Monday, July 30, 2007

amy hempel

I first read Amy Hempel's collection of stories Reasons to Live while standing in the stacks of books in the Washington University library. In that collection is her story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried." Broke my fuckin heart. When I finished reading that story, I felt 10 years older. And a little sadder. But good-sad. Y'know?

Here's the nice Q & A with writer Amy Hempel that was in today's Tribune.

Writer's roots run deep in heartland

Chances are you haven't heard of native Chicagoan Amy Hempel -- even though she's one of the most respected writers working today.

That's because 1) she lives a lowprofile life in New York and 2) has never published a novel. Yet, in writers circles, she's a rock star.

"Writers have always admired her work," says "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk. "A few years ago, I had dinner with Michael Chabon, David Sedaris and Jonathan Lethem and we talked about our favorite authors. Everyone pretty much said, 'Amy Hempel.' "

She's not better known, Palahniuk contends, because "none of her stories have been made into movies."

Another explanation: Her writing spans 25 years but stretches taut over little more than 400 total pages.

But Hempel's status as an iconic minimalist writer (though she -- like colleague Raymond Carver -- prefers the term "precisionist") among other writers has started to move into the mainstream.

Not only has her work been widely anthologized, she was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction for "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel." Now in its eighth printing, the collection will be released in paperback in September.

Meanwhile, Hempel continues to shape writers as an in-demand professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Bennington College and, this fall, at Princeton University.

On a recent afternoon in Chicago, Hempel stopped by the Art Institute of Chicago, a favorite, calming locale for someone who still considers herself, at heart, a Midwestern writer.

"I have a special affection for these Impressionist paintings," she says, walking past a row of Van Gogh works. "There's something, I don't know, soothing when I'm rattled. When I need relief from New York, I often get on a train, come to Chicago, and this will be my first stop off the train."

Below, we excerpt a conversation with Hempel about her stories, her Chicago roots and, among other things, writing about sex.

Q. You imbue a lot of your work with autobiography. Is there an inherent danger in making your fiction too close to the bone?

A. It rarely turns out too close to the bone. I don't write about something that happened to me looking for any sort of catharsis. ... Fiction is about making the reader feel something.

Q. But how much are you giving up privacy? Your collection, "The Dog of the Marriage," was inspired by your own divorce.

A. I'm not that interested in what happens. ... What interests me is what someone is making of it. I'm interested in how people get through hard things. And it's different. Borrowing from real events pretty much guarantees a fictitious outcome.

I just think it's easier to distinguish yourself on the page that way, because I just can't imagine I would write a story with a plot that no one's heard of. So I think the way you make something new and your own is in that: What are you doing about [your situation]?

Q. When do you feel particularly Midwestern?

A. I just feel in some ways -- I'm not a prude, but prudish responses will surprise me from time to time -- the "golly" reaction. That seems Midwestern to me.

I grew up with the Great Lakes. I've lived near oceans and it's still: The Lake.

The more like Lake Michigan a body of water I can find, the more right I feel. Water is a necessity.

It's like finding the place in the world that you are most yourself. Well, for me, it's Lake Michigan. Even standing up in water to my knees on Oak Street Beach ... it's one of the ways I know who I am.

I know who I am here.

Q. Why have you spent so much time away from yourself then?

A. [Laughs] That's a good question!

Firesign Theatre, this comedy group in L.A., used to do this bit where one of them would be a portrait photographer trying to get people comfortable to take their picture. And he'd say, "Just be yourself. Or someone you know well."

I thought, "Yeah, you don't want to be yourself."

Q. But you do draw directly from your life in your fiction. You almost lost a leg in a car accident, which you wrote about in "The Harvest." And your longest work, "Tumble Home," was inspired by your time in Lake Forest.

A. I drew from things and experiences here, profoundly, in that novella.

The psychiatric halfway house in "Tumble Home" is modeled after Ferry Hall ... which is now part of Lake Forest Academy. [Laughs]

I thought of one other Chicago thing: After my first book -- or the second might have come out -- Studs Terkel chose two stories and read them aloud on the radio.

You have to understand, whereas I was incredibly honored and baffled how this could have come about, my grandmother, Hannah Siegel, who lived here in Chicago, was beside herself.

It was a huge, big deal to her. She wrote to him, in care of the radio station, thanking him, and he wrote her back the loveliest, very personal letter that no way did he have to do.

I thought, "What an incredibly nice man." I used to ask her how her pen-pal was. It wasn't just my grandmother ... it was one of those defining moments of how to live a life: you go further than is expected in a kindness, and that defines you.

It was extremely moving for me, and it still is.

