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On Writing, Raw and Slow-roasted

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0

A couple months ago, I met with a writer friend of mine for some advice about re-stepping into the freelance world. “I wouldn’t blog,” he said, in the form of a question mark, after a brief hesitation. I was asking him about the dilemma I encountered freelancing a couple years ago:

On the one hand, your blog tends to get the bottom pile, backlog version of your best ideas, which are saved for (potential) paid publication; on the other hand, after querying and researching and syncing your words with whatever brand you’re lucky enough to land that month/day/week, it’s like coming up for air to write whatever the hell you please for friends, or at least, friendly, generous readers who have formed a little community around your site.

On the one hand, blogging is something of a distraction from bigger projects that involve more risk and revision, requiring more gestation to discover what they actually are — I’m thinking of the collection of short stories I’ve decided to start for which this blog post, in part, is a thinly veiled form of procrastination.

Then again, there’s something life-giving and soul-soothing, and less narcissistic than Facebook, I think, about being able to scroll through your past reflections when you’re feeling down or disillusioned. In its simplest form, a blog is a record of experiences — like all writing, a confirmation that this “one wild, precious life” of which the poet Mary Oliver speaks is being lived with a measure of meaning.

If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with all this navel-gazing about blogs. It’s part of a larger conversation I’m having with fellow teachers/writers about the role we want writing to have in our lives. I think it’s a conversation about focus, and meaning. It’s a conversation I find myself having with my husband, too, about where he wants to go with his passions for Irish fiddle and writing poetry, and what does it mean exactly to develop your passion? As I explained to my colleague at the brunch I blogged about last week, I’m realizing that freelancing for magazines here and there is edifying (hah) and fulfilling, in its own way, and I plan to continue that, but I’m finding that I crave a bigger project, one that’s born out of a desire to write for writing’s sake, whether or not the writing is published or paid for.

Which brings me to roasted vegetables… One of my struggles with the Paleo lifestyle is the same struggle I speak of with writing… This need for immediate gratification, and this reluctance to put in the damn time for something that is primarily created for, and consumed by…yourself. If blogs are raw carrots in the food universe, then surely my student Kumari’s manuscript — a fantasy novel about wolves that she has been writing for four years that her English teacher (ahem) encouraged her to revise (with my help, ahem) for another year before she submits it to a literary agent — is balsamic roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, my husband’s book-length files of poetry and extended essay on the meaning of organized religion is more green beans with onions, mushrooms, and peppers than ants on a log.

I write this to encourage myself, and any readers that I may have (hello! thank you for reading!) to take it slow, and pursue any passion project — with the patience and pureness of heart that passion requires.

Today I had the privilege of observing my students participate in a workshop by Antony John, a young adult novelist who happens to be a parent at the school where I teach. We are at the beginning of our short story unit, and I told my students I would write a short story with them. The two short stories I am in the process of writing for my “collection” are semi-autobiographical and deal with rather personal, adult themes, so I needed to start from scratch. Inspired by an article in the Feb 13 & 20 New Yorker called “Valley Cats: Are L.A’s Mountain Lions Dangerous Predators or Celebrity Guests?” I thought I’d put myself in the position of lion P-45, who has a cult following of sorts but keeps eating people’s pets.

To generate this idea, I, along with my students, all shared our favorite of 10 conflict-crisis-resolution formulas, but today Antony John steered us in a better direction: focus on character first. Events are secondary. (On Tuesday we’ll be drafting character sheets.)

When my student Sophia asked how to get unstuck when you’ve started a short story but don’t know how to finish it, Mr. John returned to the idea of character and embodying them like an actor to figure out what they would do. Also, he pointed out that that we often start short stories with an opening scene in mind, and figuring out the plot, aka, getting unstuck, involves working backwards: what events led to this opening scene?

Before the students came back from lunch, Mr. John and I had a brief conversation about the challenges of setting parameters for story writing versus poetry. I’m no more an amateur short story writer than I am an amateur poet, but I find short stories a lot harder to teach than poetry. He mentioned that his visit to last semester’s classes occurred two weeks before the election, and now, in the Trump universe, he’s been reflecting on the broad value of storytelling as a form of empathy. In that vein, he encouraged my students to draw on what they know, but to veer from the autobiographical and create composite characters.

This emphasis on empathy, and its heightened virtue in our narrowing, fear-mongering political climate, helps me justify the next few hours I’m about to spend on this Friday evening writing for writing’s sake, working on a character I’ve decided to call “Cora” who’s grappling with having children (or not) in a different way than I am, though I’m drawing on my own struggles. I’m going to let myself love on this unpaid, unpublished writing project with the same attention I gave to these green beans and brussels sprouts a few weeks ago:

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Green Beans with Onions, Mushrooms, and Peppers
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup white or yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms (any variety)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper
  • 1 lb green beans
  • Salt and pepper
  • Ghee, or clarified butter

Instructions

  • Thinly slice the onion. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Cut the bell pepper into thin strips.
  • Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Place the ice bath in the fridge.
  • Salt some water and bring it to a boil. Blanch the green beans in the salted water for 20 seconds. Drain them and immediately plunge the beans into the ice bath.
  • Heat some ghee (clarified butter) in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and swirl to coat. Once the fat is hot, add the sliced onions, and cook until translucent.
  • Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften.
  • Add the peppers and cook until both mushrooms and peppers have softened to your liking.
  • Turn the heat to high, and add the green beans. Toss and stir the pan, cooking the green beans with the other vegetables for a few minutes longer.
  • Season the mixture to your liking with salt and pepper.

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Balsamic Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from The Whole30 Cookbook

Ingredients

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1/2 lb Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Ghee, or clarified butter
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Boil the vinegar and then reduce to a simmer — you want it to be reduced by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and chop your sweet potato, slice your red onion, mince your garlic, and trim and halve your Brussels sprouts. Then mix the chopped sweet potato with some melted ghee in a bowl. Spread it on the lined baking sheet.
  • Add some ghee to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl to coat the pan. When the fat is hot, add the Brussels sprouts and cook for a few minutes, allowing them to brown. Add the onion and the garlic for about a minute. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.
  • And the sautéed veggies to the sheet pan of sweet potatoes and spread everything out in an even layer. Roast for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the sweet potatoes and sprouts are tender.
  • Drizzle the pan of roasted veggies with the balsamic reduction.

Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

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