Writing in the Pandemic Age, part 2

coronavirus-5088470_1280-Pedro_Wroclaw

I’m due for another blog on the Cinema Houston site. Its last post detailed a part of Houston history: the 1918 influenza epidemic and how the virus shut down schools, theatres, pool halls, and social gatherings for two weeks in October. The Barnum & Bailey Circus was due to open in town during that time. Instead, upper circus management canceled the remainder of the season, and all the clowns, tightrope walkers, and elephants went home. The week-long run of Cleopatra, starring silent screen vamp Theda Bara, ended after four days. For modern movie historians, that’s salt in the wounds since almost all of Bara’s films, including Cleopatra, are now lost.

The similarities to the present are obvious. Once more, the city (the country, the world) is dealing with the fallout from a virus that knows no borders and pays no attention to race, religion, or economic status. Despite the advances in medicine over the last century, we following the same strategies used in 1918. Keep your distance. Wear a mask. Stay home when possible.

On the plus side, this has been the ideal time for the multitude of things one can do in the comfort of their own dwelling, from decluttering and home improvement to home videos en route to social media. It is also the ideal time for the creative impulse. Painting, photography, sewing, and culinary skills, please step forward.

So it is with writing.

In fact, the art of creating may be the most fun one can have alone without having to worry about masks and a six-foot minimum distance. There’s no bother about large crowds. The only limits are on imagination.

I mention all this as a segue since the art of creating is frequently a solo act. Ideas manifest themselves in a vacuum. It takes an individual to nurture them, molding them into something tangible before releasing them into the village. Even group endeavors begin with that one person and the lightbulb above their head—who then turns it into a party.

As mentioned in a previous blog, Shakespeare may have hit a creative sprint during the plague, writing masterpieces such as King Lear in isolation (or not. It’s old history and we may never know the truth about ol’ Will). However, as the saying goes, when the legend sounds better than the fact, print the legend.

On the other hand, as one reader quipped, “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine… I myself will be writing a spec script about Britney and Ryan Gosling switching bodies at the Mouseketeer tryouts in Orlando in ‘92.”

Were Pet Rocks a great idea? Questionable. Were they memorable? Absolutely.

Were Pet Rocks a great idea? That’s still open to debate. Were they memorable? Absolutely.

Still, creation can strike when least expected if the usual day-to-day bustle does not get in the way. Might we look back at 2020 as a breakout time of originality? A new King Lear, anyone?

The world needs great ideas. They solve social ills, bring about change, improve upon lives, and bring about inspiration. One Idea leads to another, a falling domino triggering the next. Granted, some of these remain on the lower end of the scale. Britney and Ryan at the Mouseketeer tryouts may not cure hunger, bring about world peace, or resolve the issues tormenting us at this moment in time, but neither did pet rocks or planking, and I can’t think of a world without these diversions.

Ideas lead humanity to a far better place, and they all strike us all at one point or another. It’s up to us to set them free. As for now, I think I’ll write a little ditty and hope that Shakespeare grants me his blessings.

To read my companion blog, visit cinemahouston.wordpress.com.

Top image by pedro_wroclaw from Pixabay

Writing in the Pandemic Age

It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m sitting on the sofa, iPad on my lap, watching the rainfall outside the window. With the day so dreary, there’s little to do in the great outdoors. There’s no place else to go either since most everything is shut down in the city. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Bars, movie theaters, and malls are likewise shuttered. Like me, most people are also stuck inside their homes, looking out the window and wondering when life will get back to normal. For now, this is the new normal, and it will take some getting used to. Welcome to life in the age of the Coronavirus

It’s a good time to write. With options limited, cuddling up with a good book can be just as rewarding as writing a good book (or at least endeavoring to do so). I might have a go at a chapter later on today. Creative expression always brings out the best in people, although the chief obstacle seems to be in finding the time to do so. This disruption might be seen as the gods’ way of forcing humanity to slow down and do something creative, dammit. I’m open to that sentiment. Another painting, another song, another poem or story, only makes the world a better place. And with most art and music venues closed to the public at the moment, we have little choice but to create our own masterpieces.

