Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Among the many things my mother didn't live to see was me, making pizzelles for Christmas, dancing around the kitchen to Glenn Miller. At this distance from family members and old friends, much of my Christmas is imaginary anyway. But as the years go on, my imagination is peopled by an increasing proportion of those who aren't around at all.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Update: In the comments, Robert Z notes that November 11 is Kurt Vonnegut's birthday, and that a Vonnegut Museum is opening this week. Here's the hotlink.
Second Update: Here's the New York Times story on the opening.
Why I thought of Kurt Vonnegut when I was in the U. library looking for something else entirely I don't know. But I did, and I found two fairly obscure books which contain interviews with him. One is a very slim volume called Like Shaking Hands With God (Seven Stories Press), which is actually two dialogues with another writer, Lee Stringer, who wrote about his experience as a homeless man in New York and earlier in his life in his book, Grand Central Winter. Vonnegut championed his work, and the two did a public conversation in 1998 and continued it privately, though recorded and again with a questioner named Ross.
A couple of statements struck me, which I'd like to record here. The first was from Stringer actually, who was talking about our fast-paced and results-oriented culture. "I guess in that kind of environment it is difficult for what we call literature to exist because a book is not all that practical a thing in the short term. It's probably infinitely practical in the long term."
Several times the discussion turned to Stringer's efforts to write his second book. Stringer was working through knowing too much about the book business that he didn't know the first time, and it was getting in the way. In the private conversation, Vonnegut insisted that he didn't really have to write another book. "All a writer has to do is write one book, and you did that."
This might seem odd from a writer who wrote so much, but Vonnegut was sincere (backed by statements he made on other occasions, which I'll get to eventually in this--let's dub it now--Vonnegut on writing thread.) And as someone who has been trying to get that second book together (numerous second books of course) for way too long, it's a comfort. In a sense, I know what he means. It's quite a trick to pull off, and the book exists as the evidence. So I'm not sure I'll stop feeling bad that I haven't published more, but I'll take some solace in Vonnegut's statement. Or maybe I could even call it a blessing.
Monday, October 25, 2010
This is Amy Tan's talk on creativity that is posted at the TED site. One of our local cable access channels runs a package of TED talks probably every day, and I really enjoy seeing them on my TV rather than going directly to particular ones on my computer. Probably a result of being a TV kid.
Although the audience laughs a lot during at least the first part of this talk, she is really talking about creativity, especially in her writing. Like most TED talks, it is creatively illustrated so it's a visual experience, too.
When this came on TV I took some notes, which are unlikely to be accurate. They're my thoughts inspired by hers. So for that very reason I will reproduce them here:
Facing death you become creative in a survival sense.
You create a cosmology for your narrative world.
the essential question of every story: WHY AM I HERE?
Moral ambiguity is where the story begins.
Serendipity signals your focus.
The more you are aware of serendipity, the more that it happens.
We create by asking questions.
I believe in specifics, especially of the past.
"I have to become the story." Feeling becomes the story. Compassion.
Monday, October 11, 2010
“We measure ourselves by many standards. Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and even our good luck, are things which warm our heart and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth...He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”
Monday, October 04, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
There's the intellectual/artistic challenge of what is in a sense simply following my instincts and predilections on how I want to proceed. In writing about my own childhood, I start with memories but test them against what facts can be determined. I may depart occasionally and only slightly from when certain personal or family events occurred--but not the public chronologies, the verifiable history. And this is what has been liberating in a way--I'm not even considering pushing things to extremes or creating drama or quirkiness or whatever one imagines would make this either a more commercial story or writing that attempts to fulfill any number of literary expectations. In the decisions I've made so far, simply to satisfy my own curiosity or to follow my own instincts, it's developed a life of its own.
In part I'm approaching this as anthropology--in fact, I have had for years a set of questions that an anthropologist investigates in an unfamiliar culture, on the first page of the master notebook I've kept for decades on this project. That sense of an approach has become more pertinent now, as the world of my childhood is largely gone, a vanished culture.
The investigations often begin by testing the accuracy of my memories--usually very specific if scattered moments-- especially in terms of where I place them in my life. For example, I recall being a Cub Scout in fourth grade, and a few things about it. So I researched a bit about Cub Scouts, and first learned that by today's standards, I would have been a bit old for starting. But researching further, I learned that in the 1950s, Cub Scouts did begin at an older age, at 9.
Especially in confronting that fourth grade year, I am astonished at how much I was doing, how much I was required to learn in many domains. Carving a narrative out of all that is challenging. Placing my memories in context also of family history as I know it--or with the help of others, can at least approximately figure out--is both a challenge and a reward.
