style, writing

who is thinking in these particular words, and why?

I have been writing comments by the window, if by “writing comments” you mean “reading the James Wood archive on the LRB.” Alternating between grading, laundry, and cooking requiring the use of the oven all day. The snow has stopped falling at present.

Here’s Wood arguing that Updike is too poetic.

Wood writes: “One of the dangers for the stylist* such as Updike – and one of the ways in which prose is unlike poetry – is that prose always forces the question: who is thinking in these particular words, and why? Point of view, a boring topic to most readers, is the densest riddle for the novelist, since words are either directly ascribed to characters (first-person narration) or indirectly ascribed to them (third-person narration). By contrast, the poet’s words are generally assumed to flow from the poet, who wishes, as it were, to draw attention to himself.* But the novelist may not, and should not, always want to. There is no doubt that the pleasantly alliterative phrase ‘in painful piecemeal’ is rather fine; but is fineness what is needed here, or does it slide a filter between the reader and the supposedly pained narrator?”

– James Wood on John Updike, “Gossip in Gilt,” LRB v. 23 no. 8 (April 2001)

* this is probably exactly why I like Updike so much, and why even his characters’ misogyny, on which Wood expounds further, does not disturb me as much as it would in someone else’s words. Style.

** Of course! Always.

art, self-blogerential, style

A. square

I have taken some time, the past couple of weeks, to rest before a major undertaking. I feel much better. The most reassuring outcome of this rest (grantspeak! stop!) is that when images of dancing people or objects pop into my head, as they do all day long, I no longer feel compelled to suppress them. This makes me and the dancing people less irritable.

I was in a CVS about a month ago, before taking this time which I have now taken, and I imagined some people bobbing up and down the aisles, and it made me so furious with my imagination. “What is the point of having these ideas?” I would ask myself, sometimes out loud.

I am now content to enjoy them again without asking why. There is no point – the point is the process. The point is the style, as we know. No one asks the red square why it is a red square. I know this, but I had forgotten. Or it had been obscured from me.

style, translation

hypocrite traducteur

I have been writing a bit about my future translation projects for some applications these days. The idea, which isn’t really my idea, comes from the work of people like C. Moraga and O. Solis and other bilingual playwrights who I’ve been lucky enough to know & see work.

What I’m especially moved by in their work is this:

Lines where a character is speaking one language in the grammar of another, or lines that blend vocabulary from both languages.

The twist I have on it is that this kind of mix should be used for other translations, like rendering plays which were originally written entirely in French into English. There should be French vocabulary words mixed in, and French grammar mangled throughout.

Take, for example, this very famous final stanza from Baudelaire’s poem “Au Lecteur” (To the Reader)

C’est l’Ennui! L’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

The link has several translations of the poem available, courtesy of Here’s a very, very literal one, by William Aggeler in 1954:

He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
— Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother!

Say that these lines were lines in a play, designed for performance. The take I would put on them, then, would be this:

C’est l’Ennui! The eye watering d’un pleur involontaire,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes son houka.
You him know, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite reader, — mon semblable, — mon brother!

The ideas is to get as much of the French into it as possible, even to the extent of bad English grammar (You him know, The eye), all the words which are close enough cognates (Ennui, involontaire, houka, monstre délicat, even Hypocrite, which could be pronounced as in French) to leave in some particles and possessives in French (mon, d’un)…and so forth.

The word “lecteur,” which some people know and others won’t (think of “lectern”) could be translated in some instances and not in others.

The word “semblable,” which is variously translated as fellow, likeness, twin, double, etc., shouldn’t be translated at all.

Again, this would be for the purposes of a performance text. Read the entire thing with a French accent and French emphasis.

It would be like you were immersed in a bilingual household, hearing them speak, getting some of the words but not others.

You can only justify working like this if you believe, as I do, that playoetwrights like Molière and Racine and others cared just as much about the sound and rhythm of their words as the meaning – or, if you believe, as I also do, that we are justified in doing just about anything to a performance text, and that even the most grievous errors of misinterpretation will reveal more about it.

