Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing, and Happy Holidays!

Holy Cannoli, I'm beat. I've just put the final chapter of the book in place. Now I'm off to Europe to visit with family and friends for a couple of weeks-- a much-needed break after six months of writing. Time off is so crucial to the writing process; I'm hoping to return with a fresh perspective on the story so that I can spend one final month polishing it till it shines before turning it in to my editor.

I've been reading short stories, mainly: Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore. My brain is so wrapped up in Yoga Bitch that I can't seem to focus on long, sustained works of fiction or memoir. Short stories have been just the right size, and these three writers are so wonderful, each one such a unique voice.

Writing has been all Bitch, all the time. Some interesting developments have occurred since I started writing, most exciting of all being the Hebrew and German translations of YB, both coming out in Summer of 2011 in their respective regions. I'm already brushing up my German in anticipation. (I don't have any Hebrew to brush up, other than the bits of the Torah I remember from attending eight million bar mitzvahs in seventh grade.)

The fall has been good in so many other ways. Even with a nutso writing schedule, we've managed to spend some good time with family and friends, celebrating engagements and new babies, new homes, new pets. And everyone, it seems, is reading something they want to talk about. Sitting around over coffee or wine, talking books-- well, who needs an afterlife if that's what we get to do in this one?

On that note, I would love to have a glass of wine. But I have to pack. And do laundry. And about eight million other things before we fly out at the crack of dawn.

I hope to be a more faithful blogger in the new year, after the book has been turned in. I've missed you all. Happy Holidays, friends!

Oh! And if you happen to be in Seattle, buy your holiday books at Elliott Bay Book Company, PLEASE, for the love of God! I will be devastated if they go under. It's my Christmas wish that they stay afloat, and since they have to move, I'm praying that they come to my neighborhood so that I can make weekly pilgrimages.

See you in 2010.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Books That Change Our Lives

Here's a great piece about the way certain books change our lives on This American Life. The latter half of the program is especially satisfying, but the whole piece is delightful. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Huffington Post Books Section

I'll be blogging periodically for the new Books Section at the Huffington Post. Here's my first post-- if you read this blog, you've read it before, but I'd love it if you'd go ahead and leave me a comment or two on the HuffPost! Next one will be brand spanking new, just for you. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Speed is the Key

This article, Speed as an Antidote to Writer's Block, caught my eye today as I looked over the new Huffington Post Book Section. Not because I'm suffering from writer's block-- my absence from this blog the past few weeks is actually proof that my writing is getting done. It caught my eye because the title made me think that its writer, Hillary Rettig, a "productivity coach and workshop leader," was advocating the use of Speed for writers. As in, "swallow/snort/inject this Ritalin/Adderal/Cocaine and paint the world with words!"

Many years ago, when I lived in New York, I quit a well-paying job to write full-time. Within a few weeks of kissing my health insurance goodbye, I developed an inability to breathe. I entertained the idea that it could be asthma, or maybe pneumonia. But I knew what it was: lung cancer. Death. 

A friend of a friend referred me to a Russian doctor who gave breaks to artists. I showed up at her office terrified of the inevitable diagnosis, but within a few minutes I was told by the kind doctor that I was having panic attacks because "Nobody loves you in New York, you know this, yes? They smile at you with their faces but their hearts, they are not open." She then told me to leave the house every once in a while and go for a walk. This was revolutionary advice in my early writing days, when I believed I needed to be at my desk eight hours a day or I wasn't serious enough. She said to write for shorter periods of time, then get out and walk around, and all would be well.

And then she said that she could give me a prescription for Ritalin if I wanted one. "My writers, they love it," she said. "They say, 'I test it out! Ritalin: I write for hours. No Ritalin: less hours!'"

I was so indignant I forgot I couldn't breathe. "That's cheating!" I said. And I was cured of my psychic lung cancer.

Anyway, when I saw this article on the HuffPost, I thought, Damn. That doctor was right-- apparently lots of writers are doing speed to get their work done.

My response was the same response I had years ago, in New York: That's cheating! I mean, I have had to train myself like a puppy to get up every morning, make coffee, turn off my phone and email and sit down to write. If I so much as glance at my phone I can be thrown off and lose my will to work. I've told my family and friends that I will be in a virtual cave until my book is done, and that they might not hear from me until then. And when I'm not able to focus? When I can't find the start of the next chapter? Then, I will do damn near anything-- meditate, pray, light candles, bribe myself with chocolate or wine if I get a thousand words written-- but I am terrified of drugs. Always have been. I blame it on Nancy Reagan and the book Go Ask Alice.

So, I read Rettig's article. By "speed" she means "promptness." As in, Get your writing done quickly and you'll be more productive and less likely to give yourself time to get blocked:

Greed may not be good, but speed sure is. It was only when I got into this line of work that I understood the meaning of the axiom "He who hesitates is lost." Procrastination -- the fear-based inner force that wants you not to complete your projects -- will latch onto any feelings of uncertainty or hesitation and amplify them until you can no longer do your work.

One method for beating procrastination, therefore, is to practice a Zen-like detachment from your work. You want to, at the appointed time, glide emotionlessly over to your desk and sit down and commence work. Just commence, without drama or hesitation.

