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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Theater

So, Octavia Butler, an influential science fiction writer, once said……

……..about writing, “Here I was, into astronomy, and here into anthropology and there I go into geography. It was much more fun to be able to research and write about whatever I wanted to.”

This falls in line with my own thinking about writing and theater. It’s role-play of the best kind, where you get to try on as many different professions as possible without spending years in a classroom or in the field. There is a kind of freedom in trying on different hats, seeing how they fit and how to utilize them.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to do the research – what some might see as a downside and an inhibitor of creativity is the hard work that goes into making your characters (both on the page and on the stage) layered, believable and, more importantly, real. This will keep your audience engaged until the end, trying to outguess where the character’s ultimate destination will wind up.

What’s also fun is that you discover new things about all kinds of subjects, especially ones you think you know. Whether it’s history, physics, law or how to make an Irish stew, the research you invest in your writing (or any other creative endeavor) will not only enrich the project you’re working on, but will add to your knowledge. Maybe you’ll even add a new skill or discover an interest in something you’d never thought about before. Where it leads is up to you, but the possibilities are endless.

Editor’s Note – This blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC.

Recommended Links/Reading:

Link to Octavia Butler

Kindred by Octavia Butler

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So, apparently it’s Shakespeare Sunday…..

…….where quotes from the Bard and his many plays are shared liberally and with love all over the internet. There are so many plays to choose from, so many lines and thoughts to suit any occasion, that it quite boggles the mind. No, that’s not a Shakespeare reference, although, since he did invent more than a thousand words, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

William Shakespeare’s works are a huge influence on me as both a writer and an actor – I began reading his plays at the age of twelve and performed in The Merchant of Venice at the age of twenty-one. His use of language is exciting, creating visual images through words and drawing us back in time to experience the lives of those who came before us. From Ancient Egypt to his own historical kings in Scotland and England to fantastical islands where magic is as natural a resource as water, Shakespeare has given us works that transcend time and place.

Unfamiliar with the Bard? Check out some of the films based on his plays – from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh, there are excellent and engaging adaptations that make the words and worlds of William Shakespeare accessible.

“But this rough magic, I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end upon their senses
That this airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.”
Prospero, The Tempest

So, the final curtain looms…..

……as my show enters its last weekend. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur and it seems inconceivable that there are only three performances left. Each performance led to something new in my character, a discovery of her humanity and motives. Although it’s not written in the script, I felt an underlying sense of guilt and fear that drove her to her final destination. There were specific lines that alluded to her distress, but the nature of her personality drove others away from her, a self-defensive measure on her part.

This show, The Mousetrap as written by Dame Agatha Christie (adapted from her short story Three Blind Mice, which in itself is adapted from the radio play written in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday), premiered in London in 1952. It has continued to play in front of audiences, celebrating its 64th anniversary this year in the same theater.

It has been a privilege and a joy to work with my fellow cast mates, who have provided a lot of support and laughter in the last few weeks. I am grateful to my director, for casting me in this part, for reasons I mention in a previous post. I had the best stage manager and costumer and producer to help shape, guide and fashion us into a wonderful presentation.

For their privacy, I will not identify them or post their pictures – I feel I need to ask their permission.

But I will leave you with a photograph of our set, where we played out our parts and made our discoveries and connections, both within the context of the play as our characters and outside the play, as actors, as friends, as comrades in arms.

The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.
The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.

So, a random idea among friends has sprouted wings…..

…….which is what most ideas do, come to think of it. I’d casually mentioned reading an article about a castle in Croatia being up for sale. The idea of owning a castle in a foreign country charmed all of us and we each began throwing more ideas into the pot about what we’d like the castle to have. A moat with alligators and crocodiles was the most popular addition, complete with drawbridge.

Will it happen? Will we, intrepid thespians and hopeful romantics, embark on an adventure of that magnitude, regardless of how it turns out?

Probably not, but it’s fun to think about. And as we daydream out loud to each other, the idea continues to grow, both with genuine interest and a lot of humor.

And now I have a new story idea.

Ross Castle, Killarney, Ireland
Ross Castle, Killarney, Ireland

So, one of the best ways to improve your writing…..

……is to get involved with and work in theater.

