Monday, October 24, 2011

Dear Laundry Room Book Angel

I don’t know who you are, or if you’re one person or several.  But for the past few years, I’ve benefitted from your castaway books.  Of course, that’s what I assume they are as I take my pick of the delicacies and scurry back to my nest. 

My friends tease me that I’m stealing books.  “I found a great book in my laundry room this week…” 

“You mean you STOLE a great book!”

I’m careful not to be greedy, but always happy when I seemingly get first pick of the stash.  I look them over carefully and choose one.  Upstairs, as I wait for the washer to do its work, I think of one or two others I probably should have grabbed and beat myself up.  Half an hour later, I scamper back down to put my laundry in the dryer, hoping against hope that the other book is still there.  Oh god, please don’t let anyone else in the building be doing laundry and also interested in reading about Blind Tom, the 19th Century slave musical genius ……

Over the past four years, I’ve found so many wonderful treasures in The Basement Bookmobile.  One of the first was Ha Jin’s Waiting.  A novel I’d heard about, always thought of reading, and then one day….there it was.  And it was brilliant!  I still recommend it to friends.

Though I work full-time, I go thru several books a week.  Even when the A Train’s running express, that still leaves me at least 25 minutes to read on the trip to Midtown.  I do buy new books when I can afford them, love the convenience of and admit that The Strand is my favorite place in NYC. 

But nothing beats The Laundry Room.  It’s a wonderland of surprises!

A few of my favorites over the years:

The Portable Dorothy Parker
Heirloom:  Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer
Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By
Rape of the Nile:  Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Kite Runner
The Illustrated History of New York
The first three volumes of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Strangers on the Train by Patricia Highsmith
Irish Fairy Tales
The Popular Book:  A History of America’s Literary Tastes
Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths
The petit book on Poirot’s Fashion
Essay’s from the Writer’s Workshop
A lovely edition of Rabelais

My gay (and a few straight) friends were particularly jealous when I had Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch in my bag!

And a few months ago, when I was going thru a break-up, suddenly a copy of It’s Called a Break-Up Because It’s Broken appeared as I laundered pajamas stained with ice cream and pizza sauce.  Can’t say it was brilliant writing.  But was a great little friend to have handy during those dark days.

Last week I became the proud owner of The Vanishing Race on the history of the North American Indian.

And then this week you gifted me with The New York Public Library Desk Reference AND The Moosewood Cookbook! 

As a voracious reader, book-lover, and awesome cook!----THANK YOU!!!

For four years, I’ve always loved the mystery of the Laundry Room Book Angel.  And frankly, I still do.  But have been so overjoyed with the books lately that I really felt the need to finally say “thank you”.  Whoever you are. 

You make laundry day a pleasure.  And wonderful reading the rest of the week.

Whether you are one person or several----I am.... 

Gratefully yours,

Bennett Avenue Book Reader  

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

PLEASE Tell Me If You Didn't Like My Play!!!

There seems to be a blog circulating on how to avoid telling a playwright you didn’t like his play.  Nice post.  Good thoughts.  But here’s my rebuttal.

Writing a play is hard work.  I congratulate each and every playwright who manages to complete a play----good or not.  But let’s face it, some of them are bad.
I’m not saying this to be a jerk.  I’m not thick-skinned.  I’m the playwright who sits WAY in the back during a reading, often with my hands over my face in mortal fear.  Desperately trying to gauge if what I put on paper is understood.  Does it work?  Does it suck?  Can I make it better?

The first real play I wrote, I gave to my mother to read.  Like a lot of first plays, mine was set in a bar.  I knew it was a cliché, but tried to mock the cliché by showing how stagnant their lives had become in that small town bar.  I thought the characters were interesting.  That they had interesting things to say.  “Let me just get my tea, honey,” Mom said as she settled into her dining room chair and turned to the first page.  I had to leave the room.  I couldn’t watch The Judgment of Mom.

Half an hour later she laid the play on the tablecloth and gave me my very first review, “That was nice, honey.  I liked it.  It was just like Cheers.  But did you have to use all those bad words?”

I knew two things for sure.  First, that my play was NOTHING like Cheers.  And second, Mom didn’t particularly care for it.

I was okay with that.  After all, it was my first play.  But (outside of those bad words) WHY didn’t she like it? 

