Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rara Avis

I've spent the entire month of November researching and rehearsing the role of John James Audubon, painter, naturalist, and business man. The more I research, the more I like this guy. He was truly an American original, a rare bird.

Audubon was consumed by a passion to create a monumental work of both science and art, The Birds of America, which made him famous. 435 paintings depicting 1000 birds native to North America. His genius was to paint his bird specimens "in the size of life." The pages of his double-elephant folio are 3 feet by 2 feet and require a special desk to display them properly; and yet the long-necked flamingo must still bend down to gobble-up some small animal, which is Audubon's other inspiration: to depict the real drama of life. In his paintings, birds protect their young, defend their food, and awaken in the morning to the fangs of a snake. He depicts birds astonished by his own rifle shot.

In Europe he promoted himself as the "American Woodsman" at the height of the Romantic Era's infatuation with the American frontier and "noble savages". Audubon was in fact an excellent marksman, and killed thousands of birds in pursuit of his ornithological studies. He ate, yes, many of the specimins, and documented their flavors as well as their physical and behavioral characteristics in his companion work, Ornithological Biographia, which made his fortune. He catalogued over 500 native American bird species, all from first-hand observation in the new frontier.

For the month of December, you may see me walking the French Quarter with a group of 14 other historical New Orleans personalities. Marie Laveau is quite convincing. So is Andrew Jackson and the Baroness Pontalba. We're a fun group of actors, all of whom really get nerdy on research. I've read 2 biographies, a National Geographic article, and much online material. I viewed an American Masters documentary about Birds of America, and also read his diary from 1820-21, a significant year in Audubon's aesthetic development, right here in New Orleans. There's a park and zoo here named in his honor.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Words and Music

I attended a literary conference last weekend, Words and Music, which has wrongly been called The Faulkner Festival because it's sponsored by the folks at the Faulkner House bookstore, an elegant but expensive and often pretentious bookstore in the French Quarter. I should not speak disparagingly about Faulkner House because they let me attend the conference for free, and were instrumental in setting up a meeting for me with a literary agent. Ostensibly I was a volunteer, but all I did was press Play on a tape recorder, and then half an hour later turned over the tape and pressed Play again. Then I was relieved by another volunteer, and spent the next 2 days drinking coffee and scoffing at the grandiose pronouncements of self-appointed literary pontiffs.

My least favorite pronouncement: "Poets make the best fiction writers because they are sensitive to language and understand the primacy of the image." But in my experience, poets make some of the WORST fiction writers because they are self-conscious about language and overdose on image, while neglecting to tell a STORY. The pontiff who made that pronouncement then read his own work, which made my case. All image, no story. All style, no substance. I would re-phrase that pronouncement as "Fiction writers should read poetry."

I did hear good content too, good as in useful. Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler spoke eloquently about the relationship of the artist to the unconscious, in particular, to dreaming. I met him about 3 years ago and had a similar conversation one on one. He can get pretty out there, but having recently read Carl Jung's essay, Approaching the Unconscious, I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate Butler's ideas.

Right now I'm reading his Pulitzer collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, most of which are set here in New Orleans in the Vietnamese refugee communities. The stories are moving and surprising in their emotional range. Three years ago he said to me "Don't worry about the particulars of culture. Just make sure the emotion is real. You can add the particulars later." Or something to that effect. I take his advice to heart, because I do believe and practice the primacy of CHARACTER in fiction. Story arises from character, as does resolution. At least in the kinds of stories I like and try to write.

The meeting with the agent went well, although honestly, I'm not looking for an agent right now. I'm not there yet. I need to finish my first draft, let it cool, then write the second draft. Jeff Kleinman and I agreed that I've still got a ways to go (about 2 years, I estimate), but when I'm ready he wants me to send him the first 3 chapters. He liked what I showed him. He even said "wow, you can really write!" But when he wanted to discuss copy edits, like commas and parallel sentence structure, I cut him short and asked him not to waste both of our times. So we dug into the technical aspects of my work, in particular, Point of View.

POV is the THE technical challenge of my novel. Check this out: I have a first person "I" narrator, who is effectively omniscient, yet restricts each chapter to a different character's experience, which is called "limited third person." Have I covered all the possible POV choices?
  • First person
  • Omniscience
  • Limited third person
Yup, that pretty much covers it.

