Sondheim Wisdom for All of Us

I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals.  For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).

I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth.  I judge them according to three things:

1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)

2) Lyrics

3) Music

I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t.  And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?

I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process.  Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:

A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.

Sounds like a story, right?

That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him.  This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:

One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.

Amen.

Crazy Fascinating Interview with Bob Shacochis

Like August Wilson and his plays, Shacochis is a novel-a-decade kind of writer. The reviews are saying his latest is well worth the wait. I haven’t read The Woman Who Lost Her Soul yet but I certainly will, especially having heard him read from it a couple weeks ago at the local reading series.

The LA Review of Books recently published an epic-length email interview about the epic. Here is one of my favorite bits:

Q: Could you say something about how the book’s structure evolved? Every time I think you’ve pushed a scene as far as it can possibly go — you find a way to push it one step farther. In the process more layers of character are revealed. How deliberate is this?

A: The explanation for the structure is a bit dramatic — perhaps psychodramatic would be the more accurate description. The novel is divided into five interior books, and as I was closing in on the finish of Book One, I had to confront — for genuine medical reasons — the likelihood that I was about to die. Accepting that outcome, I decided to create a sense of closure around the denouement of Book One. Even though the narrative closure is misleading and downright false, Book One could still be published autonomously should I indeed croak. That sword of impending death was still hanging over me by the time I wrote Books Two and Three. If I died, Grove Atlantic would still be able to publish my unfinished work as finished. One novella — Croatia — and two small novels. By the time I was working on Books Four and Five, the medical crisis had passed, and I had every reason to believe I wasn’t dying quite yet, which means I was free to go ahead and write those last two books without fretting that they needed to close in a way that was a full stop, narratively speaking. That’s the simple explanation for why the book is structured the way it is. I was looking at eternity, trying to hedge my bets.

Whoa.

Margaret Atwood & Hope

…if you don’t value people you don’t wish to communicate with them. And any writing is a form of communication, just as any writing is a form of hope.

Because think of what you’re hoping for: you’re hoping, number one, that you’ll finish whatever it is you’re writing; number two, that it will be comprehensible; number three, that your message will somehow reach another human being; number four, that they will open that bottle that’s washed up on the shore, and they will take out the message, and they will be able to read it; and number five, that they will be able to comprehend it and derive meaning from it. And that’s a pretty long list of hopes.

This quote comes from the end of an interview Margaret Atwood gave with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s show, BOOKWORM. For most of the interview, they talked about her latest book, Maddaddam, the third of a trilogy.

If you are a writer and unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend you start downloading the podcasts. You can listen to the whole interview here.

Some thoughts:

Atwood’s words remind me of what I’ve started to call the “Stevie Wonder Principle:” It’s not a religion, people. It’s a relationship.  Writing can become, quite fast, a religion.  We have our ceremonies (prizes, readings, book signings), and rituals (turning off the internet, staring at a blank page and staying put until something comes, listening to podcasts of author interviews), and there are several denominations (or genres and poetry schools). We have our leaders whose approval we might, if we’re not careful, depend on too much.

Nonetheless, like what Atwood says here, it’s important to go back to the very core of why we do what we do: to communicate with people.  Once we start to sacrifice the “relationship” for “religion,” our writing becomes self-indulgent, mean, without any sort of redemption, hard to stomach, and, you know, corrupted by the same thing that corrupts all religions: greed.

All of that aside, it was nice to hear that Margaret Atwood express a need for hope in order to write what she writes, despite the fact that in the hierarchy of writers, she’s probably pretty close to the Vatican. Writing is always a process, no matter who we are or what we’ve written.

Check this out: The Yoke

My writer friends Rachel Levy and Evan Steuber have a good lookin’ online literary journal for innovative fiction called THE YOKE.  It’s a quarterly that publishes two stories per issue. Each story comes with an interview with the author.

They would love to see more submissions, so if you’ve got these kind of chops, send your work to them.

Here’s the description from their “About” page:

Less is more.

We’re testing that hypothesis. It’s true, we want more. More money. More time. More turkey. But we wonder: might less be better? We’re tired of scanning and skipping. We don’t want to mine the tome. No more! We quit, cold turkey. (We love cold turkey.)

We want to showcase amazing writing in minimum. And so, we present to you The Yoke: a quarterly journal of literary prose. As our name indicates, we’re interested in coupling. We’re interested in yoking. We publish two (and only two) pieces of short prose per issue. We like conversation, and so each issue of The Yoke also includes an accompanying conversation with the featured authors.

Less and more. Succinct and satisfying.

Meet Rachel Levy

At Miami University of Ohio, I was fortunate enough to meet and study fiction alongside one of the most skilled an imaginative writers out there.  Rachel was known for turning in paragraph-long stories that accomplished more than our thirty-pagers.  I’m excited to share with you her story “Becoming Deer,” which PANK Magazine published in their latest issue.

You can read more of her fiction here:

“Ocean” and “Worms” in issues 2 and 3 of Ghost Ocean

A Turkey Baster is Just like a Penis in Smokelong Quarterly

Smokelong Quarterly also posted an interview with Rachel here

Enjoy!

On a final random note: That image is a from a painting I found by googling “haunted deer”. 😀