I needed to find out.  I went to The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis.  There, I learned how to give constructive criticism----and how to take it.  Not “take it” like taking a punch in the face.  But how to listen to what people were saying.  How to take in all the criticism and then decide for myself what to discard and what to take to heart---and to paper.

After many years of hard work (and many bad plays) I think I’ve become a pretty good writer.  But I still need feedback.  I still cling to the audience’s reaction during a reading.  I re-write.  Cut.  Merge two characters into one.  Cut some more.  Lose entire scenes.  Add new ones.  Rearrange the plot points.  Cut.  Cut.  Cut.  And cut some more.  I try to listen to the audience, the actors, and ANYONE who will offer ANY constructive criticism of my play.

Sometimes I get my Mom’s elusive critique, “I liked it.”  Sometimes I even get, “I LOVED it.” Sometimes my friends leave without uttering a word.   Frankly, I don't know what any of that means.  Maybe it's my Missouri roots---you've got to "Show-Me".

I’ve taken classes with some AMAZING writers.  Writers who were NOT gentle in their criticisms.  I once took a weekend workshop with Romulus Linney---a playwright I held in VERY high esteem.  The workshop seemed informal, and no one at the theatre told me to bring material, so I assumed we’d be writing new stuff and working on that. 


Though I’d assiduously checked my email for weeks before the workshop----I was stunned when I showed up at a cabin in the mountains and twenty playwrights pulled material out of their bags.  I had nothing.  Zilch.  I gingerly pulled my blank notebook out of my bag and awaited my death.

Linney, though polite, was pretty honest in his critiques.  Almost startlingly so.  Rarely do instructors get so blunt when dealing with paying customers.  It made me respect (and fear) him all the more.  Luckily, there was only time for about a half a dozen writers that night.  I was given a reprieve till dawn.  I went back to my cabin room, shut the door, and started writing.  Regurgitating, to be exact.  I’d been working on a new play.  And, like most writers, had spent an inordinate amount of time on the first scene.  I only needed ten pages.  I strained to remember those very carefully wrought words.

By four am, I had re-written the scene from memory by hand.

Three hours later, I got up, showered, and made my way to the only corner store within walking distance-----a gas station down the road.  There, I bought a large coffee and a ream of paper.  Back in my cabin room, I carefully copied my illegible scrawl onto a few sheets of college-ruled paper. 

Half an hour later, I was sitting in front of Romulus Linney, waiting to be called to the stand.

In the meantime, he’d called several other writers to task.  According to him, EVERY delicate jewel they’d brought in needed work.  One piece in particular, he just came right out and said, “This is not a play.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a play.” 

Of course, he went on to say several other things that might help it actually BECOME a play----but I felt for the writer.  Nothing’s as brutal as the master saying you created nothing at all.

Finally, my turn came.  My hands were shaking.  While everyone had had several lovely computer printed copies of their script, I passed my measly hand-written copy to the two actors and the stage direction reader, apologized, and asked them if they could sit together and share. 

I was mortified at my unpreparedness.  How often does one get the chance to study with a master and blow it by not only having no material, but also looking completely un-professional? 

The actors read.  They seemed to get the piece.  The other students laughed in the right spots.  Okay.  So not a total disaster.  Hopefully.  I sat in silence waiting for judgment. 

Romulus Linney looked around the room.  A calculated silence.  He asked what they thought of the play.  Most of the writers remained quiet and terrified.  I remember two brave souls commenting that they thought it was funny and that the characters seemed real.  That sort of thing.  It wasn’t looking good. 

Then Romulus Linney leaned his elbows on the table, looked around the room, and simply said, “THAT is how to start a play!”

I was stunned.  I think for an entire minute, I didn’t even breathe.

And then he went on about how wonderful it was.  How the characters worked together.  How the set-up worked.  How EVERYTHING worked.  “You’re very talented,” he ended.  “That was a very, very well-written piece.”

I was in heaven for weeks.  I sent query letters to agents, production companies, theatres, networks, pretty much anyone who might take an interest in my work.

But nothing.  No one wanted me or my scripts.  Maybe Romulus Linney was wrong.  Maybe I stunk.  I decided to take another class.  Then another.  All with amazing, talented, working writers.  Writers who’d received prestigious awards.  Writers I admired.  On a regular basis, I was told I was talented, brilliant, a wonderful writer.  Was always singled out in these workshops for having produced “the kind of stuff I really like.”