Why did I set the bar so high for myself? I really didn't choose to, per se. It is the strategy that makes most sense for an angel to narrate a story about a family. Kleinman did not criticize my choice, but said merely to tread carefully, which I am. It's taken me 13 chapters to finally feel I have POV under control. In the end, you learn to write a novel by writing it. Today I'm confident in Goodfriend's storytelling ability, that he won't confuse readers or disrupt the flow of a story by interjecting some personal observation.

Kleinman also gave me some wrong-headed advice. Although he certainly understands craft, he is not a writer in his orientation. He's an agent, a sales guy. He cautioned me to be aware of market forces as I write, and to avoid comparison to such and such a popular novel. I told him I plan to ignore that advice. I actually do believe and practice the Romantic Era notion of the bohemian artist and Art for Art's sake. That doesn't make for marketable fiction, but I'm just conceited enough to believe that when I'm finished with my novel, someone will think it's publishable on its own aesthetic merits, and not because of some market trend 2 years out from now that I can't anticipate.

If I really wanted to get published rather than create meaningful art, I'd write a memoir, like all the 20-something MFA graduates who write the story of their childhood abuse or teenage angst. Aside from Arthur Rimbaud, what does a 20-year-old have to say about the world that I care to read? Augustin Burroughs (of Running with Scissors infamy) is coming out with his 8th memoir this year. Dude, get an imagination.

I heard a new term at the conference that tickled me, the "mom-oir".

Friday, November 23, 2007

That 3rd Voice from My Past

I've had 2 big loves in my life so far. David Roy Nash in Canada, who died. And Craig, an ostensibly "straight" boy in Minneapolis. Craig's the 3rd voice from my past who's come out of the woodwork recently. It's been 12 years. Our breakup was painful for a long time.

Now and then I’ve checked Google for mentions of him, maybe an email address. I found music reviews he’s written and other online references to him, but no way to contact until I signed up for Craig has a profile online and I wrote that. Didn’t hear from him for several days and figured it was another blind alley or that he’d deleted me. But then I did hear back.

He sent me a short story, a coming-out story actually. And the name of the gay love interest rhymes with mine. I tartly mentioned this in my reply, but also gave him thoughtful feedback on his work, structure and character-development stuff. Didn't hear back for 2 weeks, and thought I may have embarrassed or intimidated him, or just plain put him off with the reminder that "Frederick gets his feelings easily hurt."

On further reflection, I don’t think Craig's trying to bait me with a coming-out story, for as much as I've wanted him to be gay over the years. I think instead he was trying to connect with me across the gap of 12 years by sending me a story that demonstrates he can write sensitively about a topic close to my heart, coming-out, the foundational gay experience. It needs work, his story. But I don’t see any deeper agenda other than a desire to impress and reconnect with me. Writing was our original connection. But Craig took a big risk in sending that story to me, the injured party, the one who got rejected over just that very issue, NOT coming out. Craig's not telling me he’s gay by sending that particular story. He never will.

I feel longing for him keenly and for the potent connection we used to share, but tempered now (fortunately) by experience of disappointment. At 40, I do know how to keep my expectations in check, just not my longing. He appears in my dreams, although in reality he couldn’t be farther away. Married with kids in Minneapolis. I’ve had very hard crushes before, but I felt truly connected to these 2 men, David and Craig. I speculate that Craig felt something similar, something strong that brings him back now. Or it's Autumn. He wrote me today to ask how the radio play went.

It would be a very good idea for me to be dating someone else right now. No strong prospects though. There's 1 fellow I'm attracted to, but he's mercurial and didn’t even respond to my last invitation, to be my date at my radio play. Not sure I should even bother contacting him again, but I’d like a date for my friend Michael Martin’s current one-man show, Bachelor in New Orleans.

Michael got a great write-up and his photo in the paper today. He’s a critic’s darling, and David Cuthbert can’t rave about him enough. Some of that favoritism rubbed off on me a little. I think Cuthbert’s been recently generous to me in his column because of my involvement with Michael. We make a compelling theatrical pairing I think. And we do share a preference for risky, far off-beat theatre.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Back to the Main Storyline

Ahh...finished the ancient China chapter. Printed 2 copies: 1 for the binder and 1 for my writing mentor.

Now back to the main storyline, set in the West Bank of New Orleans, on Pelican Avenue in Algiers. The villain publicly challenges my hero. Hero gains something, but loses something in the bargain.

