Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Escaping Oz

Creative and imaginative idea + skill and training = published writer.

Although not easy to achieve, this equation is simple. So why are there so many frustrated, baffled, intimidated novice writers out there who can’t get their creative and imaginative ideas on the page? Could it be that far too often, they are never taught the basic skills that craft a story?

When it comes to teaching fiction writing, I divide instructors into two camps:  those I call the wizards of Oz and those that actually understand and share with their students the mechanics of the writing craft. The latter are terrific, and congratulations to any student lucky enough to find them.

However, today  let’s consider the wizards and the harm they do to writing newbies that trust them for guidance that’s never imparted.

The wizards play a smoke-and-mirrors game of shrouding fiction writing in a veil of mystery, as though it is some obscure, barely understood rite attended by the handmaidens Vagueness and Opacity. Their classes may be muddled emotion-fests (“Roberta, why don’t you share with us what you felt as Ambrose read his story?”) or they offer exercises in elitism and the so-called critical reading that focuses on  works written only to be critically read. In either case, they are shams.

In the 1939 MGM film, THE WIZARD OF OZ, there is a huge buildup about the Great Oz before the protagonist ever encounters him. He is represented as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful wizard. When Dorothy finally gains audience with him, great puffs of purple smoke float across the projected features of the Great Oz. His booming voice is stern and scary, thundering at her to forget her goal of returning home to Kansas. But once the green draperies are pulled aside, he turns out to be a con man operating levers on a smoke machine. He’s refused her request, not because he’s so mighty and majestic she’s beneath his notice, but because he really doesn’t know how to help her. He’s not intimidating or powerful. Nor does he possess magical abilities. And because he lacks these qualities, he’s puffed himself into a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity while hoping no one will ever guess the truth–which is there’s nothing to him at all.

Too many writing programs at all levels in American public education are taught by wizards practicing what I call the Oz Factor. Teachers toss a published story at students much as a zookeeper chucks a raw piece of roast at a tiger. The students read it. They discuss it. The teacher rhapsodizes over it. Some students appreciate it. Some don’t. Then the teacher says, “Now that you’ve seen good writing, create a story of your own.”

What? Hold on a moment!

Would you expect a neophyte surgical student to watch an operation and then be told to “try it” on the next patient? Is a hair stylist trained to cut hair by looking at a fashion model? Is a naval pilot taught to fly a multi-million-dollar jet by playing a video game? Do we learn how to write a novel by observing an author at work every day for several weeks?

No. No. No. No.

The teacher of my example is probably sincere in her desire to introduce her students to writing. She has shared a fine piece of literature with her class. But sharing isn’t enough. She may feel frustrated when the majority of her class fails to write anything worthwhile for their assignment. She may wonder why the youth of today have so little to express.

The fact is, young writers have plenty to say but are hindered through a lack of tools by which to express their ideas.

If a teacher fails to provide clarity of instruction in the writing craft or doesn’t know how a story works on the principles that underlie plot progression or how a story is built from start to finish, how can she convey anything useful to her class?

From a student’s perspective, there is often bewilderment and frustration generated by not knowing what the teacher wants.

(Just because you pop the hood on a Chevy Corvette and show students its engine, that doesn’t mean any of them has the least comprehension of how to change its oil.)

Those who really know how a story is written can explain it. Those who don’t, can’t. And when someone can’t explain it, then the Oz Factor usually comes into play. Recently a teaching colleague of mine who is not a novelist forwarded a taped interview to me. It featured an obscure short-story author describing how an idea grows in his mind before it morphs to the page as though in a dream. If that works for him, terrific, but it doesn’t explain anything to anyone else, does it? And after all, idea generation isn’t what most students need to know anyway. They need to know how to turn their ideas into viably plotted tales.

Utilizing a monkey-see, monkey-do method instead of teaching nuts-and-bolts craft is a bogus approach–however well-intentioned–to writing instruction.

My experience with young writers is that they often feel their writing instructor is all-seeing and all-knowing, but that this knowledge of writing is hoarded or that their teacher possesses special skills but chooses not to share them. Writing is therefore perceived as an ability granted only to a special few members of the inner circle. These are the elite participants in class, the ones the teacher favors. Once again, the Oz Factor is at work. Some writing wizard has snowed these inexperienced acolytes, taken their tuition money in exchange for a diploma, and promised them knowledge they never acquire. And sadly, sometimes the more prestigious the writing program, the thicker the snow job.