(Perhaps, and this is me being so Comp Lit, we could argue that the act of reading is in itself an act of misinterpretation.)

Say you were to do this method on a TARTUFFE script – perhaps you could begin with all English, incorporate more and more French as it went along, eventually get to the point of all French with English supertitles…of course you could preserve more rhyme & meter this way too, but the great thing would be to get the flavor of the original language.

That’s my idea. Qu’est-ce que tu penses?

quotes, style, workstyle, writing

Who are these people?

Q: Are you one of those writers who keeps a regular schedule?

A: No. How I wish! Who are these people? That sounds marvelous. It takes me a long time to write, because I think out everything before I write it. When I write something, even a tiny section of a long thing, I think about it for many weeks. Perhaps that’s why my work is always so much “my work.”

– Jamaica Kincaid in a Salon interview. I read her collection of Talk of the Town essays, TALK STORIES, today, and was overwhelmed by the exact simplicity. Every word means something. She has an overheard person at a party say “Sensation, as you know, is the tyranny of Los Angeles.”

books, quotes, style, writing

Ken Sparling is in your kitchen, rocking your prose style

I worked at a grocery store and they paid us in cash every week. I would just stick the money in my pocket and never go to the bank. I bought Tutti a giant stuffed animal, a Mickey Mouse telephone, sheets and pillowcases with cats wearing running shoes on them, and I bought a kit and made her a Christmas stocking with her name on it. I can’t remember what else I bought. Anytime I saw something, I bought it. This past year was our eleventh Christmas together, and I bought her a plastic rack for inside the kitchen pantry door, where she can put her rolls of food wrap.

She is lying in bed beside me right now, with her back to me. I think she has finally gone to sleep. I came back from a meeting where I had just been elected to the board of directors and I came home in the rain, and there she was, on the couch, watching TV.

Now we are up here in bed and I am wide awake. I think she’s asleep. But she might just be pretending she is asleep so she doesn’t have to listen to me anymore. She might, at some point, have said to her self, “I can’t listen to this anymore,” closed her eyes, and pretended to be asleep.

I don’t think she’s pretending. I really don’t.

But, the thing is, it occurred to me. There was a time when something like this would never have entered my head.

– from the novel DAD SAYS HE SAW YOU AT THE MALL, by the Canadian author Ken Sparling, who has the prose style I want to be when I grow up.

a propos of nothing, style


So, this actually is related to style – to stycomythia. I swear. To the idea of exact alternation. It’s downright theatrical, actually, and it’s about how patterns perpetuate themselves.

The following: Two men at a small party alternate their Ipods, one after another. Variations on the theme of country music. They give the hostess a cash “tab” for Itunes and buy songs they have to have immediately. One plays a song on his, the other on his. Ruby. The Pleasure Barons. Out of both respect and competitiveness. They alternate.

I screw up this order by trying to play some OCMS but I fail to make it work. They resume the alternating order.

This goes on until one of them has the idea, antithematically, of Journey, and the other turns out to have two Journey songs on his Ipod. He plays both. This disrupts the order of things, and the party ends shortly thereafter.

Shelby Lynne: “You can’t roll a joint on an Ipod.”


directing, film, style, theater, writing

Noun Modifiers

In the course of the Convergence teleconferences, I mentioned to a friend of mine, who’s a filmmaker, that I make a distinction in my mind between directing and writing – directing is about allowing more freedom to other people in the process, being open to new possibilities, and writing is about total control over a limited sphere. They are very different. I didn’t use to feel this way, but I certainly do now, since I’ve stopped being such a controlling director.

Coming from the POV of film, however, he said that “everything is writing – directing is writing, editing is writing.” Because he does still have total control over every sphere. Because you can select the take, and you can get exactly – EXACTLY – what you want.

This is probably why film stresses me out as a medium. I can no longer imagine wanting that many things that specifically. I tried it, and it was exhausting. There’s so much freedom in being able to share those wants with others – to let them want things, and let that inform the process and the result.

