Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which I Read that Dragon Book, Part Two

This is part two of my journey of reading When Women Were Dragons. If you want to know why I’m reading this, catch up with my questions around plagiarism here. If you want to read Part One, start here. And I’m just a fountain of spoilers so skip this one if you’re wanting to be surprised by anything that happens in this book.

Now PART 2

September 4

I can really feel how Barnhill is a children’s book writer. I’m actually surprised this book is being sold as one for adults. The narrator is a child, looking at this event from a child’s eyes. Sure, there’s some violence and a lot of child abandonment but have you read work for children lately? Some of it is quite dark.

I mean – listen – maybe she really means to be writing for adults and just can’t help making work that feels like it’s for children. That happens to me all the time so I’m sympathetic. I make some piece that I feel very clear is not for children and then someone comes to see it and says, “This would be great for kids!” But I do wonder why an award-winning children’s book author wasn’t sold in the market she has already succeeded in.

I also feel like I’d have a lot more grace for this book if it were a children’s book. Or YA! YA is full of dangerous stuff these days. Why isn’t this a YA book?

Anyway – I read more than I meant to last night, mostly because I was hoping for something to pop out at me that I might tell you about here in this accounting. My feeling that this is really a children’s book is all I have, I guess.

September 5

The kid in the book is now thirteen and has lost her friend due to a homophobic panic from her father. It would appear that he also evicted his daughter’s friend’s grandparents. This father better get eaten or immolated by the end of this book is all I got to say.

So far the only satisfying dragon moment was in a brief list of dragon activity where some dragons seem to have eaten some asshole strike-breakers.

This section of the book was not particularly compelling but it did make me very nervous about my own work. I also have quite a bit of after the fact reporting of dragon events. I worry that my own work could feel as dry and perfunctory as the list of dragon related incidents in this book did to me. I hope these sorts of moments in my work are full of the person who is reporting them so that it’s not just the report but the human need to share things that have happened to them. I think I’ve done that but one can never be too sure. So for a moment that chapter felt like a cautionary tale.

If my library app is accurate (and I concede that it hardly ever is) then I’m not yet halfway through this book, though I AM on Chapter 19.

September 6

So it turns out the girl’s mother hadn’t turned dragon for the two months she was away – she just had regular old cancer, which then kills her when the protagonist is fifteen. Then the father turns out to be an even bigger piece of shit than he was before (and he was a GIANT piece of shit before) by moving the kids to an apartment to live on their own while he moves his pregnant mistress into their house. Maybe this is why this is not a children’s book?

I don’t know. I know it’s the 50s but could a father really get away with abandoning his kids like that then? The dragons I can accept. Children living like kept mistresses on their own in a shitty apartment stretches the bounds of credulity somehow. Oh, I sure hope somebody gets eaten soon!

September 7

Ok – finally, we get someone who is a dragon who wants to do dragony things – and it is a child.

I suppose one of the things I’m finding frustrating about this book is that the narrator is on the outside of a dragon experience and is judgmental of dragons and is learning about them through censored experiences. It’s just – frustrating? I wanna go flying through the air with dragons; I don’t want to experience the gaslighting around them. Just put me on a dragon’s back or something already. The doctor’s description of being on mic with one in the air as she transforms is not enough.

September 8

I suppose you have to make a guy a real big villain so we’re chomping at the bit to have him set on fire – but I’ve been rolling my eyes at how awful this father is. I suppose it’s because he’s awful in a cartoonish way. So despite having shown some tenderness to his wife, he just seems like a cartoon bad guy. Set him on fire already, dragon child! I mean, I know it’s the 50s and he feels like a king and doesn’t see what he’s doing but…I don’t know. It’s like – Bret Kavanaugh is an awful human. He’s petulant and whiney and he felt entitled not only to sexually assaulting women in his youth but also to his position on the Supreme Court. And yet – he is a human man, not a cartoon villain. He has done terrible things and if a dragon ate him, I wouldn’t complain but I also understand him. I grew up with boys like him. I know where he’s coming from. I do not know where this kid’s dad is coming from. It feels like the answer is: The 50s! But that’s not enough.

It’s really not that hard to make people want to have a dragon turn a person into toast. They’re not real people. They don’t have to be extra awful for us to feel like he’s asking for it.

I feel like I’d prefer the alternate world in this book, the world where the dragon ladies are flying around having a fabulous time in the mountains or wherever. Instead, we’re stuck in the world that was so terrible, they felt like they had to leave it. Take me to the dragons instead!

September 9

So far in this book, the only anger we ever see is almost entirely misplaced. We saw the mother slap her daughter when she was mad at….the dragons? Her husband? I don’t remember but her kid had nothing to do with it.

Now we have the kid getting very mad at the librarian for talking about her aunt and dragons but she’s not really mad at the librarian deep down. Then she also gets mad at her kid sister/cousin for no reason.

I know people do this but it is not very satisfying to read about. I just want to yell, “You’re all mad at the wrong people! Open your eyes and get it together! Call on the dragons already!”

I have little patience with this.

September 10

Things are kicking into gear with the dragon professor and the heroic librarian. Now, if you’ve listened to my audio book for kids, you’d know that I am a particular fan of librarians so I don’t object to this librarian being amazing. I will say, though, that she seems to be a little too heroic. Like she manages to do EVERYTHING? She’s the star witness of the HUAC committee, the benefactor and head of a whole library system, the leading sponsor of dragon research and she has time to look out for a little girl? I mean. I’m down with dragons existing but superhuman librarians feels like a bridge too far.

The kid now seems to be starting to accept the dragon reality so I suspect I’m going to start liking this book a little more once she actually gets into dragons. It’s like, you chose a book about trains and they spend the first half of the book denying the existence of trains while hinting at them just out of view every so often.  Just get to the trains already! That’s what I’m here for!