Consider the 1987 comedy film, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, in which Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher. Yes, there is comedic exaggeration in the movie, but his method of teaching illustrates the fakery I’m discussing in this post. He tells his class, “A writer writes!”

When I watch the classroom scenes, I’m reminded of another movie, 1962’s THE MUSIC MAN, where the con man Professor Hill introduces the “think method” to the band members, assuring them that if they think long enough about the tune he’s assigned they’ll be able to play it. In the film’s happy ending, the “think method” works just enough to save Hill from being tarred and feathered.

But in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, what caliber of writing is submitted by Billy Crystal’s students? Dreck.

As a teacher, he’s frustrated with his students and struggles visibly to be courteous. He gives blatantly false praise, and he ditches class at every opportunity. Yet what has he actually taught them? Nothing. The only student he ever shares any writing craft with is Owen, and then only because Owen stalks and pesters him for knowledge. And because he inadvertently teaches Owen–much in the way he might toss a stick into the shrubbery to distract a rambunctious puppy from bothering him–Owen eventually writes a viable plot that’s published.

When wizards of Oz assign students to write a story, they–like Billy Crystal’s character–offer no nuts and bolts instruction of how to do so. Instead, like him, they say in effect, “Just do it. If you’re talented, then you can write. If you can’t write, then you aren’t talented.”

Students that manage to scrawl some kind of loose narrative in such classes are praised. Maybe they’re invited to read their effort to the rest of the class. And although their story may be contrived, ludicrous, or fail to reach a cathartic climax, they’ve written! Behold the effort. Ignore the result.

All the while, a far more talented student may be scrunched down in the back of the class, her mind teeming with a fantastic story world and dynamic characters, yet she’s blocked from writing because she can’t bridge the chasm between her mind and the page. There must be some way to move her characters to the next plot event, but how? If she asks the teacher–a wizard will brush her off, saying, “You haven’t read enough. Go look at James Joyce. Or pay more attention to what your peers are doing.”

Adding to the student’s confusion are the rambling scribbles of classmates praised for writing what her story sense tells her is poorly plotted. If she dares disagree or asks too many questions about construction specifics, she’s likely to encounter the elitist blockade of the Oz Factor. If she probes too deeply into what the teacher doesn’t know–thereby jeopardizing the Oz mask–this student will be told she just doesn’t understand and should consider doing something besides write.

Of course she doesn’t understand the puffery and obfuscation of what should be a clear, easy-to-grasp process of conveying exciting, reader-engrossing story. The writing principles that make a plot flow, that keep readers turning pages, that generate excitement and emotion in readers, have been in play since antiquity. They are simple and clear. They are proven. Sophocles understood them. Shakespeare understood them. Agatha Christie understood them.

But not all so-called writing instructors understand them.

In praising or rewarding weak writing that may be stylish, witty, pretty, or profane–while offering next to no plot–and in ignoring dynamic storylines that wobble but could roll if given correct guidance, these wizards perpetuate a phony pseudo-fiction that doesn’t come close to a soundly plotted genre story and satisfies only the elitist audience contrived for it.

Such a closed, isolated system leads eventually to extinction.

Civilization, however, needs good stories. It is through the art of the story that we share experiences and emotions. It is how we bond. It is how we realize truths. It is how we vicariously survive almost-insurmountable tests and emerge victorious. It is how we play and make believe. It is how we cheer and boo and gasp and live our dreams. It is how we discover what it means to be human–both flawed and wonderful. In these ways, stories serve our society.

Fakery and style alone cannot feed our psyches the way well-constructed stories can. Muddle teaches nothing, and when nothing is taught stories falter.

I consider Toto to be the real hero in THE WIZARD OF OZ. While the other characters are milling around and falling for the great con, Toto just pulls the curtains away and reveals the truth. That is when Dorothy’s dilemma and all the other issues are finally sorted out.

Truth, honesty, and clarity should support learning the craft of writing. Writing teachers have a responsibility to part the veil, end the mystery, and step past the purple smoke. They should draw back the curtains and show their students that scene construction is a clear, easy-to-follow process, that the judicious placement of hooks keeps readers engaged and turning pages, that characters can be introduced in myriad ways with myriad effects, that solid plots need villains, and that stories should build to a conclusive, emotionally cathartic climax built around story principles even the ancient Greeks used to pack theater seats.

