Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue: Part 1, Roots

            A dramatic monologue is a short piece of writing, often a poem, spoken by a persona who is not the author. The speaker can be a fictional character, a real person now alive, or a historical personage.
                        The most famous examples of dramatic monologue come from the work of the English poet Robert Browning, including “Andrea del Sarto,” spoken in the voice of that great Renaisance painter as he looks back on his life. It was in this poem that Browning wrote some of his most widely quoted lines:

                                    Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
                                                Or what’s a heaven for?

Browning’s other famous dramatic monologue is
“My Last Duchess,” a murder mystery written in heroic couplets.

The dramatic monologue reached a peak in the work of Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote Spoon River Anthology, a collection of 244 pieces in the voices of various characters speaking from the grave. Together the poems create a surprisingly contemporary exposé of small-town life, broaching such taboo subjects as frustrated passions, abortion, and the lasting effects of war on veterans. Masters originally serialized the monologues in a newspaper and published them in a best-selling book. He never lived to see their performance as a successful play—his book was not adapted for the stage until after his death. 
             Many of my favorite dramatic monologues are by African American poets. Black American writers kept the form vital for many decades, while White American writers were absorbed in autobiographical confessional poetry. There are so many terrific dramatic monologues by African American poets, spanning the last century: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Party,” Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Pool Players,” June Jordan’s “From The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones” and “Unemployment Monologue,” Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls… (written entirely in dramatic monologues), and Sekou Sundiata’s “Space” from his play The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop. If you visit the website of Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, you can hear a wonderful reading of Dunbar's "The Party."
               The Academy Award-winning actress Alfre Woodard recites a dramatic monologue from for colored girls… in this video from the original PBS version of Ntozake's Shange's play. This video has another fantastic monologue from Shange's now classic play, starting about the 6:00 mark.
                The late, great Sekou Sundiata used to recite his amazing monologue "Space," which almost single-handedly created the spoken word movement. “But that's another bop,” to quote Sekou. I once asked him how he got his name, and he told me, “Sekou Sundiata is my nom de guerre.”
                More on the dramatic monologue in my next blogs, including the advantages and disadvantages of the form, and suggestions for how to get started writing one of your own.

The Dramatic Monologue, Part 2: Pros and Cons

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on 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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, October 19, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 10

To sustain your work as a writer, you not only have to write the books that you can successfully complete, you also have to write the books you were meant to write.
When I started writing, I wanted to be exactly like the artists I admired. They included the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and oddly enough, the French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who was not a writer, but whose attitude and politics I admired. So I imitated them at first. When I got to college, the poets my literature professors promoted as role models were Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. There are still many things I admire about those two, as much as I find their politics extremely distasteful. I especially admire their multilingual and international approach to literature, and the originality of their diction. When I’m trying to get my eight-year-old son into his shoes and jacket and out the door, I still find myself saying out loud these lines from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky

As soon as I started to meet people my age who also hoped to be writers, I wanted to write like my junior-year-in-college roommate and fellow poet, who admired André Breton and the French surrealists. Surrealism continues to be a lighthouse for me, even though my acid-head roommate ended up becoming a minister, but that’s another story.
In general, the trick is not to write like the authors you admire, but to find the way that you, personally, were meant to write.
There’s a famous story about the 18th century Hasidic leader, Rabbi Zusya. Hasidism is the mystical branch of Judaism. The story goes like this:
Once, the great religious leader Rabbi Zusya went to speak to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
“Zusya, you look terrified. What's the matter?” asked one of his followers.
“The other day, I had a vision,” Zusya responded. “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
His followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you’re pious, scholarly, and humble. You’ve helped so many of us. What question could you be afraid of?”
Zusya turned his gaze to heaven. “I’ve learned that the angels won’t ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ The angels won’t ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’ The angels will say to me, ‘Zusya, there was only one thing that no power in heaven or on earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They’ll say, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’” 

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10

Monday, October 15, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 9

Another important thing to do in order to sustain a career as a writer is to carve out a space for yourself in the literary community. I know that sounds abstract, maybe even impossible or of questionable value, since it has little to do with literature as such. But carving out a space for yourself in the world of letters is a very tangible thing. To use a metaphor from my hometown of New York, it’s a bit like entering a crowded subway car where everyone is packed in tight. 

