Three Sheets to the Wind

I make my daily bread as a technical editor, hammering the words of economists and engineers into business English. It’s a good gig for a creative writer: you get to work with words all day, but you don’t have to invent them, which taxes the writing gland (and which is why I gave up journalism, for all its pleasures).

I’ve found, however, that I can’t edit while listening to music with lyrics (unlike creative writing, where I often use music to key off the words, putting me in a particular mood, or bringing me back at the beginning of a writing session).
That kind of leaves you with jazz, which I love—but it can be a bit too complex for sustained listening, and classical, which I also love—but it can become a little too relaxing after a long day of fixing punctuation. Sometimes, you need a little…juice.
Thus, I rediscovered instrumental rock, particularly featuring guitar. That is to say: Jeff Beck, who’s probably my favorite living electric guitarist (Hendrix still reigns supreme). Besides having unbelievable chops, Beck’s playing’s so smart, expressive, sometimes funny, and inventive that’s it’s a pleasure to revisit again and again. And, if you’re losing altitude in the afternoon, there’s nothing like a little “Big Block” to step on the accelerator.

But, let’s face it, a steady diet of the same dishes, even by the world greatest chefs, can get a little stale. Thus, of late, I’ve been exploring a bit, getting into some of the “fusion” players, the straight-up, wondrous weirdness of Eric Johnson and Steve Vai (don’t get help, guys…just keep playing), and, just recently, one Mr. Joe Satriani.

I had my reservations. I kind of associate Satriani with metal and shredding, neither of which particularly speak to me, as much as one might admire the players’ technique. There’s a sameness, a formula, to much of what I’ve heard from the metal guys that just doesn’t click with me: what difference does it make if you can spit out a jillion notes per bar if they’re the same ones used by a hundred other players? And the “I’ve got Big Balls” lyrics get old. Apparently, I lack the metal receptors.

I’d heard good stuff about Satriani, though, and I found him immensely personable in interviews; so I went all the way back to his album “Surfing with the Alien”—the source, so to speak—and, somewhere in there, I began to hear something different. Some great playing, of course, but also a sense of adventure that started to resonate with me. And, as I listened to more of his work, I heard an artist pushing himself—and writing some damn catchy melodies, in with all the whammy bar acrobatics, wah pedal workouts, and flying harmonics. That and something he seems to share with Beck—a sense of humor, which goes a long ways in adding to the likeability factor.

So there I was, feeling some genuine excitement when picking up his brand new album, “Unstoppable Momentum” at Music Millennium: I’d caught up with his contemporary music, and here I was, picking it up hot from the lathe.

It didn’t disappoint. The cuts had the energy and fun, mixed in with serious intent, that I heard from his best stuff, and I thought: cool…I have a new editing soundtrack.

Until I got to “Three Sheets to the Wind,” the album’s fourth cut, and everything…stopped. I went from rocking to listening. Not only did it sound different from the other songs, it was different. A mix of old and modern music, searching for something new—looking both back and forward. And, by the time, the big Marshall amp guitar sound roars in at the climax, I felt the bottom drop out, like wheels leaving the tarmac, and that bird took flight.

Art—good art—is tremendously difficult to pull off, no matter what medium you’re working in. But, when it does, there’s simply nothing to beat it. We may be weird monkeys, with too much gray matter for our own good, but we do make strange and sometimes wonderful things. And, just once in awhile, we get it so right that we transcend ourselves. Which I suppose is why we keep doing it—because it’s such a damn rush when we take that extra step.

So…props to Joe Satriani, and congratulations for succeeding (the rest of the album’s also quite good). Now, of course, he has to start over and do it again. Without repeating himself. Which is why being an artist, in addition to its thrills and straight-up terror, can be such a bitch.

[Editor’s note: So, if you’re a professional editor, pal, how come your blog has so many grammatical glitches and left out words? Because it’s almost impossible to proofread your own writing. Your brain knows how it’s supposed to go; so, naturally, it just fills in the blanks, and you end up recklessly dangling participles, mixing metaphors, repeating words repetitively, or even sometimes leaving out whole.]

Instant Karma

Brooding Works Wonders

So I write a piece about the ups and downs of the writing life–receiving rejections, specifically–so naturally, I received a clutch of mondo cool theatres (which shall remain nameless unless some great happens) asking to see my work. Never fails (except when it does).

Also in the Department of Great Things, I just got word that “The Centering,” a one-man show I wrote with Portland actor extraordinaire Chris Harder, gets a two-week extension at CoHo Theatre after a three-week stand at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre…and to top it off, The Oregonian gives it the kind of review that goes down like a hot buttered rum on a freezing day:

‘The Centering’ gets additional two-week run at CoHo Theater

Maybe I should whine more often.

