Sunday, August 28, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 5: Thornton Wilder as a Populist

There is another mode of American literary populism is not so much about making the ordinary person larger than life, as in Walt Whitman’s poetry. This other strain of American populist is concerned with finding the pathos in small, everyday moments. Maybe my favorite U.S. populist in this vein is Thornton Wilder, author of the play Our Town, and the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other works.


Thornton Wilder
In addition to Our Town, which beautifully celebrates meaningful moments in small-town American life, Wilder wrote a wonderful one-act play called The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden. How much more mundane can you get than a family road trip from one city in New Jersey to another? The family members are traveling to visit the eldest daughter, who lives with her husband in Camden. En route, the family talks about the most banal topics—billboards they see with ads for spaghetti and cigarettes. They debate whether to make a pit stop at a gas station, whether the son is old enough to take a paper route. The mother is the loudest, most uneducated, obnoxious character. When the family finally gets to the home of the fully grown daughter, it’s the usual small talk—how much the kids have grown, how nice her house looks. Can life get any more boring?

Then suddenly, Wilder has the mother send the other family members off on various errands. The mom is now alone with her grown, married daughter.

You can see a video of part of a production of the play here. The scene I’m going to discuss starts right after the 2:40 second mark and goes till about 4:07.


The married daughter unexpectedly breaks down and starts sobbing, and the mother folds her in her arms, so we see that the daughter is still her child, even if she is fully grown and living on her own. The audience finds out the real purpose of the car trip—the mother has come to console her daughter on her recent miscarriage. The mom had missed her chance to do this when the daughter was in the hospital right after she lost the baby—a gruff doctor had sent the mother away. This moment when the mother finally gets to soothe her daughter in Wilder’s play is so surprising, so poignant. We realize that all those mundane details are just the wrapper, the outside of life, and inside are the incredibly moving moments that sustain us.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 4: Populists and Walt Whitman

The next blog in my series on approaches that U.S. writers take to American society is about a literary stance that is in some ways the diametrical opposite of the expatriate, the subject of my last two posts. I call this type of writer the populist. The populist writes about moments in the American experience that convey a deeper truth. He or she is looking for the inspiration and epiphanies that exist even in seemingly mundane lives or moments. 

The poet Walt Whitman was a populist writer who believed that American life was the greatest possible inspiration for literature. In his preface to his book, Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Whitman adds, “…the genius of the United States is… always most in the common people.” 

Walt Whitman
Whitman took his own advice in choosing subjects for his writing, for instance in “I Hear America Singing”:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I like to imagine Walt Whitman coming up with the idea for this poem by taking a walk in the morning around his neighborhood in Brooklyn, hearing two or three people singing as they work. From that day on, I can imagine that Whitman was alert to the poetic possibilities of people singing, and he collected bits and pieces of other moments to create this collage of different American laborer-singers. 

How beautiful that he starts his poem with, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” We don’t often think of the word “carols” outside of the phrase “Christmas carols,” but it does have a more universal meaning of “song” that Whitman draws on, even as he assigns the sacred connotations of “carol” to work songs, as opposed to religious hymns. Who is singing? The entire continent of America, as though it were a giant folk hero, a Paul Bunyan or John Henry, but with a song instead of a hammer or axe. I like the inverted syntax of “the varied carols I hear,” putting the subject and verb of that clause after the object of the verb, the carols. Beginning and ending the first line with the words “I hear” is a formal rhetorical device that Whitman transforms by using it nonchalantly and making it feel like the most natural, American speech.

Whitman is the essential populist, believing in the goodness and beauty of the common man or woman. He celebrated the dignity of enslaved Africans in his poem “I Sing the Body Electric”:

A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it…


Whitman’s brand of populism is to describe the workingman or woman as embued with dignity, even divinity, almost larger than life. In the next blog, I’ll talk about another form of American populism, one that celebrates the small moments in life.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How to Be an American Writers, Part 3: U.S. Expatriate Writers (continued)

The roster of U.S. expatriate writers is a distinguished one. It includes Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes. In the 1920s and 30s, almost the entire U.S. literary world decamped to Paris and the French Riviera, where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and many others spent a good part of those decades. Of course, part of their interest in the urbane, sophistication of Europe might have had to do with the fact that one could drink alcohol legally there, which was not true in the U.S after the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1920, the beginning of the Prohibition era. Another reason behind the expatriate lifestyle may have been the fact that it was much cheaper to live as an artist in Europe than in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Djuna Barnes
One interesting undercurrent in expatriate writing is the high percentage of gays and lesbians among the authors who left the U.S. Western Europe has long been ahead of our country in its embrace, or at least tolerance, of gay and lesbian lifestyles, and of LGB subject matter in literature. A majority of the expatriate writers I’ve mentioned have been gay or lesbian or bisexual, including Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Natalie Barney, and Henry James.

