On Writing

Final Curtain

This is an old post that I removed from my blog after selling it to an anthology.

Now that the anthology is out of print, it’s time to bring it back. The message is important, I think. Plus it’s fun!

***

About 20 years ago, long before I became a children’s book author, I wrote for the stage. I found a little success soon after graduating from college, getting a number of my short plays produced in New York. The theatres were all small (79- to 99-seaters) and not in the best part of town, but I was ecstatic. Almost every weekend I was somewhere on 10th or 11th Avenue attending a rehearsal or seeing a show. I felt important, or, if not exactly important, busy enough to convince myself that I was on the cusp of importance.

And I was right to think this; for one day I was contacted by an artistic director. I won’t say which company this artistic director worked for, but it was a good one, a prestigious one. The theatre space they performed in was small—but not the same kind of small I was used to. The theatres I wrote for had difficulty filling the house. Sometimes the number of cast and crew exceeded the number of people in the audience.

This theatre, on the other hand, was not acquainted with half-filled houses. This theatre was small because it was exclusive. Its shows sold out. It advertised its plays in actual newspapers. Its stage was beautiful. This was the real deal.

The artistic director invited me to submit a script. The request could not have come at a better time; I was just putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute one-act titled Exacta Men that I knew would be a good fit for that stage. I mailed it off and then began my negotiations with God.

“What sins can I jettison to make this deal happen?” I asked Him. “How about if I stop saying the F-word? Would that work?”

My bargaining worked. Mr. Artistic Director liked what he saw and soon set up a backers’ meeting. A backers’ meeting, for those who don’t know (and at that time I sure didn’t), is an event where actors read a promising script to an audience of Rich People. If the Rich People like what they hear, they hand over money to Make The Play Happen.

The meeting was arranged in a comfortable and well-appointed office space in Midtown Manhattan with windows that proffered views of the Chrysler Building.

I approved. I like Midtown office buildings. I like the Chrysler Building. I like being in rooms filled with Rich People. Oh, yes, all of this suited me just fine.

There were several plays up for consideration that evening and Exacta Men was the first one to be read. Mr. Artistic Director got the Rich People settled into their chairs. He found me sitting in the front row, made me stand up, and introduced me to the crowd as “Michael James Allegra The Author Of The First Play We Are About To See This Evening.”

Let me digress for a moment to say that I really dislike such pre-play introductions. I don’t know how to respond to them; the audience doesn’t either. The audience hasn’t yet heard the script, so it doesn’t know whether to applaud or throw tomatoes. So they usually just stare at you—and that’s what this one did.

Believe me, that stare is excruciating.

“Would you like to discuss your play, Michael?” The Artistic Director asked.

I would’ve replied “F*** no,” but I had recently negotiated the F-word out of my vocabulary. So I shook my head and sat back down.

The reading began. The Rich People took to Exacta Men instantly. They were engaged. They were laughing in all the right places. I was very pleased with myself.

But things were about to take a turn.

Exacta Men is about three 20-somethings who have a guys-night-out tradition of going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. One of the men, however, named Sean, has upset the natural order of things by inviting his new girlfriend, Marla, along. The other two guys, Jim and Carl, are none too pleased with this new development. So, as soon as Sean and Marla are out of earshot, Carl starts grumping.

 

CARL

Why would anybody take a girl to the track on a date?

 

JIM

It’s not much of a date.

 

CARL

Exactly.

(He stews over this a moment. Then:)

First he blows us off for, like, what? Two months?

 

JIM

Couldn’t be two months.

 

CARL

I’ll bet it’s two. I’ll bet it is. And then when he starts to hang out with us again, he brings this girl along.

 

And then Carl says this:

 

And she’s pretty uppity for a chick who isn’t all that good looking.

 

As a writer, I liked this line because it does some heavy lifting in establishing Carl’s character. It illustrated Carl’s views toward Marla in particular and women in general. In short, it showed that Carl was a pig. Everything Carl said up to this point suggested this, but that line drove the point home. It was also supposed to be a laugh line. A line where you could laugh at Carl.

When the line came out, however, the audience gasped. The gasp was so long, so loud, and so violent, it frightened me.

