Dear Miss Diciuccio

Dear Miss Diciuccio,

I hope you don’t mind that I’m still using your maiden name. I don’t know who I’m talking to, otherwise.

You were my high school English teacher and I’ve long long long meant to tell you that you changed my life, forever and for the better.

One of our ongoing assignments was to keep a journal. We turned them in, you read them, and for me it was all awkward. The writing, the sharing. However, it soon became clear that you meant it when you said we could write anything. That freedom was a novelty. I could write Whatever, without judgment or consequences.

I was surprised when I saw your margin note in my journal. This is goodI’d been writing Whatever – venting about something. I re-read the paragraph. I didn’t think it was good, but that note taught me so much: Writing could get me praise. Writing could connect me with someone else.

People had always told me I was a writer, but this was the moment when I felt it. It’s taken me decades to feel it again. In between, I’ve done a lot of writing, published my writing, and taken long writing hiatuses. I’ve grappled with big issues, including my needs for praise and connection. Through it all, I kept seeing your margin note.

Thank you.

I’ve also wanted to thank your friend and compadre, Estelle Tucker, who left us way too soon. She transmitted so much confidence and respect. In her class we debated current events and discussed Dylan records. She was always cool and she helped me see that art must change to stay alive. She had us read Hamlet then attend a big city performance of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. (Which was new, back then. She would have taken us to Improvised Shakespeare Company if they’d been around.) My hands-down favorite high school moment was the day I was in a deep funk and she ignored the rules to let me skip her English class and hang out in the library. Maybe it’s time to re-read her favorite novel, Madame Bovary. I was too young to appreciate it, back in the day.

Ours was a nondescript suburban school named for an administrative functionary yet Marion A. Peterson High School had many exceptional teachers. A couple more shout-outs to:

Mr. Kim. You divided our journalism class into four groups and had us report on the Vietnam War based strictly on the writing in a single news magazine. Our four reports sounded like four different wars. This was a profound lesson in slant and bias that forever changed how I hear the news, any news.

Mr. Parsons. I was a hippie and you were, well, I thought you were a fascist but maybe you were mildly right wing. When you teased me about politics you showed me that people of opposing views could get along. And that chemistry quiz that I failed. I never forgot your lesson about staying open to what we don’t know. The quiz required us to balance a chemical equation. But – it didn’t balance. I somehow forced it to fit what I had learned. Fail. Only one guy in the class got the right answer, which involved saying “the result includes a new and unknown particle with the following properties…”

Thank you all for shaping my thinking and choices. I’ve tried teaching and I found it difficult, tedious, exhausting. I don’t know how you did it, frankly, but I’m grateful you did.

 

 

DDsE: Easier Except for Being Harder

Back in 2008 or so, when serialized fiction returned to vogue, I decided it wasn’t for me as a reader or a writer. I mean, I don’t even like Dickens, probably the most famous serial writer of all time.

The latest wave of serial authors seemed to publish with little or no editing. No, thanks! I want to read your best – not your first – writing.

Many writers will tell you that editing is the most important part of writing. I’ve always been in that camp. I edit my own novels heavily. This painful tedious work yields little of the satisfaction of writing but almost always improves my drafts.

And yet.

There’s no denying the power of spontaneous ideas, nor the impacts of intuition. All my best ideas materialize, simply and suddenly. Perhaps I tap the unconscious and they rise up. Perhaps they drop from the wild blue. I include countless spontaneous ideas in my novels but I’ve never let them steer a project – until now.

A few months ago, I was miserable about my writing or lack thereof. I’d been editing the second book in the FRAMES series for what felt like forever. Weird about that. Even in rough draft, I knew Book 2, Nica of the New Yorks, was stronger than Book 1 – and I’m quite proud of Book 1, Nica of Los Angeles. Yet Book 2’s editing was interminable. No wonder, when so many pages went like this:

editing

Edits to a page of Nica of the New Yorks (Frames Book 2)

No matter how many words you change, though, editing doesn’t feel like writing; and as the editing went on, the way I missed writing became as physical as a toothache. But I couldn’t risk starting a new project that might derail or distract me. For the foreseeable future, finishing FRAMES is my main event.

