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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Author Day on Beat Street: Cries from the Heart

My mother was sitting in the front seat and we were parked on a side street in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I was in the back seat, six or seven years old, and we were about to go shopping for shoes.

"I've tried all my life to be a good person," she said. "Why can't I be thin?"

It was the first time my mother had ever spoken freely to me about her feelings and I had no idea what to say. I just listened, I think, though I may have said, "I don't know" or "What?" To me, she was just my mom. I didn't notice her weight or care much about it.

As I got older, I learned more of my mother's struggles with weight and how quickly it would go up and down throughout the year. But what struck me most on that day was that she chose, for better or worse, to confide something that she would never say to most anyone else. As children, we generally speak openly about our deepest fears and desires. As adults, not so much, because we know we can be shot down so easily.

Playwrights and novelists are always looking for those moments because they make the kind of drama people will stand out in the rain to see. For want of a better phrase, I think the French call them "cri de coeur" -- a cry from the heart.

As an experiment, I decided to recall some of these cries (without identifying them) to share some of the moments that inspired me as a playwright.

"I really don't know the first thing about friends. I never had any."

"All I ever really wanted was a family."

"You don't follow rules. You just barge through them. I, on the other hand, never learned to live my own life."

"I've had a lot of sex, but a relationship? I don't know what that means."

"Do you think people like me?"

"You have the possibility to be great. All I have are my looks. And who knows how long that'll last?"

These are just a few examples, and though I haven't used them verbatim, I've kept them packed away in my bag of tricks because it's our job as writers and playwrights to capture stand-out moments and make them relatable to an audience.

If you are a writer, you look for those moments and hopefully, remember them. If not, well, that's what notebooks are for. And you don't need to reveal who the person is saying them-- fact it's best if you don't.

But hold on to them, for sure. They may open a door to even deeper stories and confidences. Including your own.

Before I go, I also want to share this link from Books Go Social with middle-grade and YA book ideas for the holidays--including The Beat on Ruby's Street. Hope you'll check it out!

Woman at window photo: Claudia Dea

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Standup in the Fifties

Some of you know that before I became a playwright I was an actor (do people say actress anymore)? When I worked at the Renaissance Faire in New York, I met a woman named Lois who wanted to be a stand up comedian.

One day on the bus to the Faire, a friend of hers asked if she was going to "work out" after the weekend. It turns out "work out" meant doing stand up in a comedy club when they opened the floor to newcomers.

I loved this idea and still wonder at the courage it took for Lois and her friends to stand up in front of a (hopefully) large-enough group of people and try to make them laugh. In earlier years, comedians had police to deal with, too.

This week I started watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and it's hitting a lot of sweet spots for me--set in the 1950s during Beat Generation days, with a great female comic character at its center. (And yes, I'm partial to funny ladies.) She is also in scenes with some extraordinary comics from the era--Lenny Bruce being one of them

While the 1950s are often thought of as super-squeaky clean, comedians like Lenny Bruce, Beat Generation artists and a raft of other people proved otherwise. Bruce, for example, was arrested multiple times for using "obscene" words and had to endure an obscenity trial. He was found guilty (though later pardoned after his death).

In the first two episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the lead character is arrested for obscenity as well. She too, is found guilty in court. I found all of this interesting as I am working on book 2 of the Beat Street Series, which centers on a female comedy writer who loses her job due to the Blacklist. (See last week's post for more on this).

In any case, seeing what happened to Lenny Bruce and what other writers and comedians went through in the 1950s makes me think the word "standup" has a double meaning. Comedians were standing up in front of audiences baring their souls while trying to be funny. They were also standing up for something else--the right to free speech.

Which mostly means (to me, and I'm not lecturing) that they gave us quite a gift -- whether they themselves were gifted or not. So by the time my friend Lois went to "work out" her monologues in front of an audience, she didn't have to worry about being arrested for using certain words.

I hope that's always true from now on... for all of us.

If you want to talk more about his, please join me at "Holiday Happiness" on Facebook next Saturday, December 9 at 4 p.m. Central time. We can talk about anything, really -- and you can win a free paperback of The Beat on Ruby's Street or a $5 Amazon gift card.

Performer: Blewt Productions

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Writing in History: Sharing the "Red Scare" with Middle Schoolers

I first started working on The Beat on Ruby's Street because of spending time in Greenwich Village when my older sister moved there with her family. I loved the history all around me and thought it would be fun to explore the Beat Generation culture and set my story there.

That sent me on a journey that led me to exploring the poetry, writing and art of the 1950s and early 1960s, and now brings me to book two of the Beat Street Series, called Fool's Errand. Set again in 1958, it pits Ruby and her best friend Sophie against the infamous Blacklist, which robbed many writers of their livelihoods and hurt numerous families.