There's also been the reward of remembering more in the process of writing. The memories newly revived that mean the most to me are probably the details. For example, I suddenly remembered a certain kind of coffee cup my mother (and father) used--it was a set that looked pretty much like the one in the photo above. And I remembered this: although to get from the kitchen to my room meant walking through the dining room, living room and in the hall hanging a hard right facing the bathroom, the back of the kitchen closet was also the back of the closet in my room--that is, they were back to back. It was a quirk of the layout. But it meant that when I was in my room and my mother called me to dinner, she opened the kitchen closet door and called me from there. I was just on the other side.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
I'd like to note two aspects of this endeavor here: the educational, and the coincidental. And how each led to the other. There are especially three instances I'd like to record. I don't know if they are significant to anyone else, but their very occurrence seems striking to me.
I started the first grade at Sacred Heart School in 1952. Among my clearest specific memories of that year are of fantasies about Superman, and a crush I had on a second grade girl named Judy. Researching the 1950s context, including the specific circumstances in Greensburg, PA, was interesting--how the local Catholic schools and churches responded to the beginning of the baby boom and expansion of housing beyond the town limits, for example. But as the first generation to start out with television, that medium's early history also pertained. As it turns out, my memory of seeing the opening episode of the George Reeves Superman (the origin), was of seeing the actual Pittsburgh premiere of that series. It started being broadcast that school year. (That research in turn led me to Superman's own previous and subsequent history, as reflected here.)
But that's not one of the three examples. The first pertains to second grade, when the most important event was my First Communion. First grade introduced me to the indoctrination (and I recall specific stories the nun told, or at least I recalled and recorded them several decades ago.) Dealing with second grade got me online to research catechisms. (There are basically three types. A somewhat simplified version for second grade. The one I re-acquired is evidently used in fifth grade, before Confirmation.) I also have a photograph of myself in my First Communion outfit, taken that day with my grandfather. But when I came to write about it, I couldn't remember when in the school year it would be. It seemed like it would be spring. The Internet gave me dates for some in recent years. So I initially set mine around Easter. But then I noticed a piece of paper on the floor. It had evidently fallen out of something--an old book, scrapbook, photo album. But on it was the precise date of MY First Communion.
The two other instances are from third grade. Another element of research involved the books we used, particular the school readers. I learned online that the Scott, Foresman readers that almost everyone used had specific Catholic editions, and they involved the family of John and Jean. As pupils we didn't own our readers--the school did, and they were passed down over the years. But we did have workbooks, and I have one that belonged to my youngest sister Debbie, and it was a John and Jean book. But I remember the Dick and Jane books. A little more research and yes, there was an earlier Catholic edition of the Dick and Jane series.
At used bookstores or yard sales I did acquire a few of those old readers, but probably not the ones I used. There were new editions of the Cathedral readers published between 1954 and 1956, so for the first few grades I was probably using books published in the 1940s. Still, at least some if not most of the content was the same, because I vaguely remember a few specific stories, and more vividly a few specific illustrations in one of these books (More Friends and Neighbors.) With a little effort, the Internet yielded up the secrets of the grade each reader would be used. Unfortunately, the readers I have are for the second and the fourth grades. Yet I had a specific memory that I thought happened in third grade.
Though I don't have a third grade reader, I have my younger sister Kathy's Think-and-Do Book for her third grade. I thought I would use it to illustrate how Catholic doctrine was integrated into our learning to read, but then I came upon a page of questions that I was suddenly certain was about the story I remembered as significant if not life-changing, and moreover the exercise was applied to exactly that feature: the sensory images. It was the story about Whizzer the mouse, and I remember that when we read it out loud in turn that I was amazed and excited by the language, especially the kinetic verbs. The characters didn't just walk or run like Dick and Jane--they zoomed, scurried, sprang, scrambled, scampered, bounced. It was a revelation about what reading (and writing) could do. So there it was--confirmation of that memory, in a workbook that happened to survive, about a story that evidently made it into the later edition my sister used.
This would relate to the main event of this third grade chapter, which is the writing of my first play, performed by my third grade class. But the major sequence leading up to this was about watching a Saturday morning of television, then playing with neighbor friends that afternoon and re-creating stories from those programs. So at last the reason for the illustrations up there. Thanks to the Internet, I found the actual TV test pattern I stared at, so impatient for programs to begin on Saturday morning--for WDTV, a station that didn't exist much longer, though it was transformed into the still-running KDKA. I knew I wanted to memorialize the space adventure shows I loved, and various researches revealed that all of them were on at the same time only in one year: 1954.