Meanwhile, I became a fan of an amazing improv comedy group, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, which invents 2-hour plays on the fly. Watching those plays inspired me to write more improvisationally. I began writing short bits (about 300 words) daily. For the first time, I wrote without planning or conscious knowledge of the story, characters, themes, format, or genre. Just let it go and see where it takes you.

The writing was joyful and easy at first. But as the installments added up, I realized I liked them. A lot. Then a varied group of beta readers responded with enthusiasm — and the stakes changed. Suddenly the outcome became important. I wanted to stop and plan, I caught myself pausing to ponder. I wasn’t stuck, mind you, but I had begun to fear mis-steps. My conscious mind was trying to regain control, to follow the usual procedures, make a map to a destination.

But I’m not ready to end the experimental wandering. So I’m forcing renewed focus on the journey, not the endpoint. My experiment has become DDsE, a young adult paranormal horror romance. Each installment is a diary entry by Ella, a 16-year-old who despises her life until two mysterious allies enter it: a strange boy with a dangerous family and a feral cat that seems to get inside Ella’s head.

And now I’d better get back to writing DDsE. I’m very concerned about where I left Ella yesterday…

Improv/Stage Review: Improvised Shakespeare Company

I’m not good with live theater. I watch with underlying tension – afraid the actors will commit some bigtime flub that they won’t be able to rescue.

No, I have never witnessed such an event – although I have witnessed actors exchanging meaningful subtle glances — doesn’t that sound terrifying?

No, I don’t know why I care – but I do care, and have for years. It’s like being afraid that someone else will dream he’s back in high school and can’t remember his locker combination.

Perversely and/or because of all this, there is one stage event that I attend as often as I can: performances of The Improvised Shakespeare Company (ISC).

Every ISC show starts the same. Five guys walk onto a bare stage, the audience shouts phrases, the troop’s founder selects one of those phrases and it becomes the play’s title: the five guys make up a 1.5-2 hour play, using the style, themes, locales, situations of Shakespeare. No props, no costumes, no intermissions. And as the founder promises, they make up characters on the spot, they learn no lines, “… and if ever you are wondering where the story is going, so are we.”

During a show, the ISC wordplay and inventiveness are staggering. Also, I love the way the troop enjoys what the other guys come up with. And the ways they extricate from the jams they get into (for example, they each play multiple characters, and sometimes they have to play scenes with themselves). I’m impressed at how convincing their settings and characters can be. They play girls, old coots, servants, nobility, soldiers, merchants; in castles, on rivers, on turrets, in town squares.

They are frequently raunchy, which most in the audience seem to prefer. Sometimes that raunch gets a little easy/obvious, but you never know where they will take an idea. As might have been predicted, “As You Lick It” got pretty dirty, yet “Brothello” had an innocent sweetness, while “Straight Outta Venice” was just plain goofy (beware the suspended pickle jars).

ISC is a stand-up comedy troop from Chicago (although some of their players live and work in Los Angeles). Lucky for me, they perform monthly at Largo-at-the-Coronet, a small wonderful venue where I’m a regular. When I visited Chicago, I saw the Chicago troop perform and – based on that single night – I prefer the Los Angeles troop, but who knows where another night may have led.

ISC tours, and seems to be expanding those tours. They play frequently in New York. Watch for them. Go see them. You can read reviews and you can watch You-Tube videos but none of that will capture the essence of the live show.

If you do get to see them, let me know what you think! You might react like my daughter, who was put off by the audience’s enthusiasm and overall couldn’t get into it: “I can see they’re geniuses and all but – meh.” Or you might react like me, and line up your tickets months in advance.

I am grateful to The Improvised Shakespeare Company. They make me laugh out loud, repeatedly; such laughter is one of the great treats of being alive.

In addition, ISC has inspired me to write improvisationally. I’ve got a new piece of fiction, DDsE, that I am writing by adapting their stage constraints: 300 words per day, don’t plan it, don’t rework it, just write and keep going. I don’t know where it is headed or what eventual format it will be (novella? scripted video? comic book?) but, some 50 segments into it, I am jazzed about the results. More about DDsE soon…