Q. But is there something uniquely Midwestern about your approach to writing?

A. I think the more we talk about this, the clearer I think I can get about it. It's both subtle and kind of profound. It is the "golly" response, in this way: I didn't write a sex scene for 24 years.

And then I wrote a story, "Offertory" [about a woman's affair with a married couple], that was XXX-rated.

I think it was the Midwestern part of me that said, "Oooh, I don't know if I can write a sex scene." But then ...

Q. And given your penchant for autobiography, were you afraid people might think that story was about you?

A. Well, you can't control people's response to something you do.

Q. But that's different than having a mechanism in your work that is confessional. So, is there a blush response associated with "Offertory"?

A. Oddly, no. Truly, what would embarrass me about a story is if a story was badly written. If a story was badly written, that would be excruciating to me.

It's not me, but if they think it's me, I don't care.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

coming soon: killing women

CLICK HERE to buy tickets. It. will. be. rad.

Killing Women
by marisa wegrzyn
friday, august 17 – sunday, september 2

thurdays – saturdays 8 pm, sundays7 pm.
sunday, september 2 at 3 pm

Meet Abby: an ace shot in the professional killer-for-hire world. When Abby’s retiring boss, Ramone, confides in her that she’s being passed over for a promotion in favor of a less-experienced man, Abby embarks on a quest to prove her worth. She has seven days to train timid Gwen from housewife to full-blown professional hitwoman. Killing Women is a black, black comedy about love, the glass ceiling and how to kill your new boyfriend totally painlessly.

theatre seven @ chicago dramatists theatre
1105 west chicago avenue

tickets - $15 in advance, $20 at door
discounts for web, students, seniors, industry
box office: 563.505.7645

Friday, July 27, 2007

photoblog du jour: I Hate Clark Street

Check out I Hate Clark Street

Clark Street in Chicago is that street you love to hate -- or hate to love -- or love to hate to love. The epicenter of Wrigleyville is lined with debaucherous dens of sin catering to the yuppie Cub-lovin frat party atmosphere. The photos (and captions) capture the essence of Clark.

The last time I drove up this street at 2am on a Saturday (not recommended), multiple drunks tried to wave down my car thinking I was a taxi. My car is yellow. I am not a taxi.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

potter marathon

I read myself into a Potter coma, a 550 page go of it that ended at 6am this morning. What kept me reading wasn't that it was a page-turning tale that I HAD to see what's next; it was that I wanted to finish the damn thing and be done with it. Okay, all right: it was good, geez, whatever. I have a question about the ending, but maybe I'll wait until more folks have finished. (Don't worry - I'll include appropriate spoiler space when I post).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

flannery o'connor: the habit of being

"In my own experience, everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny."
I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) the summer before my junior year of high school. Her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) was required summer reading. Her fiction is funny, violent, and exciting. She's one of those writers tagged "Southern Gothic." I had no first-hand knowledge of that world down in Georgia, but I felt at home there reading her stories. Her viewpoint was strictly Catholic, and of this collection, she said:
The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
I wasn't much reading the Christian realism of it when I was sixteen. I can't say I read it now for her religious perspective, but rather with an awareness of her perspective. A good story is a good story. I dig anybody who writes a story about a women who gets seduced and then gets her prosthetic leg stolen. Some folks think her writing is strange. When I proposed writing a paper on Flannery O'Connor for my high school English class, my teacher responded: "I hate Flannery O'Connor!" Literally, she spoke the word "hate" in italics. No way I was going to get an "A" if I wrote about Flannery O'Connor, so I caved in a wrote a paper on Eudora Welty instead. Thanks for crushing my academic interest, public educator.

Lately, I've been reading Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being. She was a prolific correspondent in a addition to her fiction. She rarely left her mother's home in Milledgeville, Georgia due to illness (Lupus) and resorted to crutches due to chronic joint pain in her hips. She spent time writing letters to friends, fans, and just about any crank who wrote her a letter. But throughout this collection you get thoughts on her career, on writing, on day-to-day life in 1950s-60s Milledgeville. You get a first-hand sense of who she was. She inspires me to write more letters and take more care in my e-mails. If Flannery O'Connor were living today, she'd have an awesome blog. Here are some quotes from her correspondence. Most of them are on writing, but the first one makes me laugh. She was a duck smuggler.

* Last summer I went to Connecticut to visit the Fitzgeralds and smuggled three live ducks over Eastern Airlines for their children, but I have been inactive criminally since then.

* My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

* I don't have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me

* (on Nelson Algren) I have the impression page by page of a talent wasted by sentimentalism and a certain over-indulgence in the writing. In any fiction where the omniscient narrator uses the same language as the characters, there is a loss of tension and a lowering of tone. . . when you write about the poor, you have to be writing about yourself first, everybody else second, and the actual poor third.
* The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.
* I am very happy right now writing a story ["Greenleaf"] in which I plan for the heroine, aged 63, to be gored by a bull. I am not convinced yet that this is purgation or whether I identify myself with her or the bull. In any case, it is going to take some doing to do it and it may be the risk that is making me happy.

