Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Nightmare

"Thanks for walking the dog this morning," I said to Ben when I finally got up at 10:30. "I slept really well, except for a nightmare I had at the very end."

"What did you dream?"

"I don't remember, just that it was about writing."

"What's a writing nightmare?" he asked, then gasped melodramatically. "'That essay is coming from inside the house!'"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Craft Books

Not knitting, not macramé, and no glue guns involved. I'm on a mission to find great books about the craft of writing.

As previously noted, I am a sucker for just about any writing advice book. And I've read a lot of them—books about how to get your butt in the chair, books about how to keep it there, books of writing exercises, and books about how to trick yourself into writing without realizing it.

But now I want specifics. I'm taking a class right now and I learn more about craft. Last week I got some feedback on a work in progress that said I was splitting the tone and content in a way that worked well for the piece. And I thought, "Oh, riiiight . . . tone!" Not that I don't know what tone is, but I am not thinking about it explicitly when writing or revising. And I should be.

So I want to get more conversant with my craft. I believe this will make me a better writer and better able to manipulate the elements of my essays to do what I want them to do. And I think it will make me a better to the Legendary Cow Skulls.

Part of this is explained by my crabbed little engineer's soul, which believes that there's a mechanical explanation for absolutely everything—that it;s possible to say something like, "If you do X, it will have Y effect on your prose and on your reader." And while I know that overstates what's realistically possible, if you believe that writing can be taught (and I do) then it has at least some basis in truth.

There are not a ton of books about the craft of creative nonfiction, or at least I haven't found them. My favorite so far is Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Also, on my instructor's recommendation, I've picked up The Portable MFA, by The New York Writers Workshop.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

John Webster, You Are No William Shakespeare

Last month I went to see the Actors' Shakespeare Project's The Duchess of Malfi. This was the company's first production of a play by someone other than Shakespeare—in this case John Webster—and I was looking forward to seeing it. And I loved everything except . . . the play. The performances were outstanding, the production gorgeous and highly stylized, the staging innovative (a long narrow corridor with the audience on either side) and psychologically appropriate to this claustrophobic revenge tragedy. Absolutely everything was up to the ASP's usual high standards of excellence, but I found myself counting up the bodies in the last act to figure out how many more people still had to die before we could go home.

I had never read any of Shakespeare's contemporaries in college and always assumed that part of the reason that Shakespeare was produced today and most of them are not (outside of academia) is that we have made such a cultural fetish out of Shakespeare. But The Duchess of Malfi is reputed to be one of the masterpieces of early seventeenth century English theater, so I'm revising my opinion and now think it's because Shakespeare is just better.

Compare these famous lines from from King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
with the expression of a similar sentiment from the final act of The Duchess of Malfi:
We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them.
These words are uttered by the only remotely complex character in the play as he is dying, and I'm sorry to say I had to resist the urge to laugh.

I went with my friend Kevin who, I think, liked the play better than I did but acknowledged that he devoted some mental energy to trying to imagine how seventeenth-century English audiences would have reacted to the play (his conclusion: the depraved and outrageous doings of those crazy Italians always made for a good night of theater). I say that if you have to attempt time travel to enjoy a play then it may not have aged all that well.

I'm clearly in the minority on this. The reviews of the play were uniformly positive—and I am glad because I love the Actors' Shakespeare Project (I'm a subscriber) and want them to do well. But I will not be running out to buy The Works of John Webster any time soon.