First of all, this: Theater is heavy.
Very heavy. It seems impossible to make “light” theater equipment. Yesterday, I helped produce a show that was very, very simple. Even in its simplicity, the show was heavy. Heavy boom bases for two lights. Heavy pipe for the bases. Heavy side-arms to hang the lights on. Heavy lights. Heavy cables. Heavy sound equipment. Heavy stage. Heavy props.
Man, theater is heavy.
And theater is immediate. When you do a show, you know right away how it affected your audience. I worked with Gerald Dickens yesterday at the North Church in Portsmouth. It was his twentieth year doing a one-man show of his great grandfather’s famous book, A Christmas Carol. It was a very simple show and the first show I’ve done of any sort in nearly fifteen years. My job was very basic–guide to the show to a successful conclusion and help take care of the little things that need to happen to keep a show on the rails. Mission accomplished.
The effect of putting on a successful show is in the moment–you can see the work that you do right there in front of you on the smiles of the audience’s faces, hear it in their applause, and in the joyous noise of their conversations as they leave. Of course, most of their reaction stemmed from Gerald Dickens’ masterful performance, but no performance happens alone. As a member of the support crew, you know that part of that reaction belongs to you, too. Your work is integral to the moment, even if all you did was focus a few lights or tape down a cable so no one tripped over it or made sure the event started on time. It’s an immediate gratification.
Writing. Ugh. It’s exactly the opposite of theater. You don’t lift anything heavier than a pen, but the weight is immense. You spend hours, days, weeks, months, years, writing something with no indication that anyone will ever read it. You rarely get to see the reaction of your readers (and often, when you do get a reaction, it’s not the one you were hoping for, or the one you felt yourself as you were toiling away, alone).
Most of the time I’ve spent writing has lead to no reaction and/or no readers. A lot of writers talk a good game–say things like: “You don’t’ write for an audience” or “You keep writing because you can’t stop” or “Writing is its own reward” but last night, as I was busy lifting heavy things as we struck the lights, sound, and set of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder if my energies haven’t been misdirected as a writer. I’ve been developing my craft seriously for about seventeen years now (and about seven years before that when I was developing, but not really practicing) and what is there to show for it? Not much, if I’m being honest. Some stories published in literary magazines that a handful of people have read. Hundreds of thousands of words–maybe millions–written, revised, discarded, drafted, and redrafted. Five novel manuscripts that will never see their way into publication. Dozens of unpublished stories for every one published.
And last night, working a small show in church, handing a microphone to an announcer, taking the microphone from her after her introductions, giving Mr. Dickens his “five minute” call, making sure the stage lights and house lights were up or down in the right moments, moving props around on the stage–it was easy to see that my work added up to something–a tangible effect. It made all my writing time seem very, very selfish.
Theater is very heavy, but it makes one feel of use. And it made me reconsider how I’m spending my artistic energies.
Reflections from Gerald Dickens on his day with us in Portsmouth on the last day of his tour of his one man show, A Christmas Carol.
Goodbye to Nashua
So, here we are. 48 Days, 54 shows, 11 States and 2 countries bring me to today, the last day of my 2013 tour.
I wake at my usual annoyingly early time but that gives me plenty of opportunity to read my notes and write yesterday’s blog. It has become a good morning discipline to get the latest post written before I get into the meat of the day.
This morning I have plenty of time, as I don’t need to be in Portsmouth until 1.30 and the drive is only an hour or so. The weather looks clear, so there is no obvious potential for delay. Despite not needing to get going too early, I will probably leave at about 10. There is an empty feeling about being in a hotel after an event has finished, everyone has gone and the hotel itself is moving on to…
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To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in the few minutes of stillness , or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification, it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
So with all of the “10 books that blew your mind” lists happening on Facebook, I decided to do my own. And then I did a list on this blog that went far beyond the ten I had on Facebook. After looking over my lists, I noticed that I’m pretty weak on reading women novelists. It’s not that I don’t read women novelists at all–and I’ve never actively tried not to read a novel because of the author’s gender–but the scales are way out of balance. I’ve read many women short story writers and poets, but those are different onions, so to speak. So, in 2014, I’m going to change it up.