What a relief to find that Rettig advocates a working style that I am trying to cultivate. Because secretly? I'm afraid my Russian doctor was right, and writers are taking all kinds of focusing drugs to get their work done, and we non-drug-taking prudes will be left in the dust as the Speedy writers churn out novels and stories like they're Joyce Carol Oates  . . . on Adderal. (Good sweet Lord, can you imagine?)

Anyway, Rettig's article is worth the read. And the Huffington Post's new books section is a very exciting new offering for writers and readers-- I'll be blogging there periodically, myself, so I hope you'll stop by for a read. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Where Everything is Music

Don't worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn't matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world's harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can't see.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the centre of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Lorrie Moore on Writing

Here's an interesting little piece about Lorrie Moore's views on writing. 

"The only really good piece of advice I have for my students is, 'Write something you'd never show your mother or father.' And you know what they say? 'I could never do that!'"

She's commenting on the close relationship young people today often have with their parents, but this closeness can breathe an eagerness to please not only the parents themselves, but authority in general. Moore's writing sometimes conveys a nasty view of humanity, one that would surely sadden any mother or father, but the nastiest parts are often the most funny and true. Insofar as it encourages students to stop trying to make people happy, Moore's advice is great — readers, like all humans, don't necessarily know what they want, and trying to please isn't a very good way of actually doing so.

Monday, August 31, 2009


An interesting piece in the New York Times about Julie Myerson's memoir of her son's drug addiction. I've been following this story since it first broke in the UK, where Myerson has been branded a terrible mother, a liar, an opportunist and self-aggrandizer. Now we'll see how the U.S. audience responds. My guess is she'll be just fine.

In some sense all family stories have a Rashomon quality. Ms. Myerson is candid about her son’s behavior and her own painful abandonment by her father when she was 16. But she barely mentions a year of marital strife that her son identifies as the time he started using drugs regularly. Asked why, Ms. Myerson responded the same way she did to her son: “This can only ever be my story from my perspective, and all I can say is I’ve been as truthful as I’m capable of being.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Sausage Maker and his Books

I am a hoarder of books. Since I was a young girl, I have read, collected, organized, dusted and admired row upon row of books. Plays, poetry, novels, non-fiction; I have loved my books like people are supposed to love their children. Tables, desks, windowsills, toilets, kitchen counters-- all serve the same purpose in my home. They're all bookshelves. When I married my husband I imagined a commingling not of genes, but of libraries. His Shelby Foote next to my Thornton Wilder. My Alice Munro rubbing up against his Alan Furst. Our children would be as old as Homer and as young as next week's Book Review. I had met my match.

When you are a hoarder of books, you know that a day will come when your books will prompt an identity crisis, or a crisis of faith; a crisis of space, or at the very least a dust allergy. 

Yesterday I restored the freshly-painted dining room. (Which is actually more of a mini-library than a dining room.) I moved heavy pieces of furniture using my little muscles and my enormous will. And then it was time to put the books back on the bookshelves. This was the last piece of the puzzle before going back upstairs to resume work on my own book. 

Shouldn't be a big deal, right? You sort the books. You remove those books that are no longer needed. You put the giveaway books in a box. You live your life. 

I've seen friends do this. They decimate their bookshelves! They put those books in a box. They put that box on the sidewalk, or in their car; they give it to the Mormons. The truly ambitious sell them to Twice Sold Tales or donate them to the library. My God, I thought, who are these people, and what antidepressants are they on?

At five o'clock I was distraught. Swimming in a lake of books. Drowning, I should say, in titles that no one needs to keep. The Da Vinci Code? There are two people living in this house, and one will never read it and the other didn't like it. Why on earth are we keeping it? Will I ever re-read Al Franken's books about Lies and Truths? If so, doesn't that mean I'm living in the past? Shouldn't I dust them off, thank my lucky stars that the Bush Administration is in the hands of history, and move the fuck on? 

Then there are the books that friends have lent me over the years: they don't remember that I have them, and I haven't yet read them, and in some cases I never will, and does that make me a bad person? Shouldn't I be reading, like, a book a day? Shouldn't I have stopped reading Miranda July's short story collection three stories in, when I realized I didn't like it, in order to make time for books like The Year of Magical Thinking and Ulysses? And Proust! My God, Proust! How can I call myself a writer when I've yet to read Proust? I read all of those twee Miranda July stories and yet Proust sits there on my shelf like a Grandfather patiently waiting for his granddaughter to finish primping and remember he needs to use the loo. 

My eye landed on one of my Grandpa Morrison's music books. I remembered that I missed him. I was certain I hadn't been a good enough granddaughter. A good granddaughter would have read that book and returned it to her grandpa before he died. What if he died wondering if he would ever hold Verdi's biography again? Cursing the day he lent it to his granddaughter!

Oh, I am a bad person. A bad, bad, bad, bad person. 

An unhappy person.

Lazy. And bad. And unhappy.

It was five o'clock, if I may remind you, when the books attacked. The clock chimed and I had a revelation: five o'clock is Happy Hour.

I left the books sprawling like a paper metropolis across the floor, and walked up the hill to meet my friend Erin for a bottle of wine. (Note the use of the word bottle and not glass.) Shortly after I got there, she told me the most amazing story.