As one of my students has said, “Showing the process behind things doesn’t reduce the value of the end product.”

Beware any teacher that proclaims writing can’t be taught. Writing skills certainly can, and should be.

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Letting Go

For every thing, there is a season ….

We humans were put in charge of this planet, to tend it, nurture it, govern it, and take care of it. And when you nurture something, you have a responsibility toward it. You owe it the respect of accepting and fulfilling that responsibility. Sometimes responsibility dictates that you must kill and remove for the betterment of others. That is why we humans raise and slaughter livestock for consumption and leather goods. It is why we clear fields and plant them, and later harvest them. It is why we pull weeds from our flower and vegetable gardens, removing the plants that we don’t want to make way for those that will flower beautifully or bring us bounty to eat. It is why we chop tree roots that are threatening our house foundation.

Today, I put aside memories, regret, and sentiment and set about bringing down my biggest, first, most special, and oldest Linda Campbell rugosa rose.

In a past post, I chronicled the removal of a different, smaller rose bush of the same variety–the second plant in my current yard to succumb to the horrid rose virus now rampant across our nation. That bush held no sentiment in my heart other than its beauty and ease of care. Yet I fought the virus, fought the inevitability of the plant’s eventual demise. I kept young Linda going longer than I believed possible before I finally gave in to the ugly “witch’s broom” effect and took her out.

IMG_1366{The deformity isn’t showing well in this photo, but the affected canes are thick and soft, the leaves remain red and strangely shaped, the buds cannot open.}

Several times this year, I have daydreamed about reconfiguring my large front flower bed. It’s probably the worst landscaping I’ve ever had since I rented my first little house in graduate school and could only afford six marigold plants. At my current address, the largest plants grow in the front. Weed trees sprout in the back. The perennials are in the wrong places. The entire composition fails to please me. And if a front flowerbed is supposed to be the jewel of a home’s entrance, this one would be what’s known as a “dead rhinestone.” It has no sparkle. At its very best, it offers a mishmash of brief spring bloom. All last winter, I thought of making a few changes, of adding a bistro set, of moving the birdbath, of installing stepping stones and mulch, of making it beautiful.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

These days, all but driven from gardening of any kind by dicey joints, tendonitis, and mold allergies, I tend to think and imagine more than I actually accomplish. I have let my responsibilities to my beloved plants slip quite a bit. So I’ve been thinking about changes without making any actual push to bring them about.

Old Linda Campbell is the anchor of this front bed. Since I moved here, she’s been my showstopper, growing huge and wide and tall in the front curve of the raised bed next to the sidewalk and covering herself with enormous red bouquets of bloom all summer long. She was the first Linda Campbell rugosa I ever purchased. I bought her for the front bed of my previous home, and she thrived there in the cheap sand the builder used instead of topsoil, sheltered by the sun-warmed brick in winter and bronzed by the sun in the summer. How she bloomed! How she grew! I cut her back constantly so that visitors could walk past her without being snagged on their way to the front door. She evaded blackspot, required no dead-heading, didn’t care whether I fed her or not. We loved each other wholeheartedly.

IMG_1145{Here’s old Linda from a different year, blooming away.}

When I moved, I dug her up and plunked her into a large pot. She thrived. She survived the wind-whipped drive to her new location. She survived being dug up again by a so-called landscaper and left lying on the front lawn with her roots exposed until I saved her in the nick of time. For thirteen years she has been MY ROSE. Some of her canes are nearly as large as my wrist. Because of her, I bought several other Linda Campbells, but none of them have ever grown or bloomed as magnificently as she.

But last winter, she began to fail a bit. Last summer she contracted blackspot and staggered against it. This spring she stood a bit ragged, with dead canes in need of removal and her first flush of bloom for the season less than stellar. And then, a few weeks ago, I saw the mutated new growth that told me what was wrong.

The virus had her.

IMG_1366

I could have cut away the affected canes. I could have fed her, babied her, tried to save her, but it would be to no avail. There is no cure to this disease except destruction of the affected plant. Keeping her longer would be akin to propping up an elderly dog with cancer and letting it suffer just because I couldn’t bear to part with it.

