Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Feel Better

Yesterday was the last of it. I got up after 12:30, in time for breakfast to be lunch and to see if the mail came with more books for me. I found myself with the shortest hours I ever encountered. Not any change in the season or rotation in the earth causing it, but just the day moving faster and faster, and me doing very little. Six hours later, it was already dark. I couldn't call any of the agencies I need to in order to see if I can get any of the interviews I need by saying that I only need 10-15 minutes, which will be fine if I can get these particular people, including, hopefully, a producer of two of the Airport movies and the director of Airport '77. Also no response from the agency that handles actor David Warner, who played flight engineer Peter O'Neill in '79. But by the time I thought to make those calls, it was already past 4 p.m. Not that I called, but I know people are getting ready to go home by then. And I had only been up for four hours! This was ridiculous!

A schedule like this also didn't leave me much time to read. All my time was focused on this project, and when could I possibly open up a book either related to this project or one that I'm reading on the side? The one on the side didn't matter so much since it was Lost and Fondue by Avery Aames, the second of her Cheese Shop Mystery novels. The problems with this novel which have made me not want to read the next one, is that her characters are crushed together this time at a fundraiser to the extent that not only is it hard to extract them (It's not hard to tell who is who, but there's not enough room to know them again like it was in The Long Quiche Goodbye), but the mystery felt overdone. All this urgency for this? Yes, it was bad, but even though this appeared to be a functioning Ohio town, everything seemed to stop at the sight of murder. Again. To me, Aames doesn't have the ability to keep a town running even as the investigation goes on. It's like the old sitcom trope of wondering if some of the people you're watching have jobs, and how they're able to afford what's in their apartments. It's distracting.

So, with having done nothing to contribute to the progress of my book, I decided that getting up after noon wasn't worth it anymore. I needed more time, even if it's just to read a book not connected to my work. I went to bed a little after 2 a.m. instead of 3:30, and woke up a few minutes before 7. Nearly five hours, and I couldn't get back to sleep after Dad and Meridith left for work. Sleep wasn't going to come back just because I was trying to will it back, and it was clear that my body was adjusting to this new schedule, so I eventually got out of bed, at 8:24.

Mom was surprised. She thought I had a phone interview to do. I told her that I went to bed earlier, and then had breakfast. Breakfast at breakfast time. That was another part of the problem, eating for the first time a little after 12:30, and then having lunch around 2:20 or so. I needed to spread out that time, and spread out my day.

I couldn't get through the rest of Lost and Fondue. I stopped at page 151, with 141 pages to go, completely frustrated with the lack of further development of these characters. The well-researched cheese knowledge wasn't enough to keep me stuck to this novel. Saveur magazine occasionally has articles about cheese, and they're a lot easier to get through.

I put that in the Goodwill box, went to my room and picked up I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson, which I had been eyeing all the time that I was reading Lost and Fondue. Three days. If I'm not entirely wrapped up in my work, three days is way too long for me to read a book. I wanted to read I Thought You Were Dead because it's about a writer dealing with so much in life, such as his father's stroke, with his dog Stella to keep him as steady as he can be even with hanging out at Bay State Bar often. The premise here is that Paul and Stella can actually speak to each other. Yes, Stella actually speaks. The author doesn't make such a big show of it. It happens. They're that connected, and that's what made me want to read it, because I'm that connected to my dogs, like they are to me. They don't speak like Stella, but I know them as if they could.

This is one reason I'm going to continue going to bed earlier: That book was 288 pages. I read it all today. I liked it that much, and it also felt so good to be reading like this, just sitting there, becoming absorbed in this story. I've missed that, and yet I seem to keep letting it slip away. It's part of being a writer, it's what I have to keep doing, and it's what I should keep doing. So there's a book to write! It can only get better if I keep reading while I write it. It's strange that I have to remind myself of this, but I think I also need to stop reading a book if it's not working for me. I shouldn't have stayed with Lost and Fondue that long. What I liked so much about the first novel in the series was so obviously gone from this second installment and that should have been enough to make me leave it before the first witness was interviewed. There's some writers who say that you should read everything, even junk, so you know what not to do. I don't agree with that, finite lifespan notwithstanding. Because if you read what you like, then you become inspired by it enough to study and take in what the writer has done, and filter it through your own work. That's how it's always worked for me. I don't want to suffer through a bad book just to see what not to do. I think that's already apparent in the first 20 pages I've crawled through in any bad book.

I felt tired while sitting on the couch in the late morning, but I shook it off with a snack and I was awake again. I was good for the rest of the day. And it felt like an actual day today with a lot of hours to do what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. In the summer 2004 issue of The Paris Review, Haruki Murakami said that he goes to bed at 9 p.m., getting up at 4 a.m. to write for five or six hours. I can't do as he does, and I certainly can't go to bed at that time. It's not how I work. But he has a routine about his day and I need to click into that again. I can't feel listless like I did yesterday. I need more of today.