Even though the U.S. has become somewhat more sophisticated, the expatriate strain in American writing continues to this day. The author David Sedaris is a contemporary expatriate writer. Sedaris, who is openly gay, has purchased and renovated a cottage in Sussex in the U.K. and often writes critically of American naiveté, comparing it unfavorably with English and continental sophistication. All of this might start to sound familiar to those who read my last blog, which discussed Henry James.  

David Sedaris
Here’s David Sedaris’s critique of the attire of American travelers, from his essay “Standing By,” which appeared in The New Yorker, and which you can hear him read in his audiobook, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls:

“…everywhere I go, someone in an eight-dollar T-shirt is whipping out a cell phone and delivering the fine print of his or her delay. One can’t help but listen in, but then my focus shifts and I find myself staring. I should be used to the way Americans dress when travelling, yet still it manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!’”


I’m always reminded when I take an airplane about how we Americans look when we travel. To be frank, it’s often not a pretty sight. Compared to U.S. citizens, Europeans and other nationalities are much better dressed and show much more respect for others in the way they present themselves, both in airports and in general. That European savoir faire is hard to find in the United States, and it’s not just a question of wardrobe. It’s also an outlook on life, an appreciation of beauty and elegance. I think the hunger for those qualities is part of the motivation of the expatriate American writer.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 2: Henry James and the Expatriates

Leaving the U.S. for Leverage

U.S. writers have reacted to Puritanical and materialistic trends in American society in various ways. One way is just to get out, otherwise known as being an expatriate, living outside the U.S.

But leaving the country is not just a form of escape. It gives an author an alternative framework and value system to evaluate U.S. society. “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world,” Archimedes stated. Well, if the lever in this case is literature, certain authors need a place to stand outside our society in order to have leverage to budge it.

Expatriates Outside England and France

U.S. expatriate writers have mostly gravitated to England and France, with some exceptions. There have been a few American writers who have clustered in Morocco, such as Paul and Jane Bowles, and William Burroughs. There’s also Ezra Pound grumbling at the Grand Canal in Venice. The poet Cid Corman lived for many decades in Kyoto, Japan, running an ice cream and cake store with his wife. (I had a letter of introduction to Cid Corman when I visited Japan in 1986, and he asked me to meet him at the store, where I was hoping to learn from his many years of experience as a writer—mostly I learned about ice cream). But, in general, the refined and urbane cultures of the U.K. and Paris have been the draw.

Henry James, the Quintessential Expatriate

To me, the quintessential American expatriate writer is Henry James. James, who was born in 1843, spent much of his life in Europe, including a lot of his childhood. He came from a stellar family. His older brother was the philosopher of spirituality William James. His younger sister was the diarist Alice James—the literary press Alice James Books is named for her.

Henry James
Henry James ultimately purchased and renovated an eighteenth century house in the town of Rye in Sussex in the U.K., where he settled and lived his last twenty years, till his death in 1916.

Henry James wrote twenty-three novels, scores of short stories, many books of criticism and travel writing, and several plays. When I was assigned his novel The Ambassadors in college, I dismissed him as something of a fuddy-duddy. James writes in a way that can seem overly formal these days. Few of his sentences would fit on the screen of a smartphone or a phablet. His plots move as slowly as a rowboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I just didn’t have the patience when I was younger to wait him out.

Getting to Henry James by Way of Tehran

My interest in James was finally kindled, oddly enough, by way of Iran. A couple of years ago I read Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran. In this engaging memoir, Nafisi tells the story of a secret study group of Muslim women who met in her home in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, defying the 1984-like rules of a government that literally burns books. These women risked prison merely by taking part in a reading group.


Interestingly, one of the writers who spoke most directly to these young women who were forced to wear the burka in the streets, was Henry James. James created bold women characters like Daisy Miler who weren’t afraid to flaunt convention by going on an outing in public with a man who is not a family member. This was the sort of “crime” that these women in Tehran were sometimes accused of. The penalty in Iran if caught was to be whipped and ostracized from society. For the women of this reading group, Henry James was a profoundly revolutionary writer. In reading about the lives of these women in Iran, I realized how shocking James was for the readers of his day—not that whipping was a common penalty in New England in 1900, but ostracism was certainly a danger.