It may not look like there’s space in there, but you’ve got to make the space by your presence, by your urgency, and by your desire to be included.
Think about the accomplished writers you know. They have all made room for their voices in the literary world. How? There are many ways: by the moral authority of their words, by the honesty and accuracy of the testimony they provide as a writer, by their humor, by the width of their heart and the well of their compassion, by the brain power of their words and craft, by their knowledge of literature, by their ability to yank us into the stories they tell. Each writer has her or his own magical formula. But every writer you can think of whom you admire has done this—created a space or niche in the world of letters that is occupied only by that person. It’s a niche that remains empty until that writer walks into the room and claims it. It’s a niche that no one else can quite occupy after that writer passes away. You have to have the authority and the will to claim a space like that, a space that is your very own. To do that, you have to find the work that you were meant to write. I'll discuss that aspect of writing in my next blog.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 8

  One word of caution: never let writing become your path to bitterness. There are thousands and thousands of other writers out in the world. Some are going to become more successful than you, however one measures success. Some are going to be less successful than you. Some are going to get where they’re going faster than you. It’s easy to grit your teeth at the success of writers whose work you don’t admire that much.
But it’s a short step from there to becoming the literary version of the Grinch, to feeling neglected, underappreciated, and ignored. Feelings like that can overwhelm your literary life, and make the thing you love so much—writing—become the source of your greatest gall. But I believe that writing should never become your path to bitterness.
How can you prevent this? It’s not always easy. For one thing, you should celebrate your own moments of triumph, even your small triumphs.
If you’ve given yourself a writing assignment or set yourself a writing goal, and you’ve completed part of it to your satisfaction, even a first draft, enjoy that moment. Give yourself a virtual pat on the back. Pause to enjoy that accomplishment. Then get down to the hard work of revising.
If you get a poem or a story or an essay accepted by a publication, that is an event worth celebrating. Tell someone. Eat a favorite sweet. Jump up in the air.
If you get a book accepted, do all of the above and break out the champagne, or whatever you consume to mark an incredibly special day.
If you’re lucky enough to get nominated for a literary prize and there is an awards ceremony associated with the prize, do everything you can to attend the ceremony, even if it’s on the other side of the country.
Make sure your own successes are sufficiently marked so you feel rewarded, acknowledged, valued, fulfilled, and energized.
When you do a reading, face the audience. Look individuals in the eye. Take in fully their appreciation of your work. When your reading is done, make eye contact with the audience. Acknowledge the applause. Bow. Smile. Do not sit down or leave the podium until the applause starts to subside. Make sure it registers on your consciousness, and on the audience, that you have understood their appreciation. When you receive positive comments afterwards, savor them, the way you would a slice of dark chocolate torte, one morsel at a time.
The more deeply you feel appreciated as a writer, the easier it is to empathize with the success of other writers, and to share and enjoy their successes with them, and to praise your peers.
We’re still human, we’re still going to feel jealousy, but if taken in the context of gratitude for a career as a writer, those jealous moments become more comic than tragic.

Other recent posts about writing topics:

Monday, October 8, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 7: Community

I strongly believe that the single most important thing you can do to sustain your career as a writer is to participate actively in a community of writers and/or fans of literature. If there is a group of writers, however small, who are eager to read or hear the next thing you write, that creates an enormous amount of support for starting new work, and for finishing ongoing projects. This community could also be friends, a partner, or family who are fans of your writing.
The most obvious form of writing community is a writer’s group. A writer’s group is a great way to share your work, gather information about publishing opportunities, celebrate small and large triumphs, and commiserate about disappointments.
I’ve been in a poetry group in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1987, when I first moved there. It’s called Thirteen Ways, named partly for Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and partly for the diversity of styles and aesthetics in the group. The membership has changed over two and half decades. We’ve stopped meeting for years at a time, but there is a core of three of us who’ve been getting together for most of the last twenty-five years.
We meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon. We start off with a potluck, along with lots of juicy literary gossip and informal exchange of information about where we’re sending our work these days. We share our best quinoa recipes or the goodies we’ve bought. It’s social; it’s fun; the food is delicious. That’s important in sustaining a group.
The work part of the group is a three-hour round robin, where each member gets to read recent work. We all jump in and critique, starting with positive comments. Then the sharks arrive. I don’t mind feeding the sharks, as long as they don’t go for the jugular, since I am there to improve my writing. If I get some strokes, I like the shark bites.
When we first started the group, only one member had had a full-length manuscript published. By now, that’s true of every member of the group. The list of awards the members have garnered is quite impressive: the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, the Poets Out Loud contest, the May Swenson first book prize, and a gift certificate to a local yarn store. The last one was my award. I’m sure we would have gotten those honors without the group (especially the yarn certificate), but the writers group has certainly helped all of us grow as authors; polish our work; and most importantly, stay in the game. We’ve also given numerous readings together where we’ve shared our audiences. We trade information about where to send work, which editors like what sort of work, reading opportunities, favorite TV shows, etc.
It may not be convenient or comfortable for many writers to be in a group like that. Novelists and prose writers in general need to give other readers longer extracts in order to get meaningful feedback, which creates some logistical problems in a writers group. But I do recommend writers groups, provided that the company and the literary styles are compatible. That’s a big “if.” I‘ve been in groups that didn’t click, because one or two personalities dominated—often not the best writers in the group, by the way. Like any partnership, it’s vital to have the right chemistry.
Community is important to writers for their careers but it’s also one of the most fun things about being a writer. Many of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life are writers. That is one great pleasure of being part of this cadre of inspired misfits.
If the idea or the reality of a writer’s group doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to be involved in a community of writers. You can correspond with individual writers, connect via Facebook or other social networks, or just mail or email manuscripts back and forth. Your community can be a virtual one.
Speaking of virtual communities, I think writers who create fictions—novels, stories, dramas—have a different type of community that helps sustain them. In an odd way, I think your characters become a sort of community. They move into your head, where they take the liberty of carrying on their conversations and their fights with you as the witness—not paying a dime of rent, by the way. They become a presence in your world. When you finish a work, you miss their company. Novelists and playwrights can survive with less community for this reason, I think. Maybe that’s part of why people write novels and plays, to create that community in their imagination.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 6