And I think I’ll look to writing for control, and to directing for the absence of it. This came to my mind again as I was working on/with an actress with/on a monologue from Measure For Measure this afternoon. If I had gone into the session knowing what I wanted to see from her, I never would have been able to see what she had to bring to it.

The only way I would make a film again would be either an animated one (which is all writing) or else something like Chris Guest, with improv-based writing – where the film captures the final result of a process which is more theatrical.

Maybe writing isn’t even “writing” in that controlled way. Maybe the best writing is when you surrender control, as well, to the characters, the words, the sounds. Maybe everything is directing.

I am so unlike the artist and person I was at seventeen that I can barely recognize myself. At least I still use too many adjectives and adverbs. It’s still a problem, but at least it’s a problem that’s familiar. I can say, “Oh yeah, that’s me – I use too many adjectives.”

books, quotes, style, writing

He was…elsewhere. “Il est ailleurs.”

“I am dying but the universe goes on. I can’t bear being separated from you. But if you are my soul and you live in me like a second body, my death will not be as inconsequential as a stranger’s.”
– from INEZ, by Carlos Fuentes

Sarah Rose and I were talking yesterday about dialogue and narration in fiction style. She read me a short story of hers which contained a dialogue scene without dialogue. The narrator told the story of the conversation without quoting any of the words.

It’s a device that I wouldn’t have thought of, being so stylistically geared towards plays and spoken words, but I’m curious to see if I can do it.

Reading INEZ this morning made me realize, too, that when the narrator’s voice is distinct, all narration is dialogue.

Off to a props meeting and first rehearsal for LYDIA.

directing, LA theater, style, the chorus, theater

“The stones would explain the smile”

I saw a great show with Phil C last night – the Evidence Room/Unknown Theater co-production of Martin Crimp’s* ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE. Seventeen scenes in different styles, textures, and voices, all about one woman – Anne. Brilliant. And there were quite a number of choral elements in it, too. The two companies’ ADs co-directed it, alternating and switching off scenes, which is what I had wanted to try with a different show. So glad to see it working.

AOHL doesn’t have stage directions or divisions of text. I heard someone mention a production where all the actors learned all the lines, which is what I still want to do with choruses.

Every time I see one of Bart’s productions it makes me want to direct the play one day. Which I mean as a compliment to him. Often I see theater and it leaves me sick of the play, tired of it, never wanting to think of it again. Bart’s work makes the play seem like the most wonderful thing ever. Like there could be so many new discoveries in it.

Phil & I went to Cosmic Pizza after and discussed. I’m still spinning from the thoughts of the show. I wish I could see it again, but I leave Thursday.

Then, later, at the Silver Spoon with Ezra, this came up: has the presence of directors in theater actually removed some of the actors’ natural ability to self-direct? And who “needs” directors more – actors who naturally hold back, or who are naturally over the top?

Would it be a good thing for all actors to be in a production without a director? To try that? What would that mean?

*The very first show I worked on it LA was Martin Crimp’s DEALING WITH CLAIR, at the Matrix. I ran box office. Funny how these things come together – this Crimp will be one of the last shows I see in LA, for quite some time.

style, writing


Talking with friends about methods of writing papers:
– writing and letting the structure emerge as you go, vs outlining in advance
– using bullet points and section titles (which I have gotten more into lately) vs. letting other paragraphs serve as transitions.

These days when I write, I write something six times too long and then slash it into shreds. I don’t outline, or if I do, the outline emerges as part of the writing.

I wonder if there’s a way to do things like this within a play: section headers, paragraph transitions. Probably in a very simple manner, with something like Word For Word, just by having one actor read them out to announce another’s speaking.

If you direct SPOON RIVER, do the actors say their own names? “Lucinda Matlock,” and then the monologue?

Sort of like what was going on in LARAMIE.

The Elements Of Style: The Dance-Theater Extravaganza.