah ha! I think as I discover the story behind Lorine’s poems about Paul. What if our writing is more than a means for us to delude ourselves by transforming one thing into something else? In fact, what if it is the opposite. What if writing allows us to confront indirectly what we cannot head-on? I recall a mystery novel I wrote whose hero was my rather non-communicative son. Though it is fictional I had to flesh out many of the emotions from my own experiences and in some strange way, I came to know myself through this use of him. …Even better than I could have through poetry, which I’ve always considered more personal and more revealing than fiction.

         And my novel?

Embarrassed.

     My novel? Oh well…it is never published, but looking back at it now the remarkable thing is that at its conclusion, the young narrator goes to live at the house where his father recently died. Digging through that man’s possessions the son begins to appreciate his dad.

To himself, more than to the audience.

     So I wanted my son to appreciate me, big deal. I didn’t see that it was also my job to appreciate him.

 

 

 

THE WRITER’S CAVE – Part 1

Buy this today. Great to listen to in the car and share with writer friends.

This is excerpted from my CD, The Writer’s Cave, Why Writers Write What They Do. It is available from amazon for $10. To order click here: 

The Writer’s Cave is now available from amazon for $10.
Click here to order:
http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Cave-CD-John-Lehman/dp/0974172847/

The Writer’s Cave, True Stories of Why We Write What We Do, written and presented  by John Lehman

Music

BOB: Part One, THE WRITER AS VAMPIRE

Music

JOHN:  Question: Do writers sleep in coffins?

     In the old days, victims of writers, e.g. readers, were occasionally interred while still in an author-induced deep sleep.  This may have given rise to the myth from gravediggers and others who observed them emerging from coffins and crypts that literary people do sleep in coffins. So the answer is “no,” though a writer may choose to sleep in a coffin for other reasons. I understand coffins are quite dark and very quiet.

 John, excitedly.

     I get this idea for a one-person presentation. A DVD commentary on an Ingmar Bergman film, Persona, suggests that a director/writer is like a vampire. Wow, I think, the writer as vampire.  So I write something up. It begins this way:

     It’s 35 years ago in one of the Slavic countries that gave rise to the legend of vampires in the 11th century. My first wife and I are wandering the streets of Split, Yugoslavia—an ancient Venetian city on the blue Mediterranean with white buildings stacked up its hills.

He turns to the audience.

     Come along with me.

John continues conversationally.

     I’d just left the Army and we are on the first leg of a year’s journey that will take us to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal and back to Germany.

          Anyway, it’s a warm early fall afternoon and a crowd is gathering several blocks away. With our one-year-old in a carrier on my back, we hurry down the seaside street to see what possibly could be going on.

      There’s the snapshot in my memory that remains. A movie is being shot in front of an old hotel. This is intriguing in itself. But then we look past the actors and cameras and see that the man directing it is none other than…the legendary…

…Orson Welles.

John looks off to their left. His initial enthusiasm is replaced by disillusionment.

     He looks terrible. As wide as he is tall, he’s dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and a black suit coat that he must have slept in. His hair is greasy and hanging straight over his forehead and his corpulent face is a sweaty, beet red. He seems to be tilting slightly backwards to balance his colossal weight.

     But it is the Orson Welles. Orson Welles directing!

John looks back as if they are seeing the action of the movie shoot.

     A taxi pulls in front of the hotel entrance and as the woman gets out the camera on the other side zooms in, shooting into the interior of the automobile she’s leaving.

       All this is done without any verbal direction. In fact this seems to be more a rehearsal for a scene that will be shot.

       Orson Welles is turning to the cameraman.

       My God, I am going to hear the greatest cinematic genius of all time actually tell his cameraman what to do.

     He says, with that still-sonorous Orson Welles voice coming from deep in his diaphragm as if from the bottom of a huge, empty barrel,

     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera, these people will steal anything.” 

     That’s it?

     That’s it. Probably no one in the crowd but Pat and I understand English, but we laugh all afternoon repeating the words:

     “Mario, keep your eyes on the camera.”

     And the baby laughs too…so hard and so beautifully…

     … that during the whole rest of the trip if we want him to roll with laughter, we say…

“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera!”

Laughing.

John  returns to his own thoughts. The joy starts to dissolve.

     What an anticlimax, but looking back what could he have said that would be more memorable? For Orson Welles—known as the boy genius because of his early masterpiece, Citizen Kane—making movies for TV in Yugoslavia was probably the low point of his career.  And here was my son beginning his life…with wonderful giggles. My little boy’s laughter was his masterpiece. To his parents, he was “our baby genius.”

 When John begins again his voice is weary, more confessional.

He sighs.

     A nice story, but now, almost 35 years later, here’s why I think it fits the topic, “The Writer as Vampire.”

      As writers, we’re consumed with finding significant “meaning.” We are elated when we think we have that. But then times change. Life moves on. And what is significant changes for us.

     When I sit down to write a poem about the Orson Welles encounter 20 years later, my son is a teenager in the Air Force—neither a “teenage genius” nor an “Air Force genius,” and my wife has left me. So the cheery ending of the little memory doesn’t seem quite appropriate anymore.

      Here are the last two stanzas I come up with:

U

His shot seemed a curious choice.

When the woman stepped out from

the cab a camera entered through

a door that opened on the other

side. Did it make sense, to film

the empty  space  where  once she

had  been, leaving us to watch her

parting shape from the dark inside?

In twenty years, my wife, herself,

would go, never once looking back

on unedited footage decomposing

in the can.

U

His face was crimson with broken

veins and greased with sweat; his

voice—that voice—no longer Harry

Lime’s, but the mumbled growl of

Hank Quinlan toward his seedy end. 

What I wanted most that day, was

a shimmering globe to hold forever

dear, instead, in his voice I heard

only shards of broken glass. “Mario,”

he said, “you keep your eyes on the

people or they will steal everything.” 

And she did.

U

     I like the Citizen Kane snow-scene-in-a-glass-globe allusion, but now, my emphasis switches from watching the camera to “keep your eyes on the people.” Now I had “truth” that fit my current situation.