One thing that’s vital in sustaining your career as a writer is to keep a balance between your engagement with the world, and your distance from it. Virginia Woolf famously argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” By that I think Woolf meant that a writer needs solitude and time to create, two things that are extremely difficult without money and space. 

                                           Virginia Woolf

Solitude and time are often hard to come by in a world filled with jobs, debts, searching for jobs, crowded housing, children, aging parents, problematic relationships, health challenges, and so many other important things to pay attention to. Giving yourself and getting the time to work on your writing is sometimes a matter of complex negotiation with your boss, or your loved ones, or yourself—sometimes the most difficult person to work out a deal with. We risk being accused of selfishness if we demand time for our writing, at the expense of any of our other commitments. There is no easy way to cross this narrow log over the rushing stream. You just have to keep your footing and look straight ahead at the opposite bank.
But distance from the world is not the only thing important to a writer. Immersion in the world is equally important for an author. The things that may be pulling you away from your writing today will be the material for your work in a few years, whether it’s the ones you love, or used to love, or would like to love if only they’d realize how much they need you. It could also be a political cause, your students, or the neighbor you shop for occasionally—all the ways you are knotted to the world are important, both on their own and for your soul as a writer. As Ezra Pound says in ABC of Reading, “More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.” And he should know, right? Pound was notorious for being a great stylist with a feeble sense of humanity. Any engagement with the world that builds your character and your soul can ultimately be good for your writing, even if it takes away from your writing time in the short run. 

It is possible to go too far into the room of one’s own, to become so involved in one’s own thoughts and struggles that engagement from the world is weakened. Writers are seekers, aren’t we? Seekers of truth and beauty. But not all seekers are writers, not by a long shot. We’ve all known writers and/or seekers, talented and sensitive souls, whose knots to the world become unraveled because they have gone too deeply into their own thoughts, and their own internal worlds. It’s a real danger, particularly for writers who are among the most visionary and daring, since their minds crave that solitary and unique undersea world of the imagination. It’s best to dive into that world for limited times, to come up for air occasionally, and not resurface too quickly. There is such a thing as getting the bends from a literary standpoint, or having your lifeline cut, and humans can’t live long in the domain of chameleon squids and bioluminescent fish.
That balance between immersion in the world and distance looks different for each person. The Japanese poet Yosano Akiko raised eleven children and helped found a school for girls, but she was still able to write more than 20,000 tanka poems and eleven books of prose, not to mention translate the classic Tale of Genji into contemporary Japanese. For Yosano Akiko, deep immersion in the world was what she needed to harvest the material for her writing. 

                        Yosano Akiko (holding baby) and her family

The poet Frank O’Hara was known for writing his poems in crowded cafes, surrounded by chattering friends. 