I leaned over to my friend, Bill, who had accompanied me on this particular jaunt, and whispered, “I just lost the whole room.”

“No,” he whispered back, but Bill was not a theatre person. He wasn’t attuned to these things.

From that gasp onward, the audience sat in stony, arm-folded silence.

The reality of my situation could not have been more crystal clear. We were three minutes into my 40-minute play—and everyone in that room had every intention of hating the remaining 37 minutes of it. Carl’s line gave them permission to hate it. And they hated me for writing it. And they knew what I looked like. And they knew where I was siting. I was in the front row. Oh, why did I have to sit in the front row?

Then an idea popped into my head that almost made me vomit: “What if,” I thought, “these Rich People think I agree with Carl’s views?”

My head pounded. My stomach churned. I could feel Rich-Person Hatred burrowing into the back of my sweaty neck. Rich-Person-Back-Of-The-Neck Hatred is sharp, jackhammer-y, and fire poker hot.

At one point I was nearly overcome with the urge to yell, “I’m not like Carl! I want you to laugh at him! Let us mock him together! HAHAHA! What a dweeb he is!”

At another point I came up with the slightly more pragmatic idea of popping out of my chair to announce, “And then entire cast got trampled to death by a racehorse! The END!”

But I did neither of those things. I just sat there and soaked up the blurbling bile.

After several lifetimes, my play ended. I made a beeline for Mr. Artistic Director (who looked like he just witnessed a murder, and, in a way, he had), thanked him for the opportunity, and strode with great purpose to the exit.

“They didn’t seem to like it much,” Bill observed after the elevator doors closed behind us.

I then reneged on my agreement with God and used variations of a certain F-word to commend Bill on his acute powers of observation.

That evening was the most awful experience of my writing life—but I did take something valuable from it. It proved to me once and for all that I was supposed to do this writing thing for a living.

Big Honking Failures, I think, separate the wannabes from the gonnabes.

Up until that reading, I had nothing but success in my writing life. My successes were very modest, but they were still successes. It was easy to keep plugging along. I was getting positive feedback from actors and audiences. I was getting produced and having fun.

That reading on the other hand, shook me to my core. After that night, I could’ve walked away from writing forever and I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for doing so.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I needed time to lick my wounds. And for years afterwards, whenever my mind flashed back to that night, my body turned on the flop sweat machine as if it was happening all over again. But I still wrote. Writing became a kind of therapy, I think. It was me saying, “My career is not going to end this way.”

Exacta Men eventually became a two-act play, titled Rebounders. Rebounders fared far better than its predecessor. Three years after my Exacta Men backers’ meeting, Rebounders won a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It’s been performed in front audiences, too, and those audiences laugh at Carl rather than hate my guts. I prefer this.

Big Honking Failures happen. You can’t always avoid them, but you can keep them from destroying you. And when that Big Honking Failure does arrive, take my advice: Be sure to have a few F-bombs at your disposal. Trust me; you’re gonna need ’em.

Three Things...

Three Things About My Fellowship at Ragdale

I stayed here!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was recently awarded a Creative Access Fellowship. This meant that I would take part in a monthlong residency at Ragdale House, located in gorgeous Lake Forest, Illinois.

I chose to go in January, because I am dumb.

Due to a family emergency, I needed to cut my trip shorter than expected. (Everything’s fine now.) I was sorry to leave, but at least my departure allowed me to be in New Jersey for the second half of the month—thereby avoiding a liquid nitrogen-like cold front that gripped the Midwest by its nether regions.

Here are three things I took away from my truncated residency.

***

Ragdale is Quiet

The great people who run Ragdale are singularly focused on making sure that the artists in residence can concentrate in silence. (Their efforts begin in the parking lot, where a sign admonishes anyone who might dare to speak above a whisper.) Ragdale is such a silent place, a writer can’t help but notice how loud he is.

I am a loud writer.

I have a habit of pounding the laptop keyboard as if it’s a manual typewriter.

I also talk to myself when I write.

I also tap on tabletops.

And sing.

And bounce in my chair.

And walk around.

And dance around.

I am a living, breathing fidget spinner—and the tomblike silence of Ragdale made me notice each and every of my writer tics for the first time. It was quite a wake up call.