William ShakespeareYes, these are scary times. All it takes is a click to the news channel to get a full dose of stark reality, and while it will get better, it may take some time. Despite the fear and uncertainty that is a universally shared experience, I keep coming across small snippets that offer hope, suggesting that things are not all bleak. The most recent came from Rosanne Cash (she of the Ring of Fire musical dynasty), who posted:

“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

The responses were quick in coming, not all of them embracing her optimism. Some of the most notable (and snarky) include:

“This inspires me. I also will write King Lear.”

“I don’t need that kind of pressure, Rosanne.”

“Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine… I myself will be writing a spec script about Britney and Ryan Gosling switching bodies at the Mouseketeer tryouts in Orlando in ‘92.”

“So far I’ve got a google doc titled “King Lear 2: The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” and an otherwise blank page. Slow and steady.”

“What if ugly-crying onto a burrito is your King Lear?”

“Newton discovered gravity in quarantine. Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine. I just binge-watched everything Ricky Gervais ever made on Netflix.”

“I think the reason Shakespeare managed to write King Lear while a plague was going on is primarily because he didn’t have Twitter.”

The remarks go on. Check Rosanne’s Twitter account for more.

While she might have invited the flood of bemused comments, she has a point—even if it is not wholly accurate. It should be noted that there were numerous plagues during Shakespeare’s time, including 1596 and 1602. London’s playhouses were shut continuously down each time the body count rose, and his writing reflects that sad fact. There is no evidence that he was actually in quarantine in 1606. However, during this period, he most likely wrote not only King Lear, but Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Macbeth, and loads of poetry. So do the math. Chances are good, he was writing in and out of epidemics, and the timing came by chance.

Still, the idea of the bard creating his masterpieces while forced to remain indoors is inspiring, as it should be. Creativity in its various forms always comes as a chain reaction and ties back to the art of communication. Be it the written word or paint on a canvas, we all have something to say. Oftentimes, those messages are formed by our experiences. It is how we express those thoughts that make the difference.

A recent ad for YouTube, tied to the stay-at-home mandate, said it well. Using the tag, Stay Home #with Me, it suggested all the things that might be done while being stuck inside the house: cooking, singing, painting, reading, etc. It’s the quality of the time as well as the quantity.

And while one of the comments to Rosanne’s tweet was “Trying to work on this new book but I just keep getting distracted and writing King Lear instead,” is that such a bad thing? We already have wars and pandemics and economic instability. Perhaps at this point, this world needs more Lears.

Blogs, movies, and a witch or two

discovery-of-witches

Revised October 20, 2019

Back in April, I posted this blog about the TV adaptation of the Deborah Harkness novel, A Discovery of Witches. At the time, I had only watched several episodes. It is worth noting that having watched the remaining episodes, my opinion still stands and I look forward to the upcoming season two which follows the events of her second novel. Filmed adaptations rarely live up to expectations. That’s the nature of one art form when drawn into another. I prefer to be charitable. If it hits an eighty percent satisfaction rate, I give it a thumbs up. The sad fact is that so few even reach that mark.

Without further ado, on to the unaltered blog from April, just in time for Halloween:

APRIL 28, 2019—I just completed my sister blog for Cinema Houston shortly before beginning this one. It’s a bit disconcerting, jumping from one to the other, rather like having two separate jobs or a secret identity—Bruce Wayne and the Batman, Jekyll and Hyde, Frank Oz and Yoda, take your pick. The fact that they are distinctly different and yet similar in tone makes it all the more difficult to compartmentalize what goes into each.

In this blog, I touch on writing and creativity, words and images. Anything that comes close to a fit goes in this bin. As an artist as well as a writer, the two crafts are ideal bedmates.

Cinema Houston is, at least on the surface, a different animal. It began as an offshoot of my book on the history of Houston Movie theatres.

Since then, it’s expanded to cover the movie experience in general as well as preservation. By nature of the combined elements of the motion picture, this means it also includes the aforementioned writing and creativity, words and images (and sound. The only thing missing is fragrance, unless you count Smell-o-Vision. Yes, there really is such a thing.)

220px-Discovery_of_Witches_CoverSo rather than blather on about the written word this time, I thought I would touch on the combinations and how they work for and against one another, especially when molded into film. I’ve considered this as I have been watching the BBC America adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. As an enthusiast of the All Souls Trilogy of books, I was both excited and nervous when I first heard of it being adapted to the screen. After all, we’ve all been disappointed when our favorite books get the movie treatment with less than stellar results.

