I recently visited a friend I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years and one of the things she asked me was how my novel was coming along, and I realized this is exactly the reason why I need to post about this process on social media. If everyone knows I’m writing it, even friends I rarely get a chance to see, then it helps keep me focused.
So here’s an update.
In March I presented my draft to my writing group, the excellent and talented members of Jersey City Writers, and got some really useful feedback. I was slow in implementing it due to the demands at school, but once summer started it became my main focus. So help me God, I will have a revised draft finished by the end of summer, one that is ready to present to agents and publishers, or ready to publish on my own. We’ll see…
Part of the problem with my original draft was that I wrote it for NaNoWriMo without planning much of it out. Now, I love NaNoWriMo for all the enthusiasm it generates for writing, as well as the bonhomie it stirs up among those crazy enough to attempt writing a novel in a month. However, I am not a pantser in any other aspect of my life, so I shouldn’t have supposed I could be one as I novelist. I should have begun the process of writing this book with a formidably well-parsed outline.
But I didn’t.
So now I’ve taken the feedback from my writing group along with what I know of my characters and their general story, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time organizing the flow of their tale to address some of the readers’ issues, adding some rather dramatic plot points that seem so obvious now that I’m ashamed I left them out initially.
I did quite a bit of searching online for useful ideas as part of my outlining reformation, and I want to give a shout out to Katytastic, a YouTuber (kat_tastic on Twitter) whose video I found particularly helpful. I use Scrivener for most of my longer works of writing, and this video demonstrated a really smart way to outline using Scrivener’s features that I hadn’t used before. After watching her video and putting her strategies to work, my story seemed so much more solid.
Now that I’ve got it fleshed out a bit better, I’m back to writing it. And trust me, if you’re reading this blog right now, then I will let you and all the rest of the world know when it is finished, because as much as I love my dear little fictional Ohio town of Villandry, I’ve already got three more novels I’m itching to write and as many protagonists getting pissed off at me for taking so long.
And a memoir.
And maybe a play. We’ll see.
For now, though, please check out Katytastic’s “Outlining with Scrivener.” (BTW, I really can’t figure out why the link starts the video in the middle. I don’t seem to be able to correct it…but you can manage to drag it back to the beginning, right?)
Funny how certain pieces of music have a way of appearing in our lives just when we need them.
After my grandmother died last year and her funeral was over, I was eager to get back to normal life. At that time MasterVoices was hard at work rehearsing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony — the “Resurrection” symphony, written in honor of a friend of his who died unexpectedly. We’d started the season with it, performing with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and we ended the season with the same piece, then with the New York Youth Orchestra — just a week or two after her funeral. The piece was a vessel for my grief, exactly what I needed to sing at that moment.
Well. As I noted in my previous post, my grandfather died last month. Just a few days before it happened I got an email from MasterVoices saying that we’d been asked to participate in another performance of Mahler’s 2nd, this time under the baton of George Mathew as a benefit for HelpMeSee, an organization that is fighting to end cataract blindness. I wasn’t going to sing it — we just finished Bach’s St. John Passion, this concert will take place four days later. I figured I might need a break (and, more importantly, I need to finish my novel draft by the end of the month to submit it to Jersey City Writers to be workshopped in March!).
But then my grandfather died. I remembered how much the piece helped me after grandma’s death, it seemed wrong to turn down the opportunity perform it once more — and coming so soon after my grandpa’s death, it just felt like more than a coincidence. Like they say, you can ‘call it odd, or call it God,’ but coincidences like this can’t be purely accidental.
So I said yes. The performance will take place this Monday at Carnegie Hall (click here for tickets). It is truly one of the most glorious pieces of music to sing. When we sang it with the IPO I didn’t have the loss of loved ones weighing on me, and even then I couldn’t sing it without tearing up by the end. I’ll probably look a mess after the concert this Monday, tear-filled as I’ll surely be, but I’m looking forward to it.
Please attend and support a wonderful cause!
(Somewhat semi-unrelated, but a few years ago I wrote a piece on Verdi’s Requiem and how it has had a similar way of calling me to it under interesting circumstances. I looked it up just now and saw that it was written on 11 February 2015 — two years ago to the day! Call it odd, or call it God.)
Here’s a link to a video of the final movement of the symphony, the part that features the chorus. (WordPress has changed its structure and won’t allow me to insert the video into the post as I used to do without buying an upgrade package. Grrrrr!!)
Something that helped me to get through The Sun Also Rises this time around (my third attempt…) was to read it as a travel book. In the years since my second attempt at the novel, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Paris several times. Those trips really helped me to visualize and enjoy the beginning of the book (which, in my opinion, is the most difficult part) much more. While I can’t bring students to France merely for the sake of enjoying a single work of literature (#teachergoals…), I can replicate here in this blog post what I did the entire time I was reading the book: pull out my phone to look up images of the places Hemingway name-dropped.
