Monthly Archives: November 2010

Monday’s Watch, Listen, Read

Watch

So you want to write a novel …

This video encapsulates it all.

Favorite quote: ‎”It’s Science-Fiction crossed with Chick-Lit, crossed with Literary Fiction.”

Maybe I need to stop going to book parties …

Listen

I know what you’re thinking. This song is incredibly random. It’s coming at you from summer 2007. I remember laying  with my sister on narrow beds in a old world hotel in Rome, watching this video. It was 107 degrees outside. If we sat still, we could feel the central air-conditioning blowing into our room through a tiny little vent. Apart from BBC, the only channel we somewhat understood was MTV Italy. They played this song on a continuous loop. (Guys, remember when American MTV played music videos? Like, when it was the reason the station was created?) My sister loved the fact Italian MTV played back-to-back music videos. It was a novelty compared to the Real World, MTV reality show network she was used to. I was amused by the fact an Italian pop star recorded this song in Spanish and it was a hit in Italy, but not in Spain. After our afternoon of MTV-watching, we started hearing this song everywhere; while walking in the Trastevere, waiting on a two-hour long line for the Vatican tour, on the train to Florence, and in the airport as we boarded a plane (along with a shackled prisoner) to Sicily.

When we returned to the states, Alexandra and I would catch each other humming this song for months after our trip, a sheepish smile crossing our faces when we called the other out on it. This song was a musical souvenir that bonded us in a land where we could only communicate with each other, where words ended in vowels, MTV played music videos, and everyone hummed along.

Read

I’m starting Steve Martin’s latest book this week. I attended a reading and Q&A he did at Barnes & Noble (Union Square) University last week and it blew me away. His prose writing achieves greater heights with each book he writes. Even if he wasn’t Steve Martin (genius and master of pretty much every medium he chooses) I would still be in awe of writing and exquisite sentence structure. An Object of Beauty takes place in the New York art world of the 1990s through to today. I can’t wait to get lost in the word canvas Martin paints in this book.

P.S. If, like me, you’re on the Twitter, you should be participating in #FridayReads

Life List: #85

85. Have a drink at the Algonquin Hotel‘s infamous Round Table Room

Earlier this month I attended a gathering of the Virtuous Circle at the Algonquin Hotel. It’s a private group for writers, editors, publicists, and book types. There is networking, but it’s also an opportunity to connect with others in your field, swap stories and books over lunch — and under the critical gaze of Dorothy Parker. This was clearly the perfect moment to cross #85 off of my Life List.

On the day of our lunch, I was having a particularly bad morning. I had turned in a story and was gearing up for my next deadline when I received word a friend’s husband had passed away. Right after that news, my editor called with changes he needed asap, of course. I went into autopilot, made the changes, resent the story, got dressed for the lunch and headed to the Algonquin in a fog and feeling a little emotional.

When I arrived at the roundtable room, I was seated next to author Kaylie Jones, whose book, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, I read at age 18 and discovered a fellow intern I was working with at the time was also reading it. We bonded over our love for the book and later, the movie. That intern became one of my best friends and later, my writing partner. I couldn’t have been seated next to a better person at that moment. Kaylie immediately makes you feel comfortable and part of the conversation. Next to Kaylie was the fantastic Erin McHugh, who helped put the event together with Bethanne Patrick. Erin’s blog (and soon-to-be-book), One Good Deed is inspiring. Both Kaylie and Erin felt like people I’ve known forever. Across from me was authori Jessica Kane, her book, The Report, is next up on my Kindle. On my other side, was Elyssa East, who wrote Dogtown — which I’m starting tonight. Editor Iris Blasi joined our table later on and contributed Put on a Happy Face to our terrific book swap pile. It was also great to meet others I follow on Twitter, including Jennifer Mendelsohn and Delia Cabe, who make my feed fun to read.

When I wrote my Life List, I knew each goal would be an adventure, but what I didn’t realize was how some of these moments would go so much deeper than a simple “have a drink at the roundtable room.” #85 turned a stressed out and melancholy day into a beautiful experience. My only wish is that more of my simple goals turn out to be as fulfilling and soul nourishing as this one.

MFA, NYC-Style

New York is a city where you can learn 1,000 new things every day. It’s a place where you can get a grad education without ever sitting behind a desk. Every venue is a classroom. The public library, parks, bookstores, theaters, restaurants, squares, streets, hotel lobbies, bars, subway cars. With the amount of information I’ve consumed, I should have my MFA by now.

One of my favorite classrooms in this city is the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. Last week, I attended back-to-back (and free!) talks with Nora Ephron (Tuesday night) and Stephen Sondheim (Wednesday night). These weren’t traditional readings, rather, they were master classes from two of the most creative minds that reside in this fair city.