September 11

One thing that is driving me absolutely bonkers about this book is the withholding of information. We have a protagonist who seems to want to know what is going on – and in her youth, she is presented with a trove of information and explanations. She has letters written to her, an explanatory pamphlet and the correspondence of her aunt, who she was so curious about.

And this girl puts this stuff in a secret place, doesn’t read it and promptly forgets about it. When she finally remembers it, many years later, she goes to get it and ONCE AGAIN does not read it. Maybe I just don’t understand how a person could not read their own correspondence when it has been explicitly written to them and would provide answers I was seeking? Again, I find dragons easy to accept but to introduce a plot device with a box full of answers and not open it? Come on. Just discover the box later or something. Why you gotta tell me about the documents in the secret compartment if you’re just going to leave them there? It’s very frustrating. Like, I was so relieved when the protagonist finally remembered they were there and went to get them – but then she didn’t read them again?! And then later – when she sees her dragon aunt, her dad gives the kid a box for her from her mom and guess what she doesn’t do AGAIN?! Good lord. What is this child’s problem? She can’t open things??! She can mother her cousin/sister and take college courses in secondary school but she can’t open a goddamn letter or a goddamn box?

Gee whiz. This book is due in two days and I’m at 70%. I could knock it out but maybe I should follow the protagonist’s example and just not open it.

September 12

I am astounded by how this writer has taken the teeth out of dragons. She’s given them handbags and knitting. She has them help out at church picnics. They seem to be just a bunch of nice mid-western ladies who happen to have taken dragon form. Their main gesture is to put their hands /paws to their hearts. Blech. I would prefer to read about one of them tearing a man apart with her talons. But instead, I’m reading about a bunch of nice dragons chaperoning the high school prom. The protagonist’s date seems like a real tool – maybe they’ll burn him up by the end of the night? A girl can dream.

September 13

The book was returned to the source (Queens Public Library) last night. Digital copies just disappear, really. You can’t just hold onto a copy and pay the fine later like you could with a physical copy. So – I think I got to about 75%? And there are now 34 people ahead of me in line for this book. It’s so popular, my library bought two more copies. This is both good and bad news for me. Good, because if dragon content is becoming popular, if people like women turning into dragons, they might end up at my artistic door at some point. Bad, because it’ll be months before I finish reading this book that makes me so mad.

The thing is, I’m realizing maybe folks just aren’t ready for a story where women have genuine power. I’m also reading Nightbitch right now and there’s such a strong prohibition to that protagonist feeling her own rage that she turns into a dog. In that form, she is able to indulge her fury and tear into meat the way she wants to. I have not heard anyone talking about this book but I like it loads more than When Women Were Dragons, despite them sharing an annoying special interest in mothers. But still – all these stories are within the confines of continuing to live in the current messed up patriarchy. It’s possible that a lot of people are not ready to imagine how that might turn around. Ah well. I mean, I am. And so are a handful of people I know. But –

Anyway – temporary conclusion until I move up 35 places in line – I do not think Barnhill stole my idea. Or if my work was somehow her source material, she completely missed the point. Knitting dragons!?! Church picnic dragons?! Pah. Excuse me while I go set something on fire.

You know what this dragon is NOT doing? Knitting. Not that I don’t think knitters are bad-ass. I just – prefer my dragons more dangerous.

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In Which I Read That Dragon Book

August 30th 2022

In a wave of curiosity, I put myself on the waiting list for my library’s digital copy of When Women Were Dragons, the novel that came out this year in which a dragoning is a featured event. (I wrote about this funny “coincidence” not so long ago.) The wait was going to be months long so I figured I didn’t have to read it – but it would be on my list should I want to. When it suddenly became available, I didn’t WANT to read it but I also couldn’t help myself. What is this book’s deal?

I started it last night and I already have so many thoughts. It seemed like it would be better to wait until I’d finished the book to write about it – but it’s clear it’s going to be a real journey for me so I figured I’d take you with me on it. This post may take a while to write as I don’t think I’m going to be able to read this book quickly. In fact, I think it’s going to be multiple posts. There will be spoilers. This will be me reading the book, with you alongside me.

First, this book is dedicated to Christine Blasey Ford and makes it clear that the Kavanaugh hearings were the inspiration for it. I almost stopped right there. Because, as you’ll know if you’ve read previous blogs on this topic, or listened to interviews with me about The Dragoning podcast, those hearings were what provoked my dragon blog and then the podcast. So…the kick-off was exactly the same, which just created some super complicated feelings before the book even started.

But I kept reading. I was in a space where I could deal with some complicated feelings. I read all the introductory material and I read Chapter One and then I had to stop. I hated it. Not because it wasn’t good or well written. I think it is but I can’t tell because I was blind with frustration. Here’s what I know already. This book is too nice. It is academic (or faux academic) and it is going to make a lot of women suffer. (Well, fictional women anyway.) Already, it is clear that this author and I are coming from very different starting points. In her novel, it is mothers and wives who are missing. It is children who are suffering the loss of their mothers. Women turn into dragons, yes – but then they fly away. I created a world where it is men who go missing – because the women ate them or set them on fire. And while women have to wrestle with a new reality, you will not see a woman victimized in my dragoning.

Now – this book may turn around from here. It may turn out that all the missing mothers and wives have flown off to start their own dragon society or something – but from this point in the narrative, I am not enjoying this reality. And I’m sure you know how much I like women turning into dragons. After an hour or so away from it, I was able to read another chapter and it didn’t make me quite as mad. The main thrust of the story seems to be a child trying to understand what’s wrong with her mother after a two month absence. Of course we assume her mother was a dragon for a couple of months. Either that or she was in a sanitarium from being abused by the father. Anyway – this is where we’re starting.

Will we get some empowering lady dragons at some point? I expect and hope so – but I’m not counting on it.

August 31

In talking about this experience of having a famous author write a thing like my thing, my friend advised me to discuss it with the Dramatists Guild, since I am a member and questions of creative legality are their special purview. I’m not sure I’d have a case, as this book, thus far, only shares a point of inspiration, a concept and a made-up word. I don’t think there’s any evidence of substantial copyright violation – but I’ll have to keep reading of find out.

Anyway – I read another couple of chapters as well as the Handmaid’s Tale-style academic inserts. I still hate it. But it’s becoming clear that the story is a conflict between the patriarchy-fighting aunt and the patriarchy-handmaiden mother. It would appear that it is the trouser-wearing mechanic who is going to turn dragon. Everyone’s already afraid of her and her eyes turn funny at times.

I don’t know. Thus far it’s all a little conventional for me. I don’t think this author stole my work because if she did, she missed the whole gist of it and she stole the most banal part. I guess it makes me appreciate the world I created more but it also makes me angrier that my podcast continues to languish in obscurity while this novelist gets write-ups in places like the New York Times.

But I have to keep reading to see if I have something to discuss with the Dramatist’s Guild Legal Department.

September 1

I read a chapter and more of the “Academic paper” and a “Washington Post article.” I’m using quotes because neither of these things would pass for the things they are supposed to be. I mean, that’s fine – academic papers aren’t generally very readable and newspaper articles can be dry and go on a bit. And now I know more about where this is going. There’s a lot of talk of the “Mass Dragoning Event” which I find funny for some reason. Maybe because it’s so clunky?

And the part that I find irritating is the fact that now we’ve learned that the dragons are exclusively wives and mothers. It is repeated twice – “Wives and mothers, all.” And I suppose I find this irritating because I am neither a wife nor a mother and I suppose I’m not crazy about the idea that it is essentially the relationship to a man that would give a woman the super power of dragonhood.

Maybe the author is going for an idea that being married and giving birth introduces you to a new kind of patriarchy-fighting rage? But still…

Ultimately, you get your dragonhood because you get married to a man or a man got you pregnant. (I assume she means women who marry men when she says wives, as it takes place in the mid 50s.)

And hey – maybe she means that only women who are compelled to be this close to men will get mad enough to turn dragon but I find it vaguely insulting to unmarried and childfree women. We can get plenty mad, believe me.

Listen, I think mothers are magical. I know a lot of extraordinary women (cis and trans) who are mothers. I have an extraordinary mother. I would never diminish the work and sparkle they put into the world – but this “wives and mothers, all” business makes me real twitchy.

September 2

Thus far the pattern in this book has been a chapter bookended by supplemental material. That pattern changed in my reading last night wherein I read two or three chapters in a row.

What’s becoming clear is that there’s some kind of connection between the head of the dragon and the uterus, which aesthetically, I understand. There is a sort of pleasant echoing of shape. I don’t love connecting dragon transformation to biology, however – and I particularly don’t love it in this moment when there’s a lot of transphobic nonsense around the biology of women. I can’t claim any special inclusiveness around trans issues in my dragoning. I’ve just said any woman can become a dragon and I just assume that may include trans women. I’m leaving that door open – maybe have a trans writer write something that speaks to them in that world, at some point. My own work is not particularly inclusive in this way (yet) but it’s not exclusive either. Which I somehow think is important.

This question makes me think of Y: The Last Man, a TV series I watched that is based on a comic book, wherein everyone with a Y chromosome suddenly dies one day (except one guy and his male monkey). The show explicitly dealt with the difficulty of trans men being the only men remaining and getting one’s hands on testosterone in that transformed world becomes a plot point. It also acknowledges that there are women with Y chromosomes as well.  

It feels like if you’re explicitly talking about biological issues, you’re obligated to deal with the complications of biology. We’ll see if this book goes there.

The other thing that’s becoming clear is that the dragons are a mother’s fantasy. They are the dreams of overwhelmed women, ready to run away from it all. It reminds me of The Lost Daughter but in a fantasy world. I’m sympathetic to it but I don’t know what it might have to do with what we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s just sort of generic patriarchy at the moment. I guess that’s why she set in the 50s – so it could be generic patriarchy.

I do love the gold eyes of the dragons, though – and that somehow the mother can prevent herself and others turning into dragons by tying complex knots?

September 3

The most dominant experience of the novel seems to be the intentional forgetting of the fact of the dragoning. It’s not the dragons themselves – they just take off and live on mountains and stuff. The novel is unpacking the gaslighting done by the protagonist’s mother, the cultural gaslighting of pretending nothing happened and the oblique references to changes and transformation. I suppose this is connected to the Kavanaugh hearings in that so many people were able to pretend the assault he committed in his youth (allegedly! Ha!) didn’t happen and then later pretend that we didn’t all see what a shitbag he was.

I don’t think Barnhill is wrong about this cultural impulse to try and forget terrible events. I feel like we’re watching that happen now as people pretend that everything’s fine and we didn’t just let over a million people die of COVID.

So far, this cultural forgetting thing seems like the most true thing in the book. Can’t say I’m particularly enjoying it though.

End of Part One

That was nearly two thousand words on the first chunk of the book. So this is going to happen in chunks because no one needs a book length review of another book. We’ll just have multiple blog posts instead!

There wasn’t an image of the book under the Creative Commons umbrella so I just went for a nice licensed colorful dragon via the British Library.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Thinking About Respectability in Law and Theatre
August 27, 2022, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Acting, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mostly I don’t worry about respectability. I’m aware that I work in fields that lack a certain respectability and that by operating at the margins, I do not rank high on a lot of people’s respectability scales. I notice it particularly in the comments on anything that proposes providing support for artists (for housing, basic income, anything – “Why should we help these people who don’t even do a regular job for a living?”). I have made a kind of peace with my lack of respectability and can sometimes even revel in it.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about it – after wrapping up jury service on a civil trial, spending hours watching lawyers. Lawyers, despite all the jokes to the contrary, experience a high level of respectability. Often, immigrants want their children to grow up to be lawyers (and doctors!) so that they know the children have achieved something like respectability. No one shakes their head regretfully when they hear someone is going to law school. It’s a sign they are entering a respectable social class, a genteel profession. There may be a lot of jokes about how terrible lawyers are but no one will be disappointed if their kid becomes one.

After sitting through a week and a half of a personal injury lawyer trying to gaslight us into punishing a doctor for something he didn’t do, I really don’t think law is such a respectable profession anymore. I may not make a lot of money but I don’t try to convince people of lies. I may do things that a lot of people don’t understand but I don’t waste people’s time and attention on spurious situations. I don’t take advantage of vulnerable people and expose their innermost life details to groups of people for no good reason. I do not find the guy who does this kind of work respectable.

The other lawyer, the guy defending against this case didn’t strike me as all that much more respectable, honestly, even though he at least had truth and science on his side. But this man spends all his time pushing back on the specious claims. He’s participating in it, too. If this lawsuit had not been brought, he would not have had a case. None of it struck me as particularly respectable. And yet.

It made me feel my own lack of respectability keenly in a way. I do not usually pay much mind to such things but I thought of all the actors I know, tired of being asked “Oh, where do you wait tables?” when they tell someone they’re an actor so they just decide to go to law school, just to get some respect for a change.

I read a quote from Uta Hagen recently where she explained why she called her book Respect for Acting. Her sense was that there wasn’t enough respect for the work and she hoped to foster some. (I’ll put the whole quote below. It’s bracing and inspiring.) There’s even less respect now than there was when she wrote the book and I suppose I’m thinking about it because it is not easy to live in a culture that does not respect what you do. Being exposed, at length, to the work of a job that IS respected and find it, instead of respectable, somewhat reprehensible is a kind of an unpleasant turnaround. I know this particular kind of law isn’t the only one and there are many many lawyers whose work I admire and am grateful for. (I think of the heroes who showed up at JFK airport the day Trump implemented the Muslim ban.) But – as a whole? I don’t know. Maybe we could treat artists with a little MORE respect and the vast field of law with a little less. It’s not all respectable.

I called the book ‘Respect for Acting’ for a very clear reason. I did not call the book ‘Delight in Acting’ or ‘Love of Acting’ or ‘The Fun of Acting.’ I called that book what I called that book because of the shocking lack of respect that was creeping into both the teaching and the practicing of acting. Now? Forget it. We have allowed so much to recede or languish that I don’t know what I could call a book today. ‘Demand for Acting’ might work. …There was a time when people became bored and they took up bridge or golf; ladies had an affair or had their hair rinsed and joined a book club. Now they want to act. And there are fools with no standards who allow them into classes and theatre groups and tell them to live their dream. I don’t care about dreams. I care about work and responsibility and truth and commitment. You can see how old-fashioned I am. When you are bored or depressed, you might be advised to visit a museum, to look at the art. You are not, typically, advised to pick up a brush and become a painter. It is understood that this is a rare gift, and foolish to presume it might be yours. If your soul is crushed, it might be suggested that you listen to classical music or submit to opera. It is not suggested that you audition for the Metropolitan Opera, or even your local, provincial opera company. You haven’t had the training. But acting? All you need, it seems, is the dream, and there are doors–doors that once meant something and once housed some standards behind them–that fly open and embrace you. And it enrages me. If there is some small society that calls itself amateur or community or whatever, and they want to get up and do plays, that is fine. I’ll contribute money and I’ll support you in the joys of understanding plays, but do not call yourself an actor. Do not think that your dream is similar in weight or meaning to the years of training and commitment that I and all the many actors whose work I love and respect and envy have invested in this art. Respect what is an art. It is not a pastime, and it is not something to get you through a bad time, and it is not something that should be taught to everyone with a dream. The term seriousness of purpose comes to mind. Apparently, only mine.

 Uta Hagen/1996. 

Uta Hagen is doing some highly respectable work on that stage. (She’s Desdemona and look how she’s THIS close to dropping that hankie.) And this production featured Paul Robeson as Othello so it is respectable feast.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Gluttons for Our Doom
August 20, 2022, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Gen X, music | Tags: , , ,

You will likely not be surprised to learn I was crazy for the Indigo Girls in my youth. When I learned to play guitar, it was Indigo Girls’ songs that I particularly focused on. I didn’t learn the entire Nomads, Indians and Saints songbook but I got pretty close. In those days, we bought songbooks. There were no chords on the internet since there wasn’t much internet.

Somehow in the last couple of decades, I’d lost track of what the Indigo Girls were making (along with almost every other band I used to be into – I don’t know what happened. I blame digital music and aging, I guess.) so I thought I should catch up. I added all of their albums from the last era to my “New Moment” playlist on Spotify, which is where I put all the music I want to make sure I listen to. Since there’s a live album in that mix, I’ve been hearing some old favorites in addition to new songs. Some of them I’m hearing differently now. “Prince of Darkness” popped up and I thought, “Damn if this song doesn’t sum up the Gen X experience!”

The Indigo Girls themselves are not (technically) Gen X. They’re both Gen Jones, the OG X-ers by a couple of years, but this all makes sense somehow. They’re who we looked up to growing up. The Indigo Girls first major label album came out when I was in high school and “Prince of Darkness” wasn’t on the radio but it was a favorite for me and many of my friends.

My place is of the sun and

This place is of the dark

And I do not feel the romance

I do not catch the spark.

And the real Gen X kicker:

Someone’s got his finger on the button in some room

No one can convince me

We aren’t gluttons for our doom.

This line was always meaningful to me. It was always THAT moment in the song – the one you’d wait for.

But it strikes me now that while this concern was meaningful to my peers, this idea was not ever present in EVERYONE’s youth. There was a lot of doom talk in those days. Movies, TV shows, TV movies. There was a very popular poster of the mushroom cloud over Japan that folks hung up everywhere. As a kind of memento mori, I guess?

War Games is a fun movie about possible nuclear annihilation and we were so convinced the Russians were going to come for us that Sting had to write a song about the Russians loving their children, too. The world seemed full of people who were greedy for doom. That’s how it felt in the late 80s – and damned if it hasn’t come back around. The nihilistic Supreme Court has rolled back Roe v Wade and gun restrictions and many other things that helped keep doom at bay – but here it comes.

For the first time, the generations behind us are worried about nuclear annihilation and Russia is a serious threat again.

Are we gluttons for our doom?

The thing of it is – and I think this is the thing other generations don’t understand about Gen X – that song is actually about finding ways to live in a dark world. We may be gluttons for our doom but we “try to make this place (our) place” and our “place is of the sun and this place is of the dark.”

But our place is still of the sun. I think that’s what people miss about us as a generation. We seem cynical and nihilistic but we’re actually weirdly hopeful. We know our place is of the sun, even as no one can convince us we aren’t gluttons for our doom. We will not be a pawn for the Prince of Darkness. We try real hard not to be a pawn for anyone, when it comes down to it.

I think most Gen X-ers can handle the contradiction of living in a world hungry for its doom and still seek grace and light wherever we can find it. We’re practiced at that double vision. Over on the Gen X subreddit a few months ago, a younger person asked us how we dealt with the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation in our youth. They were starting to panic about what Putin might do as the war in Ukraine heated up so they asked us, the generation who has some practice at threats like this, what we did to not go off the deep end. It was a weirdly hopeful thread. There was some snark, of course. But also lots of earnest words of advice for someone stuck in an anxiety that was new to them and old for us. We may be gluttons for our doom but we’ll help someone out of the darkness if we can.

It occurs to me that younger generations might not be able to identify a mushroom cloud. This one is from a test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Apologies for triggering everyone else with this tool of terror.

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Put Up Your Dukes
August 10, 2022, 12:21 am
Filed under: anger, Justice, masks | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In case it’s not completely obvious, I’m a fairly conflict averse person. I hate when people argue. I get anxious when tensions rise. I do not enjoy a debate. I would almost always prefer to exchange smiles then to exchange “words” with anyone. Sometimes, on-line, people will think I like heated “discussions” because I have strong opinions and I express them through this particular medium. Just for the record, I do not. I will do a LOT to avoid a heated “discussion.”

As the time for jury deliberation got closer for those of us sitting through the trial, this one juror seemed positively excited about it. She’d put up her hands and pretend to duke it out with an imaginary person. I gave her the gesture back on occasion because I like to be playful – and I hate to leave an acting offer on the table. She wants to play fight? I’m here for her. But once the deliberations started, this woman had a lot to say and not a lot of it made sense and I was not there to indulge anyone’s whims. I did my best to get us on track and stay on the question at hand and the facts. And this woman who’d seemed so excited about the fighting she was looking forward to doing (“the fun part” she’d said) declared to me, “You’re so aggressive. I feel like I need to get out my boxing gloves.”

And this may be the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to me. I found it positively baffling, especially in this context. But – just in case – I apologized and said I would try and turn it down – though what I was trying to turn down was completely unclear to me. There was something about what she said that made it sound like she was responding to my being passionate or some word to that effect so in addition to the apology, I let them know I was an actor and that seemed to satisfy everyone – like, “Oh, that explains it.” But what was it exactly?

I suspected that it had to do with a level of animation I have, an expressiveness that is perfectly normal for me but among these mostly quiet reserved people somehow felt out place? We’re all wearing or masks so everyone is harder to read than they might usually be. I probably turn myself up a little bit to get past the obstacle on my face. But I have noticed that a lot of people don’t do that. They just aren’t heard as well or aren’t understood. I guess that’s okay with them? It’s not ok with me so I become more expressive in a mask, not less. I will not disappear behind a piece of cloth.

But I suppose it’s possible that this makes me seem more aggressive to people who don’t do this? I don’t know. The whole interaction confused me so much. I wondered if this woman, with her mimed boxing gloves, was so interested in sparring that she just turned me into a sparring partner or if she truly did see me as aggressive.

I mean, I’ve changed a lot in these last few years, maybe I’ve turned over into aggression without even knowing it, though I very much doubt it. Do I write aggressively sometimes? Sure. Am I more assertive than I used to be? Yes. Thank goodness. But I’d be surprised if I’ve actually had an entire personality change.

I think the masks are a factor. They make it a lot easier for us to project things on to each other that have very little to do with us. I think that’s probably the main thing that was happening here. But maybe I’m just too aggressive.

This pic is like me, kissing my new dukes.

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An Applause Button for Podcasts

When I started my first podcast six years ago, I quickly discovered that it was a low engagement form. Podcasts aren’t easy to share and the platforms that they’re on, and the medium they’re made of, don’t make it easy for people to respond. If you’ve ever been listening to a podcast and felt the impulse to share it, you know how challenging that can be. My listeners manage it with tweets and retweets and Facebook comments – but there’s no direct way to tell me they liked it or to share it with others. (Apparently we can blame Steve Jobs for this – but maybe that’s just a rumor.) As a theatre maker who is used to instant gratification and applause, I find this one of the most challenging parts of podcasting. And I somehow find it even more challenging with my audio drama than I do for my blogcast.