A friend of hers worked for a sausage maker in Philadelphia for a number of years. The sausage maker was an old, grizzled man who loved to read. He was such a voracious reader, in fact, that he made Erin's friend-- we'll call him Tom-- drive the sausage truck to New York for deliveries so that he could sit on the passenger side and read all the way there. 

I picture him a bit like my grandpa, actually: Tall, barrel-chested, with thick fingers like, um, sausages. Forgive me, but his hands are important, because while he read his books from Philly to NYC he did the most peculiar thing: he would read a page front and back and then, in one swift movement, he'd tear the page out of the book and throw it out the window.

I have seen some amazing things in my life. Ray Charles. Macchu Picchu. The Louvre. Pompeii. A Monster Truck Rally. But I have never gasped with baffled wonderment like I did at the end of this little anecdote.

When I got home Kurt and I found seats between stacks of books, our dinner plates resting on tables of John McPhee and Stephen King, and I told him the story. He was as baffled and impressed as I was. I said it was a philosophical difference; the sausage maker could accept that he had spent his allotted time with each page and then let it go. I, on the other hand, am too deeply attached to the past. I keep books I've already read and will never read again because they keep the past in my home, nearby, so that I can relive it any time I want. It's a fear of death, I said. The sausage maker is liberated from that fear. Page-ripping is his yoga.

Maybe, Kurt said. He looked sort of dazed as he surveyed the room. He stood up and started to move through the stacks. But The Moor's Last Sigh, he sighed. We need that in our home! Auden? You don't get rid of Auden. Every book H.L. Mencken ever wrote-- I need these! The Atlas of World History! The Once and Future King. Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette! Emily Post's . . . Wedding . . . Etiquette. 

He only had to say the title once more before we spontaneously reduced our number of books by one. It was such a rush we added The Da Vinci Code to the collection. We dropped the two books by the front door with abandon, drunk with a wanton recklessness: You, children, must make your home elsewhere. We never liked the looks of you. 

But soon enough we forgot about the donation box and the sausage maker. Surrounded by our books, we couldn't help reminding each other of our favorites, of the books that changed our lives. There are so many. Today they're all back on the shelves, where they belong.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice 
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

--Naomi Shihab Nye 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Frank McCourt

A Moveable Book

This op-ed from the New York Times is a must-read if you're planning on rushing to the bookstore to purchase Hemingway's newly revised, posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast. I was curious to read it and had every intention of buying it until I read this piece. Now I'm not so sure. This isn't the first time there's been controversy surrounding the editing of this book. (Here's Wikipedia's take on it, which I don't trust entirely, but it's interesting nonetheless.) A Moveable Feast is my favorite of all of Hemingway's books. It isn't a sweeping piece of literature, and it's not as spare as his short stories, but it is a beautiful, heartbreaking book. I can understand why Hemingway's grandson, Sean Hemingway, who has re-edited this edition, wouldn't want the final chapter of the book to stay; it's a damning appraisal of both Hemingway and Sean's grandmother, who was Hemingway's second wife. It is also the chapter that defines and devastates everything that came before it. Having read it nearly a decade ago, this is the chapter that continues to haunt me from time to time when I think about the reckoning to be made at the end of our lives.

Now this chapter has been moved to an appendix.

Read the original edition.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review of Yoga Bitch in Commercial Appeal

Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal review of the Bitch! Now I'm off to the theater for my closing matinee, and then packing up and driving south to New Orleans for mouffeletta, beignets, and gumbo. Things could be a lot worse.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Greetings from Memphis

After eating enough ribs to fill a dozen cages, some exceptional brisket and a plate of fried chicken livers; after boisterous tech rehearsals at the end of long days of 90+ degree weather; after visiting Graceland, Sun Studios and the Civil Rights Museum-- and after a gorgeous drive from Nashville to Memphis with stops in Jackson and Shiloh, Yoga Bitch opened here on Thursday night to a lovely audience at Playhouse on the Square's TheatreWorks. I've loved every minute of working with the great staff and crew at Playhouse, and I've visited two awesome yoga studios and chatted with countless charming and open Memphians over the past week; I'll be sad to leave after we close the show tomorrow afternoon. Here's some press from Memphis's Commercial Appeal and I'll be posting to Jean-Michele Gregory's Travelmonkeys blog with photos and travelogue as soon as I catch my breath.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Yoga Bitch: A Memoir, Coming to You From Broadway Books

. . . in Spring of 2011! I couldn't be more thrilled, and I have plenty to say about my exciting book news, but I am headed to Memphis tomorrow to perform Yoga Bitch at Playhouse on the Square and am drowning in laundry and urine sample jars (props, people, just props!) and have been surviving on a diet of champagne and um, champagne since I heard the good news from my agent on Monday. I will tell you all about it, just as soon as the show is up and running. If you're going to be in Memphis, or have friends or family there, send them my way! 

And yes, I will eat BBQ and spend some quality time with Elvis. My aunt Barbie would disown me if I didn't-- she has actually devoted her guest room to her collection of Elvis paraphernalia and spent a good part of her Graceland pilgrimage weeping over his black leather suit. It would be wrong to go all the way to Memphis and not pay my respects.

