Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

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Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

animal_crackers_movie_posterI originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.

For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?

20170117_071743Well….n-n-no.

Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:

I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”

“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”

Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.

The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.

And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?

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The eye-candy, of course!

Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group.  A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?

Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.

Therein lies the dilemma.

MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.

As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”

When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.

Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

As My Daughter Turns Five

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Blondie observes a toad cross our walk

“What’s that noise, Mommy?”

“Sounds like a dragon waking up for some breakfast.”

“No it’s not. It’s the washing machine.”

Your persistence with reality annoys me. “Then why did you ask?” I leave you in bed and hunt down your brothers.

 ~*~

For you, imagination must be pre-created by others, people in cellophane and places punched out of cardboard. To look outside the wrapper is to look into The Nothing.

 ~*~

Biff is reading, Bash is talking to helicopters. You are nowhere to be seen. I approach your bedroom door and hear small murmurs. I knock. You open the door, knowing it’s me. (That is, until your brothers learn to knock and wait. Then your room is doomed.) I see you have opened your fairy house, a three-room house built out of an old suitcase that my father had made for my dolls, and that I had recently altered with butterflies and flowers to suit fairies. All the fairies sit on the furniture in a half circle facing you.

“What are the fairies up to today?”

“I dunno.”

“Are you getting ready for a big adventure?”

“No. They’re just sitting here.”

O-kay.

“Are they having a party?”

“No.”

I try a movie reference. “Are they going to get the blue pixie dust back from the pirates?”

“No.”

I see her dragons perched nearby. “Can the dragons come over to visit?”

She scoffs at such a notion. “Dragons can’t go into a fairy house. They’re too big!”

“Well…are you having fun?”

She shrugs.

Someone small, male, and irksome is into the kitchen pans again. “Well I guess I’ll close the door.”

“Yeah you do that.”

I do. Biff and Bash leap into the hallway with cookie pans and drying racks. “Hi, Mommy!” They throw the pans back onto the hardwood floor. “BOOM! Do it again!”

I hear a small yell as I chase little wiggling butts—“Don’t let them into my room!”

 ~*~

There is a box in our basement filled with audiocassettes I made when I was 5, all stories and songs I made up. Yes, I used storybooks we had, but I turned those images into places to explore. I gave characters voices and motives. They had fights and adventures. My imagination could take me into the page and deeper, until the real world was but a small hole high above me. When the typical story books didn’t satisfy me, I started making my own. I spent hours drawing out the different scenes and then “published” the esteemed work with a fancy glittered cover and purple string binding.

 ~*~

You grunt with increasing frustration as Bash makes yet another go at the dragons in your lap. “No, Bash, mine!” Biff rattles your door again. “Stop it, Biff!”

“WE ARE DONE!” Ahem. “Time to color, okay?”

“Crayons?!?!” Biff and Bash never have access to writing utensils unless I am desperate for peace, and today qualifies. They race to their chairs at the table, knock the chairs together, push them too far away to reach the table, whine, push them too close to get into the seats, whine again, and then just whack each other in the heads because, brothers.

You quietly get into your seat and settle your head in your hands. Bored already, and the boys haven’t even finished their routine to sit down. “What are we gonna color?”

“How about we draw today?” I get some crayons and paper and spread them out on the table. Biff and Bash get right to work, seeing which color is darkest, which crayon will fly furthest when thrown backwards, and so on.

You continue to sit. I place three colors and a blank sheet between your elbows. “What am I gonna draw?”

“Whatever you want.”

You sigh.

I sigh. “How about a dragon?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It can look however you want.”

Your voice shrinks. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay then, how about a fish?” I pick this specifically since you have spent a week on ocean life in school.

“What kind of fish?”

“Any fish you want.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Oh yes you do, from school.”

You draw like you eat vegetables: resigned and hateful.

Biff and Bash are on their fourth pieces of paper. “Look a helicopter!” Bash cries out gleefully as he points to a mess of circular scribbles. Biff straightens his back up and declares his pile of straight lines are “lots and lots of trailer trucks.”

