I’m in several Facebook writers’ groups. There tend to be vast scrawls of graffiti assailing others for idiocy or deeper crimes, and one wonders if masterpieces might emerge if only the writers applied their creativity to something other than converting a serious discussion into a video game. And yet there are those seriously pursuing the art.
As one of those, I’m unusual, maybe, in having earned my living with words for 48 years after leaving college teaching. But that was writing plays, and learning the art of prose fiction is a challenge at the age of 77. Yes, it’s all writing, but it’s rare for a classical violinist to play in a punk band (though I know one who does).
It’s a steep learning curve when there’s limited time to wind through the curvature, and it forces a reassessment of what you thought you knew. Someone posts the first paragraph of a novel, asks for response. That takes guts. It reminds me of our first duo show SONG STORIES, October 1969, Chicago, stepping onstage without the foggiest notion if it’d score or bomb. The last thing anyone deserves, taking that risk, is to be the butt of others’ wisecracks. But what can you say about a first paragraph that you don’t really like?
In fact, in how-to’s about writing best-selling fiction, you pick up the notion of the instant hook: if the reader isn’t grabbed by the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence, you won’t interest an agent, a publisher, or any reader under the age of 90. Do I really need a murder or planetary apocalypse before our hero has breakfast
The first thing, I guess, that I’m moved to say—though I feel like a cardiologist called on to treat scabies—is to stop looking for a formula. This isn’t a glamorous profession. If fame is what you’re after, you’d have better odds of success training for the NBA or as a roofing contractor. But I realize that’s no help.
The best I can offer, from five decades of theatre work, is to hone a strong notion of the present moment. The actor leads the audience moment by moment: one line, one response, one action leads to the next, and if it jumps the groove everyone knows it. Granted, there’s endless fakery: Hamlet’s soliloquy has been delivered thousands, perhaps millions of times, and often it’s just like receiving a package in the mail. It becomes electric, living, only when the thought, the rhythm, and those exact words flow in real time from the actor’s heart. Shakespeare starts one play with three witches storming onto stage, another with a courteous courtiers’ dialogue, another with lovesick poetry: all work.
Beyond that: The opening of a story is an invitation to a journey, and in its language style—the blunt prose of Cormac McCarthy or the rolling phrases of Proust—it lets you know the vehicle you’re riding on. Is this going to be a skateboard or an elephant? Either can work, depending on the reader you want, but if the latter, it’d better be a prizewinning elephant. And where are you going with this? Surprise parties can work fine, or sudden shifts in the story from gentle comedy to vicious assault, but with any surprise you’re putting high stakes on the table. Risky to issue a birthday party invitation to a sex orgy.
The best advice, perhaps, is to suggest going to the public library, taking novels off the shelf, one at a time, reading a dozen first pages. What draws you forward? What mires you hip-deep? What makes you hit a speed bump? And how does this all relate to what you want to do?
I guess that’s what I’ve always done in theatre, and though it’s looking at other work it’s the opposite to searching for a formula. It’s just looking at craftsmanship—at the commonalities and differences between the sculptures of Michelangelo and Donatello, even if your work resembles Giocometti. What in the plays of Neil Simon is applicable to the weird stuff I write? What are the glitches in the work of those I most admire? How do I tell this story, holding the reader or listener moment by moment?
I can’t quite define how any of this relates to the larger issues of living life, but I leave that to others involved with those issues.
Today was our ritual picnic at the oceanside, and my dented rattly self is somewhat soothed. I haven’t had such a long slog of depression for a while, and I’m doing my best to reach for my old trusty strategies. I don’t medicate; I’ve battled successfully without that, and I am reluctant to reach for that remedy.
But I will reach in a flash for another old medicine, and it’s helpful to think why it works. If I’m in the right place at the right time and in the right mind-set, Earth herself opens the gates for me.
My friend Lauren Raine, a maker of stunning goddess masks, is on a pilgrimage to sacred sites in and around Avebury (England). Her stated purpose is to further her sense of how humans can communicate with Gaia, and vice versa. Her sense is that the ley-lines of Earth and the meridians of the body are related, and that the concept of bodily chakras may very well be seen in Gaia on a larger scale.
This September in Ireland was the first time in decades I hadn’t gone to my personal sacred space in Bretagne: Carnac and environs. But our first full day in Ireland was at Newgrange, Bru na Boinne, an enormous passage tomb (burial site) from before the time of the Pyramids. An opening called the “roof-box” above the entrance is aligned in such a way that dawn of the winter solstice allows the sun to hit the interior passage with a shaft of light that gradually widens and “walks” its way into the center basin. As soon as I descended from the shuttle bus that winds into the protected hills, my sandaled feet touched the earth and I was jolted with a greeting from Carnac. I yipped and said, “It’s like Carnac!” and the guide grinned with understanding.
I always felt something invisible but powerful working at Carnac, and one year I took dowsing rods with me. I’d begun to suspect that the long lines of stones were mapping ley-lines, and I thought I’d see what the rods said. When I held them and stepped into one of the stone rows, the rods were nearly torn from my hands. I got the message.
I didn’t have dowsing rods at Newgrange, but my body knows the feeling by now. I’m sure that there are hot-spots on the meridians, the intersections of ley-lines, and I suspect that some such power-point is right here on the Sonoma Coast where we go for our weekend trysts. Not so strong at our winter beach, but really potent at Portuguese Beach a mile or so north. I instinctively went there a time or two when I needed to do a strong working, and eventually somebody told me, “Oh, yeah, everybody who knows energy around here knows that place.”
Back in the day I’d get home from my annual European journey and weep for two weeks. Since we moved to Sebastopol, I don’t weep any more, and now I have a better idea why.
The sense of having “community”—what does that mean? As a child, it was neighborhood kids and then Boy Scouts. In high school I was a loner, but found tribe in theatre. If a school show wasn’t in rehearsal, I’d go down to the drama teacher Miss Miller’s room and see who was hanging out. Community theatre was the big-time for me: smoke-clogged rooms at rehearsal, then out for coffee afterward—me the youngest at the table, which was fine with me. I was still a loner among the general population: my people were those with whom I shared a common purpose.
When I started teaching, we rarely socialized with faculty; our people were those we interacted with, the students. The tribe expanded as we started our first theatre ensemble. In the years of heavy touring, it shrank back to the immediate family and the intense world of one-night-stands—with a few anchor-points like the Baltimore Theatre Project, where you sat late nights around the big kitchen table bonding with whomever was there.
The Lancaster years were rich with a cluster of artists and fans, and likewise Philadelphia. Our westward move wrenched us away from a theatre community and many friends, but we were part of various subcultures that took up the slack. Our venture into public radio gave us a wide spectrum of people—few long-term friends but many encounters that made up for those long, lonely nights of editing the shows.
Now? Vast numbers of friends and acquaintances scattered over the land—whom we rarely see. If there’s a “theatre community” in our area, we’re not part of it, though we have many, many friends whom we rarely see. We attend a periodic poetry salon and a Shakespeare reading group, both much valued, but I feel something lacking.
I suppose it gets back to that element of sharing a common purpose. It may be temporary, it may be illusory, it may be very individualistic—but you know it when it’s there, and it’s not. We have multiple handicaps: we’re old, we’re obsessive with our work, we’re intensely married, and we’ve never quite fit in as one of the gang. I’m far from advertising myself as discontented—we have an incredibly blessed life—but I wish we had tribe beyond those on Facebook. Our work would be better for it.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
Forthcoming, Available for Pre-Order:
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein