Saturday, December 31, 2011

Played with Bird

Add one more to the list of living musicians who played with Charlie Parker -- Clora Bryant, who played R&B and swing with all-girl orchestras -- including the Prairie View Co-eds and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Then she discovered bebop and entered that world, the only female musician to play with Charlie Parker on his West Coast dates.

Deserving of much wider recognition.

Friday, December 23, 2011

More Christmas carol thoughts

Contemporary Christmas songs have lines like "Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow" and "I don't know if there'll be snow, but have a cup of cheer." "Silver Bells," which is not an awful song, has lines like "Ring-a-ling, hear them sing." "The Little Drummer Boy" is actually a pretty good song -- decent, if done-before, plot, a retelling of "Jongleur de Notre Dame" and a bunch of other things, and it does have one interesting image -- "Mary nodded, ba-rup-bup-bup-bum, the ox and lamb kept time..." It could be a windup Swiss clock version of the Nativity scene.

But the old carols have moments of inspired language -- the sweet assonance of "Sleep in heavenly peace." The disturbing yet reassuring concept of "God and sinners reconciled." The Robert Burnsian imagery of "The Holly and the Ivy." The compounded swell of descriptive adjectives in "faithful, joyful and triumphant."

Merry Christmas, all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

More Jazz Portraits

Have Yourself a Cliched Christmas

Christmas is the time for beautiful traditional music, and mostly awful contemporary music. So many cliched lyrics -- "The Christmas Song" has most of them. Yes, nice melody, yes, always nice to hear Nat King Cole, but the tiny tots, and the reindeer, and the carols being sung by a choir, and the turkey and the after song after song, the same cliches.

Are there any good lyrics to modern Christmas songs? "White Christmas" is in a class by itself, not because the lyrics are spectacular, just because they're right. No one but Irving Berlin could write that simply, and there's no use trying to imitate him.

Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas" has a different slant and a good lyric.

And I like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane aren't on anyone's list of legendary masters of American song, but they outid themselves with "Meet Me in St. Louis," and they hit a touching, bittersweet note with this one.

Any others?


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Metropole Wiki'd

Wrote and posted my Metropole entry at Wikipedia.

Jazz portraits

Recent additions to my jazz portrait gallery:

Big Mama Thornton

McCoy Tyner

Bennie Moten

A brief history of homosexuality

Stuff I didn't know. Gleaned from Gotham by (the other) Mike Wallace -- Homosexuality was invented in the 1880s. Before that, no one thought it necessary to have such a concept. In the 1840s and 50s, which is the era I'm reading about, Society was basically organized along gender lines, and men worked together, played together, clubbed together, partied together, and frequently slept together. Women shopped together, lunched together, sewed together, and often slept together. It was pretty much an accepted norm.

It was not entirely an LGBT-friendly world, though -- not to the T part. Cross-dressing was a serious breach, because that was an affront to the social separation of men and women.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What you can learn about writing from a lungful of smoke and a gun to the head

Started reading a mystery novel that I downloaded on ebook library loan, and I hate it already. I won't name names, because I may get to like it more, but here are my reasons for hating it so far..

In the first sentence, someone points a gun at the hero's head. This is not bad in itself. Raymond Chandler said that whenever he started to run out of ideas, he'd have someone come busting through a door with a gun in his hand. This is very good advice -- often metaphorically -- and I've cited it more than once. But maybe you shouldn't have run out of ideas before the first sentence? But OK -- gun to his head. Then we have a couple of pages of flashback to the previous 15 minutes, then back to the gun to the head. So this makes it feel like a really cheesy device. If your flashback is only going to cover 15 minutes, why not just start the story 15 minutes earlier?

In the gun-to-head sentence, we get the character's name, which sounds like a retread name from the 40s. Well, people have more or less the same range of names they did in the 40s, but if you're dangerously flirting with 40s private eye cliches anyway, maybe a little more work on the name?

And if you're flirting with 40s private eye cliches, why have the character smoking Luckies? Are they making a comeback? Or are we really channeling Mike Hammer?

And what does he do with the Luckies? He inhales a lungful of smoke. There are two things almost guaranteed to make me lose all respect for a writer: telling us that a character chewed and swallowed something, or that he/she inhaled a lungful of smoke. This is stuff we could have figured out for ourselves.

Sue Grafton, a terrific mystery writer, has one annoying little tic -- unnecessarily specific action. Kinsey Millhone (not a 40s name), her detective, is always sticking keys into ignitions or turning the handles of doors. But she's good enough that she can get away with it.

The writer of this novel does advance beyond 40s cliches at one point, to an 80s cliche -- the bad guys wearing masks of presidents of the US. He shows some restraint here, though. Only one is wearing a George Bush mask. The others are a gorilla, a vampire, and a death's head. Clinton, Nixon and Reagan?

Well, back to reading.

Billy Faier

This past weekend was the Saugerties Artists Studio Tour, and I had my studio/showroom open in the Barbara Fite Room at Opus 40. It was a great weekend -- sold a few prints, a few books, and met some old friends. Sunshine, one of my mother's dearest friends.

And a guy with a big bushy white mustache, who introduced himself to me. I remembered him, though he didn't remember ne -- which is as it should have been. I was a teenager, hanging around Woodstock, just starting to find out who I was and who I wanted to be, and he was one o the people I wanted to be. Billy Faier, banjo virtuoso. Wandering troubador, itinerant folksinger.

Turns out he's still around, and still -- after a bout with carpal tunnel, and an operation to correct it -- playing the banjo. He lives in Texas now -- "One of the biggest reasons I like living in Texas; it's the only place I ever saw where the inhabitants love to sit around the campfire half the night singing songs about their home state. Can you imagine this happening in New York? New Jersey? Of course not." He has a website which contains a fascinating mini-autobiography, and a great account of the folk scene in the 40s and 50s. Even better than that, it has a treasure trove of Billy's music from over the years, available for streaming audio or download.

My friend, banjo legend George Stavis, when I told him about running into Billy, said "I consider him one of my true progenitors."

For locals, Billy Faier will be playing at the Woodstock Farmers Market this Wednesday, Aug 17, 5-7 pm.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Metropole

In one of my old jazz posts here, I lamented how little there is on the Internet about the old Metropole Cafe, the Times Square jazz spot. I remember hearing Henry "Red" Allen there, and I regret, now, being too caught up in the bebop/moldy fig wars to appreciate fully that great traditional jazz. But I decided to look again, to see if anything new had gone up.

For those who don't remember, the Metropole was not your classic tiny, smoky dive of a jazz club, like the Village Vanguard or the Five Spot. It opened up boisterously onto boisterous Times Square, and the bandstand was a long runway behind the bar, seemingly more designed for strippers than jazzmen (and in a later incarnation, before it vanished completely, it was a strip club).

I found this photo from 1966, with Dizzy Gillespie headlining. It's one of a collection of photos of NYC in the 60s by kdavidclark, including a couple of beauties of folksingers in Washington Square Park.

And this one from 1948, by the great jazz photographer Herman Leonard (whose brother, Dave Leonard, did some of the best photos of Opus 40 and Harvey Fite that I have ever seen).

This one, from 1960, featuring the Dukes of Dixieland on the marquee, is by Anonyme, and you can buy it for $900. Why so much? I looked up Anonyme, and there's a Societe Anonyme, founded by Katherine Dreier, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp -- but they closed up shop in 1941.But if you're in a nostalgic spending mood, you can also bid on a menu from the old Metropole.

Here's one with Cozy Cole on the marquee,  from a great jazz reminiscence blog called Stomp Off, by the noted jazz producer Chris Albertson.

And there's one one more picture, of a rock band called the Teemates, opening at the Metropole. Their web page is a fascinating glimpse at the career of a group of 60s rockers who almost made it.

And still no history of the club. No Wikipedia entry, although in the entry for avant-garde artist Barbara Rosenthal, it's mentioned that she did a stint as a go-go dancer at the Metropole. Someone should write one. Not me -- I don't know enough. Someone like the late Arnold Shaw, whose Wiki entry I did write.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Streets named after blues musicians

With the recent designation of Buddy Guy Way in Chicago, I started to wonder what other streets -- or public places -- I knew about W. C. Handy Park in Memphis and Duke Ellington Boulevard in Manhattan -- were named after blues musicians. Some don't have to be -- you wouldn't rename Beale Street, for certain. Here's what Yahoo searches found.


Beaumont, TX

Holt, AL

There's also a street in Old Cape Cod named after Patti Page, who wasn't a blues singer, but good for her, anyway.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

iPad art

I've been working with iPad as an art tool, following the extraordinary trail blazed by David Hockney. I'm not that far along the trail, but I've been starting to feel my way through.

I've beem using ArtStudio. Hockney has said he uses several different programs, but most commonly Brushes. ArtStudio doesn't even make this list of the best programs, and maybe I'll experiment with a couple of others, but no one would list Microsoft Paint among the best programs for PC, and it's the one I use most.

The nice thing about iPad apps, as opposed to computer programs, is that they're cheap.

Tad's Night With the Language Thieves Blog

I've changed the name of this blog. I started it to post news and commentary about Opus 40, and various other odds and ends, but the other odds and ends have pretty much taken it over, and I've mostly moved the Opus 40 stuff to its Facebook page.

I know not everyone has Facebook, but not everyone reads this blog, either -- Opus 40 has close to a thousand FB followers, and my blog...well, less.

I've steadfastly eschewed politics in this space as long as it had Opus 40 in it, but I may include a political post or two now that it's just mine. I have mixed feelings about that, and perhaps I'll still mostly stay away from the political arena. I will post links to my brother Jon's HuffPost cartoons.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What People Look Like

Wow. I thought I'd finished this subject, but look what Balzac can do with what someone looks like. We're introduced, as the story begins, to Michu, who is cleaning is gun, but not casually,
 A huntsman does not take such minute precautions with his weapon to kill small game, neither does he use, in the department of the Aube, a heavy rifled carbine.
No, Michu is not to be taken causally, In fact, as Balzac points out,
There is such a thing as prophetic physiognomy. If it were possible (and such a vital statistic would be of value to society) to obtain exact likenesses of those who perish on the scaffold, the science of Lavatar and also that of Gall would prove unmistakably that the heads of all such persons, even those who are innocent, show prophetic signs. Yes, fate sets its mark on the faces of those who are doomed to die a violent death of any kind.
So he's committed himself, more than a little, to prove his case of prophetic physiognomy. And boy, does he ever.
Now, this sign, this seal, visible to the eye of an observer, was imprinted on the expressive face of the man with the rifled carbine. Short and stout, abrupt and active in his motions as a monkey, though calm in temperament, Michu had a white face injected with blood, and features set close together like those of a Tartar,--a likeness to which his crinkled red hair conveyed a sinister expression. His eyes, clear and yellow as those of a tiger, showed depths behind them in which the glance of whoever examined the man might lose itself and never find either warmth or motion. Fixed, luminous, and rigid, those eyes terrified whoever gazed into them. The singular contrast between the immobility of the eyes and the activity of the body increased the chilling impression conveyed by a first sight of Michu. Action, always prompt in this man, was the outcome of a single thought; just as the life of animals is, without reflection, the outcome of instinct. Since 1793 he had trimmed his red beard to the shape of a fan. Even if he had not been (as he was during the Terror) president of a club of Jacobins, this peculiarity of his head would in itself have made him terrible to behold. His Socratic face with its blunt nose was surmounted by a fine forehead, so projecting, however, that it overhung the rest of the features. The ears, well detached from the head, had the sort of mobility which we find in those of wild animals, which are ever on the qui-vive. The mouth, half-open, as the custom usually is among country-people, showed teeth that were strong and white as almonds, but irregular. Gleaming red whiskers framed this face, which was white and yet mottled in spots. The hair, cropped close in front and allowed to grow long at the sides and on the back of the head, brought into relief, by its savage redness, all the strange and fateful peculiarities of this singular face. The neck which was short and thick, seemed to tempt the axe.
Believe in prophetic physiognomy now?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What people look like

Still with John Dickson Carr, and finally we are introduced to the great man himself, Sir Henry Merrivale. Since this is, I believe, the first book in this series, and we'll certainly be seeing more of HM, you might think we'd get a full description, but no, we only see his face in action, or inaction, since his face rarely changes We're told that expression, No matter what his mood is. We're told that it's big, wrinkled, impassive, and that his rarely-changing expression involves turned- down corners of his broad mouth, making him look as though he has just swallowed a bad breakfast egg.

That's pretty much it for description until, a good deal later in the book, we meet Mrs. Sweeney.

Mrs. Sweeney was a large woman, with a heavy face which seemed to come sailing at us as she got up from her seat by the small round table in this waxy best-parlor. She was not ill-featured; she resembled one of those old ladies who sit and knit in boarding-houses, but larger, harder, and more archly cunning. Her grayish hair was folded into buns over her ears. She wore the black coat “with black feathers”; and a rimless pince-nez attached by a gold chain. This last she twitched off with a gesture which tried to indicate that she had been improving her time by studying the Bible on the center-table.

“So!” said Mrs. Sweeney. Her dark eyebrows went up. She lifted the pince-nez slightly to one side of her eyes, as though she had been removing a mask, and rasped accusingly:

We also learn that she has an ample bust, because she shakes it "rather as though she were dislodging worldly cares; but it was a gesture curiously like that performed by the chorus in a musical comedy."
This is all excellent description, and certainly fixes Mr. Sweeney in one's mind, but why? She's a minor, tangential character, and as I was marking descriptions of faces in my Kindle copy, I asked myself exactly that question.

Of course -- and here comes a three-quarters-of-a-century-later spoiler alert -- if I were a better detective story reader, I would have known the answer instantly-- what if she's not a minor character? What if she is, in reality, the mysterious, shadowy second wife of the murdered Darworth????

She isn't, as it turns out, so even the better detective story reader than me can be fooled.
But there you have it. Why does a novelist use a few broad brushstrokes for his main character, and bring painstaking to bear on a minor character? It ain't just carelessness.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What people look like

The Girl -- you have to describe her, because she's Young Halliday's love interest, and she's in danger, and young Halliday has been telling Blake about her pretty much since the start of the book. We first see her in a moment of high tension -- as Blake and Halliday step into the room,

"Marion Latimer stayed motionless, a tense figure in the candlelight; and the Shadow seemed to tremble at her feet. She had that thin, classic, rather cold type of beauty which makes face and body seem almost angular. Her hair was set in dark-gold waves next to the somewhat long head; her eyes were dark blue, glazed now with a preoccupied and somehow disturbing quality; the nose short, the mouth sensitive and determined."

Buried in that paragraph is a description that young tad could have written. Dark - gold waves of hair, a short nose, dark blue eye, a mouth.But there's more, isn't there? First of all, this is certainly Blake's dispassionate description, not that of an ardent young swain. More than that, she is at this point still a potential suspect in the murder that has yet to be committed, so we get the suspicious descriptive phrases -- the cold beauty, the disturbing quality to the eyes -- as well as the reassuring ones -- the sensitive and determined mouth. The point is, Carr wants us to fix her -- not so much the blue eyes, gold hair and short nose as her -- so he lingers over her introduction. In fact, he goes on longer --

"She stood there crookedly, almost as though she were lame. One hand was thrust deep into the pocket of The brown tweed coat wrapped around her thin body; as she watched us, the other hand left the window sill and pulled the collar close round her neck. They were fine, thin, wiry hands."

In the same scene, we next meet Halliday's aunt, who, like Marion, has been falling under the spell of the enigmatic charlatan Darworth, and like her, will fall under suspicion For Darworth's murder (I warned you there'd be spoilers). We see the aunt's white hair, her face like a wax flower -- which is wonderfully descriptive but wouldn't help you pick her out a lineup. We learn that her eyes were gentle -- and hard. Again, a description that could suggest her as innocent -- or guilty. Mostly, though, Carr refers us to "people who are supposed to look like eighteenth century marquises by Watteau. Lady Anne Bennington looked like a thoroughly modern, sharp-witted old lady got up to resemble one. Besides, her nose was too large."

You can say someone looks like a Watteau (or like a Dali, but that would be weirder), or that someone looks like John Cusack or Annette Bening, but you can't do it too often, because it's kinda cheating, and it signals to the reader that you're really not very good at this sort of thing. Like Carr, put it in a context, and like Carr, don't do it too much.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What people look like

On my free Kindle reading jag, I've also reconnected with John Dickson Carr, great mystery novelist of an earlier generation and master of the locked room puzzle. But even if the corpse is found in an impregnable room, locked from the inside, there are still people outside the room, and they all have to look some way or other. Or at least some of them do. In The Plague Court Murders, young Halliday, who calls the narrator in to consult on the mystery, has no trace of humor in his low chin, high forehead, and high-muscled jaws. I'm not exactly sure what young Halliday looks like, given that, but at least I know something of his state of mind. And I guess he's sort of handsome and aristocratic--more so than if he had a low forehead. The narrator, Blake, and young Halliday go to see Masters of Scotland Yard, who has a bland, shrewd face, And grizzled hair combed carefully to hide the bald spot.
This is pretty good stuff -- a face that's both bland and shrewd, certainly an asset to a cop. But a little vanity to balance his blandness (and portliness). Blake continues, "His Jaw looked heavier and his expression older since I had last seen him -- but his eyes were young." Carr is now two for two on jaws, or two more jaw descriptions than young Tad would have thought of. And we really are starting to get a sense of Masters. Here's the rest:

Masters suggests the Force, though only slightly: something in the clump of his walk, the way his eyes go sharply from face to face, but there is none of the peering sourness We associate with Public Protectors.

This, of course, is not the Force you get from Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi; Blake merely means that Masters looks sort of, but not overbearingly, like a cop. There are two good description gambits here: describe through action (the eyes that go sharply from face to face), and describe people in terms of what they don't look like -- in this case, a typical cop. But to come with a phrase like "peering sourness" you just have to be really good.

Anyway, Masters looks enough like a cop to inspire confidence, but not so much as to be a stereotype. In fact, Halliday immediately unbends and feels at ease before his practical solidity. But Carr has laid some nice groundwork here -- Masters is enough of a typical cop to be thoroughly baffled by a thoroughly baffling case, which means his clumping practical solidity will have to give way to the unorthodox genius of Sir Henry Merrivale.

But more about Sir Henry later.

As we go on, there may be some spoilers, which may not be a serious issue considering that this is a nearly 80-year-old book, but on the other hand, if you're just getting.a kindle, it's free, and it's good, so why not give it a read? In which case, watch out for spoilers.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011



I'll continue with my blather about what people look like presently, but a small digression to discuss something else about Middlemarch -- a very cool conceit that I haven't exactly seen before: the unreliable omniscient narrator. In Middlemarch, the narrator is constantly misconstruing the motives or reactions of her reader, is unclear or just plain wrong about the motivations of her characters, and is frequently guilty of passing judgments that turn out to be wrong. This is downright masterful, and I'm loving it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

What people look like -- part 2

I started out wondering what different authors say about how people look, but found myself moving on to wondering why. Why does Eliot spend so much space on Mr Cadwallader's looks, none at all on Sir James? Maybe it's because this is all we really need to know about Mr. Cadwallader. He's a flat character, in E. M. Forster's phrase.  He's keenly observed and memorable, and he's in the novel to do a job.

I don't know about Young Ladislaw. I'm only about 1/3 of the way through the book, and I assume he'll come back in and play a larger role. So why does he get essentially a Young Tad treatment, fleshed out with the prominent, threatening aspect to mouth and chin? I'm guessing it's because Dorothea would like to pigeonhole him, but she can't quite do it. 

Mr. Casaubon gets two vivid synechdocal descriptions, the deep eye sockets and the moles with hairs sticking out, because that's all that's needed. We have both views of him as well as could possibly be desired: we don't need to know what shape his nose his, or which direction his hair falls.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What People Look Like - part 1

My earliest efforts at writing--I'm talking about my first serious, professional efforts at, say, 13 or 14 -- were always stymied fairly early on. I'd start a story, which meant I'd have to introduce a character. And that meant I'd have to describe what the character looked like.

It seemed to me that I couldn't continue until I'd managed a description, and basically, I had no idea what people looked like. I'd get as far as "He had two (brown/blue) eyes, a big/small nose, and a mouth." I don't think I ever got as far as (full, thin) lips or (even/crooked) teeth. And there went my professional career, down to defeat with a wry grin or the wink of an eye.

Many years and some actual books later, I'm not sure I'm any better at it. So, for the benefit of those similarly challenged, I thought I'd make a desultory examination of how other writers tell you what people looked like. I started with the books closest to hand, which were the books I'd downloaded to my new iPad because they were free.

Mostly, they don't, which is something that never occurred to the younger professional me. Jane Austen's famous for it. There is not a single word of physical description in any of her novels,and yet we all know what her characters look like. (Well, we know for sure that Mr. Darcy looks like Laurence Olivier.)
George Eliot does look into her characters' faces, even if they're often only sidelong glances. We get two different views of Mr. Casaubon, from the lovestruck Dorothea, who sees his iron-grey hair and deep eye sockets, to her repulsed sister Celia, who is more inclined to notice his two white moles with hairs on them, his sallow complexion, and the way he always blinks before he speaks. In any event, mere looks don't impress Dorothea. If they did, she might take an interest in that nice Sir James, who is presumably handsome, although we only know for sure that he is red-whiskered (and made of excellent human dough, if that counts).

We get much more detailed head-on looks at Eliot's minor characters, such as Mr. Cadwallader, a large man with full lips and a sweet smile. Fourteen-year-old professional Tad could actually have managed that one, once I'd mastered the full lips part. But Eliot gives us more:

Very plain and rough in his exterior, but with that solid imperturbable ease and good humor which is infectious, and like great grassy hills in the sunshine, quiets even an irritated egoism, and makes it rather ashamed of itself.

Young Ladislaw with the curly hair gets a fairly conventional treatment:
A pair of gray eyes rather near together, a delicate irregular nose with a little ripple in it, and hair falling backwards; but there was a mouth and chin of a more prominent, threatening aspect than belonged to the type of the grandmother's miniature. Young Ladislaw did not feel it necessary to smile, as if he charmed...but rather wore a pouting air of discontent.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Medias Res -- what then?

Another Creative Writing I exercise. Again, these are students just beginning to learn something about the craft.

 Christine sat on the tacky pleather couch, her vision blurred by her heavily matted black makeup. It took her a minute realize what was happening when her friends began lowering their heads to the table. This was her first time in a nightclub; it was a night of a lot of firsts. Earlier that evening she slipped on a skin-tight sequin dress and dug her feet into a pair of much too high heels. All borrowed from Janessa. Christine knew any moment that the offer would come her way. She felt the sweaty hand of a stranger on her bare thigh and couldn’t help but picture her mother. Home in bed for hours now, no doubt. She imagined her mother was dreaming of her “perfect daughter” at her prestigious college, studying or finding a cure for some nefarious disease. Christine quickly brushed the thought from her mind. Her heart thumped heavily in time with the bass of the loud music as the stranger leaned in and whispered in her ear. And without another thought she took the rolled up dollar bill and followed suit.

This is from an exercise -- write a scene that uses action to develop or illuminate character. It might be the beginning of a story, it might not. But in either case, the paragraph plunges us into a situation.

One of the books I use in a beginning Creative Writing class is Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, by Barnaby Conrad, a novelist who also worked as secretary to Sinclair Lewis. Conrad has some good, workmanlike advice about the craft of fiction, particularly in a chapter on opening paragraphs. He presents, with examples, twelve different ways of starting a story. One of them is in medias res, "Rather than setting the scene or describing the situation in detail beforehand, the writer plunges the reader directly "into the middle of things."*

This student has started with in medias res, and here's what I said to her.

The in media res opening to a story, or a scene, can be very effective, but it has its pitfalls. What do you do next, after you've thrown your character -- and more importantly, your reader -- into the middle of the action?

This paragraph, unfortunately, is what you don't do. You can't then back up to the beginning and fill the reader in on everything. That kinda negates the whole point of in media res, which is to hit the ground running and let the reader know that she/he is going to have to run too, to catch up. It creates momentum, a sense of breathless excitement.

What if you just leave the exposition out?

Christine sat on the tacky pleather couch, her vision blurred by her heavily matted black makeup.  She felt the sweaty hand of a stranger on her bare thigh and couldn’t help but picture her mother. Home in bed for hours now, no doubt, dreaming of her perfect daughter finding a cure for some nefarious disease. Christine's heart thumped heavily in time with the bass of the loud music as the stranger leaned in and whispered in her ear. And without another thought she took the rolled up dollar bill and followed suit.

What do you think? How does it work for you now? It's all action, except for the imagined vision of her mother. And with all the exposition cut out, you have room for more action, more description, more development of that scene. You can maybe put the sequined dress back in -- I guess slit up the side, or a mini, to expose the thigh. I like slit up the side better, but that's just me. In any event, you can put her in the dress, and describe it, but describe it there -- don't take us back to earlier in the evening.

Remember the point of both of these exercises -- a scene with description of concrete detail, a scene with action -- is to use description and action to reveal and develop character. Is that happening here? With the exposition cleared out of the way, it's starting to.

What do you want to show in this scene? Christine's desire to go beyond her limits, some sense of what those limits are, some idea of her motivation, how she deals with the unknown becoming the actual? Probably something like that. But once you sort of know that, forget it. Get into the scene. What's happening? What is she doing? What are other people doing around her?

At first reading -- too much makeup, the hand on the thigh, the whisper in the air, the exchange of money -- I thought she was turning a trick for the first time. But then I realized no, she wouldn't be doing that for a dollar. She's doing a line. But still, the hand, the whisper -- there's dangerous sex lurking around the edges of this scene. Is she doing the line to enhance the experience? Or -- perhaps more interesting, because it's emotions in conflict -- because this is what she came for, but now she's not so sure it's what she wants, and she's using the cocaine as a way of putting it off? How would the action of the scene -- just this scene -- be different if it were the one or the other?

But, reiterating my point -- once you've got her in the room, with a strange hand on her thigh, it's too late to go back to exposition. You're in the scene, and you need to be there.


* I  discovered, checking Amazon, that Conrad has expanded this into a whole book -- 101 Best Beginnings Ever Written: A Romp Through Literary Openings for Writers and Readers. Looks good. Still, my favorite book on this subject is First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers, by Donald Newlove.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trust the story

I'm going to be posting a few scenes from student writers. These are from Creative Writing 1 students, so they're a little raw, but they all have some value, and they all illustrate some points about writing.