The Ambassadors

Among James’s subversive women characters is Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors. Maria is a free spirit, a woman in her thirties who lives by herself in England. That sort of life is almost unimaginable to the novel’s main character, Lambert Strether. His fiancée, a widow from a powerful banking family in the fictional town of Woollett, Massachusetts, sends Strether, the “ambassador,” to France to bring back home her wayward son, Chad. Chad has spent entirely too much time sipping delicious burgundies, eating triple cream cheeses, browsing painting exhibitions, and worst of all, consorting with a widowed French woman who is older than he is. Strether’s mission is to yank this young man back to Woollett, where he is supposed do what all young men of his class are destined for: marry a girl from a family just like his and make gobs of money.

When Strether first meets the freewheeling Maria Gostrey, there is an interesting culture clash, where American enterprise meets the good life of Europe. To begin with, she suggests they go for a walk together in the garden of the hotel where they're both staying Remember, she is an unmarried woman. Here’s how James describes their encounter:

He looked repeatedly at his watch, and when he had done so for the fifth time Miss Gostrey took him up.
“You’re doing something that you think not right.”
It so touched the place that he quite changed color, and his laugh was almost awkward. “Am I enjoying it as much as that?”
“You’re not enjoying it, I think, so much as you ought.”
“I see”he appeared thoughtfully to agree. “Great is my privilege.”
“Oh, it’s not your privilege! It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with yourself. Your failure’s general.”
“Ah, there you are!” he laughed. “It’s the failure of Woollett. That’s general.”
“The failure to enjoy,” Miss Gostrey explained, “is what I mean.”

The failure to enjoy. I think James hit the nail on the head there. The problem with puritanical, entrepreneurial culture in the U.S. is that there is really no space for enjoying the pleasures of an individual’s choosing.

Another book that deepened my appreciation of Henry James is a recent novel about James’s life in Europe called The Master by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín. I recommend it if you are at all interested in James.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about the American expatriate writers of the 1920s like Fitzgerald and Hemingway; the lesbian, gay, and bisexual side of the expatriate literary world; and contemporary expatriates such as David Sedaris.


Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Be an American Writer: Part 1—Introduction

This series of blogs is about how U.S. authors have defined themselves in relation to American society, and what we can learn from different approaches to the question of how to be a writer in the United States.

U.S. writers have often viewed their role in reaction to, or in opposition to, certain currents in our society. There is that great mass of North America that lives seemingly only for the next football game or the upcoming trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios—a pretty banal existence, in my opinion. It’s partly the banality of American life that writers are bucking—the lack of culture and sophistication.

Another current that poets and writers have rebelled against is the Puritan foundations of U.S. society. What is the Puritan mindset? Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was a Boston, Massachusetts, writer who helped both to instigate and apologize for the Salem witch trials. 

Cotton Mather
In his book, A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, Mather wrote: “Behold, Sinners, behold and wonder, lest you perish: the very Devils are walking about our Streets, with lengthened Chains, making a dreadful Noise in our Ears, and Brimstone even without a Metaphor, is making an hellish and horrid stench in our Nostrils. I pray leave off all those things whereof your guilty Consciences may now accuse you, lest these Devils do yet more direfully fall upon you.”

I’m amazed at how real the forces of sin were to the Puritans. “Brimstone even without a metaphor…” Brimstone is another word for sulfur, and the idea that burning sulfur was present in our streets—well, it’s hard to comprehend.

That Puritanical streak may have its roots in the colonies of the seventeenth century, but it is very much alive today in every state of the United States.

Another strain in U.S. culture that writers often rebel against is the obsession with work and business to the exclusion of all other activities. As President Calvin Coolidge famously put it in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business.” What else is there in life besides work and making money?


In the next blog, I’ll discuss expatriate writers, artists who have reacted to mainstream American culture by leaving the country and living abroad.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Working with Director David Ford on Colette Uncensored

Not long ago I finished working with the amazing actor Lorri Holt on the script of a one-woman show called Colette Uncensored, about the life of the French writer Colette. The play is currently running at The Marsh theater in Berkeley, California, with Lorri in the title role.