Reasons to be a Playwright, #457

We all get bad reviews. Sometimes we get good reviews (you get to keep those forever). But once in awhile, you get stupid, shitbird reviews from stupid, shitbird reviewers who, basically, couldn’t find their own balls in the dark without a flashlight. It’s weirdly heartening to know playgods such as Sam Shepard aren’t immune. I include the review of Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” in total, just for the peek-through-the-fingers at the car crash value.

Dear Daily Californian, please fire this lame fucker.

Yours,

Steve

‘Starving Class’ Suffers From Lackluster Material
By Nick Moore

Few word pairings carry potential for horror like “community theater.” They can connote offensively bad productions, fiascos on an epic scale. Take “Revolutionary Road,” in which Richard Yates uses a failed community theater production to frame over 300 pages of violent marital unhappiness.

But typically, we associate community theater with modest mess-ups and comical delights derived from watching others attempt to produce something appealing despite the disadvantages of low budgets and inexperience.

“Curse of the Starving Class,” the new Actors Ensemble of Berkeley production, did have some of those features. As the audience took its seats, an unidentified man clambered awkwardly onto the stage, delivering a disjointed monologue and brandishing a t-shirt like a bullfighter’s muleta. For a moment it seemed like the play was beginning, but a few seconds clarified that he was actually only trying to sell Live Oak Theater t-shirts.

The irony here was that the production’s biggest flaw laid not in a cheap set or amateurish acting (this production had neither), but in Sam Shepard’s truly terrible script. Set somewhere in relatively rural California in the 1970s, it tells the story of a family that, justifiably it seems, believes it is cursed. Not in the paranormal sense, but in the impoverished, dysfunctional, father-is-a-drunk-who-can’t-hold-down-a-job sense.

The father, Weston (Andy Shapiro), doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, when he stumbles in through the gaping hole left by the missing front door, which he had previously destroyed in a drunken rage. He proceeds to tell his son Wesley (Thomas Arndt) about his plans to sell their shabby house and large lot, unaware that his wife is attempting to pull off the same scheme.

The father-son relationship is strained. Wesley’s unconsciously expressive face is more telling then anything he says or does, and recalls the angsty protagonist from “Dazed and Confused.” The father, who behaves more like a schizophrenic than a drunk, casts a fearful shadow even when he’s offstage.

Though the pair is solid, some poorly written sequences simply can’t be resuscitated. In one scene, the father gravely but loudly laments the poison that infects him, and warns his son that someday this poison will affect him too. The poison metaphor is really just embarrassing, especially considering the straight-faced delivery. If Shepard was aiming for satire, he’s too obvious.

One of Shepard’s more redeeming characters is the daughter (Sionne Tollefsrud), a witty counterpoint to her stubborn brother. Tollefsrud, whose age is frustratingly ambiguous, masters the posture of a perpetually exasperated tween.

The script’s freely flying barbs necessitate the constant preservation of these aggressive poses. During the confrontation between the father and his equally conniving wife, each uses shouting and gestures as tools of intimidation, though neither succeeds. The scene devolves into an animated argument over property rights, which is amusing but also bemusing, because neither side seems to have even a basic knowledge of the relevant laws. It’s evocative of a Coen brothers movie, with everyone vehemently invested in his or her plan without actually having any idea what they’re doing.

Despite the tension, an inexplicable force keeps this dysfunctional family together. Trying to pinpoint it is difficult, but one of the play’s better aspects is this mystery. The actors themselves seem uncertain, as though discovering the characters for themselves. Without slick production, the genuine effort of trying to act-especially with dialogue as overly exaggerated as Shepard’s-really comes across. Enjoying the show takes effort, specifically the lowering of standards, but this collaborative effort seems implied in the word community.

Midnight Lightning

In doing research for my super secret special guitar writing project, which I may or may not get around to talking about at some point (depending how it goes), I’ve been reading Crosstown Traffic, Charles Shaar Murray’s rather good book on Jimi Hendrix. Writing about guitar without spending time with Jimi makes as much sense as writing about the blues without listening to Robert Johnson.

And, of course, it’s impossible to even think about Hendrix without a certain overhanging grief, tortured by what-might-have-beens. It’s like imagining what would have happened if Dylan really had died in his post-Blonde on Blonde motorcycle accident (to some people, he did). Sure, we’d have been spared Down in the Groove or Empire Burlesque, but we’d also never have had Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, his fantastic resurgence since Time Out of Mind, or, for that matter, John Wesley Hardin and, consequently, Jimi, All Along the Watchtower.

On the other hand, we were spared watching hard living wreck Hendrix or seeing him end up playing Purple Haze at state fairs, but, assuming he’d kept it together, one can’t wonder where Hendrix would have taken us with today’s technology. Jimi Hendrix recording with a Parker Dragonfly, a Mesa Boogie Mark V, Pro Tools, and a still inquisitive mind.