Gillespie was half way down the street when he heard Gracie calling for him. “You are still going after Edwin, after what I had told you?”
“The stars can’t always be right, they couldn’t even give you the correct time of my arrival!” Gillespie triumphantly proclaimed. “That’s not the point you fool! Look at everything around you, nature and all its beauty. Are you willing to risk never being able to appreciate this?” Gracie asked as she held her arms open and had her palms pointing up towards the sky. In that moment, Gillespie’s focus was caught by a butterfly, floating towards shrubberies with hummingbirds suspended at their blossoms. All the colors -- red, pink, blue, turquoise, orange -- overwhelmed him as he felt a lump in his throat approaching. A family of deer were grazing peacefully on the foliage in the background under the shade of the deciduous forest that Gillespie was on the outskirts of. In that same instance, Gracie and Gillespie caught sight of a pack of wolves stalking the deer under the cover of the forest, waiting for the right time to strike. Like a bolt of lightning, the wolves pounced on their prey, ambushing from every direction, tearing the deer limb from limb. With admiration for the grotesque carnage, Gillespie regained focus and remembered Edwin’s favorite place to hang out. A little bar by the docks called The Lone Wolf. He felt even more ready as the only thing on his mind was taking back what Edwin had stole from him: his dignity.
“See Gracie, in order to truly appreciate nature in all its beauty, you also must bear witness some of nature’s atrocities.” Gillespie said as he walked off, in search of his culprit. “Yes, but are you the witnessing an atrocity or are you the atrocity?” Gracie said to herself as Gillespie walked.

The point here -- trust the story. As much as you can, let it tell itself -- don't feel that you constantly have to step in and explain it. For instance:

You don't need to tell us that "Gracie and Gillespie caught sight of" -- we know they're there, and we know we're seeing what they're seeing. We don't need to be told that it's grotesque carnage, we can see it. And we don't need to be told Gillespie admires it -- we get that from the dialog. We don't need to be told Gillespie regains focus -- we see him regaining it.

Also "triumphantly proclaimed" and "In that moment" -- just keep remembering you don't have to give the reader all those signposts -- the story will do it.

You have all the good stuff here -- you just need to trust it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Thoughts on writing

·  David Mamet states that human beings do not "communicate our wishes to each other, but we communicate to achieve our wishes from each other. We do not speak the desire but speak that which is most likely to bring about the desire."
People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want.
·  Italo Calvino: "Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls--and somehow stands for--everything that remains out of the picture. I might venture a definition: we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness."

·  Howard Hawks, on what makes a great movie: “Three great scenes. No bad scenes.”
·  F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Start with a person in mind and you can create a character, but start with a character (stereotype) in mind and you create nothing.”

· Raymond Chandler:  “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

·  Kurt Vonnegut:
Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thoughts on music

Most of American music was made by people who never had any idea it would be listened to beyond the moment, and much of it will live forever. Somewhere around 1970 that changed. Every pop band thought they were making music for posterity, and most of it isn't.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why it keeps getting harder

Thomas Mann once defined a writer as "a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." And a corollary -- the better you get at writing, the harder it becomes. It pretty much has to. Your standards get higher -- you demand more of yourself. And as a writer, you're in competition with everyone else who's writing and everyone who's ever written. In a sense, that's a fairly steady level of competition, but in a more significant sense, it's not, because you recognize more of your competition's salient points as you get more experience.
And in an even more significant sense, it gets wildly difficult, because your main competition is always yourself, and as you get better, it means your principal competition gets stiffer.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Revision in a workshop setting

there's no guarantee that any suggestion I make will actually make the poem better. Sometimes a suggestion can be perfectly good, and it'll end up making the poem worse. There's a movie called Rio Bravo, made by director Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, and co-starring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, who were both better known as popular singers than dramatic actors -- this was Ricky Nelson's only dramatic role. Hawks liked the story, and he made almost the exact same story into another movie, called El Dorado, also starring John Wayne, this time with Robert Mitchum and James Caan in the two supporting roles. Mitchum and Caan were both extremely gifted actors (Caan still is--he's still around). But for some inexplicable reason, Rio Bravo is the better movie. But you learn by trying different things, even if they don't always make the poem better.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Played with more time

We forgot another one from our list of living musicians who played with Charlie Parker -- George Shearing, who died today.

Shearing came to New York for the first time in 1946. On meeting Charlie Parker, he asked to play something with the great alto saxophonist. Parker suggested “All the Things You Are,” though in the difficult key of B. Shearing was ready for the test. “I really love those awkward keys,” he said later.

From an obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Interview with Marvin Bell

Great interview on poetry with my old friend Marvin Bell.

Changing things around

Often, when I'm trying to find something in a poem that's not quite there yet, I'll experiment with tense or person. Interestingly, this is something I worked out on my own, but once when I mentioned it to my mentor, Donald Finkel (I stayed in touch with him for his whole life, so this would be after we'd been talking and corresponding for 30 years or so), he told me he did the same thing. He told me a poem he'd written about an experience a friend had told him about. The friend had been struck by lightning while standing at a window, and knocked clear across the room. Don said he knew that there was a poem there, and he kept trying to write it, and it kept not working. He tried it in present tense and past tense. He tried in first person and third person. I don't think he tried gender-switching -- making his first person narrator or third person character a woman -- although that's something I'll do from time to time. Finally, he said, he got the poem to work by using two strategies, both of which he didn't believe in and would never use in a poem...but they were right for this one. He put in the second person and the future tense ("You will...")