When you're working on a historical novel, I've found the trick isn't so much the research - though of course you need to do that to figure out what was going on at the time you're writing about. The trick for me is situating your characters inside that historical time and seeing how it affects them.

As it happens, the Blacklist was starting to wind down in 1958 and times weren't nearly as crazy as they were about 10 years earlier. But there still was a Blacklist, which allows me to plunk it down in the middle of my story and mess up everyone's life (because that's what writers do).

Because Sophie's mother is a comedy-show writer, she is deeply affected by the Blacklist and loses her job. Fool's Errand focuses on what happens to Sophie, her mother and Ruby during this time.

What was most interesting to me about the Blacklist was how it bred a culture of fear, not only in the minds of those affected, but in people who worried about being affected. I think what happens when countries are led by people whose main purpose is to control them--confusing the word "govern" with control--is that the country becomes sick, like someone with the flu. And the sickness spreads through fear, which keeps people from speaking up and rebelling.

While writing this new story, I've also started thinking about our own times, and whether the Blacklist years have anything to teach us about government, power and the way we react. 

Because my characters are growing up in the heart of the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village, they tend to be rebellious. I hope this leads them to fight fear and use whatever they have to stay strong and free. That doesn't mean they won't get hurt along the way--but it does mean they're going to get up again and keep trying. That's what I want middle schoolers to know--and why I landed on this book.

Fool's Errand should be out in 2018.

For more information on the Blacklist, try these links:

Blacklist Profiles: 7 Writers and Actors Who Defied Hollywood

The Red Scare Comes to Hollywood

Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and the Fear of Hollywood Communism


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Waiting Games

Pop quiz:

Q: What takes forever no matter how short it's supposed to be?

A: Waiting.

It's part of life, and it's everywhere, and of course in some countries much, much worse than others. The lines in Eastern European countries like Poland and Russia, for example, are said to be legendarily long.

But there are other ways of waiting that don't involve lines, and they drive us crazy, too. Waiting for a test to come back from the doctor. Waiting for someone you like to call you or respond to a call or text. Waiting on a job offer, or to find out whether you got into a college or not.

How do YOU deal with waiting? I was always better at giving my son advice about it than at doing it myself. Because waiting is awful, no matter what your situation may be.

You can tell yourself (or your kid) to be patient, that a watched pot never boils, think of something else, all that good stuff... but in the end, your question still hangs in your mind and you have to deal with your anxiety/anger/impatience all the same.

Waiting is the last thing most of us want to do, yet we spend a ton of time doing it.

The only possible, sort of solution I've come up with is to think of what you'll do if you don't get what you're waiting for.

But then, impatience was always my strong suit.

 If you have any ideas, please! I'll be waiting to hear from you.

Child and dog waiting: Valentina Powers

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sick Child Plus Working Parent Should Not = Panic

The first time my son got sick he was barely a few months old, and it threw me into a panic. My curious, active, babbling infant was listless, feverish and clearly uncomfortable. Of course, it was a weekend, so our pediatrician's office wasn't open. I had no idea what to do.

I ended up calling a friend who was kind enough to accompany me to urgent care. The nurses and doctor were great, explaining that my son had a mild flu and just needed rest and fluids. I didn't know it then, but this first flu was actually the first of several childhood illnesses we'd encounter together.

As any mother will tell you, childhood illnesses are no fun, but they do get easier when you learn to navigate them. It's best if you can expect them, but we very rarely do, especially if we're working. I was lucky in a lot of ways, because I pretty much got to be a stay-at-home mother until my son was three and a half and his dad and I divorced. At that point I went to work part time and had a very understanding boss.

Which brings me to the dilemma of what parents do when they don't have support at work or help from relatives and their kids get sick. I feel like we've been punting too long about this issue and need to have more than just "Paid Time Off" for parents who have to tend to their children's illnesses. Chicken pox, measles and other childhood diseases often last at least a week, and sometimes the flu does, too. We need to give parents the time to take care of their children.

This doesn't even touch the dilemmas faced by parents whose children have chronic illnesses and who are therefore severely limited in their choices for work and just about everything. Talk about heroes. Talk about ignored.

What I learned when I went back to work was that I had to build a support system of people I truly trusted, so when my son was ill, I had some help. I did not have parents or siblings nearby who could be there, but I did find some really amazing people - friends and professionals -- who got me and my kid through illnesses when I had to travel or work.

One thing I found comforting was knowing there was a child care group that looked after sick children that wasn't too far from our neighborhood. (I think it was called Chicken Soup or something like that). I never used it, but just being aware it was around always made me panic less when my son came down with something.

