PEN World Voices Festival # 1: Puppets

April 28, 2012

I arrived at Westbeth around mid-day to find Sophia Michahelles, the Co-Artistic Director of The Processional Arts Workshop, explaining the concepts behind the group’s first collaboration with PEN to a couple of volunteers. “We are losing our physical connection with books. Literature and our literary culture floats or we are floating in it,” she said.

Michaehelles and her colleagues have designed a Parade of Illumination that will open the Festival on the Highline on Monday night, April 30th, at 8:30. All the puppets will be made out of wood and paper. Puppet characters include the New York Public Library lions, Bookman with fingers like typewriter keys, Sweepers, a Cursive Ballerina who writes with her feet, and Biblio Bats. “to honor PEN’s work in support of writers working in the darkness of persecution or incarceration,” Michaehelles said.

Planning began with a request to participating authors to send a 140 character “tweet.” These texts inspired the characters and the vision of the Parade that will proceed slowly, walking North to South along the Highline, with volunteers holding the puppets.

Because the Highline is an intimate, communal space, the evening is certain to be magical and, somehow, sacred. Sweepers will sweep away pages of browned text, commemorating what we have lost, and what still is to be gained in our literary culture. Lanterns will illuminate the procession.

Observing the volunteers at work, I was most touched by their concentration as they pasted and molded browned paper torn from old books and dictionaries onto the wooden forms. It was as labor intensive and reflective as writing itself.

For more information:
http://www.superiorconcept.org/PEN/index.html

World Book Night

April 18, 2012

I went to the Bank Street Bookstore on 112th Street and Broadway late yesterday to collect a box of donated books to give away on Monday, April 23rd, designated “World Book Night,” an event that began in the UK and Ireland: http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/about-world-book-night/what-is-world-book-night .

I was greeted by Beth Puffer, the manager and buyer at the Bank Street Bookstore since 1986 and an active member of the American Booksellers Association. Beth is a small, slender, genteel woman with a warm face and a salt and pepper page boy cut. We fell into conversation immediately about the event and all the publishers, book sellers and “givers” who had volunteered. She asked my name, and pointed to a box containing my giveaway choice: twenty copies of “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers printed by Vintage in a special World Book Night commemorative edition. I can’t wait to give them out to people who don’t ordinarily read or read very much. As per instructions, I’ll have to wait until April 23rd, which is also UNESCO’s World Book Day, the anniversary of Cervantes’ birth, and Shakespeare’s birth and death.

Other book givers came and went as I stood talking to Beth: a Barnard comparative literature student who has kept a book blog since she was thirteen, and three editors from Random House. One was disappointed that she had not been chosen as a giver. “There were so many volunteers,” Beth explained, a good thing we all agreed.

We then got into the murky waters of the electronic book landscape, the fate of the paper book, and the fate of independent book sellers. Everyone seemed aggrieved at the recent court ruling in favor of Amazon except for me, an author, who had recently put up her first e-book on Kindle.

I put my carton of books into the shopping cart, said goodbye to Beth, and headed home. I stopped in Straus park and sat on a bench for a while to relax and think. A large woman on the other side of the flower bed had settled in. She had a big bag and a paper cup of steaming tea or coffee which were laid out next to her; the bench was her coffee table. In fact, she took up most of the bench, more so as she pulled out a portable wooden foot rest and a thick paperback book. Off came her shoes as she reclined at a forty-five degree angle on the bench, moved her bag and coffee further to the right, and propped her bare feet onto the foot rest. She was still there when I left, deeply immersed in her very large book. Though it was already past 7 p.m., it was still light enough to read.


Eulogies

April 15, 2012

I have been drafting and revising my mother’s eulogy since she almost died a few years ago. These eulogies were all written in my head as I swam laps in the pool; I never wrote them down. I soon realized that creating a narrative was a writer’s way—my way—of preparing for primal loss.

This week, as I was enjoying some R&R upstate and hoping to do some reading and writing, my mother had a fall and broke two ribs and the femur just above her knee. She is now in the hospital recovering from a small procedure to make her more comfortable and will probably not be able to walk again. In such an old person, immobility is ultimately fatal, and we don’t expect her to live very long though, knowing my mother, she may surprise us.

That said, I feel my mother’s end nearing as I have not before and woke very sad this morning. Being able to communicate this sadness in my journal was helpful. I then put a mini narrative—known as a “status”—up on Facebook and was immediately consoled by comments, prayers and good wishes.