                                             Frank O'Hara (left) and friends

For a writer such as the French novelist Marcel Proust, the opposite was true. Proust had only a passing involvement with other people, though he avidly attended Paris salons and entertained guests at the Ritz Hotel, where he lived. He seemed unconnected to people and superficial to many, even to the perceptive. This seemed to be so true of Proust that when he submitted the first volume of his novel, Swann’s Way, the great novelist André Gide rejected the book out of hand for the publisher la Nouvelle Revue Française. Gide just assumed that the Marcel Proust he knew socially could never write a serious book. 

                                         Marcel Proust

Ultimately, Proust lived primarily for his writing, even to the point of befriending people because he thought they would make good characters for his novel In Search of Lost Time, which he spent his whole life writing. The human being Proust may have been closest to was his housekeeper.
From what I’ve heard about him, the Alaskan writer John Haines was most at home as a writer when he lived in a cabin on a homestead far from any city or town. 

                                 John Haines outside his cabin in Alaska

On the other hand, Haines also found time to marry five different women, so he did achieve a counterpoint of his own sort between solitude and engagement.
The balance looks different for each writer, but you have to find that balance for yourself, the one that allows you to be at home both on land and in the kelp forests. Emulate the sea otter, which swims like a fish but breathes the sweet sea air.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 5

In Buddhism there is a term “right livelihood,” which refers to making a living in a way that is in harmony with your spiritual principles. As a writer, you also need a “right livelihood,” one that is in harmony with the demands of being a writer. Or, you can marry someone rich with a cute English accent, not a bad alternative. That works, provided you remain in touch with something you are passionate about.
Barring that, pick a career and a lifestyle that allows you time for your writing. Writing is a time-consuming activity. Even if you’re writing haiku—especially if you’re writing haiku—you need mental time to process your writing. I think of our creative thought processes as working like laundromat dryers, where you watch the clothes going round and round, in endless combinations.

You need your thoughts to circulate like that, for the shirts to get tangled up in the sheets and the pants in the shirts, in order for the right creative combination to occur. Make time to go walking or jogging or skiing or swimming, where all you do is think and compose in your head. Allow new thoughts and word combinations to mix in with your brain waves.
The English Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to compose their poems while hiking. 

                                                           William Wordsworth

                                                        Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wordsworth and Coleridge did this first on England’s southern coast, and later in the Lake District. They took so many walks along the coast that faced France, and their writings were so radical, that the English government suspected they were plotting to find a landing site for the troops of the French Revolution to invade England. So the government assigned a spy to follow Wordsworth and Coleridge on their hikes, just in case. All the spy got to witness was a few sonnets in the making, but I wonder what that spy was thinking when he followed the poets on their romps through the rainy countryside of England. “Kubla Khan—hmm. That must be some kind of code.” “What do the daffodils stand for: maybe Robespierre?”
One thing you can do to sustain your career as a writer is to choose a type of work that allows you time to think about writing, and to write. That doesn’t mean you need a job where you can sit and type sestinas all day at your computer, though few of us would complain about being paid for writing poetry. But there are some careers that feed your writing, and others that starve it. A career that feeds your writing is not necessarily teaching writing or literature. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer on the payroll of an insurance company, which in those days, was a relatively low-pressure job, I imagine. Gary Snyder worked as a watchman on a fire tower for the Park Service and wrote many terrific poems while he did that. Th poet May Swenson had jobs as a stenographer and secretary for decades while she wrote most of her best poems. For years the poet Li-Young Lee worked as a clerk in a book warehouse, but the job allowed him the privacy and mental space he needed to develop as a writer. I’m not suggesting you get a dead-end job—you should have a career that fulfills you professionally.
But some careers do make it almost impossible to write. I doubt you can be in charge of a major business or nonprofit organization or a major part of a business or organization, where you have to supervise many employees, and still write actively. I don’t think you can be in a corporate law firm where there’s pressure to make partner. It’s the mental time as well as the actual writing time that suffers in that sort of job. I’ve never known a writer who had a job like that. For one thing, they’d never hire us, and rightly so. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong about this, if someone knows a counter-example.
If you don’t know if a job will allow you the mental and physical time to write, try it out. You’ll find out soon enough.
Use your time wisely, as our seventh grade teachers used to tell us. People who get hooked on watching multiple old TV series all the time may have fun with that hobby, but they rarely finish writing books.
Another important method for saving time for your literary work is to think through an idea before you start writing it, the way a chess master looks many moves ahead before pushing even a pawn one space forward. Play out the possible combinations, to see if you have any place to go with that idea. If you see that the moves you plan will lead to an insurmountable problem, try a different idea later. That will save you time.

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