One writer/teacher actually said to me, “Did you write this just to make me happy?”

Despite all this wondrous praise----I was STILL waiting tables.  No agent.  No nothing.  Just $4.35 an hour plus tips.

What was I doing wrong?  No one would tell me.

Finally, I took one more class.  With another well-known writer.  At the end of the reading, I sat onstage in a pool of light.  I was the only one in the class who had NO criticism.  Oh, he loved it.  Everything about it was wonderful.  Was told I was very talented.  A wonderful writer.  That I write the sort of thing he loves.  “You should be very proud of yourself.” 

I just sat in silence in the pool of light.  It was possibly, the most depressing moment of my life.  There was the requisite applause from the other students.  I quietly said "thank you".  And left the stage. 

But inside my head was screaming, “IF I’M SO FUCKING WONDERFUL THEN WHY AM I NOT WORKING?!?!?!”

I told this to a friend of mine the next day.  “Why didn’t you ask?” he said.

“I don’t know.  It didn’t seem like the right place to ask.”

But the truth is---most playwright are NOT working.  Well, we’re working---just not making a living at it.  It was at that point that I stopped killing myself.  Began to focus more on life.  Yes, I still wrote.  God, yes.  It’s what I do.  But life was important, too.

So I lived.  And wrote.  And lived some more.

But in the back of my mind, I kept wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”

More importantly, what were playwrights doing wrong?  Plays are the essence of the human experience.  The most vital vessel of understanding.  Why are WE waiting tables and The Kardashians taking over the world?

Of course, if you’ve only been writing for three or four years, the reason you’re not working is because you’re not ready yet.  Writing, like any profession, takes a good ten years to master.

But, like many of my friends, I’m not a newbie.  I WANT to know what you did and did NOT like about my play.  Because if I’ve put it in front of you, that means that I’m at the point where I’ve done all I can without advice.  I’m too close to it.  And your distance (and expertise) might help make it better.  I REALLY want to know. 

Perhaps I’m different.  Perhaps most writers would prefer a simple pat on the back, good job, let’s get a drink.  Not for me to judge.

But if we get a drink, and I ask you what you thought----that means two things.  The first is that I honestly want to know.  And the second is that I value your opinion enough to trust your judgment.

I can handle it.  I’m not a hothouse flower.  It will only benefit me AND my play.  So TELL me!  If you don’t like my play---for godsakes, TELL ME! 

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Okay, go ahead and tell me what you liked about my play.  It will make you feel good.  I’ll know the bad is coming----but I’ll also know what actually worked.  Sometimes, that's just as important.
  2. Tell me what you didn’t like.  You don’t have to get in depth at this point.  Just point out one or two things that didn’t work.  Sure, you can back-track with the whole, “Maybe I missed this, but….”  Just get it off your chest.  It will only make us that much closer. 
  3. Ask me a few questions.  If you have questions, that helps me figure out where the problems are.  Maybe I can answer them and we’ll both be satisfied.  Maybe I can’t.  If I can’t----then I know what I need to work on.
  4. Talk about the things OUTSIDE of the writing that worked or did not work for you.  Again, a feel-good moment for you as you don’t have to critique me, per se.  If you didn’t get an actor’s portrayal of the character, the lighting was too moody; the direction seemed “off”.  Tell me what you liked and didn’t like and WHY.  Sometimes it’s in the script and I need to fix that.  Other times, we’ve let our theatre team go astray.  It’s flattering to have a theatre pick up your play, but sometimes (bewilderingly) even THEY don’t get it. 
  5. End by asking us what WE thought.  This could lead to a great discussion.  Or it could lead to another glass of wine and talking about great vacation spots.  Even writers get sick of talking about their work.  Don’t worry that opening a discussion will lead to an all-night unpaid dramaturgy event.  We’re your friends for a reason---we like your company.
Of course, I can’t speak for all playwrights.  Some writers like that simple, “Great job.  Really nice play.”  They will read into your words whatever self-loathing or self-lauding is in their heads. 