Nora was at B&N to pimp her new book, “I Remember Nothing” (my Read pick from Monday). She got up to the podium and said the thing most everyone wishes a writer would say: “I’m not going to read from my book tonight. Instead, I’m going to tell you about two of my most defining moments as a writer.”

Yes, Nora. YES.

She talked about how she grew up wanting to be a journalist, and how in high school, she joined the staff of the school paper. The teacher wrote the essential rules of reporting on the blackboard:

Who

What

When

Where

How

Why

and told them the following: On Thursday, during school hours, the faculty and staff of Beverly Hills High School will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference in West Hollywood to see Speaker X talk about arts in education.

From there, Nora said they had to retype the information he gave them. The students clacked away on their typewriters. The teacher collected their papers, looked through them all and said they missed out on the most important part of the story: On Thursday, there will be no classes at Beverly Hills High School as all faculty and staff will board a bus and take a trip to an educational conference …

Flip the script. Find the angle. Tell the audience what they want to hear, or didn’t know they wanted to hear. Nora said journalism was like fitting together a puzzle. When you get it right, everything snaps into place. This simple exercise changed the way she looked at writing.

Ephron’s next lightbulb moment occurred when she was writing the script for the movie, Silkwood. She was working closely with the film’s director, Mike Nichols, who told her screenwriting was all about narrative. He offered up this story as an illustration:

There was a man and a woman who lived on an island peninsula. They were married. The man invited his mother to visit with them on the peninsula. Shortly after her arrival, he was called away on business. Since he was out of town, his wife used this opportunity to take the ferry to the mainland to visit her lover. They made love all day. She ran to catch the last ferry back to the island peninsula. She had just missed it. She begged the ferry captain to take her back, so her mother-in-law wouldn’t be suspicious. He said he would only do it for six times the amount of a ferry ticket. She didn’t have the money. He turned her away. She started to walk home to the island peninsula. On the way back, she was raped and killed. The question is: Whose fault was her rape/murder? The rapist/murderer? The ferry captain? The Woman? her husband? Her mother-in-law? Her lover?

Within seconds of hearing this question posed, I had constructed an internal narrative wherein the mother-in-law was at fault. The story I came up with was a long one, but it only took me five seconds to decide who was at fault … the exact amount of time Nora let the audience think about the question before she revealed that there wasn’t an answer; Mike Nichols told her it was all about whose story you chose to tell. Narrative is about perspectives. Who sees what and how they see it.

Nora’s stories were deceptively simple. Like some of her best movies, they revealed layers of intricacies beneath the surface of a standard boy-meets-girl plot line. Little rabbit holes of genius. After the storytelling, Nora signed books. I’m not big on the signed books, but I had a first edition of her book Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media (still surprisingly relevant today) and I really wanted to get it signed. As she signed the book, she told me I could get a copy of it for three dollars on eBay. I replied: Well, now it will be worth four.

My second night at Barnes & Noble University was a conversation between Stephen Sondheim (Monday’s Listen pick) and journalist/author Anna Quindlen. Their 20+ year friendship allowed for some fun stories and insidery info. Sondheim told a story about being asked to pay a visit to Cole Porter to “cheer him up” by playing a song from a new musical (Gypsy) he was writing. Stephen choose this song, because he said he pulled a traditional “Cole Porter” move on the lyrics.

In Stephen’s words: If Cole Porter couldn’t rhyme a word, he would pull a word from another language. When we played ‘Together, Wherever We Go’ for him and got to the line: ‘No fits, no fights, no feuds, and no egos … amigos.’ He audibly gasped because he didn’t expect the ‘amigos.’ We Cole Porter-ed Cole Porter. It was a great moment.

He talked about how he doesn’t speak ill of the living, but has no problem talking about the dead because, “they can’t talk back.” Sondheim also claimed he’s not concerned with achieving immortality through his work, unlike some of his peers. This gave me pause. I think it’s an easy comment to make when you know you’ve already achieved that state. I wonder if it would still be true had he only created one or two musicals of middling success.

Sondheim spoke critically of his work and that of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. When it comes writing lyrics, accuracy is very important to him. He cited Hammerstein’s line in the song, Cock-Eyed Optimist, as one he finds most baffling: “When is the sky ever a ‘bright canary yellow?” His stories and observations were fascinating. He charmed the audience with his candor and good sense of humor.

The greatest joy I got out of being in the audience for both Sondheim and Ephron was seeing how much they both still love what they do. And, even better, how much they enjoy sharing it with others. Truly one of the best lessons a teacher can impart on their students.

P.S. Stephen Sondheim shared so many great stories that I’ve already forgotten, but if you want to read more, here’s a great write-up on the event.