However, the play I wrote had a Christmas theme (it was about a Christmas it didn't snow, called A Summer Christmas, inspired by...well, that's another story) so it would have been written and performed that December. So this Saturday morning--with the test pattern, the early cartoons, the snack food we ate--like those graham crackers above--would have to be earlier. But it couldn't be too close to Halloween or Thanksgiving. So I checked the 1954 calendar, and chose October 23. Then I discovered that if I looked hard enough on the Internet, I could find episode lists with original air dates for several of those old shows. Since I was going to describe this experience of watching these shows, I decided to use specific real episodes.
I had to improvise on a few. Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was syndicated and shown on different stations at different times, so I used an episode I've got on a budget DVD, which plausibly could have been shown then. Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was actually switching from one network to another, so new programs weren't broadcast in October. So I decided that the station that was going to carry it might go back and air old episodes (on kinescope, in those days), so I was able to use one I had on an old VHS tape, which was one of the first in that long-running series. But my favorite of the Saturday morning space adventures had been Space Patrol. And of all of these, and the entire Saturday morning experience, I had one specific memory.
So here is the plot for the Space Patrol that aired on October 23, 1954:
The top-secret Terra 5, experimental model for a fleet of sensational new space ships ticketed for Space Patrol service, falls into the hands of interplanetary gangsters. Using Carol as a hostage, ruthless Gart Stanger forces Cadet Happy to take him aboard the Terra 5 and pilot him back through space and time to the planet Earth in the year 1954. At his destination Stanger intends to construct duplicates of the Terra 5 with which he will equip his henchmen when he returns to the 30th Century. Unfortunately for both he and Happy, the pair arrive on Earth to find themselves imminent targets for an atomic bomb test.
I have no doubt, more than a half century later, that this was the episode that prompted that exchange with my mother that I remember, on the exact date I had chosen for my fictional enactment. (The atomic bomb test is a bonus--it's surprising how many of these shows dealt with atom bombs and radiation.) I don't know what if anything such a coincidence means, or the significance of those earlier two examples of what might also be described as serendipity. Especially since this entire enterprise may be meaningless to anyone but me. But for me, it's some kind of affirmation, and connection. To what, I couldn't precisely say.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
"Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence." So begins John Banville's essay on Robert C. Richardson's books on Emerson, in what has to be my favorite quote of recent years, perhaps of all time.
When you're a writer, no matter how famous or obscure, whether you're one of the handful anointed by income or crowned by royalties to bear the title of writer, or you're a wretch like me, insultingly underpaid for squeezing into dubious forms, sooner or later, what gives you the buzz and the meaning, is a sentence you see and hear that you've written.
Oh sure, some get off on paragraphs, and there's the lucky few that get to play with chapters or scenes, and whole books, plays, sagas. But even they share the secret (and often secretive) gleam of a shining sentence, appearing under their fingers.
I wrote a review of a book about a writer who made very good sentences: Jane Austen. And in it I wrote a pretty nifty sentence, at least I like it. And for once I will violate the code and call your attention to it. It is mere cleverness maybe, but it is musical and funny, with a touch of cultural wit at the center. Or maybe it's just cute, I don't care. These days I must take my pleasure where I can. And pointing out a really elegant sentence is forbidden. That's up to readers to discover, and if they don't, well, everybody loses.
So in connection with Jane Austen's journey from obscurity in life to Jane-mania in the 21st century, I wrote this: She has the fame of the single name: absent Tarzan, she is our only Jane.
Good. Now I can put the clipping away with all the other forgotten sentences, and make some more.
Monday, June 28, 2010
For ten years, between 1984 and 1994, Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes in a series of 41 stories for Granada TV in the UK. His performances earned him the reputation as the definitive screen Holmes for his time, perhaps for all time. Any starring role in a long-running television series tends to absorb the life of the actor, as well as define these actors for their careers, and beyond. Often as well, these roles change the personalities of the actors, sometimes thoroughly and permanently. Jeremy Brett exemplifies all of these possibilities, except perhaps for one. The role of Sherlock Holmes did not change his subsequent career, for he had none. A year after he completed the Holmes series, Jeremy Brett was dead.
In the Granada episodes, now available in restored condition on DVD, Brett created a more intense and mercurial Holmes, his sudden stillness exploding in quick motion and flamboyant gestures. Brett was a close student of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and felt his interpretation was accurate, but it also reflected his own personality, as such long-running roles often do. But in his case, it's difficult to find the line between character and actor.
Biographical sketches as well as DVD commentaries and interviews emphasize how deeply Brett delved into the stories and the character, and how relentless were his efforts to use the TV medium and make the best possible films to serve them. It became his obsession.