The blogcast, I sort of toss off. For the blogcast, I read something I wrote a few weeks before (like this!) and play a song I’ve usually spent a week or two learning and rehearsing. If no one responds to the episode, it’s not really devastating. There is a sense of routine around it that means I just keep going whether anyone engages with it or not. It’s a weekly practice, a light dusting of art, a quick expression. The audio drama, on the other hand, is the culmination of years of work.

I started writing this second season two years ago, began planning for it last year, and the production began earlier this year with the actors and sound designer. There’s a whole team of people involved. We are still in process, even as we start to release our work. It’s not just me in a room. It’s a whole web of artists.

This time around, I made a big deal of the release date and tried to create a little buzz. After all that, after finally releasing the first episode of the culmination of two years’ worth of work, guess what kind of response I got?

Nothing. Absolute silence. Not a word. Not until the next morning, about 33 hours after I set the thing loose into the world.

I work pretty hard to not take this kind of stuff personally but my theatre heart craves instant gratification and 33 hours is certainly not instant. It is very easy to fall down a hole and tell one’s self a story about how the work isn’t as good as you imagined it to be and what a big mistake you’ve made and so on and so on with other very un-useful thoughts.

Not long after this anti-climactic opening, I was talking with a friend who eased my mind on the subject and recorded some applause for me for the podcast. (I have listened to it many times, not gonna lie.) She also suggested that podcast apps really ought to include a CLAP BUTTON so folks could just push the button on a show they liked, to give it some virtual applause. I think this is a great idea. First, I’d very much appreciate some extra claps. And second, as an audience member, I’d love to leave my appreciation for the makers. In listening, there’s no way to distinguish between the podcasts I really admired and the ones I just let run while I did some task because I didn’t care enough to stop them. All the apps reflect is whether or not a show was downloaded. The only way to register your approval is to rate it and/or review it in places like Apple Podcasts and very few people can or will take the time to do that. There are a lot of things in the way of that happening. It’s not a smooth action. An applause button, though. That’s as smooth as it gets. And I think it would make a huge difference to me as both a listener and a maker. There’s a clap button on Medium and those claps, when I get them, mean something.

We need the same for podcasts – a way to let folks know we heard them and we’re giving them applause. In fact, I’d especially love it if we got notification of those claps as an audio file so I could hear some good old applause directly.

I’d like for this to be on every podcast app so I could push it and register my appreciation.

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We Need Fiction in Schools

I don’t know why I think of this one classroom at a high school in Brooklyn – but every time I think of this bizarre turn that education took in which it decided that fiction no longer had a place in American schools, this moment when it leaned hard into non-fiction, I think of that classroom. It must have been where I heard that news, where I heard that this was a policy Obama supported and dropped my mouth open in shock. “Obama?! What is he thinking?”

This was a class for which I was doing workshops for the Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves, a work of dramatic fiction that the students went to see. When the student next to me gasped with recognition at something the character did and later told me it was like her family member – well, I wished Obama could have been there to see the power of fiction.

I was thinking about how important the study of fiction has been to me and to my peers and what a shame it is that these muscles have been un-exercised in many American schools. I was thinking about it because I was on a jury and the process of deliberation felt familiar somehow and it wasn’t just because I’ve had to teach 12 Angry Men a few times. One of the things that surprised me about my fellow jurors was how much they were inclined to just make things up. Several of them came up with “theories” about the case, adding events and possibilities that had nothing to do with the question at hand. Over and over again I found myself saying, “Let me read the actual question.”

If these folks had been my students, I’d have done exactly the same. I would have asked where they saw that idea or concept and what was the evidence. In literary circles, we call this practice Close Reading. When you write a paper, you need to point to the place in the text where you got this idea or information. You can’t just make stuff up. I’m so practiced in this I don’t even know that I’m doing it sometimes. I mean, I like to make stuff up more than most people but there are the things we make up and things we don’t and even fiction has rules this way.

I feel like, if we’re going to ask people to sit on juries and deliberate and evaluate the evidence, we really need to give them practice and we need to give them practice on fictional people. There are no consequences to a misinterpreted fictional character. You can’t ruin a fictional person’s life by charting out the series of events they go through in the course of a work. Your conclusions about a fictional person have no power to send them to jail or condemn them to death. Maybe you think Macbeth didn’t kill the king. You’d be wrong. But, hey, why not? Kick that idea down the road. Show me the evidence. That search through the play will be illustrative and, in exploring it, you (hopefully) will find all the evidence that he did, in fact, kill the king.

I’ve been in a lot of classrooms where some well-meaning teacher puts a character on trial. They’ll put Macbeth in the witness box and have some kids play lawyers and interrogate him. While this is fun, sure, it’s almost always a mess, pedagogically speaking, because the kids will inevitably make stuff up that’s not in the play and suddenly the whole case will hinge on what Macbeth had for dinner. (This is something that almost happened in the jury deliberations I was in, by the way, when a juror wanted to send a question down to the court to ask what the plaintiff had had for dinner one night. This was just as irrelevant to the case as what Macbeth might have eaten at any point in the play.)

As we deliberated, I found myself in a fairly active role, bringing us back to the question we had to answer over and over and, at first. I didn’t understand why I fell in to that position then. I have no interest in the law. I have no law training. I’m not even a big Law and Order watcher. (Night Court, though – big fan.) But what I DO know how to do is analyze a character and the sequence of events of a narrative. I know where to look for evidence and I know not to make things up. That’s the main thing.