My trip to the South will be a first for this Yankee-- I'm looking forward to some great audiences, weather under 95 degrees (please God), and lots and lots of BBQ.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Honorable Vegetables & A Few Good Stories

My short story, Vegetable Remains, was picked for Honorable Mention (capital H, capital M!) last month in Glimmertrain's Very Short Fiction contest. I started submitting short stories a few months ago, and this small recognition is inspiring, to say the least. In honor of my mention, I'd like to post a few short stories I've read in the past year or so that have stuck with me months after reading them. 

(Disclaimer: This is actually a short list of the New Yorker fiction I've loved this year. Since I've been unable to commit to any books lately-- and the few I have read I've not liked-- I've been slowly leveling a skyscraper of New Yorkers. Except where indicated, that's where the story's from.)

Edwidge Danticat's Ghosts. Danticat is an extraordinary writer. Some might disagree with me, but I think she has the gift of lightness Italo Calvino described in Six Memos for the New Millenium. She writes about horrors I can only imagine, but there's a curious lightness that's hard to describe about her writing-- perhaps it's a lack of insistence on her part, or a cinematic speediness to her plotting, or maybe it's just that she allows tragedy to speak for itself, without layering on a lesser writer's gothic sludge of ego. Either way, she is thoroughly modern and terribly moving. If you haven't read her work, start now-- and tell me if you agree with me about the lightness. 

A.M. Homes's Brother on Sunday. I liked this story. The writing is lovely, surprising, vivid, and occasionally very funny. 

Elizabeth Gilbert's The Famous Torn and Lit Cigarette Trick. This is from the Paris Review's Winter 1996 issue. I have no idea why I was reading a 1996 issue of the Paris Review this year, but I do have an idea of why I loved this story: it's charming and it moves like quicksilver. 

Andrea Lee's Three. It's less a story than a series of portraits of three characters who have recently died. I love how good fiction can surprise us with an attachment to a character-- we spend maybe 1000 words with each of the three characters, and by the time they die, we know them well enough to share the narrator's sense of loss. 

Guillermo Martinez's Vast Hell. Great little story. Short and great. Read it now-- it'll take just a few minutes out of your day. Inspired by the Argentinian proverb "A small town is a vast hell," it reminds me of Milan Kundera and Dubravka Ugresic, among others, who have written about nationalism in small countries. Kundera has repeatedly said, in essence, that a small country is a vast hell. This story exists on several planes. 

That's all for now. Back to work.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Britain's Poet Laureate

I found this New York Times article amusing. England has selected its first female poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who, one hopes, will not be required to write poetry about Prince Harry's Halloween costumes. Although . . . given Duffy's occasionally comic voice, maybe she would write something wonderful on the subject?

Ms. Duffy would seem to agree. When her name was mentioned for the job 10 years ago, she was quoted as saying: “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.”

That was a reference to the marriage of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, which Mr. Motion celebrated in a poem entitled “Epithalamium.” (The poem “has two immediate virtues,” the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side: A Saturday Update

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing:

I've had the Smiths song, Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side, stuck in my head for a week, brought on by reading a wee bit of Keats. Nobody likes Keats, it seems. Everywhere I look critics and academics scorn his fascination with death, his low origins, his obsession with fame. But I find him immensely comforting at times. Maybe I'm a sap. I probably am. But when my brain can't focus on a book, it's nice to read a poem here and there-- particularly one that has a narrative quality, that feels like a tiny story. I have little patience for poems that read like crossword puzzles, especially when I've gone stupid.

I haven't been able to read much in the past month; my grandmother had a series of strokes in late March and passed away a week later, and so there was the week with her at the nursing home and another week at home after she died, trying to get back to work but mostly just walking around in a fog. Then there was a week of family gatherings and the funeral in Spokane, and another five days' visit from my sister and her husband that was the silver lining of the whole affair. And since then, getting caught up on work and sleep and marriage and yoga. And just a little reading.

I was able to stay with her in Eastern Washington the week she died, and her last night many of her grandchildren were in the room with her telling stories and settling in for the long night's vigil. We younguns had reprieved our parents only forty-five minutes earlier when my cousin Johnny shushed us: she was gone. Soon her room was packed with her three children, their spouses, and all of us grandkids-- many of us with our spouses. 

It was hot in there. Nursing homes are already hothouses for the tiny tropical birds we turn into when we're on our way out of the world. But with about twenty people crammed into her room, it was sweltering. She would have loved it. The last time I saw her it was midsummer in Eastern Washington-- normally a very hot, dry time of year in that part of the state, but this visit they were experiencing record highs, so it was around 100 degrees. 

And the heat was turned on in her room.

And she was wearing long underwear and a white long-sleeved turtleneck under her grey velour sweats (Juicy Couture-style!) with an aquamarine flannel vest over the hoodie. Since she wasn't well enough to travel across the mountains for my wedding in May, I brought my wedding dress to her. And when I picked up my train and placed it in her lap so she could admire the stitching and beading on it, the first thing she did was spread it across her lap like another blanket. She kept it there for the entire visit. 

Grandma Iris was my last grandparent. I've done this four times, now-- the travel, the bedside vigil, the goodbye. You enter a different dimension when you sit with a dying person for many days in a row, one that's hard to leave after they die. Which brings me to Keats and Yeats. Or, actually, Keats and Bronte. I have nothing to say about Yeats today, except that his name keeps popping up in that Smiths song in my head:

A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on Your Side/While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and gravely read the stones/All those people, all those lives/Where are they now?