In other words, I used my smart phone to…you know…make myself smarter.
Hemingway is famous for following his early mentor Ezra Pound’s diktat eschewing adjectives. He describes scenes with action mostly, but does do an awful lot of name-dropping of places. I can’t imagine he expected his audience back home in the States to know what the places he named looked like. His intention was probably to say “This glamourous place with this sexy foreign name exists, and I’ve been there, and aren’t you just so jealous?” He might not have been quite that arrogant, but it is true that his writings for the Toronto Star and the writings of other American expats in Paris did much to contribute to Paris’s (and France’s…and Spain’s…) romantic allure, which thereby led to increased tourism that over-saturated the city with Americans and Brits, and caused the original expat community to shudder and look for the next great hipster beehive.
Anyway, I digress (was that last sentence a wee too judgy?). My point is this: We don’t need a ticket on the QEII and a million dollars and two months of time to follow in his footsteps the way his original audience would have; all we need is Google.
So this post will try to illustrate as much of the book as possible in order to help students develop a mental picture of the setting. Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003. All photos, unless they are mine, were pulled from the internet, so if one belongs to you and you would prefer that I remove it, just let me know and I will.
PARIS (Book One)
We had dined at l’Avenue’s and afterward went to Café de Versailles. (14)
I’m sick of Paris, and I’m sick of the Quarter. (19)
(NB: “The Quarter” refers to the neighborhood of Montparnasse that was the hub of the American expat scene in the 1920s, not to the Latin Quarter (as I mistakenly thought)
Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of big manila envelopes and rang for a boy to take them to the Gare St. Lazare. (20)
We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an apéritif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard. (21)
We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. (23)
The dancing club was a bal musette in the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève. Five nights a week the working people of the Pantheon quarter danced there. (27)
The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, the turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. (33)
We were sitting now like two strangers. On the right was the Parc Montsouris. (35)
“Café Select,” I told the driver. “Boulevard Montparnasse.” (35)
I went out onto the sidewalk and walked down toward the Boulevard St. Michel, passed the tables of the Rotonde, still crowded, looked across the street at the Dome, its tables running out to the edge of the pavement. Some one waved at me from a table, I did not see who it was and went on. I wanted to get home. The Boulevard Montparnasse was deserted. Lavigne’s was closed tight, and they were stacking the tables outside the Closerie des Lilas. I passed Ney’s statue standing among the new-leaved chestnut trees in the arc-light. (37)
The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. (43)
From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. (43)
At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon waiting for Brett. (48)
It was three days ago that Harvey had won two hundred francs from me shaking poker dice in the New York Bar. (49)
Finally we went up to Montmartre. Inside Zelli’s it was crowded, smoky, and noisy. (69)
And there you have it: The Sun Also Rises, Book One.
As a bonus, and unrelated to the book, here are a few shots of my students in Paris (April 2015) as well as videos of myself in France (July 2014 & August 2015; video credits to Gabino).
In October of this year, my choir — MasterVoices — will present the New York premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon‘s opera, 27, about the literary and intellectual salons held at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the years between the world wars. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are characters. So are Picasso and Man Ray. It should be a heady romp of an opera!
Because the opera is so literary, I decided it would be fantastic if I could bring my College Bridge Senior English class to see it, but this posed a challenge: How in the world would 12th graders ever truly appreciate the work without some knowledge of all the key players? Or, for that matter, how would I?
See, I’m somewhat poorly-versed when it comes to the Lost Generation. I know all the big names of the era that any self-respecting English major should know, but I haven’t ever spent much time with them. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” in 7th grade twenty-five years ago and remember very little of it beyond the fact that I disliked it. I tried to love Hemingway by reading The Sun Also Rises on two separate occasions but found the book to be a tiresome chore. I’ve never been gaga about Gatsby like a lit-lover is supposed to be, and I think I opened up Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons once while in college, read a single poem, shuddered, then promptly returned to it to its shelf in the library. Thus ended my time with the Americans in Paris in the 1920s. To me they seemed purely hedonistic and self-absorbed, and really self-important. I didn’t have much of an interest.
And I might have left them there, sitting on the shelf and continuing to accrue accolades from everyone but me, but for three things: this upcoming Ricky Ian Gordon opera, as I’ve said, and Joyce and Woolf. They’re of the era and of the ilk, more verbose than their American counterparts and a thousand times more cerebral and difficult…and yet I adore them. As an Irishman and a Brit, there might be an argument for the difference of their literary output, but, most things being the same, I ought to be able to find something worthwhile in their American peers, right? So it occurred to me that the only reason I ever came to love Joyce and Woolf in the first place was due to my professor, Richard Hood, who provided rich, detailed background to their lives and times that gave their writing a context and a point of approach. He made their writing feel vital to a young twenty-something in the late 1990s, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful and now need to replicate for my own students.