Look far enough west, and you come up ’round the east again.

“Maybe creativity will become fashionable again.”
–Adrian Belew–

‘Night, Don

You probably didn’t know him. But you should have. And I did. He was my boss back in New York days, maybe the best I’ve ever had. He was a gentleman of fine Scotch and cigars, and better stories than anybody. He loved writers and the difficult business of writing. He was an original’s original. And I let him down, to my everlasting regret.

Travel well, sir. And thank you.


Don Congdon, Longtime Literary Agent for Ray Bradbury, Dies at 91

December 4, 2009

Don Congdon, a literary agent who spotted the talent of Ray Bradbury early in both their careers and whose long list of celebrated authors also included William Styron, Jack Finney, Evan S. Connell, William L. Shirer and David Sedaris, died on Monday at his home in Brooklyn Heights. He was 91. The death was confirmed by his son, Michael.

Mr. Congdon, who started out as a messenger at a small New York agency, developed an enviable reputation as a skilled editor, tough negotiator and shrewd judge of talent. While still a young editor at Simon & Schuster, he tuned in to the early stories of Ray Bradbury, who became one of his first clients after he set up as a full-time literary agent in 1947.

In 1966 he caused a stir in the publishing world, and precipitated a celebrated lawsuit by Jacqueline Kennedy, when, after spirited bargaining, he sold Look magazine the serial rights to “The Death of a President,” William Manchester’s study of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for more than $600,000.

The sum, staggering for the time, added to Mrs. Kennedy’s fears that the book would bring unwanted publicity to her family and delve too deeply into personal matters. She filed suit against Mr. Manchester, Look and Harper & Row, the book’s publisher, for breach of contract and sought an injunction to halt publication. After negotiating with Look and Harper & Row for changes in the magazine excerpts and the book, Mrs. Kennedy dropped her suit.

Donald Keith Congdon was born on Jan. 7, 1918, in Crawford, Pa. His father was a railroad worker and his mother ran the family’s boardinghouse, which the bank seized during the Depression.

With $8 in his pocket, Mr. Congdon moved to New York in 1935, when he was just out of high school, and found work with the Lurton Blassingame Literary Agency, where he delivered manuscripts to publishers in Midtown, picking up the rejects on return trips. By 1940 he was secretary to Mr. Blassingame, and had begun building his own list of authors.

In 1944 an editor at Collier’s, impressed by the editing Mr. Congdon had done on several stories the magazine had bought, hired him as an associate fiction editor. A year and a half later he was hired by Simon & Schuster as an editor for its Venture Press, recently established to introduce new writers and published writers whose work had been neglected.

In 1947 Mr. Congdon joined the Harold Matson agency, where he got off to a flying start by signing Mr. Bradbury. He went on to represent Mr. Bradbury for more than a half-century.

“I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife,” Mr. Bradbury said in a speech to the National Book Foundation in 2000. “So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes.” Mr. Bradbury dedicated his novel “Fahrenheit 451” to Mr. Congdon.

In 1983 Mr. Congdon started his own agency, Don Congdon Associates, which is now run by his son, Michael.

In addition to Michael, who lives in Brooklyn, he is survived by a sister, Dorothy Glenn of Erie, Pa.; a daughter, Wendy Stanton of Greenwich, Conn.; and six grandchildren.

Besides representing his clients, Mr. Congdon edited many serious paperback anthologies of mystery and horror stories, tales of romance and war reporting. These included “The Wild Sweet Wine: Superb Stories of Sensual Love” (1958), “Stories for the Dead of Night” (1957) and “Combat: Pacific Theater, World War II” (1959).

The New Thing


I’ve been away from the blog for awhile for (I think) a reasonable reason: I’ve been writing. Seriously.

I took the morning off from writing and spent some time reading my friend Jack Boulware’s very sharp and funny book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day. You should check it out: it’ll make you want to immediately dye your hair green and stick a safety pin through your cheek.

I felt like I had the carte blanche to blow off the muse for the morning because yesterday I finished typing up Immaterial Matters, a new, full-length drama with which I am very, very pleased. I’m never a very good judge of my own work. First off, you’re always in love with a play when you’re writing it, even if it’s putting you through fits. Second, others often really like the stuff I end up a little indifferent to, and the work I become besotted with tends to be the stuff that generates an “eh” from others. I have no explanation for this, other than I have perverse taste. Sometimes, it ends up being vindicated; sometimes it just stays perverse.

