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.
It’s been a busy three months since my last post. The start of the school year always demands my full attention, but a few months in and I usually find my groove. Now I can manage to blog a bit. Oh, and write a novel! Finished the first draft of my second novel thanks to the kick in the pants provided by NaNoWriMo and the creative energy and support drawn from the hundreds of thousands of others who participated.
More on that later.
I’ve also been buoyed lately by the camraderie and smart, really useful criticism I’ve experienced through the Jersey City Writers. Lots more on this wonderful writing group to come, but before I get ahead of myself, I wanted to invite you all to a really fun event the group sponsors.
Every other month they host a “genre night” where short works of a particular genre are chosen by a panel of judges to be read aloud by professional performers. The next genre night — which happens to be tomorrow (12/2/15)! — is “children’s stories for adults.” Here’s the description from their Facebook invitation:
Please join us for a whimsical literary reading event where you can pretend to be a kid again…because “adulting” is hard.
Think Curious George slaving in a cubicle, or Green Eggs and Ham and Boozy Brunch, or the Pevensie siblings discovering a nightclub in their wardrobe instead of Narnia. Plus candy, coloring and stuffed animals, because when you’re an adult, why not?
You know you want to, right? Because you’re just never too old.
For all the details, click here for the Facebook invitation.
And even if you can’t make it for whatever reason, why not just go ahead and like the JC Writers page — your inner-child will shower you with gifts and joy if you do.
Lexicógrapher. n.s. [λεξικὸν and γράφω; lexicographe, French.] A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
My days in London weren’t all Shakespeare. I spent a considerable amount of our limited free time chasing down some of my favorites among London’s other literary luminaries: Chaucer, Dickens, Keats, Woolf, Blake. I planned out a walking route that would hit upon some of their major sites, but the writer I want to discuss today is the one I didn’t plan for: Dr. Samuel Johnson.
No lie: I only went to Dr. Johnson’s house because it was marked on my city map and I figured that if it was important enough to locate on a general map, it was worth visiting. Obviously I’d heard of Johnson: Dictionary, Boswell, lots of famous anecdotes**, etc. No self-respecting English major hasn’t heard of him.
But I’ve never met anyone who was a Johnson specialist. In my experience, he’s been more discussed than read, a frequent footnote in literary criticism. I assumed that this was because he only wrote the Dictionary and, being a witty bon vivant and raconteur, was primarily known through Boswell’s biography.
Obviously, if you are a specialist in Johnson and the 18th century then you’ll be sniggering at my ignorance, and rightly so.
But if you, like me, were not aware of how amazing he was, then keep reading. This entry will be an account of my time at the Johnson house and the details that have managed to stick in my head from the experience.
First, a word about the house. I love how they’ve curated it. The rooms are simply furnished, the walls adorned with prints and images of people who were important to Johnson’s life. Rather than complicate the walls with lengthy explanations alongside each image, they’ve created small booklets of information to accompany the images that you can read while sitting comfortably at a table in each room. I don’t know if the tables are period or not, but they look it, and anyway it feels right to sit and read in rooms where Johnson and his coterie would have sat, read, discussed and thought, versus moving through just another gallery of what used to be a famous person’s house.
In the first room I flipped through a binder of news articles of sundry Johnsonalia. Two in particular caught my eye. The first was by Virginia Woolf, and since she was already on my list of people whose traces I planned to stalk that day, I read the whole thing. It was (of course) beautiful – an argument for secular sainthood, nominating Johnson for beatification on the 150th anniversary of his death. She argued that he’s one of few writers who genuinely loved humanity in all of its forms and colors, beauty and flaws. Most writers, she said, are singular, moody, mercurial and only like people insofar as they see themselves separate from them; subjects to write about. But some, like Shakespeare and Johnson, really loved people. It shows in their writing, but it also shows in how the people have adopted them: cabbies in the 20th century, she wrote, would quote Johnson — and perhaps they still do. Again, like Shakespeare, he’d entered into the collective imagination and the collective voice of the people.
I was intrigued. I thought of him as being very stodgy (if only because I think of everyone in the 18th century as being very stodgy), but I was very much open to being wrong. I read about the people pictured in that room. The most interesting to me was Johnson’s valet and heir, Francis Barber, a Jamaican who had been sent to Johnson as a recently-freed slave. Johnson — a vocal abolitionist — certainly didn’t treat him as such. He saw to it that Barber was properly educated and could keep up with Johnson’s crowd. As Johnson died without children, Barber was made sole heir. He retired to Lichfield, the town where Johnson was from, married a white woman (a fact I found particularly surprising and heart-warming given the time period), started a school and raised a family.