Here's one I experimented with in that way. I had wanted to write a poem about the days when they still talked about jazz, and I had planned to make that the subject of the poem -- impersonal third person voice, a nostalgic/philosophical musing about a bygone era. It actually came out of listening to a Bill Cosby monologue. But it kept coming out hopelessly hokey and sentimental, which is probably OK for Bill Cosby, but not for me. Then I got the hot asphalt, crushed stone, sand and gravel from a sign on the side of a road which I was driving on when I got lost, and the poem started coming together, but gradually. I started with the present tense, I'm sure about that -- putting myself on that byway, seeing that sign. But that didn't work, so I started to try to get closer to the crushed stone by putting someone to work in the paving company. I'd put myself at some distance from a company like this in the past ("The Gravel Business"), but this had to be different.

I had, not long before, written one poem about a woman, daughter of a jazz musician, leaving her husband and trying to find herself. So suppose I put it in the third person, made it about her, had her move upstate to Kingston -- I pictured her living somewhere down around Abeel Street -- gave her a job with the paving company, and worked around to the jazz line that way?


By spring, she was living in upstate
New York, working for a paving company:
hot asphalt, crushed stone, sand and gravel.
The view from her window was great heaps
of stone, scooped, conveyed to barges,
an inlet of water, a distant high bridge, mountains.
Below her flat, old white men drank and talked
about guns and rights. She could hear,
late into night, the tunk! of darts, like
the patter of of raindrops slowed way, way down
by a drummer intent on mastering their rhythms.
She thought about her father, Ellis Perkins,
in the days when they still talked about jazz --
Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith at the Rockland Palace
and the next day it was all over Harlem
how Satch had smoked him with F over high C.
How Cootie left the Duke.
How one day everyone opened the windows, and played
Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home”
to the streets and stoops: blat... blat... blaat... blaat... blaat...

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Music blogs

I've always been remiss about keeping up my links list, but I'm making a stab at it today by adding a list of some of the music blogs and websites that I love, inspired by discovering a new one, JazzWax, which describes itself as "Marc Myers blogs daily on jazz legends and legendary jazz recordings."

I found it through a random web surf that led me to this interview with Jackie Cain, best known for her Jackie and Roy duets.

So...this entry, and this list, starting with my two favorite music blogs.

Bebop Wino Done Gone
is devoted to finding and offering for download some great and forgotten rhythm and blues wax, and this one goes straight to my heart, which beats to the rhythm and blues of the 40s and 50s.

And The Old Weird America, which may just be the best blog in all of the Internet. This guy is blogging his way through the entire Harry Smith anthology, with explorations taking off from each entry, including links and downloads. He's currently at #50, “John The Baptist” by Rev. Moses Mason.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Walrus vs. Eggman

Working with my Creative Writing 1 class on a couple of things -- what Richard Hugo calls "writing off the subject" and I call "writing away from the subject," and learning how to talk about literature. One of my frequent first assignments is to write a poem that doesn't mean anything, and I often follow that up by assigning peer critiques, in which they have to find meaning in each other's meaningless poems.

Being able to do peer critiques of each other's work doesn't come naturally -- the language of criticism has to be learned, as does the confidence that ond can find something to say. So I spent today splitting the class up into small discussion groups, and asking each group to come up with an interpretation of this:

Now, John Lennon wrote "I Am the Walrus" in response to a letter he'd gotten from an old teacher, telling John that he was having his students analyze Beatles songs. John's response was essentially "Oh yeah? Analyze this!" He wrote "I Am the Walrus" quite deliberately to have no meaning, and therefore to be analysis-proof. But that's never stopped anyone from analyzing it, and I got some really nice results.

A couple of groups noticed that Lennon puts himself together with everyone else (he's the eggman, but so is everyone else) and apart at the same time (he's the only walrus). One group suggested that the eggmen referred to the larval state of human spiritual development -- none of us have advanced past being eggmen -- except, or course, the walrus.

Another group focused on "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun to shine" -- the sun is enlightenment, and perhaps they're waiting on an enightenment that never comes. Or maybe it does -- the waiting itself is the enlightenment -- you get a tan from sitting in the English rain.

Another group pointed out the sterility of official answers -- the expert textperts, the answers of organized religion like Hare Krishna -- and maybe Catholicism, if the penguins are nuns -- and suggested Lennon was saying the real spiritual answers come from babies -- goo goo goo joob.

One group said -- and this was really stretching, but I wanted them to stretch, to think outside the box -- that if you take on O out of "joob" it becomes "job" -- jobs are nonsense, like the guys in the corporation T shirts.

So I was pleased -- I got what I was hoping for -- imaginative, inventive thinking.

Friday, January 28, 2011


My first assignment for Creative Writing 1 -- write a poem that's 3 stanzas long, 5 lines per stanza, 8-12 syllables per line, each stanza featuring assonance and governed by a different vowel sound.

And it can't mean anything.

The idea -- start thinking about process, rather than message.

The first problem -- students confused assonance with rhyme, or mostly thought that they had to use rhyme. My fault for not making that clear. So I'm having them do it again.

Second problem -- how do you write a poem that doesn't mean anything? Of course, you can't. So all too many of them ignored that part of the assignment. But it's possible to try to write a poem that doesn't mean anything.

Then what do we do with a poem that doesn't mean anything? We make it mean something. That's what we do. Our minds are meaning-generating, connection-making machines.

Stanley Fish has an interesting essay on this, although that's not really his point.

Anyway, for my next class, I'm going to bring in a famous example of a poem that was deliberately written not to mean anything, and split up my class into groups, and have them come up with meanings for it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday Bobby "Blue" Bland

From my pal Ken Kogan on Facebook, a reminder that it's the birthday of this blues great, and Ken posted a link to Mr. B doing this number:

Bobby Blue doing a Merle Haggard song and making it sound great. And isn't that the greatness of this wonderful art form that's our cultural heritage, our pride and joy? As Huck Finn says, the flavors are all swapped around. How about the Everly Brothers doing Ray Charles?