It is a delicate thing, removing words on a page to the reality of sight and sound. The pitfalls are many, most notable being the severe compression of hundreds of pages into the limitations of minutes. Subplots are lost, as are minute details and thoughts. Even the best of adaptations suffer from this inevitability, and it represents a challenge to the writer tasked with the screenplay. If the writer has a clear vision and respect for the source material, there is a chance that the end product doesn’t suck too much.

In the hands of a bad writer, all bets are off.

I understand that book and movie are two different beasts and must be considered as such. But the oft-spoken statement holds true most of the time: The book was better.

Regarding A Discovery of Witches, I’ve now seen the first two episodes. As tempted as I am to binge-watch them, there is a delight in anticipating the next chapter each week. So far, I have been incredibly satisfied in the casting, portrayals, and the reworking of a hefty book into a visual narrative. Yes, much of the original content has been condensed, reworked for time, but based on those three episodes, I give it a thumbs up. I say this knowing that as the series progresses, it could go south. I doubt I will get everything I want. I don’t expect to see the yoga scenes (those of you who read the book know what I’m talking about).  But I have faith.

It comes down to word allotment. Novels allow the writer the unlimited plan. Novellas less. Short stories even more. Get to poetry, and every word counts. The same with adaptations.

Every art form has its own rules, and any attempt to bring one into the other is always problematic. But that is the nature of the arts and their shared goal of conveying story and emotion. The challenge is how to convey plot, emotions, motivations, back history, the whole shebang within the confines of said medium.

Now excuse me, because another episode of A Discovery of Witches is coming on, and for the next hour, I do not want to be disturbed.

Now excuse me, because I want to get back to rereading A Discovery of Witches to see what got left out of the TV adaptation.

Check out my Cinema Houston blog at www.cinemahouston.wordpress.com

It takes a village

WritefestOff the congested Houston I-10 freeway and down Taylor to Winter Street, there stands a series of refurbished warehouses, now home to resident artists and craftsmen. With the Mahatma rice silos towering overhead, this complex consists of Winter Street Studio, Silver Street studios, and the Silos at Sawyer Yards. Nearby are independently owned shops, restaurants, and the Holler Brewery. The area crackles with creativity, expression, individuality.

A perfect place to write.

Writefest—a weeklong series of lectures, workshops, and panels, culminated in a May weekend event staged at Winter Street Studios. The location fit, since Writespace, one of the two organizers of the event, is located at the neighboring Silver Street building. The other partner, the Houston Writers Guild, is no stranger to these events, having held writer/agent and independent writer conferences in past years.

These events are wonderful experiences for the writing community and certainly are not exclusive to this city. The Writers League of Texas will be holding its 2018 editors and agency conference at the end of June. Other cities have their own organizations, sponsoring similar events, and that does not take into the account the breakdown into the groups that center on specific genres.

There is no need to detail the activities, since they are so well covered by the hosting organizations, although the key points are in learning, the practice of the craft, and exposure to key people who make the industry work. I attended the weekend activities—not my first rodeo, nor will it be my last. If you’ve not yet been to one, you owe yourself.

My biggest takeaway from Writefest is that of community. It takes a village, so the saying goes, and while writing is a solitary practice, it is also best when shared, especially with like the minded. During the week, fellow writers conversed and communed, told of experiences and stories (real life as well as fictional), and bonded with their common interests. New friendships were formed, while existing ones found reinforcement. As I said, community. It doesn’t get better than that.

This is likewise a key in critique circles, a lifeline to any aspiring writer. I have been active in one for years, and have found it to vastly improve my skills in writing, speaking, critiquing, and basic honesty for others (something the world can use a bit more of nowadays). It’s a give and take, where everyone wins.

Words are put on the page in order to be read. This we do in the hopes that what we have to say will contribute to community—not only our own tribe but also a larger whole. And then, when all is said and done, we can withdraw to our corner and write something else.

So the circle continues.

Print in its many forms

PrintWe all have our daily rituals. Among mine are the movie and music-related sites with the newest news. For a person obsessed with silent movies, I’m always waiting to see if yet another lost film might be discovered in a hidden archive.

