How Things Work; more about sentences

Do this. Find a sentence or a paragraph you like and then type it. You couldn’t do better than by duplicating good writing with your fingers and eyes and senses. Choose sentences and paragraphs that make you feel something, or see something you wouldn’t normally notice.

Vladimir Nabakov, short story writer and novelist, best known for LOLITA was born in St.Petersburg, Russia in 1899. He came from a moneyed family of minor nobility and they left everything behind to escape the Russian Revolution. He writes about a vanished world in his memoir, SPEAK MEMORY. It is elegant.

I found a passage that took my breath away as much for the structure as for the incident depicted. He describes that often when his family was having luncheon the butler would announce to his father that a group of villagers was there to plead his influence in some local issue. His father would join them outside the dining room windows on the lawn below and though he and his brother could not see or make out what was being said, for the windows were closed to keep out the heat, they knew by the change in tone when the conversation had been concluded. That was when, as a token of gratitude his father would be subjected to the national ordeal of being tossed into the air and securely caught by the satisfied citizens.

This is the passage that bumped my heart:

“From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceilings of a church¸ while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.”

This just made me so happy that the first time I read it I went back and did so several more times just to see what was going on. I wanted to get it into my mouth and under my tongue. It is a complex paragraph made up of elegant and luscious words. A voluptuous example of lengthy sentences and language and memory. I’m not suggesting you analyze what catches your eye, I’m suggesting you experience it.

Here’s one more sentence that I found delicious, by Colette. This sentence is about a table of older women observed eating together:

“They laugh constantly and perhaps for no reason, with that lightheartedness that comes to a woman when the peril of men has at last left her.”

“…the peril of men…” You gotta love that. This leads nicely into the next blog: Words.

How Things Work

I like trying to figure out how things work and I come to that naturally. My father, my mother, my uncles and aunts were all mid-western farm stock. Everyone knew how to make things or fix things, doubtless because they were poor and had little but maybe because it also made them feel right with their world. What I carry forward even a generation or two away from those beginnings is that knowing how things work makes me feel right in my world though it is a far different one. And what I have found is that most disciplines have “process” in common; painting, acting, cooking, carpentry, architecture, gardening, even parenting. To put a workmanlike spin on it, pretty much anything that asks us to problem solve—like good writing. Is there too much difference between planting at the right time, cultivating and harvesting or, setting an idea down on paper, then letting it unfold and shepherding it along the way? I think not.

I am a great admirer of talent and inspiration, unbidden gifts of prose that transport the reader. I equally admire writing where the craft is invisible enough so that one easily assumes it all comes about in a brilliant flash of creativity and the words shine like jewels. They are not jewels. They are black marks on white paper. Miraculous. How can black marks on white paper land me laughing like a mad person, (Bill Bryson: WALK IN THE WOODS) or gasping for breath while weeping, (the last sentence of James Joyce THE DEAD) or locking all my doors, (Stephen King’s THE SHINING). How does that happen? The Vietnam Memorial is little but a piece of carved granite, a Van Gogh is only clumps of paint on canvas, Michelangelo’s DAVID is hard white marble. It is the artist who makes it so and he does it from the inside out.

Sentences: The musical scoring of prose.

If you haven’t read Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST since college then make a point to re-visit it. Hemingway is a sentence wizard. Read this one out loud:

“It was a lovely evening and I had worked hard all day and left the flat over the sawmill and walked out through the courtyard with the stacked lumber, closed the door, crossed the street and went into the back door of the bakery that fronted on the boulevard Montparnasse and out through the good bread smells of the ovens and the shop to the street.”

This sentence flows in the same fashion as the walk down and through the courtyard, across the street and through the bakery. It is a graceful long sentence that replicates the action. It is simple. He did this, then this, then this and got to where he was going.

It is worth including the rest of the paragraph so that you can see how the completing sentences work to make up a piece.

“The lights were on in the bakery and outside it was the end of the day and I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toullouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner.”

Another sentence that “walks” as the writer walks. Then, he stops.

“I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet.”

And look at this fine short sentence topping it all off.

“It made me hungry to read the name.”

This paragraph makes me so darned happy because it felt effortless and familiar. Do I think that was the way it came about, all in one lucky run? Not on your life.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

— Oscar Wilde

“Succeed…” Post script

Gradually, I began to absorb what had happened. That was completely due to being thrown into the company of professionals landing me on a learning curve that trumped school. Trumped life, if the truth be known.