I did my best to wrestle my many noises under control. I succeeded mostly. Except for the typing. I ardently believe that typing should always be noisy—and you will never convince me otherwise.

 

Residency Living is a Lifestyle

This was my very first residency. This made me unique. Almost all of the residents at Ragdale had done residencies before.

A few of them had been at Ragdale before.

One had been at Ragdale three times.

Another resident had been living the life of a nomad since August—hopping from one residency program to another without once stopping off at her permanent address.

People discussed common residency friends whom they met at different times in different residency programs in different states and (on occasion) different countries. It was a little surreal. I think this was the way hoboes conversed back in the 1930s:

Hobo 1: Oh, sure, I know Hobo Joe Junkpan! Last I saw ’em, he was in Seattle or thereabouts.

Hobo 2: Have you come across Fred ‘Bean Can’ Abernathy?

Hobo 1: Yep. He was restin’ his bindle in Santa Fe jes’ last week.

Hobo 2: Santa Fe! At the Old Promenade near Miss Mary’s?

Hobo 1 & Hobo 2: Where else?

[Hobo 1 and Hobo 2 share a long hearty, boozy laugh.]

This did not make any of the residents stuck up or cliquey. Not at all. Everyone was friendly and nice and funny and we all had a fantastic time trading stories over dinner. But the shared bonds of the residency lifestyle made me want to invent a phony residency, just to see if I could get away with it.

“I just finished up a residency in North Korea,” I’d say. “It was really secluded. Food wasn’t so great. Beatings were common. Come to think of it, I’ve might have been in prison.”

 

Lake Forest is Wealthy

I have never been to Lake Forest before. That means I had never seen Real Wealth before. I’m not talking about McMansion Wealth. I’m also not talking about I’m-A-Dentist-And-My-Wife-Is-A-Lawyer-And-We-Renovated-This-Charming-Old-Victorian Wealth.

No sir. I’m talking Charles Foster Kane Wealth.

Windsor Castle Wealth.

God-Almighty-Is-In-A-Lower-Tax-Bracket Wealth.

The wealth was stunning—and it took me a while to not feel like I should kneel down and start shining everyone’s shoes.

Even the Lake Forest public library oozed prosperity. The periodicals room—the Skid Row of most every library—had a fireplace as tall as me. And it had an actual fire merrily burning away! As I sat there in a wingback chair watching the fire and admiring the 18th century art on the walls, I thought: My library’s periodical room is peopled by old men in saggy sweatpants reading The New York Post.

In short, you should totally go to Lake Forest just to sit in the library. Every library in the country should be just like it. Let’s get on that, America!

***

There’s about a jillion more things I can say about Ragdale—all of them great. The food? Great! The comfy rooms? Great! The residents? Great! The incredible staff? Super great!

So if you can find a way to stay at Ragdale, do it!

Just not in January. Because that would be dumb.

On Writing

My January Jaunt

I’m going to take a break from the blog this month.

But I have a really good reason! I have been awarded a month-long Creative Access Fellowship to complete my WIP, a middle grade novel with the working title A Trivial Murder.

I’m pretty excited about it.

So! I’ll be spending the month at Ragdale House, located in warm, sunny Lake Forest, Illinois! Current temperature: 15 degrees. (I probably could’ve planned the timing of my visit a little better.)

I picked up this postcard the last time I visited Illinois back in 1995. Dang, I’m old.

Here are the other Ragdale guests who are similarly not so great at timing their residency visits. They seem nice.

Though I’ll be focused on my manuscript, I won’t be completely absent from social media. Later this month, I’ll make an appearance as a guest blogger at Tara Lazar’s Storystorm.

And I’ll pop over to my Facebook page from time to time. Especially if somebody shares a video of cute widdle rodents and/or cute widdle goats. I can’t be slaving over my WIP 24/7, after all.

As for January’s Debatables, the lovely and talented Jilanne Hoffmann has agreed to serve as tribute, a la The Hunger Games. Do you know Jilanne? Because you should. In fact, it would behoove you to subscribe to her wonderful blog.

And that’s it! If my soon-to-be frostbitten fingers don’t fall off, I’ll be typing new blog posts in February.

Wish me luck!