The day moved on. I went for a swim and wrote another eulogy in my head. I was already missing my mother’s phone calls—sometimes three or four a day. Over these past few months we have talked of many things: the opera, the violence in Syria, the upcoming election, her grandchildren. Occasionally, a story would surface that I had never heard before about her childhood and young adulthood in Vienna before the Nazi genocide. Thankfully, these have been mostly happy stories.

During my recent visits I have read my mother poetry, or the newspaper, or chapters from the book her book club is reading. She hasn’t been able to attend for a while, but has kept up in her own way.

My mother had hoped to receive a letter from the President congratulating her on the centennial of her birth on October 21 and even to vote in November by absentee ballot. I know that would mean a lot to her as would a visit from the President, she told me emphatically a week or so ago, if he happens to be in the neighborhood while he is campaigning.

Plotting a Murder Mystery

April 7, 2012

My husband is a contemporary American screenwriter whose work hinges on plot, inciting incidents, act 1 and act 2 (sometimes an act 3 or 4), character arc, dialogue, setting and, most importantly, budget. I have written two screen treatments with him based on the real-life stories of women I interviewed for magazines. Not understanding whatsoever how to make a play, much less a screenplay, I took a one-day immersion course with Robert McKee, a Hollywood type, who has—in true Hollywood fashion—become a celebrity. The wannabe screenwriters—which included a handful of actor/celebrities—sat in the audience and listened to McKee pontificate about how a screen play is made. If someone dared to raise their hand with a question, he abused them verbally. How stupid can you/we be? I suppose this made him feel much better about his own wannabe screenwriting career though, by then, he’d made a sweet fortune on his workshops. I almost left mid-way through the day except that I had heard that the best part of the class was the parsing of “Casablanca”—the entire film—at the end of the day and I couldn’t miss that. Such a gem of a film.

Thus immersed in the art and craft of screenwriting, I set to work with Jim, my contemporary American screenwriter husband, whose visual screenwriter sense is so acute that he never forgets a face or what he has read, paragraph by paragraph, or what a room looked like before a renovation.

Our task was to adapt the articles for made-for-TV movies in the form of screen treatments written in the third person present tense. It’s an odd form and I didn’t like it. So I sent my ideas via email in whatever person and tense I chose leaving Jim to craft the treatment. We didn’t have to worry about plot or character because those were ready-made in the articles I had written. The treatments all made sense, we thought, and were submitted and optioned, but never produced. Such is the writing life of the contemporary American screenwriter.

Fast forward to my first murder mystery, “Say Nothing,” based on a real life story that came to me by chance one summer day. A young man had disappeared. I knew his mother and her suffering was indescribable, intensified when her son’s body washed up on the shores of the Hudson. I thought, at first, that I’d write an article about a parent whose child has disappeared, but the accidental death or the killing—it has never been determined—remains unsolved, even more difficult for the grieving parents, and though I didn’t want to intrude in any way, it had given me an idea for a fictional story based on these events. The writing seemed to be the only way I could process this woman’s suffering, which had touched me deeply. And so I wrote my first murder mystery.

Once again, I didn’t have to worry too much about plot because I had a beginning and a scaffold of sorts. The rest was pure imagination, a challenge to write, but pleasurable also. My agent didn’t think it was ready for submission, and it wasn’t, but I wanted to go to print so my extremely elderly mother could see it, and self-published it. My agent then suggested I make certain changes, re-work it, refine it, re-title it, change the protagonist/detective, and so on, which I duly did. (When an agent suggests, the writer complies.) She then submitted the brand new version which has received plaudits from a host of editors with one serious caveat: the book is plot challenged. That was surprising given the scaffold I had started with but, then again, it had become a work of the imagination.

Oh dear, what to do? How about starting a new book, my agent suggested. The editors love the way you write, the characters are well drawn, so is the setting, but you need to figure out the plot before you begin to write. They want to see something else, she continued. If they like this second one, they may publish the first one.

So I looked through my journals and came up with an idea for a second murder mystery. And, typically, I ignored my agent’s advice and my husband’s advice, and started writing before I had figured out what happens in the story. I had no outline, no anything, just a character and an inciting incident. Isn’t this the way I write literary fiction? Isn’t this the way I report when I am “doing” journalism? Well, yes. But it doesn’t work for a murder mystery which, it turns out, is more akin to writing a screen treatment. And so, before long, I was caught in a maze, dead-ended like the Minotaur in Crete, and so confused and distraught that I had to take a nap one day and walk for hours and hours in the park when I woke up.

My husband said, “Let me help you develop a plot.”

So, the other night, we went out to dinner with pad and pen and sat for three hours talking plot. I have to say he was brilliant. I felt the gates open and the story loosen. I was on my way again.

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