Students need to study fiction as much, if not more than, non-fiction for a whole lot of reasons beyond this skill of analysis, close reading and finding evidence. (Such things as empathy, aesthetics and imagination.) But the skills of analyzing literature, in particular, are what I found particularly useful in that jury room. (In addition to the practice of working quickly in a group that I learned and practiced in theatre.) I’m still shocked that Obama couldn’t recognize this when this policy began. He studied law. I know he’d want people to learn skills to help them be better citizens, to be better jury members. Learning literature is actually vital for our democracy, I think. If we care about having careful jurors, we might want to teach some fiction again.

Is this a dinner which I see before me?
JK – it’s the banquet scene from Macbeth. But what is on the table? What are they eating? What do ghosts have for dinner?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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That Thing Playbill Said About Peter Brook
July 20, 2022, 12:30 am
Filed under: art, Creative Process, space, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

If you’re not a theatre nerd, you may not be aware of the stature that Peter Brook, theatre luminary who recently died at age 97, had with us theatre folk.  His book, The Empty Space, is the sort of text your theatre friends are likely to wax rhapsodic about. It has changed a lot people’s lives and inspired many a theatre maker to make more artful, high minded art. The Empty Space encourages us to both be simpler and more exacting in our work. He talked about how theatre is as simple as an empty space in which something happens and also, you better really think about what happens in there, especially for your audience.

It felt like Brook was always challenging the field to boil itself down to a more essential state. He was our theatrical philosopher. He held the ideals for the field. If you got distracted by all the nonsense of show business, you could always turn to Brook for a dose of idealism and aspiration. I know many a theatre maker who, when feeling despair about what to do next about their theatre career, would re-read The Empty Space to refresh their sense of purpose. He was a beacon for a theatre of art. I have often been surprised when people who I imagine to have sold out, who don’t seem to care about the art part, who seem to be just leaning hard into the business or entertainment, suddenly pull out their copy of The Empty Space and get dreamy looks on their faces. Brook was good for the theatre’s soul, I think.

All of this is why I found it kind of hilarious that, when he died, Playbill tweeted only one thing about Peter Brook, which was that he had three Tony Awards. Of all the things there are to say about Brook, his Tony awards seem to me to be the absolutely least consequential. Of all the many ways he mattered, the Tonys may have mattered least.

Now, it is a credit to the Tonys that they managed to honor an artist like Peter Brook at some point. But awards are almost always behind the curve. Like, the MacArthur Genius Grant went to Lin Manuel Miranda, not in his early days when he was lugging his keyboard around for his first musical, but years after Hamilton became a hit. Awards often miss the genius moment and I don’t even know what Brook’s Tony Awards are for and I don’t care. I have some guesses. And most of them are probably from his early career. Cool. Pat yourself on the back, Tony Awards! You chose well that year. Those years? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Not to most of us. Not to all the theatre geeks clutching their copies of The Empty Space to their chests.

Peter Brook made some exciting theatre. He made shows that people talk about decades after they happened. I’ve seen work of his that I loved and work that I thought really stank. And it’s not as simple as the early work is good and the late work is bad. I saw a fairly recent show of his a couple of times (because I know one of the actors) and it was so simple and full, all at once. Then in the same period, I saw a show of his that I just didn’t care for at all, so I just tried to forget it as soon as I saw it. I respect his failures somehow. Like any artist, Brook wasn’t a genius all the time. But his importance to us, as a field, is as someone who held the line for art, not just some guy who won three Tony awards one time. We don’t have many of those line holders left. We lost a beacon. We lost a lighthouse.

* My favorite piece about Brook in the wake of his death was THIS one by Helen Shaw. It really speaks to the complicated legacy a great theatre maker leaves behind.

Screenshot of Playbill’s Tweet. I mean…

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The Theatre of the Court
July 13, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: American, Justice, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

In one of the videos they play for jurors, the narrator explains the Court as being a lot like Theatre. He explained the roles and the conflict, the set and the setting. I was intrigued by this explanation because, as a theatre maker, I would not assume people understood theatre any more than they do a court.

If court is a show, though, it is not necessarily a good one. One thing that surprised me, in serving on a jury, was how willing to bore the audience everyone seemed to be. There were multiple moments where I thought, “Are they trying to win this case by boring us to death?” The first time I thought this was when the Plaintiff’s lawyer interviewed his hired-gun medical witness and had him slowly answer medical questions and read medical records for over an hour – both of them speaking incredibly slowly with very little inflection. The second time I thought this was when the Defense read the plaintiff’s description interview onto the record. It went something like this:

QUESTION: Where did you live then?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

QUESTION: You don’t remember?

ANSWER: I don’t remember.

It was the world’s  driest dialogue read dryly by one dry lawyer. And he read “Question” and “Answer” each time, too. I’m a professional actor and I feel like I could inject some zest in almost anything but I would shake in my boots if I was challenged to read this dialogue.

The third time I felt this way was during the plaintiff’s lawyer’s closing statements wherein he pulled out a stack of medical records, chose the one from the top, flipped to the back, slowly found the doctor’s name and then read it, followed by their description of the patient’s complaint. It was the same phrase over and over, the same procedure, over and over, one stack of papers after another, for maybe fifteen minutes? The reading I could handle. It was the minutes of searching for the page and then slowly pulling out the next one. My god. If it was a show I’d have left it.

The last time I felt this way was during the judge’s “charge to the jury.”  We were warned by the officer that it generally took 50 minutes for him to read this thing so we were prepared but wow. The judge did his best to zhuzh it up but the material is long and dull and I cannot imagine an actor who could make it work. Maybe Mr. T. Because every show would be improved by the presence of Mr. T.