Lorri Holt as Colette

Lorri and I worked on the script extensively with the director David Ford. I feel as if I learned more about writing in those rehearsals where the three of us took the script apart and put it back together than I learned in most of the rest of my career as a writer, thanks in great part to two wonderful collaborators.

An Accidental Play

The play originated almost by accident. I had always wanted to translate a book by the great French writer Colette that had never appeared before in English. Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 1873–1954) is the author of the works of fiction that the movies Gigi and Cheri are based on, as well as fifty other books and plays.

When I sat myself down more than ten years ago and actually looked through Colette: An Annotated Primary & Secondary Bibliography, I realized that every single full-length book by Colette had already appeared in English translation.

That was extremely disappointing. Years later, though, I went back to that bibliography and read more carefully. I started to match the shorter works of Colette with their English translations and discovered that many of her short stories and her magazine and newspaper articles had not been translated into English.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Brown Foundation Fellows Program at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I spent a month in a villa in France that used to belong to Picasso, and then his lover and model Dora Maar, reading through all the untranslated short works of Colette. I found 200 pages of wonderful short works by Colette that had never been translated into English—a dream come true! I created a rough translation, but wasn’t satisfied that I had done justice to these stylish works, with their many nuances of meaning and their numerous references to French art and drama.

Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island

I contacted Renée Morel, a friend in San Francisco who is absolutely bilingual in French and English. Renée is a walking encyclopedia of French culture and history. She also loves Colette’s writing. After some discussion, Renée and I agreed to finish the translation together, and out of this collaboration came Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and OtherPreviously Untranslated Gems by Colette, published by State University of New York Press.



When Shipwrecked first appeared in October 2014, Renée and I asked the actor Lorri Holt to do several readings in bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lorri, who never does anything halfway, bought a wig to turn her straight blond hair into Colette’s brunette perm, dressed in period clothes from the 1920s, and read all the passages from the book with a polished French accent.

Wait a Second—How Did the Kennedy Center Get into This?

Lorri’s creation of the character of Colette was so engaging that audience members at the bookstore readings suggested we turn the project into a one-woman show about the author’s life. At the same time, Lorri mentioned to me that the Kennedy Center in Washington DC was about to stage a revival of the musical Gigi, based on a novella by Colette. The next day, just out of curiosity, I called the Kennedy Center. “How would you like a staged reading of a play about the author of Gigi to coincide with the revival?” To my amazement, the Kennedy Center agreed. There was only one problem: the play didn’t exist. Lorri and I had to come up with a script in the space of a couple of months.

It was incredibly exciting to travel to the Kennedy Center for the first staged reading of our script in February 2015. Not only did they give us the red-carpet treatment—the space where the reading took place actually had red carpets!

The version of our play that Lorri performed as a one-woman show that evening was very much a work in progress. Lorri read beautifully that night, but the script was not yet theater. Pieces from the book were loosely stitched together with passages of exposition where the character of Colette recites her life story. In a couple of places, we had Lorri take on the voice and gestures of another character and speak a dialogue with herself. 

On to The Marsh

That was the state of the script when Stephanie Weisman, founder and executive/artistic director of The Marsh theater in San Francisco, invited us for a one-night trial performance of the play in October 2015 as part of their Marsh Rising series. We were extremely lucky that Stephanie paired us with their director-in-residence extraordinaire, David Ford. David has collaborated with many of the leading solo performers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Geoff Hoyle, Charlie Varon, and Marga Gomez. San Francisco media have labeled David “the dean of solo performance.”

Director David Ford
Since David’s reputation had preceded him, I was somewhat intimidated when Lorri and I met with him for our first rehearsal/script workshop in the small theater upstairs in The Marsh’s San Francisco home. Lorri, with her innate stage presence, immediately placed herself in a chair at center stage. I sat in the front row, facing her. David chose to sit all the way in the back of the theater—not that it’s a big theater. But his presence there behind me, more felt than seen during Lorri’s reading of that early draft of the script, was somewhat scary.

Like the schoolteacher who doesn’t crack a smile till Christmas, David sat through the first read-through without chuckling at a single joke in the script. Even the most moving sections produced no reaction. When Lorri was done, there was silence. To fill the gap, I raved about her reading. David remained stone-faced.

“Episodic”

Lorri and I waited that day to hear David’s reaction to the script we had poured so much of ourselves into. Finally David looked up from his ever-present iPad, where he is constantly taking notes and sending emails, and peered at us through his round, T.S. Eliot glasses. “Well,” he finally said, “it’s episodic.”

