Showing posts with label imagination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label imagination. Show all posts

01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again


Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.
And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

14 September 2015

Put The Words In The Right Order


Jan Grape    He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked between his enormous fingers. He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

    His skin was pale and he needed a shave. He would always need a shave. He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have. He stood like a statue, and after a long time he smiled.
— excerpt from Raymond Chandler's second novel, Farewell My Lovely


Chandler - Farewell My Lovely
As I read this I couldn't help wondering, did Chandler actually see a huge man dressed this way? Or was it entirely from his imagination? Or a combination of real life and imagination? I always thought it a combination… surely he didn't see a real person, as huge as Moose Malloy dressed in this way, but after yesterday when I saw how a man was dressed exactly as he wanted to be. He obviously dresses like this routinely, as he seemed comfortable.

The man I saw was not big, standing probably five feet and eight inches, and from the rear looked somewhat slender until he turned around and I saw his beer belly. He was wearing a navy tank top tucked into a pair of overwashed faded blue denim farmer's overalls. The front part of the overalls had pockets for pen/pencils and I'm the sure what else the man deemed important might be stuffed inside. The overalls were rolled up to his calves, like he'd been river wading and on his feet were a pair of bright pink rubber flip'-flops. He had a silver toe ring on the second toe of his left foot and on the left ankle was a bright orange woven ankle bracelet and a wooden bead ankle bracelet. On his right ankle was another bracelet of woven material. On both wrists were bracelets, two on each side of beads and woven material.

On his head way grungy muddy-brown-rolled brim straw hat with a dark hat band. A couple of long feathers were stuck in back of the band which were knotted and had one green dice attached. Around his neck was an assortment of chains of silver or gold or woven material. He had a pair of sunglasses which he'd pushed down in order to look over them.

There's almost no way Chandler could imagine the way Moose Malloy looked or was dressed, however if you had perhaps seen some real person dressed or built this way, you could make up the rest. There's almost no way I could imagine the way the man I saw was dressed. You'd expect an editor to write you back saying this character is totally unbelievable. As I stood looking at him, I wanted to take his picture but dared not make someone angry. Yet I kept wondering, did he honestly think he looked good or okay? Maybe he was working on his Halloween costume? Had he been playing dress-up with some pre-school grandchildren and decided to make a quick trip to the store to buy something electronic for his mother? (NO, it wasn't Walmart although a picture of him would surely be voted into the Walmart you've got to be kidding, hallmark hall of fame.)

I'll admit that I love to people watch. It's great fum to sit someplace and see people and imagine them as characters in your next story or book. I've seen oddities many times. I've used a gesture I've seen someone make or the way they look. It does give you a chance to draw from those characteristics to make my characters look and act more realistic. I'm probably going to have a character looking like the man I saw eventually and I've decided he'll be an eccentric billionaire. But no one will suspect he's rich until he's dead.

Sometimes a story just writes itself, you just have to put the words in the right order.

26 April 2012

Serial Killers


I was looking through some old stuff and I found a copy of a letter I sent to a friend of mine many, many years ago, in which I mentioned that we were getting ready for a serial killer murder trial, which would eat up most of my time for a while.  Which it did. 

A couple of things:  Our serial killer was convicted of killing two women, with three other probable - but probably unproveable - female victims.  He was a nasty piece of work.  He kidnapped his victims, tied them up to eye-bolts in his van, raped them, tortured them, and then, finally, killed them.  He looked average: short and soft and overweight and really unremarkable.  The only thing that stood out about him was that in court he couldn't keep a smirk off his face, which made everyone want to slap him silly. 

Secondly,  after talking to the Court Services Officer who interviewed our serial killer, at length, I wrote the following:  

The Conversation

Sitting on a cold, hard steel chair
while the endless story went on and on
like a drive-in triple feature,
murder, mayhem, knives in the dark,
only no buttered popcorn, no nudging bodies,
no smothered giggles or sudden gasps,
and the whole time his eyes were cold as ice.
Not even an eyebrow raised.
So at the end, with the tape recorder off,
all locked in for later listening,
the killer leaned over and asked,
“You gonna take it home?  Listen to it late at night?
Dream a little dream of me? 
I know, you're not shocked.
You’ve heard it all before, right? 
Bet you’ve thought it all, too. 
You pick up a roll of duct tape,
gonna do a little home repair, and then it comes,
sliding into your mind,
what else you can do with a roll of duct tape.
All it takes is a little imagination,
a little change of plan.  Trying it out.
Or have you tried it out already?
Come on, you can tell me.  Who’s gonna know?
We’re not that different, you know.
Not a lick between us.”
A blink like a lizard in a hot sun.
“Maybe not," he replied, “But I’m going home
and you’re staying here.”
“All that proves is you haven’t got caught yet.
Some night the dark side
will come right over you and drown you.
Does it to everyone.  Even smart guys like you.
Cause we all want to drown, don’t we?”
The cold eyes bored into the killer. 
“Don’t kid yourself,” he replied:   
“A blind man doesn’t know what night is.
It’s just more of the same.
And that’s all you know; just more of the same.”  
    (c) Eve Fisher, 1998


Which brings me to the point that most criminals see themselves as different only in that they're the real deal:  they've persuaded themselves that they're what we all want to be.  They're smart, they're tough, they're brilliant, they're...  wow!  Never mind that they happen to be in custody, in jail, in prison, on death row.  Everyone else is the idiot.  Everyone else is the con.

In "East of Eden," John Steinbeck (talking about the villainess Cathy) writes that he believes that just as there are people who are born physically damaged, there are those who are born morally damaged - moral monsters.  Or, as my husband and I put it, "everybody's got a piece missing."  And the trouble is that very few people know what piece they have missing, because it's damn hard to tell from the inside.  For example, if you're color blind, you could easily come to believe that all those people raving about that beautiful rich red are nuts.  Or lying.  Especially if there are a lot of other color blind people around you agreeing that you're right.  Same with morality.  Depending on the crowd you run with, it's real easy to believe that all that right/wrong/morality stuff is just another con.  Because what they know is what they know, and it's always more of the same. 



26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic


by Louis Willis
http://www.annetylerlord.com/the-writers-life-exercise-your-right-brain

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story. 

http://wiringthebrain.blogspot.com/2010/05/connecting-left-and-right.html
Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a cliché and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present.