No, I've been thinking about Keats and Bronte. Charlotte Bronte, not Emily. I've never read Emily Bronte, even if I did tell people for years that Wuthering Heights was my favorite book. I have no idea why I did that. I've always been an insatiable reader, so I could've named any number of good books as my favorite. But in junior high I really wanted Wuthering Heights to be that book. I just couldn't stand reading it. 

Ah, the mysteries of the mind.

Both of them died young; Keats, in his mid-twenties, while Charlotte Bronte was thirty-eight. They both died of consumption, like everybody in the nineteenth century who didn't die of syphilis. (Although I have read that it's possible Bronte died from dehydration and malnutrition brought on by morning sickness. As if her story wasn't depressing enough, she was pregnant when she died.)

But I haven't been thinking about how they died young. I've been thinking about the fact that they both cared for consumptive family members for years before they themselves died. Keats nursed his mother and a brother, so when he started coughing up blood, he knew exactly what he was in for. Bronte lost nearly all of her siblings in one year, just a few years before her own death. Her novel Villette was written as she mourned her siblings, and the tragic, if stoic, outlook of Villette's Lucy Snowe reflects what I've always assumed to be the state of mind of her creator. 

And the crap ending of that book is excusable only because, after losing so many loved ones in a row, who wouldn't be fatalistic?

I've been thinking about these writers because I found myself utterly braindead for weeks after my grandmother died. I loved my grandmother dearly, adored her as we all did, but I wasn't her primary caregiver for many months, or even years. I was at her bedside for one week. I imagine the exhaustion, the grief, the brainsickness that came on (brainsickness being a state of homesickness for one's brain, I guess) after my grandmother died, and then enlarge it exponentially to relate to the crushing loss these writers experienced over and over again. 

And they wrote right through it. No antidepressants, no therapy, no yoga.

How lucky we are that they did.

My grandmother spent her life making the world beautiful with her music, with her effortless style. She was a tremendous pianist. She played every day of her life from the moment she learned, while raising children, caring for her parents, mourning the loss of a brother, while visiting grandchildren, even after a stroke at seventy left her frail and unable to speak. She played well past her ninetieth birthday, and on, till she was finally too weak at ninety-one. Keats' Endymion reminds me of her:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondance, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o`er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, inspite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. 

John Keats, from Endymion

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Think Globally/Create Locally

Brendan Kiley writes in The Stranger about smaller US cities and the American Theater. You can dispense at once with his idea that New York is played; it's stretching it more than a little to suggest that New York is no longer the epicenter of American Theater. Seems a bit like saying, Gee, we have so much government here, maybe Washington, DC isn't the epicenter of American politics either? 

But no matter how you slice it, I like his moxie. I'm very interested in seeing our best local artists stay local while maintaining connections to the bigger national and international scenes. Since I moved back to Seattle from New York four years ago I've been delighted to discover so many new companies doing great work, some excellent actors choosing to stay in Seattle, a brave new world where writers leave their houses to talk to other writers. Seattle's always been a good writer's town-- nothing helps a writer more than being around so many people who read so much-- and when I was in high school the theater scene here was in an upswing. Feels like we're at the start of another one. 

Seattle should do two things: 1) Become the anchor city for a West Coast corridor, rock 'n' roll style, that trades work up and down I-5, and makes it profitable for companies from elsewhere to tour: Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-San Francisco-Los Angeles. 2) Get itself a festival like Fuse Box, with ambitions to grow to TBA size (There's no reason we couldn't—we have the resources and the audience, all we need is the will).

Jen Graves goes into greater detail about our local visual art scene, but strikes the same chord: Stay local, think about our own art history and our own stories, but find pathways to the larger art world so that our art doesn't become insular and too local

Seattle art has a Vancouver problem. The two cities are close: Vancouver is only 136 miles away, just across the Canadian border. They're comparable in size. But Vancouver art is better. "Better" in this case means (a) Vancouver art is connected to the larger world, and therefore to universes of issues, peculiarities, styles, and ideas that serve the artists as well as the audiences, and (b) Vancouver art is connected to its own art history.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't Be Boring

Here's an article from The Guardian in which Anthony Neilson asks playwrights to please refrain from boring audiences. Excellent advice, if you ask me. From Mike Daisey's site.

The most depressing response I encounter when I'm chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: "I should go but I don't." That emphatic "should" tells you all you need to know. Imagine it in other contexts: "I should play Grand Theft Auto"; "I should watch Strictly Come Dancing." That "should" tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement, and the critical/academic establishment have to take some blame for that.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Iris Virginia Schuster

Lot's Wife

And the just man trailed God's shining agent
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your happy marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem 
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

--Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Circus Contraption

My dear friend Erin Brindley is the managing director of Seattle's infamous Circus Contraption, and she directed their latest offering, The Show to End All Shows. I saw it a few weeks ago and loved it- and then I was depressed for a few days, knowing that this is the last show for this incredible company. There are some beautiful, hilarious performances, from Maximillian Davis's monkey to Whitney Lawless's baby bear and pear-shaped ladyclown; there's a mermaid on a swing, a crazy terrorist juggler, a Jim Jones patriarch, and an apocalypse. Oh, and one of the best bands to ever one-up Tom Waits.