* What personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious. My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how I am going to get this bull's horns into this woman's ribs is something more fundamental but I can't say I give it much thought. Perhaps you are able to see things in these stories that I can't see because if I did see I would be too frightened to write them. I have always insisted that there is a fine grain of stupidity required in the fiction writer.

* I think it must be easier on the nerves to publish poetry because it's not generally misunderstood as it is not generally read. Anyone who can read the telephone book thinks he can read a story or a novel.

* I am not one of the subtle sensitive writers like Eudora Welty. I see only what is outside and what sticks out a mile, such things as the sun that nobody has to uncover or be bright to see. When I first started to write, I was much worried over not being subtle but it don't worry me any more.

* Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn't state, he shows, renders. It's the nature of fiction and it can't be helped. If you're writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they're vulgar by showing them at it. The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality. . . What offends my taste in fiction is when right is held up as wrong, or wrong as right. Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery - mystery that is lived.

* I was, in my early days, forced to take dancing to throw me into the company of other children and to make me graceful. Nothing I hated worse than the company of other children and I vowed I'd see them all in hell before I would make the first graceful move.

* (on her illness) In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies.

* You are right of course about not understanding the ordinary emotions any better than the extraordinary ones. But the writer doesn't have to understand, only produce.

* I certainly have no idea how I have written about some of the things I have, as they are things I am not conscious of having thought about one way or the other.

* I remember my own early stories - if anybody had told me actually how bad they were, I wouldn't have written any more.

* You don't write a story because you have an idea but because you have a believable character or just simply because you have a story.

* Around here it is not a matter of finding the truth but of deciding which lie you live with better.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

36 assumptions about writing plays

One of my college teachers gave me this Xeroxed article. I had a feeling that I would lose these pieces of paper. Guess what? I lost them. My bad habit: losing important pieces of paper.

Good habit: writing things down in notebooks that are way more difficult to lose.

I wrote these down before I lost the article. I refer to them every once and a while, if I'm starting a new project, or if I'm stuck, or if I need a punch in the jaw. Some are helpful, some are in the clouds. They're all thought-provoking if you agree with them or not.