But this one feels a little different. Writing’s generally hard, hard work, even when it goes well, but this thing was just a breeze from beginning to end. In fact, it was coming so easily that it began to freak me out—like I’d inevitably sit down with the notebook one day and be suddenly dry, dry, dry. Never happened. It was always there for me when I called upon it, which is a joy. It continually surprised me—another good sign—and, when I was typing it up (I write all my drafts in longhand, then type them, revising as I go), I’d slightly change a line, then pause and change it back to the original. This almost never happens.

So I don’t know. But I’m guardedly optimistic. As to the play itself: it’s set in 1880s, and it’s about a photographer, death, and a ghost.

And that’s about all I’m saying for now.

The Writing Life

Long stretches of your work involve doing nothing. This is hard to explain to others, who think you’re goofing off. Sometimes you are, but goofing off is part of the job. It may look like you’re just sipping coffee, listening to music, and staring into the middle distance, but, in actuality, scenes play in your head. Characters speak, laugh, argue, die. Whole worlds appear and disappear. A pen moves across paper. The paper gets crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. All this in your head. Your family worries about you. You’ve just been sitting there for hours….

A routine helps. You carve out this little chunk of life dedicated to sitting quietly and appearing to do nothing. Often, that’s what gets done. Failure makes up a large component of what you do, but you have to keep trying and keep failing to make anything happen. When things are dead and nothing comes, it’s blindingly frustrating, painfully boring. Your words are colorless, inert. Repulsive. You want to get up, walk away, do anything else. When it’s completely hopeless, that’s about all you can do, but you keep at it anyway. You hate what you’re doing. You curse that you ever got into this thing. You’re never going to have another idea, never going to write a decent word.

Then something happens, a glimmer…and suddenly it’s four hours later, your hand’s cramping, and you feel like you’ve been tripping your brains out as you flip through a dozen pages and wonder where they’ve come from.

The mail carrier is not your friend. Most of the time, he or she brings you envelopes you’ve typed and stamped yourself, and, though their contents may vary in form, language, and tone, they usually more or less say: no. You teach yourself not to care, but you do, and any writer who says they don’t care about rejections is lying to you or themselves. You do learn to keep going; there’s no choice, really. But once in a while, you’ll let your guard down and let yourself hope–really hope. This movie begins to play about how this’ll happen, and then that, and then another thing. How the doors are about to burst open and welcome you in.

Then the rejection comes, and it hurts the hell out of you. You have go sit by yourself, unable to be with people. Sometimes, frankly, you just fucking cry. A tiny part of you wants to die and be done with it all. Sometimes it takes a couple days to get over, sometimes a couple of weeks (occasionally, never…though the intensity lessens with time); and, all the while, you have to deal with the voices that tell you: you’re wasting your time, you suck, it’s pointless, nothing’s ever going to be produced or published again. This is not a condition solely of beginners; your favorite author faces the same thing because there’s always another level to rise to and, usuallly, fall short of.

Other times, the bounce comes, you shrug, move on. There’s no telling how you’ll feel. Sometimes, the big ones have no effect. Sometimes, the little ones snap your bones.

Perversely, you have to hope. When you drop an envelope in the mail or click “send” on an e-mail, there’s one part of you urging “yes, yes, yes…this time” and another going “forget it, no way, never happen.” The “yes” keeps you going; the “no” keeps you armored. The only thing that stops the strobing between poles is more writing, more submissions. Like planting a perennial, submitting a manuscript is an affirmation that there will be a tomorrow. And, like a perennial, those manuscripts have a way of coming back year after year. Submission means you’re in the game; being in the game means, most of the time, you lose.

When it gets really bad, you’ll go the files and take out old reviews, thumb through production photos, wonder if you’re ever going to sit in the audience and see your work again or walk into a bookstore or library and see your name on a book’s spine. When it gets really, really bad, it’s time to take a break, pull weeds, play the guitar, do some art you don’t have to be good at, see a movie, get together with friends and listen to problems refreshingly different from yours…if they are, because artists have a way of flocking together in solidarity. And, yeah, sometimes we pour a glass or flick a lighter or swallow a pill because, for a little while, it turns you into someone else–someone with a window between themselves and their self-inflicted suffering.

You learn humility, and not for show, at the same time you have to carry an ego sufficiently outsized to believe what you’re doing matters and will somehow pay off. That people will actually come to see your play or buy your book, and that, incredibly, they’ll like it…or at least remember it.

When success comes, it’s surreal. You disconnect, not quite believing it’s happening. And, in a strange way, you don’t because you still have to protect yourself, and, when it’s over, you realize you’ve missed part of the experience due to your wariness.

Truth? It’s gets incredibly dark sometimes. Grim. Your own personal cloud follows you, and rains continually while the rest of the world basks in sun. On the other hand, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world, and you can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else.

In other words, you’re a complete lunatic: a writer.