Meanwhile, I started out by looking for help at a college just a few blocks from our house. My son's father also found someone who loved children and was absolutely amazing with them, and I can honestly say I don't know what I would have done without her.

Because there are times when you have to work, and when your kid is ill, and you are absolutely dependent on people who are not related to you. So if I have any advice, it is to start looking for them as soon as your child is born (or maybe even before that)?

Because, trust me, those childhood illnesses will come. And you want to be ready for them.

Here's what I found on this topic that might be interesting, too:

How to Handle Work When Your Child is Sick

The Working Parent's Guide to Dealing with Sick Kids

How to Juggle Work and a Sick Child

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Chickens for a City Mouse

Today I want to tell you about my block--or street, or whatever you call it. My house is about in the middle, so I have a good vantage point looking at either side.

One side is "city" or at least "city-like," with a gas station, chiropractic office, ski store and other businesses lining the street perpendicular to ours. I do love having the chiropractic/massage office, which looks like a large log cabin with a fireplace. I especially appreciate being able to walk there at the end of a writing day when my back is all kinked up -- and be able to get unkinked.

The other side is somehow rural -- and yes, maybe that's a stretch. It's mostly houses, and they're fairly close together for the most part, so maybe rural isn't the right word. But what countrifies it is the chickens - as you can see, there are lots of them -- either penned or walking around the yard of our neighbor on this corner.

The chicken spill out sometimes onto the road when I am driving to or from my tiny garage into the alleyway, and I wait for them. Brown or white (never both), roosters and hens, they seem happy to roam around and check out the neighborhood. I like them, and I love watching them.

I think my neighbors eat them, and that kind of makes me sad, though I have no standing, because I buy and eat store-bought chicken. But still.

As a child I couldn't decide if I wanted to live in the city or the country, and our one-hundred-and-three-year-old house in the middle of this particular block seems to know that, somehow. I live on the edge of a bigger city, but my little burg is only 6 blocks long and 6 blocks wide, and I actually know the people who work at city hall. That's something I never expected when I moved to the Midwest from New York City.

There are days when I really want to leave the neighborhood for more space and a more rural area. There are other days when I love being in the center of the city, and can't imagine not being able to walk to a bookstore or a restaurant.

Something about the chickens, though.

I know lots of people have them in urban settings, and always have, and that just having chickens in your neighborhood doesn't make it a rural one. But it just feels that way, probably because at heart I will always be more of a city mouse.

Then again, who knows? Maybe living with more space around my house is still in the cards for me. At this point, though, I'm still in the middle. And that's OK.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Smack, Punch, Slap: What the Movies Can't Teach About Reality

Something I realized watching TV last night: people are always hauling off and hitting each other.

Bar fights, food fights, country, city, fights between women, women and men and of course tons of fights between men happen in almost everything we see. They happen in movies, too.

So, yes, Virginia, you are likely saying, you only just noticed this?

Yes and no.

No, because I realize how violent most shows are (even for kids) and grew up seeing violence in movies. Yes, I'm just realizing it because I was ignoring it for so long.

But why, you ask, are you mentioning it now?

The other day I was thinking how easy it is to accept the violence we're seeing every day is normal. But would you seriously hit a co-worker (and knock him down, no less) because he said something that bugged you?

And suppose you do decide to hit that co-worker. Won't there be consequences?

I promise you there will, especially in today's easy-to-sue climate. So is just telling your kids not to hit someone enough?

(Ah, now, she's finally getting to the point).

No it's not, but how do you explain it? I would start by talking about the difference between story, which thrives on conflict, and reality, which eats conflicts and regurgitates them in your face. I just think it's important to talk with kids about this stuff, just as you would when reading a story about a child who meets a stranger in the park and starts talking to him. (And yes, there are still such stories).

Stories will show people doing all sorts of things that don't seem to net many consequences. If there are consequences, chances are they won't happen to everyone, and often not to the "hero" in the story.

Reality, on the other hand, shows us there are often no heroes and LOTS of consequences. So it's wise to keep practicing words with your kids that can be used to reply people who are annoying you. And if some kind of physical outlet is needed, using sports (including boxing) is a good idea too, as long as you can separate the sport from everyday reality too.

Another interesting exercise is to choreograph a fight with your child -- just to show him or her what professional actors and directors have to do to make something look real. I wish my dad or someone had showed me how to fake a fight, because it would have given me a whole new perspective without the preachy tones of "Don't hit. Don't fight."

Would have made a lot more sense, too, in creating a gulf between what we see on the screen and what we actually experience.

For more information on talking to kids about violence on the big and small screens, start here:

How to Talk to Kids About Violence
5 Ways to Talk to Your Child About Violence
Empathy: Teaching Kids to Value Others

Fighting boy: Phillipe Put