One of Barber’s descendants was profiled in the second article that caught my eye in that room. He hadn’t known that he was a descendant of Barber’s, and – being outwardly white in appearance – was shocked to learn he had a slave ancestor. Anyway, long before he knew of his relationship to Barber, he himself had done humanitarian work in parts of Africa and taken a young man under his wing whom he educated and supported and thought of as a son. So Barber’s descendant ended up mirroring Johnson’s beneficence 250 years later.
Wow. Only the first room, yet it was clear to me that Johnson’s legacy was much more formidable than I had realized. There was a magnificent spirit present in those walls, someone whose mind and heart seem to have been far ahead of his time, and yet so much present within his time that his name, words and character would basically define it. A true man of the Enlightenment.
In the upper chambers I learned that, true to Woolf’s assessment, he surrounded himself with artists and thinkers, politicians and plebeians, movers and shakers of all sorts. He and Sir Joshua Reynolds would regularly hold club meetings at the Turk’s Head Tavern where they would surround the dinner table with a representative from a variety of fields – business, law, theology, art, music, and so forth – and they would put forth a controversial subject for the group to discuss, just to see what ideas might come forth (with only one verboten subject: politics). Women, too, were included in his circles, some whose opinions he very highly esteemed.
The uppermost room — his garret (or attic) — is where he and his troupe of amanuenses put together not the first, but the most comprehensive and thorough English dictionary. It may as well have been the first; the others had entries like: DOG, n., An animal with four legs. By that definition, cows and cats and ferrets could all go by the name of DOG. By today’s standards, Johnson’s Dictionary was also flawed as far as objectivity was concerned, but let’s give the guy some credit: the tome included nearly 43,000 words and around 114,000 quotations from major authors of the English language to illustrate a word’s usage in each definition. And he didn’t have Google to find the multiple references to the words, he had his own memory.
I sat in the garret by myself, looking up from the copy of Johnson’s dictionary on the table and out the window to the street below. The room and street were both very still. In my journal I wrote as I sat there, “I wish I could summon the ghosts.” I wanted to be able to hear the noisy silence of the fervent writing, page flipping, the occasional “Aha!” at the discovery of the perfect quotation to illuminate a definition. As it was, I contented myself with the quiet and allowed myself to absorb the special significance of the room.
Dr. Samuel Johnson was born in the early 1700s and died near the end of that century, so he was every inch a man of the 18th century, a century that I, in my studies, have always glossed over as that period between the Elizabethan/Jacobean/Restoration and the Victorian where lots happened in the world politically, but little seemed to interest me in terms of literature. Spending time with Johnson in his own house where the English language was consciously shaped and codified left me profoundly moved and deeply interested in learning more about the man, his writings and his era.
I really can’t recommend it highly enough: if you’re in London, please go visit Dr. Johnson’s house. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn
**My favorite anecdote, which I learned in my high school English class twenty years ago: Johnson was seated next to a woman at a dinner party. When she got a whiff of his intense body odor (a fact which the exhibition confirms: he would go weeks without changing his clothes), she said, “Sir, you smell!” To which the good doctor-grammarian replied, “No, madame: you smell; I stink.”
Here are some shots of the Johnson House’s materials. Gives you a sense of the kind of thorough, yet very readable literature they have set out for your perusal as you move through the house. The three pages pictured go together and should be read in succession for more information on Johnson’s Dictionary.
It was Joni Mitchell who “looked at life from both sides now” and saw a different view from each side, but it was bell hooks (I think) who said that you’ll never get to the truth of any story until you look at it from at least seventeen sides, far more than the usually requisite two. In that spirit, I invite you to join the Jersey City Writers‘ night of memoir fragments to hear stories from thirteen writers; not quite seventeen (sorry, bell), but I think you’ll hear thirteen very distinct voices from thirteen very different lives that might scratch against some interesting truths about our common humanity nonetheless. I’m very proud to say that this will be my first public reading in Jersey City, a city I’ve come to love despite being a die-hard Hobokenite. I’m excited for others to hear the works of the Jersey City Writers, a group of extremely talented people who inspire me every time I attend a workshop, a writing marathon, a prompts night…or any number of the other fantastic writing events they sponsor.
Please come out for it — I know you’ll be entertained, moved and impressed.
And apropos of nothing, here are two versions of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” Every now and then I’ll watch young Joni sing the cute song she wrote, and it’s beautiful, but it’s clear that old Joni understands it so much more. She gives it the weight and truth that her younger self could never fully know.
“Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”