ZA

November 26, 2013

Cover Design by Chloe Annetts
I have just re-read the “Online Scrabble” blog entry I wrote back in May. To reiterate here, I stopped playing with the daughter of a friend who lives in Italy because she was scoring 400 points plus each game and, though she is smart, no one is that smart. So I asked her if she was using tools of some sort to find words and she replied that she was. It was no fun to be beaten in this way, especially as she hadn’t disclaimed her reliance on these tools, which I considered dishonest.

But now I have a different problem. I am still playing with my old high school friend and, for the most part, enjoying our games. But every once in a while, she puts down a word that I can’t find in any dictionary, or an abbreviation, or a slang word, and she beats me consistently with these small non-words. As a writer, I am always searching for an interesting word, one that means something, the longer the better.

“What is ZA?” I asked her on the phone one day.
“As in piz-za.”
“So slang is now permitted? Abbreviations?”
“Yes.”
“I guess I am a Scrabble purist. It doesn’t bother you to put down a slice of a word?”
“No. I put down a word and if the electronic dictionary accepts it, fine. If not, not, I’ll find something else. I never spend more than a minute or two as I am playing with several people.”

This surprised me. My friend is an avid, thoughtful reader. In fact, she is one of my readers. What explains her game strategy?

“Do you think she is playing only for points?” I asked my husband, a very competitive Scrabble player.
“She’s probably playing just to relax,” he said.
“Well so do I. But I am not going to change my game.”
“You’ll keep losing,” he said.
“So be it. I’m a writer. Words matter.”
“Consider a small word or two once in a while,” he said. “It will give you an edge.”
“I don’t want an edge,” I said.

Then one night, late at night, tired and frustrated, my resistance faltered. I used ZA, and won. It didn’t make me happy. The word “downy” made me happy.



Casablanca: A Wonder Script

November 19, 2013

Tags: Robert McKee, screenwriters

We went to a gala fundraiser for the United Palace of Cultural Arts on 175th Street and Broadway. This is one of the last movie “palaces,” built before the Great Depression ended the indulgence of such vast “wonder theaters”—pure Hollywood. The palace, serving upper Manhattan, was owned by the Loew’s Corporation. Faux Abyssinian in design, filtered through the kitsch sensibility of a well-paid architect, it seats more than 3,000. It’s hard to imagine what the cost of heating or cooling the place might be today. Yet it still stands, a neighborhood landmark. Derelict for a long time, the building was saved from demolition in 1969 by the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II. Better known as Reverend Ike, Eikerenkoetter bought the building for more than a half-million dollars and used it as the headquarters for his United Church Science of Living Institute. It now also houses the Cultural Arts Center which is outreaching to the community and presenting concerts, programs for kids, and films. Sunday night was “Casablanca” night screened on a spiffed- up gigantic screen. What a treat! What a script! The audience was asked to dress up for the occasion, dance to 1940’s music, and pose next to a cardboard cut-out of Bogey. It was a festive evening, attended by over 1000, not quite a theater-full, but full enough. After opening remarks and a rendition of "As Time Goes By," by Reverend Ike's son, the screen lit up with "Casablana." For the next 90 minutes, cinematic rapture.

Years ago, I took Robert McKee’s one-day intensive screenwriting course . The last two hours of the seminar were devoted to “Casablanca,” analyzed frame by frame. Why does this film work? How is the story made? And though I have seen the film several times on my large flat-screen TV, I had never seen it on the big screen, as it was intended. Shot in black and white, without special effects, the story, the script, and the acting are in high relief.

Unlike narrative prose, a screen writer is forced to relinquish his or her work to a director and actors. The film takes on a life apart from the writer’s control, and is often re-written by a team of new writers. I am sure this is not easy for the writer. In the case of “Casablanca,” two writers wrote the original stage play, and two more worked on the film script. Yet, the film became a classic. And though no one expected such success, it’s obvious that the acting and the script had something to do with it. The script is available online for study:

http://www.weeklyscript.com/Casablanca.txt.

It’s a “Wonder Script."

The 100-Worders

November 12, 2013

I met a 100-worder at a birthday party for an old friend who is now, literally, old or older—an octogenarian, but still vibrant, funny, alive, a person who encourages all her artist, writer and musician friends, of all ages. She is not an artist, but there is something about her uninhibited persona and challenging political riffs that attracts and inspires artists. All art is acknowledged and celebrated at her parties: a new book, a new canvas, a handmade scarf, an unusual appetizer, a photograph. Whether the work succeeds or fails is not important. It may be good, or brilliant, or good enough, marketable or unmarketable, a work-in-progress, a work revised, a work discarded on the pathway to another work.

The party itself is a creative event as it unfolds. And it becomes a story, as this one here. It was during a lull—after the food and wine had settled—that the conversations slowed and hummed. The 100-worder was listening to me talk to a visual artist who lives in Westbeth, a utopian community of artists on the lower West Side of Manhattan. I was commenting on her 1940’s dress/costume, when I remembered that I’d worn something similar to a reading from my book of novellas, “Sitting for Klimt,” based on the lives of five artists. She had invited me to Westbeth to read, though I knew that painters, in particular, might object to my fictionalized rendering of Klimt. I was not mistaken: the Q & A was heated. I had been inspired by a great artist and his work, it was as simple as that, and my audience that day was offended by my “distortions.” I reminded them that I am not an art historian, I am writer. But we couldn’t understand one another at all. Impasse.

“Ah, you are a writer," the 100-worder said as I was finishing my reminiscence about the frustrations of reading at Westbeth.

“Yes, I am. Are you?”

“I write a hundred words every Monday,” he said.

“That qualifies you for attendance at this party,” I said facetiously.

I was bristling at the thought of a dilettante attending my friend’s party. Was he a pretender to the throne of artistry? No he was not; he was deadly earnest. He pulled out his phone and called up his email to show me a thread of 100-word mini-stories. “Most of us are businessmen. We enjoy the freedom of writing about anything we want. We have to stay in the word count," he said.

Well, this was very intriguing. How did this get started? I asked.

“By invitation only,” he said. “We’ve never even met. We’re planning a party, though. It will be interesting.”

“Indeed,” I said. “But I don’t think it will make any difference. It’s the work that’s important.”

“Are 100-word stories considered a ‘work’?” he asked as I disengaged from my writer-pedestal. I was suddenly moved to welcome my new 100-worder friend into the pantheon of writers.

“Of course,” I said. “Remember Hemingway’s five-word memoir: FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.”

“Oh, I’ll have to try that,” he said. And he took out his little notebook and began to write.

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