And so I shall continue pursuing that, and within a few days, I'll have it down. My body and mind will be better for it. I felt it already today.

Ethereal Fascination at the Largest Flea Market in the United States

I just started reading Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton, which I've had in my stacks since it came out last June. Stanton examines the antiques trade through a dealer named Curt Avery (Names have been changed), and it's utterly fascinating.

Right now, she's at Brimfield, "the country's largest outdoor flea market and antiques show." She's helped Avery set up his space and people are walking through, looking for certain items, such as a one-legged man who, for thirty years at Brimfield, has asked for cast iron cookware. But I love this image the most in this chapter:

"A girl in her twenties breathlessly asks, "Musical instruments?" as she moves quickly from table to table. I hear her voice like a lyric, "Sir, do you have any musical instruments?" A polite, almost plaintive call that fades as she hurries along the rows."


Outside, In My Head

Rolling the garbage and recycling bins back to the garage yesterday, after the recycling truck lumbered through the neighborhood, there was a slight wind, and I looked around, wondering if Southern California had been better before all this had been built, these houses, these streets, these street lights. Was there more of a sense of adventure on blank hillsides? It felt like the wind was a lament, missing that past, if there was such a past (and some history I've seen of the area suggests that), and mourning a future that can never be. A year after we moved to Southern California, when we were moving from Valencia to Saugus, Dad and I made multiple trips from our old apartment to our new house and back, hauling in boxes that didn't need to be packed in the moving truck. At the intersection before turning right to go up that hill and then back down to Copper Hill (or whatever the name is, since I've only paid attention to such things when I need to take the bus somewhere), I looked to the left and those mountainsides were completely empty. No lights. Then gradually, one housing development popped up, and then three, and then what looked like 40. It's prevalent throughout the region. Build and build some more and build again until you're absolutely sure you can't put another apartment complex in the parking lot of a 7-11. You'll find the past in books, but not in front of you. The museums are tucked away, hidden from view, where they belong.

I didn't begin to think about Las Vegas or Henderson after mulling over all that. In my mind, I went to Baker, to the true beginning of the desert in Southern California, to the Grewal Travel Center, with the gas station out front, the convenience store on one side on the inside, and the small food court on the other side. I thought about that night on the way to Henderson when we found that the food court was closed. Fortunately, we had eaten at Wienerschnitzel in Santa Clarita, and it's lucky we didn't wait until we got to Baker. I'd never seen the place like this, with the counter areas dark, the lighted signs and menu boards turned off. I stared longer than anyone probably should stare at A&W, TCBY, Pizza Hut and Subway signs. Actor/playwright/short story writer Sam Shepard, one of my heroes, has lived in the desert and has it so deeply ingrained in his soul that I thought about him as I looked around, and also thought about the distance outside this food court/convenience store. Who could live in Baker? Who could find enough in the businesses and the landscape to want to live here? This could be where one settles if there's nowhere else to go, but then it has to be a pretty desperate situation.

This is all that Baker is. The 2010 census pegged the population at 735. Those people may have their reasons, and I'd sure like to know what they are. But I never will because I don't think I could stay for that long. I need a library, I need things that I love surrounding me. I love desert landscapes, but give me something more to them. I'm not talking about the overgrowth that Southern California has experienced over the years. A desert town is fine with me if there's a connection there, reasons that a population has to keep its town vibrant. That may not be fair to Baker, because maybe it does have those things that I don't see since I don't hang around long enough. But middle of the evening at 9 p.m., getting out of the car and feeling that fierce chill, like opening a freezer door in the frozen food section at a supermarket and stepping inside, how could anything want to thrive there?

But I still feel something. I don't have the desert experience that Shepard has, that compelled him to also write three masterful short story collections that I go back and forth on buying for my permanent collection, but I want to try it. I want to write a play, and I want to set it in the Grewal Travel Center. I have one character sketched out, and three or four more I don't know well enough yet. You would think that it would be useful to take photos inside the Center, but I haven't for three reasons: One, when I looked around, I wasn't thinking in terms of a play, until I was back in our rented Kia Soul, writing furiously in my composition book. We had to get to Henderson, so I couldn't go back inside to take photos.

Second, Dad's reconsidering his strategies in looking for a job in Las Vegas and Henderson, which may include going back there for a few days while he and Meridith are off for spring break, so he can actually meet people, have them see him face-to-face, instead of seeing about jobs from a distance, which is the way it has to be for now since he's working here. I may get my chance to take photos.