As an actor, you learn to develop character – background, secrets, moments before – that lead to a richer performance and the constant discovery of new things. As a director, you learn how each scene works and flows together, with tweaking here and there to create a cohesive narrative. And, of course, there is the playwright, who puts the words in the mouths of the characters.

Building sets gives you a rough sense of how the play’s world looked. Adding props and furniture gives clues to the characters, their histories, their connections. Costumes and make-up show how characters might look in 17th century France, 11th century BCE Greece or Rome or Egypt.

Every aspect of theater can and will carry over into your writing. I’ve always found myself relying on my theater background not just for inspiration, but for ways to forward my story when the way seems blocked.

Also, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

So, I recently got cast in a show……..

…….which I’m terribly excited about. I had stage-managed this same show about twenty some years ago, and had convinced my director then to allow me to be the shadowy killer so as to maintain the air of Whodunnit. The play in question is a mystery, there’s a juicy murder or two, a cast of suspicious characters and, of course, the Reveal. This is another form of collaborative creativity – by working with other actors, director and stage crew, you enter another world and invite the audience to join you.

Acting, like writing or music or dance or any other artistic expression, is hard work, whether it’s on stage or on film. It requires discipline just as much as talent. An actor learns about the craft through reading of scripts, observing other actors work, and taking classes to enhance their skills, ranging from accents to stage combat.

As with writing, I’m always asking myself questions. In this instance, why did my character arrive at this particular destination? Was it tied to the past? Was it a meeting place? There was an incident that involved my character years earlier – did present circumstances come about because of guilt from a tragic decision? This is the behind the scenes work that goes into each role that is seen onstage. If done well, it looks easy. If done poorly, it looks not so good. 

Is there a fun part to all of this work? That’s simple – yes. The fun part is working with one’s fellow actors and discovering the relationships the characters have with each other. The fun is finding the rhythm of the play both as an individual actor and as a group. The fun is feeling that energy as it is shared with the audience, which is then bounced back to the actors. The fun is knowing that, for two hours, you took a risk and performed live in front of people you know and people you don’t.

The fun is living as someone else, with their history riding inside you.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

So, one of my favorite creative past times…..

……is theater. I grew up acting in school plays, then college productions and local community theater, with an occasional dabble in building sets, costumes and make-up. I even did extra work on a TV movie, which is another story entirely. Theater, like film and TV, is a collaborative effort. You need each person to fulfill a role or task to make the final product work smoothly (technical, sound, lighting, effects, other actors, writers), even if it’s a one person show.

This is true of every creative endeavor. Granted, you are the only one doing your work (whether it’s learning lines or creating a sculpture or any other artistic expression), but the act itself is a collaboration of all that you had learned up to that point. Look at any acknowledgements page in any book and you will find the word “collaboration” or its sibling “collaborative”. There will then be a list of names or groups the author then gives his or her thanks to – because while the act of writing is solitary, the process of putting a book together (from research to final edits to publication) is not.

There is the stereotype of the writer as being an odd creature, solitary, slightly disheveled and not quite fully present in the moment. They are distracted by their thoughts and scribble madly on a pad of paper, relying on copious amounts of coffee (or, in some cases, alcohol) to keep the pace going, finally producing a perfect manuscript. What no one sees is the relentless edits, the hours of researching a particular historical incident, the mapping out of the plot and the creation and naming of characters.

None of this is done in a vacuum – writers groups, editors, beta readers, other writers are there to help give an objective opinion and offer support when the going gets tough. What theater teaches us is that in order for a production to work smoothly, there has to be teamwork. For an author to create her best work, she has to have the teamwork of her editor and beta readers and groups to encourage necessary changes within her story. The same goes for a photographer, her crew and the model. It is all a team effort.

The more creative endeavors you try, the more you’ll realize that it’s this teamwork is where you gain your greatest strength.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is concurrently published on Citizens Journal VC

Musings on imagery, metaphor and an unexpected journey…….

The way is shut. It was made by the Dead and the Dead keep it, till the time comes. The way is shut.
J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings

So went the phrase ’round and ’round my mind in January of 2013.

But it wasn’t the hall of the Dead that Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas found themselves in, trying to raise an army that would help turn the tide against Sauron and his armies that I was thinking of.

It was my metaphoric heart, wounded and frightened, that screamed this line every time I tried to push myself past the hurt. No need to go into the cause – suffice to say, it was not a pleasant experience. It left me jumpy, terrified of my own shadow, distrustful of even my nearest and dearest.