You push a paper my way. In one corner of the sheet is a small orange circle, some fins, and an eye. “There, a fish.”

“It’s a lovely fish, Blondie. Can you draw another one? There’s loads of fish in the ocean, you know. Or an octopus? What about a whale?” I push the paper back. You sit and sulk for a moment, but when you see Biff and Bash are having fun for some reason, you choose a blue crayon and begin to draw.

I manage three sips of coffee before you appear in the kitchen with your paper. “The ocean’s full now. Can I go?”

A gigantic rectangle fills the rest of the page. It is bent inward on one end and dotted slightly on the other. “Is this…”

“It’s a whale.”

“Ah, I see. And what are their names?”

“Whose names?”

“The fish and the whale. What are their names?”

“Um…” you look around. I see you debate about my coffee, about the frying pan, the sink. You settle on your brothers. “Biff and Bash.”

“What are Biff and Bash going to do? Go on an adventure?”

“No. They’re just fish. Am I done now?”

 ~*~

You are a will of your own, always have been. I love you for your curiosity, your laughter, your silly dances and cuddly hugs. And because you are growing into your own person, I must realize that what you define yourself to be will not match my expectations. I can want you to be creative, but I cannot make you. Creating stories should be fun, not a chore, and I promise you, my daughter, that I will never make you imagine any more than you want to.

 ~*~

Biff rests his nose on the table as he slowly moves two trains past his eyes and back again. Bash sits on Biff’s bed to read about trains. I hear a high-pitched, exasperated voice down the hall, followed by a strange…is that supposed to be male?

I tip-toe to your room. Quiet. The bathroom door is open a crack.

I peek inside to see you on the toilet with a Tinkerbell comic book you just received for your birthday. You do not know the story yet, nor do you know many of those characters. But I see you have two index fingers pointed on two fairies, and you are making them talk.

Then you see me. “Mo-om, what are you doing here?”

“Oh just…saw the door open, thought you’d want it locked before Biff or Bash showed up.”

“Yes, please.” You wait all through my dramatically slow closing of the door before saying in a nasal voice only small children can make, “But I don’t make flowers, I’m a skunk fairy!”

You bust my heart wide open, you skunk fairy. I want to sit and listen to your voices and learn about the places, maybe add my own and give some voices too. But then the story would no longer be yours, would it?

Let your stories be your secret. I shall keep my distance and listen for the fairy-speak, wondering what adventures hide within the pages this time and all the times to come.

Writer’s Music: Philip Glass

dracula-1931-philip-glass-kronos-quartetSo far, I have written about music that unsettles, saddens, or makes my characters wary of the unknown. But only one composer has the air of pure conspiracy about him: Philip Glass’ Dracula is a beautiful example of this.

(Admittedly, I wanted to tell you how Notes on a Scandal is the ultimate example, but then my husband introduced me to Glass’ score for the original classic Dracula, and that rather won me over. I’m bound to write about Notes later on, anyway.)

Even though the score is performed by a string quartet, the melodies can grow to overwhelming levels and suddenly shrink as Glass demands. Also, thanks to the strings, the melodies maintain a dangerously light feel, like spider webs gracing your neck in a walk through an abandoned building. But don’t underestimate the cello and viola—their dogged perseverance with rhythm give every track a sense of inevitability that, sooner or later, good will succumb to evil.

From a child’s perspective, the adult world is one big conspiracy to unravel. My human children never receive the answers they seek from their troll masters, so they must seek them out on their own. The track “Renfield” helps me imagine a party thrown by one of the troll masters, the perfect opportunity for the children to break into the secret library and find answers. These children are terrified, but if they don’t maintain their pretense of happy servitude, they will be caught, or worse, disappear just like any other “discontent.” Seek out Dracula, and listen as the formal veneer over your characters fades to reveal their true fears and desires.

Selection: “Renfield”

Click here for more information on Philip Glass and his music: http://www.philipglass.com/