If you're looking to be entertained between now and May 31, when the Circus closes, skip the movies and see this show. And then let's all have a good cry to see them go.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

ACT Young Playwrights Festival

If you're in Seattle next weekend, come out to ACT for some young playwrights! I'll be performing in a short play by Zoe Barker-Aderem, a senior at Garfield High School. Her play is called After Maren, a bittersweet story full of sex, drugs and a suicidal ghost. Tickets are cheap and it's a great way to support our city's young artists. 

You can see times and buy tickets here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Embarrassing, but true

I was just thinking about that Baryshnikov fantasy from my childhood, and that led me to think about what I would do if I actually met Baryshnikov, and then! Then I cried a little. Seriously. Not a lot. Didn't ruin the makeup or anything. But there was welling, folks. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing: A Tuesday Update

Greetings, Netlings.

Winter is flying by. A daily whirlwind of projects, grant proposals, performances, stories and many long hours with my books. My desk runneth over with holepunchings, paper clips, to-do lists and a stack of books for this update. Let's start at the top:


I've been thinking about the meaning of life-- something I do when I find myself wasting said life watching shows like The Real Housewives of Wherever the Fuck and Who Gives a Good Goddamn. And I don't quite know what the meaning of life is, although I am pretty sure it's not to be found in any of the tearfully 'unscripted' sequences in reality TV. But I can say that the things that give my life meaning are books, art, music, and all of the wonderful individuals I am lucky to love.

But it's easy to feel this way about books when I've read so many good ones in a row.

Because They Wanted To, Mary Gaitskill's 1997 collection of short stories, is breathtaking. Gaitskill is a damn fine writer, in possession of the kind of mind and intuition and artistic precision that enables her to articulate the most complex and unfathomable emotions. She approaches her characters almost scientifically, presenting them as they are, not as they might be or should be.

It's just so refreshing to read of a couple who fall in love while engaging in rape fantasies, you know? I find myself trapped in conversation frequently about how people ought to be, as if we all came packaged from a factory but missing a few parts. It is a relief to read stories in which that question, the question of how people ought to be, plays no role. We just are the way we are. It takes a lot of courage to allow your characters to be themselves-- pretentious, humorless, racist, sexist, angry, needy, slutty, self-important, deluded, sanctimonious, perhaps all of the above, and all at once. But always themselves.

Doreen kept to herself in the basement, where she could smoke. She had covered the walls with paintings depicting horrible scenes from her childhood and posters of rock stars. Every time they talked, Doreen told the same stories about her abusive mother and her experiences with bands and coke dealers. They talked of other things, too, but variations of these stories always ran through the weave. Jill had heard them many times, but she still liked the way Doreen told them; as sad and absurd as they were, she brought them out as if they were exquisite silk prints that she fluttered before Jill's eyes and then lovingly folded away. . . Doreen was sick with Hepatitis C, which would probably kill her one day.

For any of you who've read Gaitskill's recent novel, Veronica, this character will be familiar-- she seems to be an early version of the narrator of that story.

Joan Acocella's collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints has been my between-book reading for several months now.

I love reading about artists, especially when they've bounced back from crisis to create some of their best work. Acocella's focus seems to be on just these kinds of reversals. My husband had clipped this review from the New York Times Book Review when I was having a particularly bad month of work-- a month of rejections, self-pity, self-loathing, all of the wonderful byproducts of the creative life. It was this review by Kathryn Harrison, and it made me go out and buy the book at once.

Particularly, Acocella is interested in artistic careers that include break and recovery, and how the work changes in the wake of trauma, including the chronic, compounding trauma of rejection. She is a keen and sympathetic observer of the ways in which corrosive disappointment can strip away the veneer of culture and refinement that an immature artist typically acquires, revealing the more genuine sensitivity, the art, beneath.

Now, on to the sweetest book of the month. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, A Diary of My Son's First Year. Anne Lamott is wonderful, everybody knows that. Funny, raw, occasionally somewhat self-helpy, but I accept that part of her in the way the friends who really love me accept the fact that I never answer my phone. It's just how she is, and I cry right along with her until I find myself spitting with laughter. Her memoir is a journal of her first year of motherhood.

And it made me so happy to have a cat. Just a cat.

As always, she muses about the writing life. Here, she's speaking about her father, who was also a writer:

I think he believed that our job, the job of a writer, is not to get up and say, "Tomorrow, in battle, most of you will die . . ." Instead, a writer must entertain the troops the night before. I think he believed that the best way to entertain the troops is to tell stories, and the ones that they seem to like the best are ones about themselves. You can tell sweet lies or bitter truths, and both seem to help, but it's like Czeslaw Milosz said when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, "In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot."

Another memoir, The Pharmacist's Mate, was a surprise gift from my dear friend and director, Jean-Michele. It's a slender little volume at 89 pages, designed with the attention to detail McSweeneys is famous for. The design of this book alone (the hardcover, I mean-- softcover was published by Penguin) makes it worth buying, from the old-school blueish cloth binding that makes it look like a ship's logbook to the ghostly painting on the front cover. I read it in one evening in the bath. When she told me it was in the mail, Jean-Michele said: "Don't read anything about it. It was meant for you."

