Songs for the Struggling Artist


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?

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Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

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 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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The Hamlet Project – ‘Tis a knavish piece of work

The café where I came up with the idea is long gone. I think it’s three to four businesses ago in that spot now. But the project that was born there took me through eight to nine years.

It started in that café out of a need to goose my creative practice. I was finding my writing process to be a little less smooth than I liked. When I turned on the faucet, the creativity didn’t always flow the way it used to.

I felt I needed a structure within my daily practice that might drop me in to a better state of flow. Hamlet came to me because – at the time – I was working toward playing the role. I had a goal of getting back to acting and Hamlet was the top of that mountain.

I thought if I wrote in response to Hamlet, I’d tackle two goals at once. I could prepare to play Hamlet while goosing my writing practice.

I didn’t play Hamlet, really, and now I’m probably too old for it – but I did perform a soliloquy for my friend’s Hamlet rave performance and my other friend and I organized a reading wherein I got to prepare for and read the part. So I scratched the itch, even if I never held Yorick’s skull in front of an audience.

As for the writing practice – well, it was always a practice for me. It was part of a process to get me into a state of flow for whatever I thought was my “real” writing for the day. So it served me very well in that respect.

I’m not sure why I decided to share the process, really. I think I figured that only a handful of people would read it, like everything else I put on the internet, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I think I was interested in a kind of transparency of creative process so why not?

As of this writing, The Hamlet Project has received 94,113 views – so, despite my not paying it much attention – it has become the most seen thing I do. Oh, the irony!

When I wrote the last line in my notebook a few weeks ago, I thought I might feel some sense of finality – like I’d just closed a show or something. But I didn’t, really. I gave it some ceremony – just to mark the moment – but the next day, I just began the same process from the first line of Cymbeline.

So what did learn from spending a little bit of every day with a line from Hamlet? First and foremost – I am not as close a reader as I would like to think. The thing is – I was already very familiar with Hamlet. My first acting job was in a touring production. I taught it fairly often in schools. The play was not unfamiliar when I decided to dive deep into it. But writing in response to single lines made it almost impossible to gloss over meaning in the ways that I was (apparently) wont to gloss. It became very clear that I had previously been pretty satisfied to just have the gist of the line. Working with single lines forced me to not cut those understanding corners.

The process of reading so closely led me to some surprising interpretative places. I developed a whole theory about Marcellus – which caused me to really wonder where he disappeared to. Previously, I couldn’t have made much distinction between Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco. By the time I got through Marcellus’ scenes, I was ready to write his own play.

I also uncovered a fair amount of experiments I’d want to see. There are a lot of What Ifs. What if that scene between Claudius and Laertes were played as a Vaudeville routine? What if Horatio was the spy? Not just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What if Hamlet Senior had killed his father to become king? What if we saw that? What if Claudius saw it and we saw him see it? Do we develop sympathy for him?

There are so many imaginary productions and/or production moments that I found I wanted to see. This is kind of interesting because after all these years of seeing so much Shakespeare, I find it hard to get excited to see my twentieth Hamlet or seven millionth Romeo and Juliet. But it’s clear that I’d be 100% bought in to see any number of text based experiments.

Other themes that came up a lot were related to Shakespeare’s genius with the little lines. I was moved, over and over, by all the lines that seem like they’re no big deal but are actually packing extraordinary narrative or poetic punch.

My relationships with the characters didn’t change much (except for good old Marcellus.) I suppose I grew to sympathize with Ophelia instead of just being annoyed by her obedience. And I have some thoughts about that English ambassador who comes in at the end and I never paid him any mind before. There are a lot of characters who I’d enjoy seeing receive the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment – and getting their own plays.

Some of my favorite moments were the lines that inspired their own longer narratives – separate from Hamlet. There are stories about a carp, a monster and a witch that bubbled up out of the source. There’s also a list of rejected ways for Laertes to kill Hamlet with an organ that still cracks me up. I did a fair amount of making myself laugh.

Most of the lines ended up as just a conversation between me and the sentence. There are a lot of entries of me trying to work it out in front of you. I’m showing my work – like a math problem.

That’s probably the Shakespeare educator in me. I am never interested in explaining a line to students but I can happily take someone through a process of figuring it out. A lot of lines are just me figuring it out.

There’s a lot of project here. There are a lot of lines in Hamlet! But in a way, that’s why the internet is a good place for this. It is much too much to read all at once. I think it would be a rather relentless book. Words connected to line after line start to become too much after a while. But as a place you can just click around, it’s a reasonably fun playground. It’s a place where, if you felt like reading JUST Polonius’ lines – you could.

It’s done now. And also not done. I’m still uploading lines I wrote about two years ago. It may be a while before I reach the end of the play on the internet but my writing process is complete. The uploading goes on.

If you were one (or many) of the 94,113 views, thank you. It means a lot to be seen.

The rest is silence.
Or – actually – the rest just needs to be uploaded. Then it will be silence.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

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Want to help me keep the creativity faucet flowing?

Become my patron on Patreon.

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a coffee on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis




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