And those of us who genuinely want criticism don’t wear badges.  We’re hard to distinguish from the guys who just want a hug.  To make it harder----we want different things from different people.  We ALWAYS want Mom to give us a hug and say “I love you”.  We don’t always trust the judgment of the dude at our day job.  And we react FAR too freakishly to the local critic who rushes out during the curtain call without uttering a word.  As a side note, I used to do some freelance theatre criticism.  If I ran out after a performance, it was because I was on a deadline.  Had NOTHING to do with the value of your play.

But if you’re a friend.  And we ASK you what you thought.  What you REALLY thought.  Remember that THOSE are the magic words, “What do you REALLY think?”

We REALLY want to know.  We’re desperate.  Think of us as a sad single woman who just broke up with her boyfriend.  The sort who calls you late at night and wants to keep you on the phone for hours discussing what HE said and what that REALLY meant.  Only difference is, we’re not sobbing on our beds with a cucumber facial, a pint of Hagen-Daas and a bottle of vodka keeping you trained to the phone for hours.  We are right in front of you.  Unlike break-up girl, we’ll happily buy you a beer and some mozzarella stix and listen as long as you want to talk.  We’re trying to grow as a writer.  We think you can help.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have asked.

Some say theatre should be a safe environment.  What they mean by that is Safe To Take Risks.  Not all hugs and kisses. 

Playwrights risk their sanity everyday.  All of us are mentally one play away from the crazy, smelly homeless man on the train screaming, “Chicken butt!  Chicken butt!”

You can turn up your iPOD and ignore us, tell us we’re perfectly fine and explain “that's just the way God made you”, or you can lead us to the nearest mental healthcare facility where we can FINALLY  get some help. 

It’s your choice. 

“So, what did you REALLY think of my play?”   

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Books can be quite personal. 

In college, I was discussing my favorite book with a friend.  He expressed interest in reading it.  So I loaned it to him.  Not long after, I discovered his interest in my reading habits extended to an interest in me.  And while that was very kind---I just didn’t feel the same.  Sometimes that’s just how it is.  And nothing can be done about it. 

So naturally, he hated me.  And not just that uncomfortable feeling that sometimes occurs when affections aren’t returned----he HATED me.  Intense.  Vile.  Nasty.  Bitter. 

I was stunned.  I’d done nothing except apologize and try to be friends.  But he turned into Crazy Man.  This reassured me that my gut had been right.  I’ve never understood how some people move so quickly from love to hate.  And never will.

Needless to say, the book was never returned.  And after being screamed at in a club after I’d merely said “hello”---I decided it was best to let the friendship (and the book) go. 

To this day, I’ve yet to find another copy.

Which is why when I was assembling the books on my new bookshelves recently, I felt a horrible pang of guilt that’s haunted me for years when I found…….

Walden.  By Henry David Thoreau.

You see----this is not my book.  It belongs to my high school friend, Kat.  She loaned it to me when I was fifteen.  We became friends because of our mutual love of literature.  Both of us had read heaps of the classics before we even got to high school.  Each year, for English class, we would receive a list of “required reading”---Kat and I had already read about 90 percent of the books on the list.  But this did not mean we slacked off in the English department----we just kept reading.  While our classmates were encountering Romeo and Juliet----we were already up to King Lear.  While they discussed The Bronte Sisters----we explored Virginia Woolf.  And while they were reading Beowulf----well, I TRIED to read it for a second time…  But I just really hate Beowulf.  Don’t get me started on Beowulf.

At fifteen, I decided to start reading philosophy.  I had questions.  I heard philosophy had answers.  And I was particularly fond of insightful and happy little quotes that could make me smile when I was having a bad day.

So I picked up some Nietzsche.

Not the best choice.  Not the cheeriest guy on the block.  I used to enjoy using my free periods to read in the school chapel.  Yes.  I read The Antichrist in a chapel.  The misogyny was stunning.  Not just in Nietzsche, but all those guys.  Philosopher after philosopher seemed to hate (read fear) women.  Aristotle.  Plato.  Kant.  Schopenhauer.  Hume.  We should be obedient.  We were stupid.  We were worthless.  Nothing.  Hateful little creatures without a thought in our heads except to be enemies with other women.  I think Kant perhaps summed it up best:

"Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production... Women regulate their actions not by the demands universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.”

Of course, I understood the “context of the times”---but how is it that for thousands of years, none of them saw our potential?  These were Western Civilization’s “Great Minds”??? 

I was heartbroken and disgusted.