36 Assumptions About Writing Plays
by Jose Rivera

  1. Good playwriting is a collaboration between our many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, deeper you might be able to go.
  2. Theatre is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel.
  3. There's no time limit to writing plays. Think of playwriting as a life-long apprenticeship. Imagine you may have your best ideas on your deathbed
  4. You write because you want to show something. For instance, you write "to show that the world is shit." "To show how fleeting love and happiness are." "To show the inner workings of your ego." "To show that democracy is in danger." To show how interconnected we are." Each "to show" is active and must be personal, deeply held, true to you.
  5. We write plays in order to organize despair and chaos. To live vicariously. To play God. To project an idealized version of the world. To destroy things we hate in the world and in ourselves. To remember and to forget. To lie to ourselves. To play. To dance with language. To beautify the landscape. To fight loneliness. To inspire others. To imitate our heroes. To bring back the past and raise the dead. To achieve transcendence over ourselves. To fight the powers that be. To sound alarms. To provoke conversation. To engage in the conversation started by great writers in the past. To further evolve the art form. To lose ourselves in our fictive worlds. To make money.
  6. Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA: potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.
  7. If you're not prepared to risk your entire reputation every time you write, then it's not worth your audience's time.
  8. Embrace your writer's block. It's nature's way of preserving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often writer's block happens because somewhere in your work you've lied to yourself and your subconscious won't let you go any further until you've gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over
  9. Language is a form of entertainment. Beautiful language can be like beautiful music. It can amuse, inspire, mystify, enlighten
  10. Rhythm is key. Us as may sounds and cadences as possible. Think of dialogue as a form of percussive music. You can vary the speed of language, the beats per line, volume, density. You can use silences, fragments, elongated sentences, interruptions, overlapping conversation, physical activity, monologues, nonsense, non-sequiteurs, foreign languages.
  11. Vary your tone as much as possible. Juxtapose high seriousness with raunchy language with lyrical beauty with violence with dark comedy with awe with eroticism.
  12. Action doesn't have to be overt. It can be the steady deepening of the dramatic situation... or your character's steady emotional movements from one emotional/psychological condition to another -- ignorance to enlightenment, weakness to strength, illness to wholeness.
  13. Invest something truly personal in each of your characters, even if it's something of your worst self.
  14. If realism is as artificial as any other genre, strive to create your own realism. If theatre is a handicraft in which you make one-of-a-kind pieces, then you're in complete control of your fictive universe. What are its physical laws? What's gravity like? What does time do? What are the rules of cause and effect? How do your characters behave in this altered universe.
  15. You write from your organs. Write from your eyes, your heart, your liver, your ass -- write from your brain last of all.
  16. You should write from all your senses: be prepared to design on the page, so it tells you exactly what you see, feel, hear, touch and taste in this world: never leave design to chance -- that includes design of the cast.
  17. Find your tribe. Educate your collaborators. Stick to your people and be faithful to them for as long as possible. Seek aesthetic and emotional compatibility with those you work with. Understand your director's worldview because it will color his or her approach to your work.
  18. Strive to be your own genre. Great plays represent the genres created around the author's voice. A Chekhov genre. A Caryl Churchill genre.
  19. Strive to create roles that actors you respect would kill to perform
  20. Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the play in the form of the play.
  21. Use the literalization of metaphor to discuss the inner emotional state of your characters.
  22. Don't be afraid to attempt the great themes: death, war, sexuality, identity, fate, God, Existence, politics, love.
  23. Theatre is the explanation of life to the living. We try to tease apart the conflicting noises of living and make some kind of pattern and order. Its not so much an explanation of life as it is a recipe for understanding, a blueprint for navigation, a confidant with some answers -- enough to guide you and encourage you, but not to dictate to you.
  24. You can push emotional extremes. Don't be puritan. Be sexy. Be violent. Be irrational. Be sloppy. Be frightening. Be loud. Be stupid. Be colorful.
  25. Ideas can be deeply embedded in the interactions and reactions of your character. They can be in the music and poetry of your form. You have thoughts and you generate ideas constantly. A play ought to embody that thought, and that thought can serve as a unifying energy in your play.
  26. A play must be organized. This is another word for structure. You organize a meal, your closet, your time - why not your play?
  27. Strive to b mysterious, not confusing.
  28. Think of information in your play like an I.V. drip - dispensing just enough to keep the body alive, but not too much too soon.
  29. Think of writing as a constant battle against the natural inertia of daily language.
  30. Write in layers. Have as many things happening in a play in any one moment as possible.
  31. Faulkner said the greatest drama is the heart in conflict with itself.
  32. Keep your chops up with constant questioning of your own work. React against your work. Be hyper-critical and do in the next work what you aimed for but failed to do in the last work.
  33. Only listen to those people who have a vested interest in your future.
  34. Character is the embodiment of obsession. A character must be stupendously hungry. There is no rest for those characters until they've satisfied their needs.
  35. In all your plays be sure to write at least one impossible thing. And don't let your director talk you out of it.
  36. A writer cannot live without an authentic voice - the place where you are the most honest, most lyrical, most complete, most creative and new. That's what you're striving to find. But the authentic voice doesn't know how to write anymore than gasoline knows how to drive. But driving is impossible without fuel, and writing is impossible without the heat and strength of your authentic voice. Learning to write well is the stuff of workshops. Learning good habits and practicing hard. But finding your authentic voice as a writer is your business, your journey - a private, lonely, inexact, painful, slow, and frustrating voyage. Teachers and mentors can only bring you closer to that voice. With luck and time you'll get there on your own.

Friday, July 06, 2007

august: osage county @ steppenwolf

Checked out this play (still in previews) last night at the 'wolf: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts.


It's intimate and epic, humane and biting, hilarious and, in the end, haunting.

Playwrights don't write these grand family plays anymore; the current and future climate is "economize! economize! economize!" -- in casting, in production cost, even in dramaturgy. There's rarely external encouragement to write something big, only stubborn desire, and even when you do make it big there's a director or artistic director or critic with a sharp elbow saying, "it's great, but it's long. Who do you think you are? O'Neill?"

I wish we were more willing to remove that big ol' but and replace it with and if we've already used the word "great" in the sentence. That should be a rule of grammar.

"It's great, and it's long."

I love watching a big, long, well-written play that's going to stick to my ribs. It's so refreshing to see a new play of this breadth. Every minute of August: Osage County was engaging and full of life, in writing, in performance, in production.

I liked it. A lot. A lot a lot.

50 greatest muppets

I've been on a Muppet/Sesame Street kick the past couple weeks. This is required reading for anybody with Muppet memories: The 50 Greatest Muppets #50-26 and then #25-1. It's a thoughtful, earnest, and funny examination of Muppets famous and Muppets obscure-yet-memorable. Remember Ernestine, Ernie's baby cousin?! Holy crap, do I ever.

I think I'd be a good puppeteer. I don't know why.