Poked at Goodfriend for about an hour today, plus some time this morning re-reading the chapters I’ve already finished. Trying to get myself kick-started on the new chapter, and of course it feels slow. I’m in that wool-gathering phase that I’ve learned to respect as necessary to the process. Just have to be patient, and suddenly, movement happens.

To my surprise, I have 1400 words already, and the emergence of 3 major scenes. That’s a story. I know the arc. I see the beginning, middle, and end. I’m well upon the way. But as I said, it feels slow at this stage, and I’ve lost the patience to sit with it for now.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voices from My Past

Voices from my past have materialized this week. 3, in fact.

Felix Freeman, who I knew as Amar, was 1 of my very few friends in Seattle when I was 19. I was deeply wounded then, fiercely independent, a loner. I needed a sweet friend like Amar. He was a gentle, British young man, 24, totally straight (alas) with madcap curly brown hair and a very kind heart, although he had good reason to be bitter, yet wasn't. Recently he'd left a cult:
    In 1984, the small county of Wasco, Oregon, became a household name when followers of the religious cult Rashneeshee introduced Salmonella bacteria into salad bars at ten restaurants and into a local water supply. Their plan was to infect the region’s voters so that cult members could outvote non-cultists, and thus take political power in the upcoming elections. Until discovered, the plan was a success and resulted in 751 individuals infected and 45 hospitalized. The Rashneeshee incident became the first confirmed bioterror attack in world history and the largest American attack to date.
During our friendship, Amar and I learned that their leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, had fled the country, leaving behind multiple Rolls Royces. Amar gave me his woolen Rajneeshee robe, a turtle-neck sweater that extends from neck to floor. I wear it on Halloween with an A on my chest. AL-VIN!

He goes by Tony now and sends me email from London. Amar was a lovely man and taught me watercolors.

Captain Midnight
Captain Midnight was better known as Daniel when we were nerd-league friends at Edna Karr Junior High. I'm embarrassed to say I was cruel to him back then. Yes, short, Bible-thumpin', nerdy, faggy 13-year-old me was cruel to Daniel. He was fat. Don't think he is so much now, and it doesn't even matter of course. But at the time, I know I lashed my barbed tongue his way now and then. I even wrote a mean comic book.

We were in the Gifted program, and took a LOT of field trips, including a week in Mexico. Daniel and I shared a hotel room in Merida, Mexico with a sort of boyfriend of mine at the time. Michael Loveless wasn't love-less in 8th grade. Us 3 being friends, and probably the 3 nerdiest of the nerd league, we were put together. We accidentally flooded our hotel room, letting the shower run over the bathroom step. The hotel's Artesian pool, directly below our room, was a little fuller in the morning. Oddly, all these years since Merida I've thought we went to Belize. Captain Midnight set me straight. He still lives in the New Orleans area. Hope he comes to see the radio play, ORIGIN. We're also performing a couple 15-minute Captain Midnight episodes.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

How to Dress for Radio

4 hours at Fair Grinds Coffee House today with Harriet Sheehey, a regular Write Club-ber. Made good progress on the ancient China chapter. To prepare for the re-entry into that difficult closing scene--where the mentor and the monk discuss the sacrifice of a friend--I read Thich Nhat Hanh, a contemporary Zen teacher from Vietnam. In his chapter entitled, "The 7 Factors of Awakening," I saw a way to depict a character transformation. I saw a pivot point and wrote around it. I'm almost done now. I'm ready to print a draft, read it aloud. Maybe 1 or 2 more passes, then the click. I print 2 copies, one for the binder, one to mail.

Had a nice promotional write-up of ORIGIN in the Living section of Saturday's Times-Picayune:
    I Want to Look My Best for the Radio Audience!
    Golden Age of Radio aficionado and veteran character actor John Barber has been cast as The Radio Announcer with the Hercules Audio Theater's production of ORIGIN, by Frederick Mead, live onstage Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. at the Marigny Theatre, 1030 Marigny St., one performance only.

    Mead's eclectic script is a comic homage to Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast and "Captain Midnight," with faux radio commercials, the comedy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and more. Live sound effects will be the work of Cammie West, and the original music by "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepoint, who promises not to wear sock puppets while playing.

    Mead also directs, and actors involved include Mary Pauley, Molly Maginnis and Kevin Songy. Tickets $10. Come early and get a cocktail at the adjacent Cowpokes Bar.
Think I'll rent a tux.