But, of course, all these exceptionally dull and tedious hours are not for theatrical purposes. No theatre maker would DARE bore their audience like this. But then –  a theatrical audience is not compelled by law to sit there and listen. Maybe that’s the major difference.

The architecture of this particular courtroom was also really not effective theatrical space. I was Juror #2 so I was seated at this odd point of convergence of the space wherein absolutely everyone spoke directly to me. There were five other jurors in the box but almost every single person on “stage” looked almost exclusively at me while they spoke. I imagine that’s mostly to do with the way the space is arranged but I also know that I am a well trained audience member so I am easier to talk to than most. I am easy to read and incapable of cutting off the channel of a “performer” who needs it. This is why I prefer not to sit in the front row of a show if I can help it. It’s a lot of work for me to be that channel! I kept wanting to tell the folks in the courtroom to work the ROOM, not just me.

This was not a situation of being at a concert and being convinced that the singer is singing just for me, though I have certainly experienced that phenomenon.  At times the lawyers were directly in front of me, maybe a foot and a half away, looking directly into my eyes. It was EXHAUSTING.

If court is a show, it is an incredibly tedious one, with dull performances and awkward acting. It’s overly long. And you’re not even allowed to talk about it until it’s all over.

Was it dramatic? No.

Was it comedic? Briefly, for a moment or two. The way a joke at the DMV is a nice break in the atmosphere.

Was it romantic? Can’t imagine how. If there was ever a meet cute in the jury room. I’d like to hear about it because it is not a meet cute atmosphere, that is for sure.

Was it action packed? No. All events happened six years before. All drama was long past.

If courts are theatre, they’re very very bad theatre. Which came first? Courts or theatre? Or did they evolve alongside one another? I suspect courts have a different lineage. The first courts were part of the Court and it was mostly just going along to see the king and hoping he’d see things your way. It feels to me that the courtroom is designed more like a king’s court than a theatre. Our court system is certainly better than a king’s authoritarian rule (though it might not feel that great lately!) – but it is not good theatre, that much I can tell you.

Certainly if the judge came in dancing with some show girls, that might give it a little extra something.

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Is This a Dragon Zeitgeist?
July 5, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, feminism, Gen X, Imagination, podcasting, writing | Tags:

As many of my readers will be aware, back in 2018, provoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a piece called “I Am a Dragon Now. The Fear of Men Is My Food.” A few months after that piece went around, elements of it poured themselves into a piece that became The Dragoning, an audio drama podcast. The podcast came out in the spring of 2020 and Season Two just launched.

I’m taking you through this timeline because here, in 2022, an award winning author has published a novel called When Women Were Dragons, in which there is an event known as The Dragoning. A friend sent me a review of this novel because it sounds an awful lot like my piece. Not identical, of course, but close enough to be uncomfortable.

Has, bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill STOLEN my idea? I doubt it. I suspect dragons were in the air and we both reached for them. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about ideas. She unpacks this notion in Big Magic. This is her theory that ideas just sort of float through the air and they visit whomever they think will realize them. The ideas visit lots of artists at once, just to be sure they are born. My guess is that The Dragoning was in the air and it chose both me and Kelly Barnhill. I got the idea out faster but Barnhill will spread it wider.

It is slightly uncomfortable, of course, to find that something that came from my brain also appeared in another person’s brain – and a woman who is exactly my age, no less. It’s like the idea was flying around in 2018 and was like – “I need a 44 year old woman to take this and run with it” and maybe it wasn’t even just me and Kelly Barnhill. Maybe there are a dozen more 48 year old women who were visited by the dragoning fairy four years ago.

Is it possible that Barnhill consciously or unconsciously lifted this idea from me? Like maybe she read the blog, which did go pretty viral, especially among Gen X women and thought, “I can imagine a world based on this!” And off she went. It is possible. Same thing happened to me! But, do I think she STOLE this idea from me as every novice writer is always convinced will happen to them? I do not. I’ve read Barnhill’s work. She has no shortage of imagination. She’s not out here trying to steal anything. She doesn’t need to. Her brain makes up lots of neat stuff on its own. She does not need to steal. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to make up her own magic.

But I do find myself in this incredibly awkward position of finding my own work slightly less google-able because someone else, with a much larger platform than me, has written a work with my title in it. They got Naomi Alderman, who wrote one of the most exciting books of the last few years – The Power, to write a review of it in the New York Times. Naomi Alderman is ALSO 48 years old. It feels like all the girls in my class are writing magical feminist speculative fiction and they all joined a club so they’re getting together and hanging out and I’m all by myself over here, quietly declaring I was here with this first.

The other thing that sucks about this is that the only way to find out if Barnhill’s work is somehow derivative of mine is to read it and I don’t feel I should, even though I know I’d enjoy her writing. I loved her novels for young people but I don’t want to mix up the waters. I don’t have any plans to write a third season of The Dragoning but I’d like to have the option and I don’t want to unconsciously take on a different writer’s dragons. So I guess I just have to wonder about it – or wait for my friends to read Barnhill’s book.

I feel like I want Barnhill’s book to be a success because maybe a rising dragon tide could lift all dragon boats. But I’m also not looking forward to being overshadowed by an established writer, who has an agent and an editor and all the trappings that come along with success. I’m proud of my work and it would be very painful if the spotlight shining on that award winning author just cast me further into the shadows. That’s why this is complicated. I am reasonably sure we’re all just part of a zeitgeist in a world where women long for the power of dragonhood, while we watch our rights and hope disappear. But the zeitgeist doesn’t feel great. Maybe just because I’m not in the club.

I’m obsessed with this Paolo Uccello painting from 1470. I love that this woman has the dragon on a leash, like she’s walking it and the knight looks like he’s giving the dragon a COVID test.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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