In contrast to other Holmes incarnations on film which eventually invented new stories for the Holmes character (including the classic Basil Rathbone movies, and certainly the recent Robert Downey feature), the Granada series based its stories closely and exclusively on the original Conan Doyle stories. His first series of stories ended with Holmes apparent death, though popular demand would cause Conan Doyle to revive the character and write many more stories about him. Brett had just finished filming that death of Holmes episode when his own wife died of cancer.
Soon after, due to popular demand, the second Granada series was commissioned, and Brett's identification with Holmes grew even stronger. The qualities that he had already perceived as similar in Holmes and himself became overwhelming--especially that contrast of periods of fierce energy with periods of lassitude-- until Brett was forced to seek treatment for manic depression. (The symptoms apparently became pronounced during the "Return of Sherlock Holmes" series, and treatment had begun just before he started the "Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" final series.)
But Brett kept up his concentration and his exhausting schedule, playing Holmes on screen and on stage. Yet the lithium he took for his illness began to change him physically, as became apparent on screen. The later episodes chronicle these physical changes--such as weight gain, especially in his face, gaunt and spare at first, then puffier, wan and haunting.
Though overwork and his overwrought obsession as well as effects of lithium and the manic depression itself probably contributed to physical deterioration, in the end it was his enlarged heart and scarred heart valves, basically from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, that led to his death in his early 60s.
I first saw Brett's portrayal of Holmes when the A&E cable network--back when it actually was an Arts and Entertainment network--ran the Granada series late at night (around the time that it also ran the UK Lovejoy series.) I was lost in the wilderness of western PA then, and the Holmes series was an oasis. Brett's portrayal was riveting, and inspiring.
Now I'm somewhat obsessed with watching episodes on DVD, particularly the second, Return of Sherlock Holmes series. The clarity of the DVD--much better than the prints of cable--show Brett as even more of a revelation, as well as showcasing the visual splendor of the series. In this age of CSI and NCIS forensics, the detection aspect is of little interest--except for Holmes insistence that his method is imagination. No--the interest is Holmes, and Brett.
So I ponder the question of whether Brett's obsession was wholly tragic, or perhaps a little to be envied. In various ways, he gave his life to being Sherlock Holmes for millions of people, including me. He'd been a fairly successful stage, TV and film actor for years, but the chance to star in an iconic TV series comes to few. He made the most of it. He made the best of it, at least as his work. He undoubtedly sacrificed something, including probably years of his life.
On the other hand, in pouring himself into Holmes, he also made the best of his own personality, and eventually of his illness. We can speculate that identifying so completely with Holmes exaggerated these tendencies into a true illness, or the opposite, that he turned the illness into something incredibly creative.
In the end, it seems to me that his tragedy is not so bad as more ordinary tragedies, of lives unfulfilled. An excellent, iconic series of 41 televised stories--of intriguing and entertaining but hardly profound popular art-- may not be the greatest accomplishment, but it is a great one. Is it worth a life? I think so--that is: I think I'd take that bargain.
Postscript: I wanted to add a note about an absurd feature of the Brett/ Holmes DVDs--namely their English subtitles. Here we have the most faithful adaptations of stories by one of the most popular English authors, and the English subtitles for the DVDs seem to have been done by someone for whom English is a distant second language. They are so sloppy and inaccurate that they seem to have been done with careless haste. An example from a DVD of one of the Granada movies (I've seen two--both disappointments: they were padded one hour episodes), Dr. Watson refers to a book of poems by Tennyson. The English subtitle says "Henison," which requires not only mishearing (surely the point of English subtitles to spoken English is to compensate for exactly that) but ignorance--even more, carelessness. Unforgivable.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
I wasted what probably amounted to a decade or more of my writing life on the futile efforts involved in creating book proposals. An agent I knew, a kind and intelligent man, was a particular advocate of writing elaborate proposals, which he gently insisted be written to his own formula, derived from his experience, and detailed in a couple of books he'd written. In an earlier era when I in fact got a book commissioned, proposals were a necessary but somehow pro forma part of the process. But things had changed. Publishers were more tense, bureaucratic (especially as subsidiaries of larger corporations), and I was out of the old loop--if such still existed--of periodical editors in touch with book editors and agents. It was me confronted with the Borg. So I was persuaded that these detailed proposals were necessary.
But I had a lot of problems with them. First, they weren't proposals. They were supposed to be detailed descriptions of a book--the one you hadn't yet researched or written. Such proposals worked if you had the funding to do research--travel, interviews, etc.--paid for by a newspaper or foundation or the university where you teach. I had none of those sources of support, nor any other sources.