The singers and dancers cowed me with what they knew and what I didn’t. Then there were the supporting roles; Sammy Smith and Paul Reed both veterans of vaudeville and burlesque now having moved into shows and television. They were shamelessly bawdy and never met a one liner they wouldn’t repeat.  They asked me to be their “talking woman” in a tribute to George Abbott at the Lamb’s Club. (A “talking woman” was the one girl who didn’t strip but was the straight man for the comics.)

Bobby Morse as “Finch” was all over the stage winningly crazy like a golden retriever. He and Charlie Reilly (Bud Frump) were perversely inventive in their scenes together, particularly as the run got longer. They brought new meaning to the verb “elaborate.” Rudy Valee was, well, Rudy Valee. Because he had trouble projecting “Succeed” was one of the first musicals to use a wireless mike. Virginia Martin, (Hedy La Rue) a sweetheart of a southern sex pistol, the venerable Ruth Kobart (Miss Jones) and her even as venerable operatic voice was my dressing roommate.  Bonnie Scott (Rosemary) and I could not have been more different even though we were both twenty one.  She was a product of band singing in Los Angeles and I was just a lucky duck who managed to sing loud.

Once the show opened we became the hottest ticket in town.  And nightly in the wings we named who we could see in the audience: every film star that was in town, Broadway stars, Brits, politicians.  Nixon and then Kennedy and then, the astronauts.  The astronauts!

Still, I was largely sanguine, though grateful. That changed one day when driving on the FDR Drive and on the car radio the announcer said, “And now, Claudette Sutherland singing “Been a Long Day” from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” I barely made it to the emergency lane to bang on the steering wheel and shout, “I’m on the radio. The radio!”

It was a good ride.






“Succeed” Revival #2

It wasn’t as if I had a background of musical comedy history. I didn’t.  For me not to know who Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser were, (even though I knew all the verses to “A Bushel and Peck” which I sang to my mother to make her laugh) was in retrospect pathetic but hopefully, at the time, guileless. When I met Frank Loesser a few days later and auditioned for him I was much less sure of myself and had a terrible cold, but he gave a pass.

Frank was my idea of a real New Yorker.  A little Jewish which was also a little Italian and a little Damon Runyon-esque. When you come from anyplace else, but hold out New York as your dream, New Yorkers are already fiction. He was a compactly built man who came just up to my shoulder. He wore good suits, nice cologne, his hair was slicked back and he seemed to always walk on his toes. He was like an animated spark plug. An inveterate schmoozer he loved actors.

Before we went into rehearsal I would meet him at the end of the day in his offices on 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall and he taught me the songs. “Like this,” he’d say pounding the keyboard and booming out a lyric. He made me feel like I knew exactly what I was doing. I didn’t. He would play a couple of his songs from other shows, “They told me I this interval would never work,” and then he played the change in “My Time of Day,”(…and it’s the only time I ever wanted to share it…with you.)

I was finally suitably impressed when I found he had written “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” “ Heart and Soul,” and “My Darling, My Darling.” I knew all the words to those songs. “Hey, I sang those when I was a little girl.” I heard them on the radio from the backseat of the car when my mother, my father and I drove across the country to race our greyhounds in the 40s and 50s. Then Frank would pour us a glass of scotch which made me feel tremendously sophisticated and offer me a ride home in his car if he was going to see his mother who lived in my neighborhood.

The show went to Philadelphia to the Shubert Theater for try-outs as did most shows, to work out the kinks and make changes. It was a heady time. My god, I had a hotel room all to myself. I wasn’t in it much for we rehearsed well into the nights and then ended up in the Variety Club, a private club for actors who were working on the road. Daily there were changes in the songs and scenes. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” made the rounds of several cast members until it found a home as a company number. The other day I found my old script which I didn’t know I had kept. Some of the onion skin inserts were still slipped in between the pages their edges curling. I laughed to see my handwriting of the stage directions. It was small and tight, timid. I must have been terrified at some level. I was grateful to Charles Nelson Reilly who kept me boneless with laughter both on stage and off. Sometimes I prayed that he wouldn’t look at me during a number because I would be sure to lose it.

Frank always looked out for those of us who were newbies. “Ever have Chicken Kiev?” he asked one night then took me to a Russian restaurant and ordered it. “You won’t forget this,” he said. When I put my fork into the chicken breast golden butter shot out. I just had to tell my mother about this to see if she could make it.