Linda’s quality of life was doomed. So today I got out the large loppers, trash bags, my elbow-length gloves, and set to work. I bagged everything for the landfill trash since such diseased plants must NEVER go into the municipal compost. By rights, the cuttings should have been burned, but we aren’t allowed to burn in the city limits. And as I cut her down, bit by bit, I mourned her.

Roses have existed for thousands of years. They scented ancient Persian gardens and adorned the hair of Roman maidens. Their oils formed the perfume called Attar of Roses and have been the base of many other fragrances. Their petals were strewn before the chariots of triumphant Roman generals and down the aisles toward bridal altars. Roses symbolize love. The Tudors carved them into architectural motifs, and during the War of the Roses one faction sported the red Tudor rose and the other sported the white Lancaster rose. Roses have grown wild and tough and stalwart in old western homesteads, blooming at the broken steps of little farm houses long since crumbled or abandoned. They have grown from cuttings snipped by elderly women and passed along to granddaughters. They have rambled over fences, climbed archways, sprawled over doorways, and graced the White House gardens.

So why are they dying now? Why have we created horticultural messes with our gene splicing and hybridizations? What mite, what rodent, what gene manipulation is responsible? Is it transmitted via an animal? Is it airborne? I can’t bear to read about the latest discoveries because the disease breaks my heart.

In past years, I found effective stress relief from my day job by walking through my rose garden and dead-heading the spent blooms. These days, I let a lovely, nameless little rose given to me for my birthday swell its spent buds into rosehips, thereby blooming only once for the season, all because I can’t bring myself to walk among my plants with a bottle of rubbing alcohol to sterilize my pruners and avoid spreading disease from one plant to another.

In search of easy care, hybridizers created Knockout roses. No dead-heading needed, but then why walk among them? They need no care. They have no scent. Yes, Knockouts are pretty. They serve their landscaping purpose, gracing the borders of parking lots and filling corners of our yards as blooming shrubs. However, could Shakespeare have penned his immortal line about a scentless modern rose? I grow a few Knockouts, but can a scentless rose beguile the senses the way an old Bourbon or Damask rose can?

Am I to be the generation that sees the extinction of roses? Or will they prevail, the tough ones that aren’t hybrids, that aren’t grafted wimpy things that last for one season and die? We humans are modern. We are busy. We are tech-savvy, yet our super-wheat creates celiac disease and obesity, and our roses and bees are dying.

What does that tell us? Or are we too busy to pay attention? The trend du jour is to eat paleo, yet how many cavemen actually ate cupcakes made from almond flour? (We are kidding ourselves and ignoring too many warning signs of looming agricultural disaster.)

All these gloomy topics floated through my thoughts as I chopped and cut. In gardening, you know some plants will never thrive from the day you plant them. If they don’t solve the problem by dying, then they have to go. You know that some plants reach their natural end and have to go. You know that some plants bloom in peculiar, new, garish colors that surprise you–not in a good way–and they have to go.

As I cut old Linda down, I saw that I had been right to tackle this sad task now and not try to prolong her agony. For the tiny new cane sprouting from her very base was deformed. I have loved her, and I loved her today in putting her down.

All that remains is to dig up her roots. It will be a tough, difficult job–perhaps beyond my strength now–yet I will get it done.

IMG_1372{A sad ending to a great old lady.}

And will her disease spread to the other roses in the front bed? Who knows? The first plant to succumb in my backyard–a lovely old rose variety called Penelope–was yanked out and a replacement planted a scant foot away from her hole. And after a few years, the newer bush has shown no signs of the disease whatsoever. No other roses in that bed have contracted the virus. So maybe–fingers crossed–old Linda’s companions in the front bed will escape.

Ready or not, happily or not, the front bed is already being reconfigured.

IMG_1370{Spent blooms from another, lesser Linda Campbell rugosa unaffected as yet.}

IMG_1145

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SPARKLE: Using Dramatic Flair–Part I

When I was a young child, one of my favorite television cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. What I remember most about him was that when he departed a scene he always did so with a signature flourish, saying, “Exit, stage left” or “Exit, stage right.”

It was nonsense, but I loved the pizzazz of it. Whatever else he did, Snaggletooth had flair.

When writing, if we only emulate the most realistic mainstream novels or if we only view contemporary dramatic films, we lose out on the fun of “stagey” theatrics. Such antics aren’t appropriate in all story applications, but when they can be used they certainly add sparkle to our plots.