After struggling with proposals for the kind of book I had published (The Malling of America) which required travel and interviews so I could write about what and who I discovered, I learned how to fashion book ideas more dependent on the kind of research I could do more cheaply--library and media research, personal experience, etc. It took awhile but I reoriented myself and got excited about a number of ideas. But I was still left with the need to do a great deal of the work just to do the proposal that I would normally do for the book itself. It was solely my investment and my risk. Perhaps that's as it should be, but clearly I was at a disadvantage, compared to well-funded journalists and academics (not to mention celebrities, of course.)
But these proposals, I was told, required even more. They required that I tell the publisher who would buy this book and why. Backed up by statistics, comparisons to other books, etc. A marketing study of sorts. In fact, this was much more important than the content or the idea. As an author who spoke about my book all over North America, and who got letters about it, I knew that my "market" was entirely self-selected, and my readers had little predictable in common. But such realities didn't matter.
I struggled with these requirements, did the best I could without becoming a total hypocrite. And I failed. Over and over. I not only couldn't please editors, I barely ever got to them. Agents were usually the impenetrable barrier. And then I woke up, and realized that I had hundreds of pages of book proposals, and no books.
I also realized that I had no real evidence that books were actually commissioned on the basis of such proposals. I began to doubt that they were. It seemed more likely that editors selected projects the same ways they always had--because the author was a friend, a friend of a friend, or famous, or hot, or someone told them the author was about to become hot, or as the spur of the moment result of any number of whims. I can't even tell you how much evidence I'd gathered that the whole business was built on gossip and whim.
So I stopped writing proposals. I ended my proposal-driven life. But then very recently I fell off the wagon. I noticed a book series from a good publisher that seemed perfect for several subjects I had already been writing about. I found one of the editors by email, and he invited me to submit a proposal. So once again I thought carefully for weeks about how to frame the two topics I had in mind, and spent weeks crafting brief summaries, this time with the benefit of adding Internet links to my writings on these subjects. I stressed in both emails that I was gauging their interest in these topics, and would create more detailed proposals if they were interested. I was hoping for a dialogue--at least that much, if only in recognition of what I'd already invested in the effort.
I emailed these summaries and got an email back in less than 12 hours saying they'd been considered and rejected. The only reason given was that the series is primarily historical, and my approach didn't seem historical. The reason is specious. I not only referred to the history, but I linked to the substantial history I'd already written.
I don't know the real reasons for the rejection, if indeed there were any other than whim. I do suspect that the topics were of interest but I wasn't, for some reason. So if you happen to see a new book on Star Trek or shopping malls in the American Icons series published by Yale University Press, you will know that these ideas were stolen from me.
In any case, I won't get fooled again. As deluded and self-destructive as devoting so much of my time to the proposal-driven life has been, the way agents and editors operate is probably also self-destructive and deluded, or at least obsolete. Book publishing is changing fast and those folks are getting left behind. I'm not sure the changes are any better for me than the old system, but I've learned again the truth of what one of my old writing teachers said in a throwaway line to a relatively inattentive group of high-test competitors in a small college writing workshop. "Great writers all had one thing in common," William Eastlake said softly. "They all wrote their books."
Friday, April 09, 2010
for a hidden part of your life that only
those links can say--nobody's voice
can find so tiny a message as comes
across your hand. Forbidden to complain,
you have tried to be like somebody else,
and only this fine record you examine
sometimes like this can remember where
you were going before that long
silent evasion that your life became."
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
But it's been downhill since then. For years now, Italian Americans have been defined by the pop culture version of the Mafia. A collection of Italian language songs was advertised on TV as "Mob Hits." I found it all so insulting and demeaning that I don't care how "well done" the Sopranos was, I was never going to watch it. And I'm sure not going to watch "Jersey Shore," yet another stereotype that has nothing to do with my experience.
What I did watch however was a wonderful film story, made in Italy, about a group of characters who were adolescents or young adults in the 60s, and following them into the 21st century. The English title is The Best of Youth. It was made for television, but was also released in theatres, usually shown in two parts, each 3 hours long. (Available from netflix, etc.) But it is worth the time. It's one of the best written, best acted, most beautifully photographed stories I've ever seen. It was very special to me because I understood the common expressions in Italian--I think the dialect was close to the one I heard mostly as a child, but for much of my life. Even the body language was familiar--I've never felt so attuned to the people in a film before, not even an American film. Everyone should see this, but especially Italian Americans who feel like they have to be fugitives from the prevailing insulting stereotypes.
Monday, January 04, 2010