Looking back at the girl I was I see that I was skilled at putting up a good front. I knew how to act in groups, how to acclimate immediately. It came from a having lived an itinerant life seasonally crossing the country from dog track to dog track in the small carnival-like world of greyhound racing. I was raised squarely in the company of eccentrics, gamblers, the high falutin’ and the hoi polloi just like…well, the theater.

How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying Revival

March 27th sees another revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It is those two roles that set the tone for the production right from the start just as Mad Men’s Bobby Morse and Rudy Valee did so successfully in the original production. This pairing sounds promising in the same way.

October 1961 was the opening of the original some fifty years ago. I was “Smitty” in the principal cast of which I believe only three remain: Bobby Morse, Bonnie Scott and myself. I had moved, with my mother cheering me on to New York from Yale when I was twenty, dead set on being an actress. For both of us it was a bittersweet parting.

I bought “standing room” for Broadway shows I couldn’t afford at full price. From the back of the house I watched Ethel Merman eating up the stage like a one person manic music machine in Gypsy and grew weak with longing. I had solid training as an actress, but loved musicals; the sweep of them, the color, the possibility of a world where one could unapologetically burst into song.

I went to Off-Broadway shows, stayed up late with friends landing the needle of my hi-fi to a specific cut from Candide. We knew all the lyrics and sang all the harmonies.  During that first year, I would take the subway down to the Village at night and sing in four person revues on dime sized platforms with four brightly painted stools, boas, derbies and a piano player. The coffee houses were very cold or very very hot and suffocatingly smoky. Heaven. We passed the hat.  One night friends of my parents whose racehorse had just won a big stake race at Belmont came to see me and put a handful of twenties in the hat. We were ecstatic.

Throughout this time my real dream job was to be in an uptown revue called Upstairs at the Downstairs, produced by an elegant gay southern gentleman named Julius Monk. I wanted nothing more than to be one of the smart clever girls in little black dresses, high heels and pearls who parried in crisp snappy repartee. Very soignée. Very New York.  That was for me. So I looked up Julius Monk in the phone book. I dialed his number, he answered and in one run-on sentence I explained that he just had to come down to the Village and see me in this revue. “Please,” I said. He thanked me kindly and though my cast members laughed at me, showed up one winter night and sat huddled in a gigantic raccoon coat on a small chair. We shook hands after the show and he complimented us graciously.

I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t Equity and even if I had been, I wouldn’t have known where to start. I was woefully ignorant of “the ropes” but trusting I would figure it out.  I answered my phone one day and it was a woman I had known from Yale who was working as an assistant to a talent agent.  She asked if I wanted to audition for a Broadway musical. I said that would be good, but it would have to be on my lunch hour. I was a receptionist in a Wall St. bank, something that thankfully required zero skills which was exactly the extent of my business savvy. She said, “They just want you to belt something.”

I had a big loud voice but had never auditioned as a singer, still I thought if they wanted loud, that would be a cakewalk. I nailed our piano player after the show one night and asked him to put some songs together for me. I chose the last eight bars from several songs since those were usually the loudest parts, and strung them together much to the horror of the piano player who had more musical taste than I.  They were “Old Man River,” “Johnny One Note,” “God Bless America,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and  the end of “Rose’s Turn.” The audition was on the stage of the Lunt Fontanne theatre. Abe Burrows, Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the two writers, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert sat deep back in the darkened house, the piano player below me in the pit. (I was to meet Frank Loesser later.) When I finished, there was a significant silence. Then Abe came walking down the aisle and said “Well, then girlie, tell us a little bit about yourself.” The part was mine in a show I knew nothing about.

My friends were delirious. I however had quiet reservations. It wasn’t, after all, my dream job. Sure enough, well into our rehearsal, again my phone rang. This time is was Julius Monk saying he would be interested in seeing me for his next production. I leaned against the kitchen wall of my walk-up apartment, choked back tears of regret and managed to weakly stammer “Oh, I’m so sorry,Mr. Monk. I can’t do it. I have to be in this Broadway show!” Why, just why this once couldn’t things have worked out the way I wanted?

Check back again soon – there’s more to follow…

That One Story

There are plenty of reasons to want to write.  And I am in complete support of all of them. You might want to have a go simply because someone once said, “You know, you should be a writer,” thereby tickling your ego enough to send you off with a nice new yellow legal pad.  If you should find yourself spending significant time with the process, say a couple of years or more I guarantee you will soon search out that friend and explain in painful detail how naïve they were.