And you know, she was right. It's got everything I love in it: crazy theater people, sea shanties, family secrets and revelations, a sailor. It's a sad story, but funny-quirky in that McSweeney's vein that can be intolerable when it's done poorly. In this instance, it is wonderful-- her quirkiness seems like a thin but beautiful coat of protective varnish brushed over material that is raw and easily damaged. She's writing about her struggles to get pregnant while her father is dying. But much more than that, really.

And Frank had that thing I love, which is that freaky enthusiasm that makes people gorgeous at the same time they are acting a little strange. Frank clearly loved singing sea shanties, and was one of the only ones in the group who would pantomime pulling the ropes as he was singing, "Heave away, haul away." He was the only one who would yell out these little cries, these joyous war-whoops, between verses, that maybe no real seaman ever yelled, I don't know, but it didn't feel that way. It felt like a real seaman on a boat in the middle of the ocean would make that sound, hell yes . . . And the thing I love about the Franks of the world is that when a god shows up like that, in the urge to make a seemingly inexplicable gesture, they don't fight it. They just surrender. And if they feel self-conscious and ashamed, they don't pay it any mind.

Finally, my favorite book of the month: Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If I could reprint the entire memoir here, I would. It's a memoir of Murakami's life as a long-distance runner. But it's also about his life as a novelist. When he speaks about running marathons, he's also talking about writing novels, and vice versa. And throughout it all, one gets the impression that writing and running are actually spiritual activities for him; that running is a meditation that enables him to write stories he loves.

I've always made fun of runners. I think they're crazy. But this line made me reconsider my assumptions about why people run:

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life-- and for me, for writing as well.

Even when he talks about running a bar-- which he did until his early thirties, when he decided out of the blue to try his hand at writing a novel-- he is talking about writing. This is great advice, something I want to always remember as I work:

A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he'd come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn't matter if nine out of ten didn't like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what.


Oh, so many things. Short stories, proposals, cover letters, emails. This post. My name in the sky. The Book of Love. My cat's name with little hearts around it. That sort of thing.


A memory, inspired by Joan Acocella's lovely essay about Mikhail Baryshnikov. When I was in elementary school, probably no older than second grade, I had a recurring fantasy that Mikhail Baryshnikov came to my school, Lakeridge Elementary, and said that he would choose one girl to be his dance partner in a ballet that would happen on stage in the school multipurpose room (that's what we called the lunchroom, because it had a stage as well as a kitchen, and it was also the gym).

You see where this is going. He picked me! Of course he picked me. (Wouldn't it be awful if you were the type to have fantasies in which Baryshnikov didn't pick you, but that other girl, the one with the Esprit jeans with the zippers at the ankle?) And then we would do this amazing dance, with lots of lifts, and of course I would be wearing the same long white nightgown that Gelsey Kirkland wore to play Clara in The Nutcracker. After our dance, Baryshnikov would admit that he loved me back. The age thing totally wasn't an issue. And we lived happily ever after. This fantasy entertained me through many Sunday mornings at church.

I am possibly the only person I know who watched Sex and the City and wanted SJP to end up with Baryshnikov's character. I love him. Anyway, I've decided that I must see him dance before I die. Or before he dies, or stops dancing. So I'm putting it out to the universe: my elementary school love and I must be reunited, A-SAP. I promise I won't jump onstage, or wear a nightie to the performance hall. But I might leave with a bit more to say about the meaning of life, something along the lines of hot men in tights=meaning of life. You listening, Universe?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

SPF3: Apply Liberally

Tonight and tomorrow night I'll be performing an excerpt from my new show, Your Own Personal Alcatraz, as part of shorties night at SPF3: Apply Liberally. 

This is the third annual Solo Performance Festival at the Theatre Off-Jackson, and I highly recommend you come check it out. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Leonard Cohen

I love Leonard Cohen. Here's an article from the New York Times about his latest tour. 

Asked whether he does yoga to build strength and agility for his stage shows, Mr. Cohen, his demeanor courtly but reserved, smiled and replied, "That is my yoga." 

In fact, Mr. Cohen appears to see performance and prayer as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise . . . "There's a similarity in the quality of the daily life" on the road and in the monastery, Mr. Cohen said. "There's just a sense of purpose" in which "a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded," and what is left is a "rigorous and severe" routine in which "the capacity to focus becomes much easier."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Litigious Motherf*ckers: Vote 'em off the island

This appalling article from the New York Times makes me terribly sorry for anyone who is studying in the art departments of the University of the South. What a terrible education they are getting. 

I'd comment at length, but I think these articles speak for themselves. 

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Who doesn't love ladies talking dirty?

If you come out to the Theatre Off-Jackson tonight, you can catch me reading some SMUT by Keri Healey. The event is to benefit this year's Solo Performance Festival. (SPF 3: Apply Liberally.)

There will be other ladies reading smutty stories, and Waxie Moon's Boylesque!

An evening of Keri Healey's renowned smut, as read by lovely ladies Keira McDonald, Amy Augustine, Jeanette Maus, Suzanne Morrison, SJ Chiro, Morgan Rowe and Waxie Moon.

In addition to dirty stories and sweet nibbles, attendees will have a chance to bid on art, jewelry, and other treats.