Or Sam Moore and Conway Twitty doing a duet:

Notes on persona and revision

When I write a poem, no matter how personal it is, when I get it down on paper (or computer screen) and start to revise it, I depersonalize it. The poem may say "I" on the page, but I think "he." I'm aware that the person in that poem is a character I've created, a fictional character--a persona. So when I'm critiquing a poem, I'll always refer to "the speaker," or "the character," or "he" or "she" -- never "you." It's not you any more, no matter how much it may be based on you. It's a character you've created. And as you revise, your responsibility is not to keep that character true to you, but to make that character true to his/her own self.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Cold Hard Facts of Life

This is one of my favorite album covers ever. I couldn't find a jpg of the back cover, but it's the same scene, this time shot from behind Porter, showing the cheating couple from his POV.

Fucking your sister

Since I haven't taught a section of creative writing in a while, and perhaps I've lost some of my edge, I decided not to start out the semester with the fucking-your-sister exercise (well, I don't actually call it that when I give it), although former student Ian Brent tells me on Facebook that it was one he really liked – “I appreciated it as a great way to knock us off our horses right out of the gate, so to speak. It was a great way to look at our writing habits and thought processes without a whole lot of time for us to think about it.”

I'm sure I've blogged about this before, but since I haven't blogged about anything in a long time, I'll start off with this again, since it's on my mind. Here it is:

Write a letter to someone -- you choose who, real or imaginary -- but it's someone you, for purposes of the exercise, you haven't talked to in a few years. You're filling this person in on what's been happening to you, and what's been happening to you is not so good. You have a twin sibling -- probably, though not necessarily, of the opposite sex, and your twin committed suicide a year ago by jumping off a cliff.

It was a terrible tragedy, but you know you need to put it behind you and move on with it. But your mother can't move on -- she keeps taking you back to the cliff, and asking why it had to happen. And the worst part of that is, you know something that might possibly explain it, but you can't tell her: just a couple of days before the suicide, your twin came into your room and had sex with you.

You were maybe half awake -- it was like a dream, but you know it really happened. But you're not sure of anything more than that. You're not even quite sure whether you were forced or willing.

That, I tell them, is your assignment. You can turn it in and leave when you finish it, and we'll talk about it next time.

This only works as an in-class assignment given verbally – written out, as it is here, the information is too concrete. I don't repeat any of it. And I do it on the first day of class, when they don't know me at all, or what to expect of me. Heh heh.

What we talk about next time is not what they've written, but the experience or writing it. How did they feel about the assignment -- what, if anything, was difficult about it, what -- if anything -- was fun or interesting or challenging about it?

I get a range of answers, but generally they're something like this. Difficult -- the subject matter; deciding what tone to take; imagining it happening – and just the organization. Fun – the challenge to the imagination, the chance to write something taboo.

Anyway, what it all adds up to, and this is the reason I give the exercise, outside of a natural tendency toward sadism, is that basically, this is what poets do. We deal with emotionally dangerous or unexplored areas, we imagine ourselves in situations that challenge us – and there's a thrill in doing it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Establishing a space

A family challenge we've just started -- answering a writing challenge. This one from my brother Jon:

Establish a room or space. It can be anything from a closet to a large public space. Locate it temporally and geographically. Introduce a character into the space. Have the character alter the space in some way, and then leave.
And here's mine:

Steven Hawking says that before the big bang, the speck that may have been ready to explode and become the universe was there, but you couldn't have seen it, because there was no light yet, and even if you had some sort of night vision goggles that would pick up no light at all, and even if you had been able to see something that small, you couldn't have seen it, at least not its outer contours, because space didn't exist yet, So inside the speck there's this seething cauldron of everything, and maybe nothing is differentiated yet, so there can't be any sexual urges, because if nothing is differentiated, who are you going to have a sexual urge for? But if there's a consciousness inside that speck, call it God, because it has no physical shape yet, just consciousness, then that consciousness must become aware of its separateness from everything else, even if there is no everything else, and the consciousness gives itself a name, and its name is Me. So God, which is Me, begins to create Myself in My own image, which is as yet a formless image. But as I conceive Myself as separate, My conception grows to encompass want, and as I begin to realize that want has to have an Other, I feel the first helplessness, the first hopelessness, hopelessness preceding hope, as I acclimatize Myself to the formlessness around Me, and the lack of otherness to the otherness which is everything outside of My consciousness. Out of hopelessness comes another formless awareness, which is longing, and the longing  begins to localize itself in one part of something which can't have parts, since it has no form, but this one part begins to swell, and harden, and the quantum space which has no provision for any hard object begins to glow, then bulge.

And this is how I created the universe.

Nick & Jake

You'll want to listen to the current episode (#9) of Nick and Jake, if only for the introduction of "Rue de Nostalgie," a haunting melody by Dave Grusin that becomes Nick's Paris theme.And you'll want to follow the unfolding relationship between Nick and Ronnie, as each of them begin to explore new cities and new lives. And what is the CIA planning now?

Back in action

I'm going to start maintaining my blog again -- I'd pretty much let it go when I started doing my Examiner page, but I think I'd just as soon have my thoughts on writing, or whatever else, be my own instead of Examiner's. So I'm reopening the old newsstand.