A really good reason to want to write is to get paid for it which means you have to study the marketplace, something that wishful artists seldom take into consideration.  Still, one of two things will happen. You will find the “market” staggeringly incomprehensible because the speed at which the technology changes rivals man’s flight to the moon.  Or you might find a niche you had never imagined, perhaps something specialized like “golf” or “water fowl” and begin to make a little headway, learn how to meet a deadline—one of the most motivating and pragmatic aspects of writing.  Not everything is a novel, a film or inspirational and life changing. Think about when you wander through a bookstore or a cruise a newsstand, (and now, the Internet) someone writes all those other things.  You could write some of those other things.

You could also want to write just to get something off your chest. That might not mean you will find a job writing, but you might sleep better at night. I caution that writing is not therapy at the same time realizing that it can be therapeutic and that’s not a bad thing. You never know, if you keep pushing that particular envelope and pay attention to craft while you are doing it, you might end up in fiction.

What you do have, what everyone has, is that one story. Something based on personal experience or something fired by your imagination. It has probably been looking over your shoulder, tugging at your consciousness. Real or fiction, you can find that one story and pay your respects for it has been waiting for you to notice for a very long time and will not let you down.  It is core to more stories and you couldn’t ask for a better starting place, a more authentic, doable or welcoming place to begin. It’s kind of like coming home.

Red Flag Words for Artists: relax, embrace, journey

“Find yourself a quiet spot, a good chair. Make a space for yourself, for your thoughts. Just relax and begin.”

There is nothing relaxing about writing.  It is fraught with a splendid or even frustrating tension between what you think you are saying and what actually ends up on the paper. I won’t say that there aren’t times when you get to feel supremely zoned as if you are on automatic, but those times come unbidden and disappear once noticed.  They have less to do with “relaxing” and more to do with serendipity.  Enjoy them. But don’t depend on them. Instead, get used to dragging yourself to the nearest surface, clear off the laundry or the monthly bills and do something.

I had a long career as an actress.  There was a here was plenty of “just relax” advice bouncing off the walls.  It never worked for me. Stepping from the dark onto the stage and into the light in front of a theatre filled with complete strangers put me on alert. I was “on call” till the curtain came down. Nothing stirs the senses more than the threat or promise of risk.  It raises the stakes and that makes what you do, worth it.  Art is risky, a disturbance.  Should you manage to achieve the exhaustingly over-rated state of “relaxation” I would suggest you be on guard against its close cousin, “ennui.”

“Writing is a journey that takes you on the road to discovery and enlightenment.”

Suggesting writing as a journey is altogether too pre-planned and packaged for my taste.  I see a pilgrim sort of person, wearing loose fitting garments, carrying a walking stick and a small bundle just about to crest a hill all confident, wide-eyed and eager to see what is over the next rise. (Oh yes, wearing a boxy homemade hat.)  Conversely, a “journey” viewed from completion has an air of smugness about it. Life is not an animated feature.  On its own, day to day, year to year, and generation upon generation what we experience, what we imagine is much more haphazard and demanding of vigorous language.  Words like slogging, trudging, tramping, staggering, tottering are much more suited to the daily experience and struggle of the ordinary artist no matter the discipline.  No one among us can imagine where we will go, what we will be, what we will see and endure.  What we live is random filled with alarming losses and unexpected gains all of which cry out for specificity. Too much writing about writing or any of the arts, romanticizes what is more often just plain hard work that can often bring out the worst in a person.  As for “discovery” and “enlightenment” I would be grateful to have simply stayed “upright” and “curious.”

“Just embrace your fears.”

This suggestion has never appealed to me. It’s far too up close and forgiving, completely lacking in substance and muscle.  “Embrace” fears?   I don’t think so.  Fears are not affectionate, they are designed for confrontation and questioning. Sometimes, they even require us to run away. They matter. Wouldn’t you far rather dive into those bad boys and have to tussle, get some leverage going, burn a little?   Besides there are far too many circumstances and people I am beyond embracing for good reasons.  The lingo that springs up around art and creativity is cliché.  The work of art and craft is anything but, and deserves better.

Just what were you thinking?

Try this:

What did you think about today?  Not necessarily what you did, but what you thought about.

Today I thought about that mouse that  turned and disappeared behind the pasta when I opened the small food cabinet next to the stove.  And then I thought, well, how lame are you? You have been hearing scrabbling noises from that cabinet late at night and have even opened it, looked around and figured you were dreaming. Or thought it was the rain.