Kat suggested I might enjoy Thoreau.  So she loaned me her copy. 

And I did enjoy Thoreau.  He was a genuinely thoughtful and intelligent man.  Ran a stop on the Underground Railroad to help free the slaves, was an early proponent of women’s rights, met with leaders from the Native American community to help re-gain their land and freedom, and was possibly THE first environmentalist in the world. 

I loved the book.  I loved Thoreau.  From there, it all gets a little hazy. 

I don’t know exactly why one doesn’t return a borrowed book.  It’s not as if I had any intention of keeping it.  And Walden was in no danger of going out-of-print.  I could easily have purchased my own copy at the local mall’s B. Dalton bookstore for a few dollars.

And it’s not like I didn’t see her five days a week at school for several years after that.  Not like I had some massive Victorian library in my home and the book simply got misplaced under piles of lithographs and first editions.  It’s not as if she’d loaned me a set of encyclopedias and I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license) to bring them back. 

Why don’t we return books?  It’s really not that all that hard. 

Perhaps, it’s like love---exciting to receive; more difficult to return. 

Upon my bookshelves, I count a few (less than ten, mind you) books I’ve never returned.  Three are from libraries.  My account was charged for these books.  I paid for them.  They are now mine.  Though I still feel a twinge of guilt thinking that some poor fellow in South St. Louis County will go a-hunting one day and discover that Frances Partridge’s memoirs on her days in the Bloomsbury Group will be mysteriously absent from the shelves.

Kat and I have been in-and-out of touch over the years.  She moved.  I moved.  She changed phone numbers.  I changed phone numbers.  She moved overseas.  I moved to New York.  About two years ago, we reconnected.  We even met up for drinks in St. Louis.  Grand time.  Picked up right where we left off.  I pulled out a reference to Iris Murdoch and we both agreed that The Sea, The Sea is a novel an author has to earn the right to write.

So why do I still have her copy of Walden?  It’s clearly hers.  She even wrote her name on the book. 

What is wrong with me?

That afternoon, I wrapped the book up, took it to the post office, and mailed it to her with a note inside.

“I believe I borrowed this from you maybe sophomore year.  Sorry it’s taken me so long to return.  And yes----I read the book.” 

A few days later, I got an email from Kat.  She said it was “…a much-needed day-brightener.  Not only to enjoy your honorable tendency to return a borrowed book, but also to see my juvenile underlinings and those of the book's previous, unknown owner. Thanks so much -- it was absolutely a wonderful gift from the universe in a gloomy time!”

YAY!  What a lovely note.  Friends who write beautifully are awesome!

I not only relieved years of guilt, I also managed to brighten someone’s day AND get a book back to its rightful owner.  Hooray!
THIS should be a holiday!

I think it would be the best holiday ever!  Not just about books.  It could be about anything.  A Returning Things Holiday.  You would just go about visiting people and returning things.  Visiting your neighbors.  Returning an hedge trimmer and perhaps having a bit of something to snack together.  Going to see an old friend to have a drinky-poo, catching up on who’s who and what’s what, and finally getting back that punch bowl you loaned them for their daughter’s graduation five years ago.  And you don’t have to buy ANYTHING!  No crass commercialization whatsoever.  You just return something that belongs to someone else, have a nice visit, and make them so happy to have their thing back.  What a wonderful holiday!

Who doesn’t have something they would like returned?  And who doesn’t have something lying around their house taking up space that they feel horrible about not having returned every time they see it?

It’s a win-win. 

You could also mail things back.  No Hallmark card needed.  You simply pop the thing in the mail with a hastily-written note, “This is yours.  Sorry it took so long to return.  Let’s get together soon!”  Of course, Hallmark would design a line of cards----but screw them.  We don’t need no stinking cards!

There are possibly people out there who are upset with you for things you haven’t returned.  And there are likely people you’ve avoided because you have something you haven’t returned to them.  But unlike the young man in love who absconded with my favorite book, we don’t have to let this denial of property intrude upon our relationships.  Love is not an object.  We can’t always return affections----but we can all return things.    

Perhaps, what we need is a day to celebrate friendship, sharing---and the return of things we’ve shared with friends.  They loaned their special thing to you because they cared.

I think it would be a lovely holiday! 

Let the petitions begin.

Return something to a friend today.  You’ll make them happy and you’ll feel good, too.