Audiences like the bling factors of flair, flourish, and sparkle. That’s why they gravitate to certain popular genres such as historical romance, paranormal romance, steampunk, horror, thrillers, comedies, and fantasy. These genres not only allow flair, they require it.

However, flair can be incorporated into more mainstream drama at certain key points. For example, there’s a superb Bette Davis film called THE LETTER. Directed expertly by William Wyler, this movie is based on a Somerset Maugham short story about a married woman in Malaysia who commits adultery and then murders her lover in a fit of jealousy. The film’s focus is on Davis’s lying to police and her husband in an effort to get away with her crime. It deals with serious issues of uneven relationships, infidelity, and ethics. Her attorney—a family friend—is taken into her confidence and told the truth. To defend her, he’s forced into concealing her guilt from her husband (his best friend), and he must himself commit a crime in order to buy and suppress evidence that would convict her if it surfaced.

Now all of this is heavy stuff—quite fascinating and compelling on its own. But Wyler understood that even serious drama can stand a little flair. The opening scene of the film shows a sleeping rubber plantation under the moonlight. Everything is peaceful until a shot rings out. The camera focuses on the veranda of the plantation bungalow. A man crashes through the doors, staggering and obviously wounded. Bette Davis follows him outside. She’s holding a revolver in one hand. Her expression is grim, intent, purposeful. She shoots him again, and again, and again, following him down the steps, until he’s finished.

Not only does this introduce the protagonist in masterful characteristic entry action that reveals her true nature, but it kickstarts the plot with a mighty big change in circumstances that can’t be ignored and hooks its audience firmly. This is not a point where anyone’s going to wander off to the refrigerator for a snack.

If you study just about any film made before the 1960s, you’ll see example after example of flair utilized. It shows up in the way actors enter and exit scenes. It’s used in some of the stunts and spectacles. Some of it is too obvious and hokey. Some of it is simply fun. (Now of course flair shows up in more recent films as well, but it’s so often downplayed.)

Please consider these examples:

Stewart Granger and James Mason in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA

William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN

Bob Hope in THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE

Gary Cooper in MEET JOHN DOE

Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE

William Holden in SABRINA

Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD

Errol Flynn in THAT FORSYTE WOMAN (or CAPTAIN BLOOD or ROBIN HOOD)

Greer Garson in RANDOM HARVEST

Norma Shearer, and everyone else, in THE WOMEN

Marilyn Monroe in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in ADAM’S RIB

Cary Grant in THE BISHOP’S WIFE

Judy Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

Jimmy Stewart in THE LITTLE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW

Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER (or JEZEBEL or THE LITTLE FOXES)

Humphrey Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (or KEY LARGO)

Tyrone Power in THE MARK OF ZORRO

Marlene Dietrich in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore in MIDNIGHT

Loretta Young, and everyone else, in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER

Ethel Barrymore in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE

Lionel Barrymore and Freddie Bartholomew in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS

Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS

John Wayne in THE QUIET MAN

Gene Kelly, and everyone else, in SINGING IN THE RAIN

James Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY

Jack Lemon in SOME LIKE IT HOT

Rudolph Valentino in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I

Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY

Irene Dunne in THEODORA GOES WILD

Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT

Charles Boyer in ALGIERS

Fred Astaire in EASTER PARADE

Vivian Leigh in ANNA KARENINA (or GONE WITH THE WIND)

Laurence Olivier in HAMLET

Who have I overlooked? I’m sure you can name other films and actors that stand out in your mind because this is a very small list compared to the wealth that’s out there.

Shakespeare understood the need for flair in both his tragedies and his comedies. His best plays sparkle because of it, and he ain’t been forgot neither.

However, perhaps you aren’t into old classic movies. The sets and props may seem weird to you. Hairstyles are odd. You can’t relate to the grainy film quality or black and white. Dialogue can be too stagey. Mannerisms are beyond old-fashioned, etc. etc. etc.

Then consider the current hit television show, CASTLE. Lots of flair there, every week. DOWNTON ABBEY serves up classy fare with flair. Can we possibly even venture to guess that the hottie of “unscripted” TV—DUCK DYNASTY—throws in a little flair, albeit of the “I can’t believe he just did/said that!” variety?

So how do we get flair? How do we find it or create it? Where and how do we incorporate it into what we write?

My suggestions will follow in the next post.

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