Then I thought about the back patio and that I should sweep off the clippings all sodden from the rain, but decided to leave it till tomorrow when the gardeners come. And I thought about having to remember to buy some new chew things for Ruby because I’m out of them. I thought about the blizzard in Manhattan and how glad I am that I’m not there but on the other hand, that feeling of waking up in the morning to complete soft silence in a big city is unequalled and is the same feeling when you find yourself deep in the middle of big forest.

I thought about seeing True Grit yesterday and how the character Jeff Bridges played is like some of the men I grew up with. They never stopped thinking they had a load of stories to tell. When the Armenian exterminator named Joe came, I thought a lot more about the mice and then also had to think about the nest of black widow spiders he found in the library. I thought about class tonight wondering who would show up and what I could offer them.

Other things I thought about:

The rain, when to take down my Xmas tree, changing the filters on my heat vents, getting two more eyebrow pencils from Macy’s, eating more fruit, checking out the NY blizzard again on the news, West End Avenue, Brendan’s Christmas dinner and did the roast turn out great, Michael in Dublin, taxes, money and how to get some more.

The Holiday Letter

Dear You- Know-Who-You-Are,

I don’t know who Widdie is.

I don’t know who “Rainbow” her high school friend she visited in Chicago just this past summer is.  I’m sorry to hear that “Rainbow’s” tumor got as large and unwieldy as it did, but I’m glad she had a strong support system just on general principle.  I have no need to meet Widdie no matter how important she may be to you in your life and I don’t need to know if “Rainbow” is a man or a woman.

Your classes in Tai Chi come across not nearly as life changing as you would like them to.  They read a little flat on the page. My advice, give it up.

I resent you imagining I have been charting your family tree along with you over the past several generations.  For example; Auntie Fez and Uncle Dexter in Annapolis, Lester and Maxine recently re-located from Twin Falls, The Blattgart twins outside of Orlando or the Mormons, Blyth and Simon and all members of your mother’s family.

The college reunion you described in such detail sounded like a ragingly tedious waste of time allowing you to continue in your pathetic and sophomoric attempts at denial that you too, are growing old and further, that anyone at all who went to school with you has any investment in seeing you again, except by way of comparison.

Your staggeringly elaborate description of your Labor Day weekend, along with your Memorial Day weekend, topped off by the President’s Holiday extra long weekend, your volunteer work and your recent love affair with couple’s therapy make “The Bridges of Madison County” read like a classic.

As for the exacting reports, (plus scores,) of your children’s Little League, soccer teams, ballet lessons, swim team, high jumps, jazz classes, science fairs–even their pithy sayings over the years have done nothing but bring me to my knees in blinding despair.

I care nothing about the entire state of Wisconsin.

And never, never dare to “share” a recipe again.  I was foolish enough to be attracted enough to your last year’s decorative centerpiece constructed out of licorice ropes, rice balls and pine cones to have created a disaster in my kitchen from which I’m still recovering.  Your follow-up cautionary note about the danger in the sudden heating of licorice was too little, too late.

I don’t care about your addition to your house, your contractor and his family, and dramatic as it may have seemed to you, I could simply not connect with the freak accident involving the pool heater and your dog Irene, who I remember with fondness.

In the future, please do me the courtesy of leaving me off your list.  Your letters make me feel obligated, small-minded, guilty, bored, and an overall radical misfit whose life is completely without meaning.

The Table

The Table

When I was a little girl probably five or six during WWII there were black-outs for certain businesses. Since my family raced greyhounds and the sporting events were held outside at night, the tracks were closed down so as not to present a brightly lit target.  It must have been difficult for my parents having their only source of income cut off, but we went to Kansas to my mother’s family’s farm to wait it out. Some of that time we spent in nearby Joplin, Missouri and since it was the school year, I was sent to a one-room schoolhouse. I could not have been happier.   It was one room with a wooden floor warped enough so that if you dropped a pencil you might have to rush to catch it.  One teacher.  And a handful of students of all ages. I was happy because everyone helped each other.  Maybe a girl who was ten would guide my hand to help me make letters on that pulpy lined paper, or an eight year old would share his book with me during the out loud reading time.

Perhaps that’s why I find that mixing the genres and abilities at the my workshop table is creative.  People benefit from the variety of interests, styles and voices. It broadens perspective, makes a larger landscape for imagination. Fiction borrows from non-fiction and non-fiction informs fiction. An agreed set of skills and practiced critiquing are fundamental across the board.  It raises the bar for the less experienced while also reminding the more experienced of basics they may have let go.  And I have a level floor if a pencil gets dropped.