One of the websites I am fond of is PRINT, which touches on both the art and typography aspects of publications. I love PRINT because it can cover the latest trends in design, touch on proper (and improper) uses of fonts, and offer history lessons on a topic I might be otherwise familiar with. As a writer, it is important to remember that how the words appear can be equally important to the words themselves.

Curious? Here is its link. Check it out: www.printmag.com

 

 

Be very afraid!

Scary Human Skull, Crying Blood

Here’s to Halloween, the go-to date for all things spooky. I find it to be the perfect excuse for binge-watching horror films, from The Universal classics to the modern haunted house flick, and especially the rich Technicolor of the Hammer films.
It’s also an ideal time for reading ghostly stories late at night. This year, I’m thrilled (and chilled) to be a part of Hair Raising Tales of Horror, an anthology of scary stories edited by Melissa Algood and Chantell Renee. Within these pages are twenty-one short stories by seven writers (myself included), guaranteed to be… well, hair raising. Other contributors include Jessica Rainey, D. Marie Prokop, Patricia Flaherty Pagan, and Mark Harwell, along with Algood and Renee. To be read on a dark and stormy night.

Waves of Suspense

WavesofSuspenseThe new anthology from the Houston Writers Guild, Waves of Suspense, is now available. I am thrilled to be one of the ten authors in this collection of mysteries. The other authors include Teresa Trent, Patricia Flaherty Pagan, Mary Jo Martin, Joyce Kopp, Andrea Barbosa, Meg Lelvis, Jim Murtha, Rob Hunsaker, and AC Rogers.

The Houston Writers Guild is a nonprofit 501(c)6 organization and every book purchase promotes great samples of local authors’ work while providing the organization a revenue source for continuing to help promote literacy in the local community.

Waves of Suspense is available through Amazon as well as the Houston Writers Guild website.

It’s history book fair time again

The annual Houston History Book Fair & Symposium is nearly here. It will be held on Saturday, November 14, 2015 at the at the Historic Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney Street. The event is always fascinating, due to the varied authors in attendance, selling their books, and giving presentations throughout the day.

HistoryFair2015I look forward to the event and will have a table spot for Cinema Houston.

Other authors include: Joann Russell (Afloat on a Full Sea), Paul Spellman (Love Letters From WWI), Jimmy Wynn/Bill McCurdy (Toy Cannon), Hank Moore (Houston Legends), Carlos Hamilton (A Rose Blooms in Texas), Bill Boyce (Miss Fortune’s Last Mission), Kathleen Maca (Galveston’s Broadway Cemeteries), Dr. Nicolas Kanellos (Recovering Texas Hispanic History), Steven Gonzales (El Camino Real), Cindy Freeman (Historic Houston and How to See It), Jan Johnson (Two Galveston history tour books), and Andy Hall (The Galveston-Houston Packet).

See you there.

Making a deal with your creativity

helpI recently heard an episode of Radiolab that discussed ways people make deals with themselves, be it to quit smoking or accomplish a goal. A segment with Eat. Pray. Love. author Liz Gilbert dealt with the idea of creativity as an external force and how an artist/writer/musician can negotiate with that. She speaks of the muse in the same way as Tori Amos, that being the art form as living being or as a force seeking an entrance into the material world. It makes a lot of sense. How else can you explain how great ideas are born out of nothing. Check it out here.

HWG conference 2015

Houston Writers Guild conference 2015

The 2015 Houston Writers Guild annual conference got off to a bumpy start—with the hotel lacking in electricity following a nasty storm earlier that morning. Despite the foreboding start, electricity was restored by 9:30, setting the stage for an excellent series of panels, lectures, and discussions. A highlight of the day was a keynote address by Jane Friedman on the digital age author. With an excellent visual presentation, she walked the audience through the history of the printed word, and how the rises in literacy and technological advances have changed the shape of publishing.

Other sessions I sat in on were “Formatting eBooks” by Megan LaFollett, “The Importance of an Author Platform” by Elena Meredith of PR by the Book, “Your Five Big Scenes” by Chris Rogers, “Reading Like a Writer” by Ann Weisgarber, and an illuminating panel discussion with agent Ann Collette and writers Ashley Weaver and Mark Pryor.

Be sure to visit Cinema Houston, my blog on cinema and historic preservation.