Still, I wanted to be past that pain, beyond it, free of it. I purged the bulk of it into one novel – while a great step forward, it was only the first step in a long journey. I wanted to skip the journey and speed up time so that I could just be me and whole again. Of course, it takes time for such wounds to heal properly. In January of 2013, I wanted to be healed, right then.

I had begun revising and editing my third novel that same month- although a mystery, it was, at its core, also a story of that self-same metaphoric heart. I began with re-writing the ending, which at the time, was a Debbie Downer. I mean, it was sad and angry and hurt. It worked, it was a great ending, but it just didn’t work for the characters. So I re-wrote it with a much more upbeat and optimistic tone.

And this is where the heart imagery really began to show itself.

I kept finding places in Novel #3 to insert a new scene or flesh out an old one, or replace one altogether. I called the act cracking open the story. The image that came to mind was of the cracking open of the chest, as if for open heart surgery. Gruesome image, yes, but how else do you begin to repair an injured or broken heart? Looking back on it, that’s exactly what I was doing – prepping to repair and heal my heart.

At around the same time, I had also begun taking care of some horses, where I met an equine I came to call Best Bud Mare. Horses have, on more than one occasion, saved my soul. I would even go so far as to say that they have saved my life. Not in a dramatic fashion, the way Trigger or Silver or even The Black Stallion would, but in quiet and calming ways. They allowed me to just be, without demanding anything of me, which is what I so desperately needed. One even offered a shoulder for me to cry on when I was feeling overwhelmed with hurt and grief. I had never felt so loved than in that moment.

When I met Best Bud Mare and her equine companions, I was starting to come out of that space. I wasn’t ready to deal with people except in the most minimal of ways. I rarely left my house, except to see the horses. I remember I was wearing a crystal charm in the shape of a heart. One day, over the summer, the charm disappeared. I had literally lost my heart. I have no idea where or when. I noticed only that it had fallen off my necklace.

Converging on my third novel and my care-taking of horses, another passion, theater beckoned in the form of a question: “When are you going back to acting?”

To which I flippantly replied, “When I’m ready to put my heart back on my sleeve.”

And, after a couple of years and three plays, I am returning to the stage by deliberate choice and am currently in a local production of an Agatha Christie play. I also have my eye on another production, Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the powerful and humble sorcerer Prospero.

My heart is singing, my blood is racing and I have goosebumps every time I interact with my fellow actors on the stage as we rehearse.

I have followed my heart.

Follow yours and see where it leads.

So, I stumbled upon the following quote…….

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

This quote came from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and is spoken by Frodo Baggins as he, Sam, Merry and Pippen embark on their quest to take the One Ring back to Mordor. The imagery, as I read it, struck me as being similar to the creative process, whether you’re in the beginning stages or are somewhere in the middle and struggling to get un-stuck. Or, other times, you can get lost in the rhythm of the process as you watch the ink flow from the pen onto the paper, forming shapes that become words. Similar things can happen while working on music or sanding down a piece of wood that will become a toy or piece of furniture or even sketching.
It’s a Zen-like state, where instead of you leading the creative process, you’re letting the creative process lead you. In that sense, you’ve allowed yourself to ignore the inner critic, your ego, and to begin trusting yourself enough to follow your instincts. It may not make any sense, at first – indeed, it may not make any sense at all. Don’t let that stop you – if nothing else, this process is clearing the way for you to resolve a conflict in your story, find a different note for a song, or finding a fresh color in a painting. Oftentimes, when I’m sitting in a coffee shop, trying to write and words are refusing to show up, I doodle on the page. What shows up are horses, either smirking at the viewer or prancing up a hill. Most of the time, however, it’s just random lines and circles connected in one long stroke of the pen that make no sense at all.
I love these moments and come out of them feeling refreshed and happy, though they come at the expense of my current project. They give me time to step away from my project and relax my mind a little so that I can proceed with a more defined objective. For me it’s similar to the theater game of improvisation, where the first rule is to say “Yes, and….”.
The road that leads ever on comes from the spark of an idea. Outlined or flying by the seat of one’s pants or a little of both is how the journey progresses to its destination.
Recommended Reading:
The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
Improv Encyclopedia

***
Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC

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