And third, I have the full layout of the Grewal Travel Center in my head. I know where both claw machines are, I know where chips and candy are on the convenience store side, I know that there are two regular restroom stalls in the men's restroom and one handicap stall, and I know that on the food court side, A&W comes first on the far left, TCBY in the middle, Pizza Hut near the far right, and the restrooms are near Pizza Hut and to the left of Subway. I also know that there are those coin-operated machines with stickers and temporary tattoos and other cheap doodads, one next to the food court entrance in the back, facing A&W, and another directly across from A&W. I've not found any stickers I want from either of those, but I like seeing what there is every time.

When I began thinking about writing plays in 2008, I had so many fanciful ideas, and I filled up a folder on this computer with every idea I could think of in 37 Microsoft Word files, believing that one of them had to lead me to fame. They would be filled with such dramatic ideas, and monologues that had the power to keep audiences in rapt attention. I would be lauded for my artistic choices and wordplay that goes down so easy, yet gives audiences a lot to think about.

I was full of shit.

One thing I completely ignored back then was timing. No skilled actor could have memorized the monologues I wrote without fainting from exhaustion. An actor has to breathe and so does the audience, yet the audience still has to be engaged enough to want to know what happens next. There are fellow human beings performing in front of them, completely inhabiting their characters, and the audience needs to relate to them by some glance, some line that rings true, some action that might make them look inward, see themselves in any of the characters on stage. And if a character is pure evil or has bad intentions, there still has to be a glint of humanity there. They can't just be faceless like so many bad guys in an action movie. It works for an action movie. It doesn't work for a play.

After What If They Lived? was published, I took a break from my aspirations of playwriting fame to figure out what book I wanted to write next. With that figured out now, I calmly went back into that "Plays" folder and looked at what I had hurriedly written many times over. I couldn't be doing this because I wanted fame in some artform. It's nice, and so is money, of which I still hope to make a decent amount one day (decent, not obscene), but I have to want to write a play because it defines me, it helps me grow as a writer, and it makes the world seem new to me every day, with something different to explore.

Another idea I've had has been done once or twice before, but not how I've thought of it. I researched it and even bought one of the plays that takes place in the same setting as mine (Three one-act plays, actually, making up an evening of theater) to see how it was done. I wanted my play to be two one-acts, with two different sets of characters: A teenaged boy and girl, and a man and a woman. I wrestled with the timeline and originally decided that they'd be an hour and a half to two hours apart, which wouldn't seem to matter in a play, but where these characters are, it does, since one pair meets at 11 p.m., and another at 1:30 a.m., and the event they're at only happens once a year, and just once for the teenagers.

The major problem I had was my initial insistence that these characters be connected somehow, that the audience finds out through one pair that both pairs are related. I wanted to keep the conversation between one pair mysterious enough that when the other pair talks, the audience puts it together. I don't think there would be gasps throughout the theater. Just murmurs of understanding.

But at what expense to the characters? Would I be spending so much time trying to set up the slight puzzle that I ignore the traits to be established in each character to make the audience want to know more? Would the characters just be puppets to my intentions? That can't happen. If the audience doesn't connect with the characters, that's it. You close after one performance, if you're lucky.

Last week, I figured out what to do. I don't want to spend time creating this puzzle for the audience to gradually figure out. I want to spend time with my characters, getting to know who they are, what they believe, what they want, what they still hope for even as regrets pile up. So now there's only one pair. I won't say which pair because I'm still working this out. But I do know that the first act is set at one of my most favorite places in the world, and the second act is at a place that I don't have quite the huge love for that I do for that first place, but which I admire just the same because without it, that place I hugely love would not exist. Obviously, there won't be faithful sets of either one because that would be insanely expensive, but it will be described enough in the dialogue, and have a few props to represent it, that the audience will get a sense of where they are.

Even without characters fully created, I already have the title of this play. I worry about whether the first part of it sounds sarcastic, but I can only answer that once I start writing this play. I know that it works, though. It covers both acts, the crux of the plot, and even suggests hope where there wouldn't seem to be any in light of years that have passed and disappointments that have been experienced.

In my mind, as I watch the trees rustle from the wind, I'm at both settings for this play, and I'm also thinking about what I can look forward to: Months spent reading two-character plays. I love the thought of it, particularly because I bought a few when I had thought up this play in its previous form. I hadn't opened them then, just stored them away, but I had a good excuse since I was co-writing What If They Lived? at the time. Even while working on my second book, I want to start on this, and try simultaneous writing projects. I'd like to be surrounded by words all the time, and not just by reading.

So maybe Southern California preferring to ignore its past and make a future full of endless housing developments isn't so bad. Until I'm gone from here, it lets me dream widely just by spending a bit of time outside.