Friday, January 16, 2009

2009 has begun at last

Sometimes you just have to get to the bottom of the self-loathing pit before the discipline kicks in. At 3am last night, with a groan, I knew that I would hate myself forever if I didn't get my work done today. So when I woke up this morning I gave myself two options: Work, or Death. 

I turned my phone and email off and got deep into the work, so deep, in fact, that I worked straight through a scheduled interview with the lovely Lia Aprile of Shanti Town


Well, for better or worse, 2009 has begun. At last.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing, Procrastinating: A Thursday Update

Holy 2009. So far, not so good. Well-- that's not entirely true. There's a lot going on right now, most of it in my head, and I am making some strange progress on a few projects. The problem is, I'm going about my writing projects with incredible ADD, so even if I'm slowly coming to understand certain aspects of my work, these revelations come so randomly that I can't appreciate them, nestled as they are between long bouts of facebooking and instant messaging and blog reading and doing anything around the house I can do just to avoid sitting at my desk and looking my work in the eye. I find myself wishing I could walk the cat, for instance. That would give me something productive to do a few times a day . . . 

Reading: I had a rather curious reading experience over Christmas. First, I was struck with a fit of nostalgia in Washington, DC, and bought a copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women for my flight home. I finished it just before Christmas, and that very day, my mind and heart so uplifted with the goodness and sincerity of the March family that I genuinely considered becoming a Transcendentalist, I picked up James Baldwin's novel, Giovanni's Room. Which is not even remotely about Transcendentalism.

Both are wonderful books, but they couldn't be more different. I might as well have finished Little Women and then picked up Henry and June or something. To go from a novel so innocent and earnest and, er-- Protestant, to the story of an expat American man having affairs with a man and a woman at the same time gave me a bit of literary whiplash. 

And I liked it. 

Re-reading Little Women after probably twenty years, at least, was an absolute joy. I loved this book when I was a kid, and I especially loved the George Cukor movie starring Kate Hepburn as Jo. My sister and I must have watched that movie dozens of times. 

The story is so innocent it makes me feel like my own life is a Marquis de Sade story by comparison. But there's something I love about the whole Transcendentalist notion of conquering oneself; that as Americans-- and being American is important in this book-- our life isn't just about pleasing God and being a good person but actually about acknowledging that we are at war with ourselves, and that we must fight each battle to win. That we must conquer ourselves. I like that idea, and in this story I don't mind the Christianity, either-- it actually makes me yearn a little for a life in which the answers are laid out in front of me, simple and clear as Marmie's advice. I found myself doing laundry and painting trim and making beds as if I were a March girl, keeping my hands busy so the devil wouldn't find a use for them. Because the devil just loves my hands. 

It was also fun to revisit Jo's attempts at writing. I especially enjoyed this passage, about the aftermath of Jo's first published novel:

"Not being a genius, like Keats, it won't kill me," she said stoutly, "and I've got the joke on my side, after all, for the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced 'charmingly natural, tender, and true.' So I'll comfort myself with that, and when I'm ready, I'll up again and take another."

Giovanni's Room was a very different American book to turn to after Ms. Alcott's sweet family story. It was like being slapped in the face with the twentieth century. The style is self-aware, poetic, flowing, the paragraphs long and rippling and full of commas. There are no messages. God and America are full of question marks, and sex is everything. You might say that, in this tale, the devil's busy with all hands, working or idle. 

The overall effect of the story can be summed up in a conversation the narrator, David, has with Giovanni the night they meet. It's almost as if Giovanni has just finished reading Little Women and is giving the narrator a book report on it:

Giovanni placed himself before me again and began wiping the bar with a damp cloth. "The Americans are funny. You have a funny sense of time-- or perhaps you have no sense of time at all, I can't tell. Time always sounds like a parade chez vous, a triumphant parade, like armies with banners entering a town. As though, with enough time, and that would not need to be so very much for Americans, n'est-ce pas?" and he smiled, giving me a mocking look, but I said nothing. "Well then," he continued, "as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything," he added, grimly, "I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe."

"What makes you think we don't? And what do you believe?"

"I don't believe in this nonsense about time. Time is just common, it's like water for fish. Everybody's in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That's all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn't care."


Ugh. Forget it.


Still preparing for Your Own Personal Alcatraz, mostly brainstorming, although tonight I had the pleasure of talking Jean-Michele's ears off about my latest ideas and terrors. But other than that, I've been rehearsing the following:

1. start writing something.
2. stop. space out. 
3. make more coffee.
4. facebook! so many status updates to comment on! 
5. check all blogs in existence to see if anyone's updated in the last three hours.
6. take computer to bedroom to write, for reals. write for like, fifteen minutes. stop.
7. take computer back to office to double check facebook and blogs. consider updating my own status to: Suzanne is getting motivated! or Suzanne is on it! or Suzanne is a writing machine!
8. instant messaging! fun for hours!
9. write in journal about how much i suck
10. rinse, repeat.

Tomorrow I will be a working machine. I will impress all the invisible judges in my room, they won't believe the output, the energy, the discipline and dedication. Tomorrow I will be in the groove, and 2009 will begin at last. If I write "2009 has begun at last" as my status update, you'll know what I'm talking about.