Last year was my year of Camus. I decided to read all of the fiction he published in his lifetime. Turns out, it wasn’t that difficult. Only four books. For this coming year, I’ve already decided that I’m going to read Thornton Wilder’s novels (along with his new biography, by Penelope Niven) and I have a few other books that I’ve been dying to read that are by men, but I’m also committing to myself to read at least twenty novels by women. Many of these novels I already own but just have never read. Who knows, maybe I’ll read more than twenty. I’m also not counting short stories–so for instance, if I read an Alice Munro collection, that won’t count in my at-least-twenty-novels-by-women “count.” Poetry won’t count either. Just novels. Below, I’ve attached a photo of the novels that will start the year.
Also, while I’m at it, I’ll also try to read a few more women novelists this year. I have several weeks. I’ve just finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And now I’m reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. If there is a book you think I should add to my list, please let me know. And now…onward into the reading.
A lot of lists on Facebook about books right now. List ten books that stuck with you! Don’t think too hard! Just hit the first ones that come to mind! I did it. A good first list, but a flawed top ten no matter how you look at it. I left too many off. These deserve mention.
The White Mountains by John Christopher because I read it when I was twelve and I was so worried I’d never be able to find a copy of my own that I started copying out the pages.
Splinter in the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster because we didn’t have a bookstore in my hometown until I was a teenager. My bookstore was the drugstore book aisle and the shelves were packed with sci-fi. Alan Dean Foster was my favorite.
Shogun by James Clavell because it was twelve hundred pages of adventure.
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky because it was the first book I ever wrote in. I scrawled “Intense” in the margins during a scene in which Raskolnikov is questioned.
The World According to Garp by John Irving because it let me believe I could write.
The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison because she writes lyrically about ugliness.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien because that last story/chapter completely changes what I thought the book was about.
The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser because, whoa.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf because everyone who dislikes this book says nothing happens. What are they talking about? Everything happens in this book!
A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block because although it’s filed under mystery in the bookstore, this bloody book is literature, pure and simple.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James because he writes such long sentences.
In Search of Lost Time (Volumes 1-3) because Proust writes even longer sentences and every single thing is important.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner because of that simple, killer last sentence.
Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis because what in the world is she up to, anyway?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell because the world is a puzzle.
Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner because its the exact opposite of Go Down Moses–two sides of one brilliant writer.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf because it’s the antidote for despair.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan because you’d never expect a story written as a powerpoint presentation to be powerful, but damn.
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri because of her quiet amassing of details.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun because nothing will make you grateful for bread like this book.
Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan because in his invented town of Arrow Catcher, he finds all that is good and bad in the south.
Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio because what could a Catholic poet from the 13th Century have to say to me? Everything, that’s what.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz because tell me you aren’t in the hands of a master.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor because of how that first sentence echoes throughout the entire novel.
The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim because it’s the single strangest book I’ve ever read but when I turned the last past, nothing strange remained.
To the Wedding by John Berger because how could a blind jewelry merchant in Greece tell the story of a young couple, one of whom has Aids, getting married far away even though he only met the couple once? Because Berger says he can, that’s why.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley because “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
And still the list is incomplete! And I haven’t even got to the poets yet! Good lord, I’ll be here all day. I have to get back to the book I’m reading. And prepare for the one after that. I need to do a list like this at least once a year.
Here is the writing llama presiding over my novel in progress. Here’s the drill: full draft longhand; fully transcribed draft; edited on the computer; printed out and edited on hard copy; re-type the whole thing (as opposed to fixing the word doc); offer to friends for their opinions and notes; revision and editing; final draft. This is all before I even think about queries. So…I have a lot of work ahead of me.