I never had that with the Americans in Paris — I’ve never read them in the context of a class — but if I’m going to enjoy performing in an opera about them, and if I’m going to provide my students with a richly satisfying educational experience, then I’d better damn well get studying and teach myself so that I can pass the knowledge on.
Which is what I’ve been doing. First, I made a third attempt at The Sun Also Rises, and this time I finished it. I won’t say it’s become my favorite book or that Hemingway’s genius dripped from the pages in any obvious way, but I really did like it — so that’s a start. I’m currently reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume, a book that seems to have been released to coincide exactly with my interest in the subject matter; it came out at the beginning of last month, just as I was piecing together my course of study. Blume’s book has acutely sharpened my appreciation for and interest in Hemingway.
Anyway, in the days and weeks to come, I plan to post my explorations of the works I read in a way that is meant to be shared with my students, but will hopefully be of interest to any reader who stumbles across my blog. I’m coming at this with an open mind, yes, but, more importantly, with a humble mind. My previous encounters with the Lost Generation writers have left me feeling dismissive of their talents, but this time around my thought is, “You know what? They are beloved for a reason.” Rather than try to trash them, I’m going to try to see what it is that others see, and I’m going to share this experience with my students.
And with you. So if you’re reading this and you have any reading suggestions for me, please feel free to pass them on in the comment section. Otherwise, keep checking in for updates!
***Apropos of nothing, here’s a video of my aforementioned professor, Richard Hood, playing the banjo as he’s wont to do. A man of many, many talents; he not only taught modernist literature, he toured the country (world?) with his bluegrass band, led humanitarian trips to Haiti and moved me cross-country from Ohio to California. Hemingway may or may not be a genius, and Stein probably isn’t (not really…), but Hood sure as hell is!
All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer they best pleasure, be’t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds. To thy strong bidding, task
Ariel and all his quality.
~The Tempest, I.iii
It’s been four months since my Summer of Shakespeare ended, and my days have been nearly Bardless since then. For three weeks in July I ate, slept and dreamt Shakespeare with an incredible team of colleagues, directors and coaches as part of Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance at the Globe Theatre. As a teacher and director, it was the most exciting and engaging professional development I’ve ever had; as a lifelong student of literature and theatre, it was thrilling to explore Shakespeare’s works in such depth and in as authentic a context as one can hope to achieve in the 21st century. We were all incredibly sad when it ended, but, as Shakespeare reminds us in many a play, our time on the stage of life is brief and the moments that shape it are even briefer — which is part of what makes every minute so precious and our need to make the best of our time here so crucial.
That’s why I’m so pleased that a new season of Shakespeare is about to begin, and unlike my three week Summer of Shakes, this Winter/Spring of Shakespeare will be a season of indefinite length, like a George R. R. Martin winter (Winter is coming, but it shall not be a winter of discontent!). It begins in two weeks when the drama club I direct at PACE High School will begin work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This will be my first time directing a Shakespeare play, something I’ve wanted to do for years now, but never felt competent enough as a director until my experience at the Globe. This means I’ll be teaching the play to my 12th graders in drama class, and hopefully creating lessons for the rest of the grades at school to make the play approachable for all the students.
I also have an intrepid crew of thespians who are participating in the English-Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition. Between now and February when we hold our school competition, I’ll help nine contestants develop their monologues into strong, stand-alone performances. One of them will go on to compete regionally, and from there, if chosen, he or she will represent New York in the national competition. At the moment we have a grand assortment of characters chosen by the students: Petruchio, Gertrude, Desdemona, Isabella, Viola and a few Richard IIIs. I can’t wait to see what the kids do with them!
Additionally, my English class studies whichever Shakespeare play BAM happens to offer through their fantastic education program. This year in April we’ll go once more unto the breach with the highly-acclaimed RSC production of Henry V. I’m taking it upon myself to study the whole tetralogy (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V) and the Hundred Years War more broadly in order to teach the play from a place of deeper understanding.
(And there’s one other very exciting Shakespeare prospect on the horizon, but I’m not at liberty to share it until it’s official. So stay tuned!)
Suffice it to say, I’ll be steeped in Barddom from now until at least May, and I plan to blog quite a lot about all of it. I want to document my students’ responses and insights to their work with the plays and parts, share my own thoughts (and, likely, frustrations) as a director, and my questions as a reader.
The winter of content has begun! And like Ariel to Prospero in the quote above, I’ll be rendering my services unto the Gentleman from Stratford as a teacher, a director, a coach, a writer — whatever he needs me to do, I’m his willing acolyte.
So you’ll have to excuse me now; I have a lot of fulfilling, life-affirming work to do.