Neither Lorri nor I knew what to make of this cryptic utterance. “That’s not good,” David added, aware that we were not understanding his comment. He explained that the story lacked a unifying theme and an arc. “I think the arc might be personal freedom,” he suggested, with his characteristic critical acumen.

Now, I knew all about story arcs, but somehow it’s very easy to lose track of that basic component of plot when you start with material that has its own logic and integrity, such as the chronology of a real person’s life. How can you tamper with facts and stay true to the story?

After that rehearsal, Lorri and I had many discussions on possible motifs that recurred in the script. The more we talked the more we became convinced that David’s intuitive suggestion of personal freedom was the unifying theme—Colette had moved away from the little town in Burgundy where she grew up in search of more choices, she had left more than one life partner in pursuit of that quest, she had explored her bisexuality, she had eschewed the traditional roles of woman and mother, and she had resisted the Nazis’ deportation of her third husband (a Jew). So we reworked the script with the author’s pursuit of personal freedom as the bridge among the episodes, staying true to fact, but inventing scenes that fit with the historical record. The theme  of personal freedom felt extremely familiar to both me and Lorri, since we came of age during the freewheeling 1960s. But the script was still far from done.

Cut, Cut, Cut

The more we worked with David, the more he insisted we cut the script to the bare bones. We were chopping so much that Lorri consulted Geoff Hoyle, who had also worked with David. Geoff reassured Lorri, joking that the director’s name should be David “We Don’t Need That” Ford. We certainly heard those words from David over and over, till we learned the knack of what we could cut ourselves.

Not that our script was overly long, but the excess exposition didn’t leave room for what was alive in the story to emerge. You have to prune the dead leaves before the plant will grow new ones.

Much of the most vital material in the script was the dialogue where Lorri played different characters interacting with one another. Once we made the cuts, other characters began to appear. The more characters we added, the more Lorri rose to the challenge and created new gestures, voices, and personalities for important figures in Colette’s life, from her utopian socialist, bossy mother; to her sophisticated player of a second husband, the Baron Henry de Jouvenel; to her gangly stepson/lover; to the author’s angry and estranged grown daughter.  

Trust the Actor

David made me see that an actor like Lorri could do much of the heavy lifting merely by saying one word with the right intonation. For instance, at the point where Colette’s marriage to the Baron Henry de Jouvenel is breaking up, I had written a rather long explanation where the character of Colette tries to connect an advice column that she wrote with the author’s own crumbling marriage.

“Just say one word: Henry,” David suggested. “The audience will understand.” And they did, thanks to Lorri’s skill at making that word represent an entire period in the author’s life.

From PG to Uncensored

Part of the play’s unusual origin was that it began at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, a free venue where the public is welcome. For the reading in DC, Lorri and I had to agree to produce a version of Colette’s life that would be appropriate for all ages. But much of the author’s life is not very suitable for young people, including her multiple affairs, her various divorces, and her complicated intimate relationship with her own stepson.

Not only that, there was the issue of Colette’s questionable activity during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Colette’s husband at the time was Jewish, and he was nearly deported to a death camp, but her personal intervention with the German ambassador’s wife spared him. Colette also continued to publish during the occupation, unlike some writers who went underground and joined the resistance, or fled the country.

In leaving out ethically ambiguous or risqué episodes in the original PG version of the play, we had cut out much of the story’s complexity and interest.

“Find the Darkest Hour”

Here, David Ford’s insight also proved invaluable. When he heard our revised script, he still was not satisfied. “You’re going to have to show us Colette’s darkest hour,” David insisted in his paradoxically soft-spoken manner. We had gotten close to that by including the moment where the Gestapo arrested her husband. But we had skirted the depth of her despair, both during her husband’s internment, and during the five-year Nazi occupation of France. We had also avoided dealing with her complex affair with her teenage stepson, and her conflicts with her grown daughter.

It was only when we found Colette’s bleakest moment, during the air raids in the midst of World War II, that the play was able to rise to her later triumph, and the ending surfaced.


David’s ideas, often delivered in crisp, Zen riddles, were crucial in helping us create a finished script that Lorri has turned into a five-month run at The Marsh theater in San Francisco, to great critical acclaim. In the end, Lorri, David, and I had great fun working together on the play. I hope you get to see it!

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer