Posts Tagged ‘art’

Not enough people have heard of this little gem, even though it won the Tony Award for best original score in 2005 (Spamalot won the Tony for best musical that year, but let’s not even go there).  The music is so beautiful, it makes me feel like there’s something inside me stretching towards the sky, and that’s really the top attraction for this show. The story line is interesting enough, the character development for the main mother character is well done, and the lyrics are passable although on the whole nothing special.  And given the music they accompany, they almost feel beside the point (which is particularly telling since I am usually all about the lyrics). 

The Light in the Piazza is not a “belty” show, as are most of the new shows we’ve been seeing on Broadway.  No, Adam Guettel draws less on rock and pop music and more on opera and classical music to create his romantic score, filled with soaring violins and Classically trained voices.  It’s possible that this choice is partly why the show isn’t more widely known, but I’m glad he made it just the same. The lush music suits the story and the setting (Florence , Italy).

My local theater company put this show on last fall, and after one of the performances I heard an audience member mention that the story was “creepy”.  Or maybe she said “strange”.  This reaction might also factor into the relative obscurity of the show.  I actually really like the story, although I will admit it’s challenging in that it takes a lot of thought, and it also depends a lot upon the interpretation of the role of Clara.  The general idea is that Clara, now 26, was in an accident when she was eleven or twelve that froze her mental and emotional development, so ever since she has led a very sheltered existence.  But now she and her mother are on holiday in Italy, and suddenly love strikes from the sky like lightning.  One of the questions the show pivots around is, exactly how impaired is Clara?  This is a question that is never answered explicitly, so one just has to guess.  Is she, as her mother finally comes to believe, capable of more than they’d assumed?  Can she aspire to a “normal” life with a husband and possibly even children?  Is she mature enough to truly love?  Or, is this all wishful thinking doomed to dreadful disappointment?  Plus we explore the obligations of disclosure (how much does the mother have to tell Clara’s lover? What about his family?) and we watch events shape and change Clara’s mother, whose worldview has been turned on its head by the end of the show. An ironic twist that happens mid-way through Act 2 highlights the differing values of the two families in question.

The fact is, a lot of these issues and questions are uncomfortable, so I can understand why audience members might be uneasy afterwards.  But for me, this is the best kind of theater: theater that makes me re-evaluate myself and how I see the world, and that leaves an open question.

A few favorite moments, both from the Second Act:

“The Light in the Piazza”, sung by Clara in Rome, when she wishes to return to Florence (and the man she’s fallen in love with).  One of my personal favorites to sing.


“Fable”, sung by Clara’s mother Margaret at the end of the show.  This song is truly epic.


Ah, so beautiful!  If you like what you’ve heard, “Dividing Day,” “The Beauty Is,” and “Let’s Walk” are also songs worthy of attention. I’ll definitely be on the look-out for any new work by this promising composer.

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A few days ago, I read the excellent article “Writing and Mortality” by Rachel Swirsky, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I recommend reading it and coming back here, but since I don’t always do that myself, I’ll summarize. She talks about some advice she read about writing, how if the project you’re working on is not the project you’d be working on if you only had six weeks to live, then it’s the wrong project. Rachel calls foul on this advice, saying that if she had only six weeks, she’d be busy spending time with her loved ones. “Artists,” she says, “aren’t only real artists if they would spend their last few days creating art.” 

I agree with Rachel one hundred percent. Creating art is a high priority for me; in fact, I’ve structured my life around increasing my time to do so. But it’s not my highest priority, and that’s okay. This truth was brought home to me recently when I was suffering from root canal complications.  Mostly I was thinking, “My god, the pain, the pain, please make it stop, I’ll do whatever it takes to stop the pain.”  But when I could focus beyond the immediate suffering, what did I care about the most?  I wanted to spend time with my husband and my little dog, and I wanted to write long e-mails to my best friend.  I’m an ambitious person, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t thinking about my writing anymore.  What mattered to me was the people I love.

Taking a step back, this entire discussion was sparked from a piece of writing advice. I read a lot of writing advice every week.  I even occasionally write some writing advice.  It’s amazing how much helpful information about writing I can learn from the internet (although at this point, a lot of the advice I read is a reminder more than a revelation).

But this advice is not infallible, and it cannot be followed blindly.  Each piece of advice requires consideration, and if you find it doesn’t work well for you, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or a bad writer or anything else.  It means that advice is not for you, full stop.

People try to give me advice all the time (and not just about writing, either).  Here are some examples of advice I do not take:

1. You should write every day. Yeah, I don’t write every day.  I usually take weekends off, and then I come back to the computer on Monday full of fresh ideas and vigor.  That’s what works for me, for now.
2. You should write what you know. Sorry, I don’t actually live in a world with working magic or a world set in the future, but I still write about them.  (Yes, this advice has deeper connotations that are more helpful, but its phrasing can be misleading.)
3. You should write x words every day. Unfortunately, only I know how many words I can write per day, and this number changes over time and depending on circumstances (like, for instance, a root canal or quitting the day job).
4. You should only submit to pro paying markets. I actually kind of follow this one, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s silly.  Really I should submit to any markets I feel like submitting to, right?  If I’d be happy seeing my work at a certain publication, then I’ll submit.  If I won’t feel happy or I think the publication is shady in some way, then I won’t submit.  So this advice isn’t for me.
5. You should/shouldn’t outline. Um, really good writers go both ways on this one.  So I’ll do whatever I like, and experiment with both.  (For those wondering, yes, I outline for novels.  For short stories, it really depends.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Advice is in the eye of the beholder.  People give advice about what works for them as individuals.  But we are not cookie cutter people, and therefore some of this advice will not work for you.  The trick is to learn what you can, and then adapt that learning to fit your own lifestyle, your own priorities, your own artistic strengths and weaknesses, and your own voice.

I would love it if you would comment with some advice you have read or received (writing advice or otherwise) that doesn’t work for you.  It can even be something that I have said here on the blog (gasp). I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

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I have loved musical theater since I was a little girl obsessed with watching movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and Annie over and over.  I watched those movies so often that I memorized the accompanying commercials.  I’ve studied musicals seriously over the intervening years, as a vocalist and performer, as a composer, as a critical audience member, and as a musical director.

I’ve noticed that my associations with musical theater are very different from those of many people I encounter.  I often don’t mention my interest, and when I do, it’s even odds whether my companion’s eyes will glaze over, or he’ll try to change the subject, or worst of all, she’ll make a derisive comment.  About musical theater.  To ME.  Musical theater has gotten a bad rap, and ignorance is rampant about much that moves and interests me about musicals.

Not every musical is an Oklahoma!, with energetic grinning and almost insanely enthusiastic dance numbers that consist of singing about the weather (and once you’re aware of the historic connotations of Oklahoma!, it’s a lot easier to take the aggressive cheerfulness).  Not every musical is a puff piece of finely spun sugar that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing of meaning behind.  Not every musical is overwrought rock opera from the 80s.  Not that I have anything against any of these types of musicals.  I enjoy and am interested in musical theater of all shades.  But.

Not all musical theater is created equal.

My very favorite type of musical theater may or may not feature any dancing.  It often consists of a fairly small cast.  There may or may not be fancy lighting or other technical derring-do; in my musicals of choice, the spectacle of the experience is not the point of focus.  I tend to adore musicals that have something to say and say it with passion.  I look for deep characterization and a satisfying narrative arc.  I want lyrics that are both clever and true, and music that drives home the themes of the piece.  My goal is to take something away after the show that has nothing to do with a snatch of a tune to hum for the next month.

Musicals are a form of performance art, and like the best theater, are capable of teaching us about ourselves and the world around us.  They make us feel, they make us question, and they make us wonder.  My favorite musicals will linger with me for months, or in many cases, my entire life.  Yes, musicals do feature characters who spontaneously burst into song (unless it’s through-sung like opera), but if done well, the music can harness the emotions of the character and present them in a visceral and memorable fashion.  If done by a master, the music can actually both cause and illustrate character development.

This post is the beginning of a series I plan to write and publish every Tuesday for the next month or so, discussing each of my favorite modern musicals (I currently have four), all of which were written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s.  I’ll be talking a small amount about the music and lyrics, but my main focus is going to be on the narrative and thematic ambitions of each piece.

For now, if you’re a musical theater buff, what shows are your favorites?  And if you’re not, what is your general impression of musicals?  Do you like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”, or are all musicals equally anathema to you?  Weigh in and let me know!

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The Tate Modern currently has an exhibition of Soviet era propaganda posters.  I spent a lot of time looking at them, but here is the one that sticks the most in my mind:

"Road to Talent"

On the left, we are shown a (presumably) talented violinist in the U.S., cold, poor, and hungry, wandering the streets at night and being unable to make a living from his music.  On the right, we see a similar violinist in the U.S.S.R., his skills being properly nurtured by the state, elegantly dressed, performing with an orchestra.  Of course, what the poster doesn’t show are any of the drawbacks of the state-sponsored system. 

My husband told me this poster wasn’t so far off the mark.  Many Soviet-trained musicians immigrated to Israel and it was common to see these world-class musicians busking on the streets.  There were simply not enough orchestra seats in the country to accommodate all of the incoming talent.

This got me thinking about the price we pay, as artists, for our art.  When does the price become too high?  Although in some ways the Soviet Union was ideal for artists, many were stifled: denied religious, sexual, or political freedom, not allowed to manage their own careers, censored.  For some musicians, it was obviously better to be busking in Israel than having a glamorous concert career back home.

Here is the U.S. the price for artists is very different.  There is the money/time trade-off: do you get a day job for money and then run low on time, or do you take the time for your art and embrace possible financial insecurity?  Can you achieve the dream of being successful enough to have both time and money?  Or can you find a compromise between the two like I did?  There is the rejection price: lots of hard work, often for years, with very little recognition or reward beyond that of the creation itself.  There is the voice of public opinion, wondering at the value of what you do, telling you that you’re wasting your time, confused as to why it’s taking you so long to become “famous”.  There is the pedestal-pit price of everyone either telling you how what you do is impossible (“I could never sing”) or how what you do is so simple (“I’ve always thought I could write a book”), to the point that it becomes hard to explain that art is rarely either impossible or simple, consisting mostly of a lot of hard work.

American artists complain about all these prices a lot, and that’s fine.  We’re letting off steam so we can go back and focus on our work.  Or we’re commiserating with one another.  Or we’re educating the public and trying to change the necessary prices.  But overall, I think we’re lucky.  I can write a book including controversial interpretations of American history or compose an opera on the evils of capitalism, and I won’t be thrown in jail.   I can believe what I want and talk about it ad nauseam on my publicly accessible blog.

Sure, the price can still become quite a hardship sometimes.  But we all have a choice about what priorities we’ll set, and we can even change our minds later on if it’s not working out the way we hoped.  I’ll choose the life of that violinist wandering around in the dark every time.  The confusion in the dark makes the art even more valuable in my eyes.

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Over the past two years, since my entering into this crazy fiction-writing world, I’ve noticed that many of my compatriots are often discouraged, depressed, worn out, or feeling hopeless about their writing.  Serious devotion to writing as a calling and career seems to take quite the emotional toll.  And two years has been enough time for me to experience this emotional stress firsthand.

What is interesting to me is that I come from an arts background in music.  I did musical theater, got a BA in music, played my own music publicly in London, etc.  And my experience with music and being a pre-professional musician was in no way as brutal as my experience now of being a pre-professional writer.

Please note this is not because I think writing is inherently harder than playing music.  If anything, I think I have slightly more of a natural knack for writing than I do for music.  And I don’t think being a professional musician, especially one who makes her entire income through performance, is any easier than being a professional writer who makes his entire income through writing fiction.  But on the whole and in my own experience, being a pre-professional musician was easier than being a pre-professional writer.1 Here’s why:

1. Higher barrier to entry: Most American adults can sit down and write a sentence without having to practice first.  But have you ever heard someone pick up a violin for the first time and draw the bow across the strings?  If you haven’t, count yourself lucky because the results can be painful to the ear.  This basic difference means that being an aspiring musician generates more respect than being an aspiring writer.  It also weeds out most of the wannabe and non-serious musicians right out the gate, because to achieve even a basic level of musical competence requires non-trivial amounts of practice time.  This is not so with writing.

2. Simple mentorship system: As a musician, it’s common to have a private teacher who will mentor you, give you tons of individual attention, and keep you on the straight and narrow in terms of continuing practice and improvement.  Or you might even have several teachers for different instruments (for instance, at various times I’ve had private piano teachers, voice teachers, and composition teachers).  A good teacher will keep you encouraged and inspired most of the time, and kick you in the ass when you really need it.  There are many resources available for finding a teacher, and you pay a set fee for the privilege of study.  This contrasts to finding a writing mentor, which I don’t know how to do and which has no set way to achieve.  Interest one of the teachers at your workshop or your writing class, perhaps?  But once the class ends, then what?  There’s not a clearly defined business model for this as there is in music.

3. A more respected educational system: It is also common wisdom that a writer should major in something besides creative writing, and the opponents of the usefulness of an MFA in creative writing seem to be as numerous as the proponents.  While I’m not arguing these points one way or another, it stands in marked contrast to music’s mentorship system (discussed above) and higher educational system.  While if you’re doing certain kinds of music, a degree might not be necessary, most music programs help develop skills that will obviously come in handy later on, and musicians don’t tend to argue about their usefulness.  This means if you know that you need to build skills as a musician, you can have the institutional support of a university music program while not constantly worrying that you might be wasting your money.  I’m not saying there aren’t MFA programs that are fabulous, just that general opinion is mixed.  And thank goodness for workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, and Taos Toolbox and organizations like SCBWI that take up some of the slack here.  But workshops and organizations don’t generally offer the same consistency as a four-year program.

4. More emphasis on collaboration: As a musician, I had many opportunities to perform with various groups.  I was taught how to work with other musicians and had group performance opportunities in choirs, musicals, and operas.  Instrumentalists have orchestras, bands, and chamber music ensembles.  And then there are jazz bands and ensembles and rock or pop bands.  Finding other musicians to make music with tends to be pretty easy.  Writing, on the other hand, is a fairly solitary experience, and while one could argue that the critique group is the equivalent of a band, a lot of critique groups don’t meet as often and/or aren’t working together as closely.  The result of this can be a lack of deep working relationships.

5.  Possibilities to practice art in the real world: Speaking of performance, not only did I have many opportunities, both during college and afterwards, but it was highly encouraged, even expected.  A young and inexperienced musician went out and gigged, auditioned, joined a band, whatever.  And if you weren’t paid for your efforts for awhile, well, that was the norm while building up your chops.  Contrast this to writing, in which well-respected writers advise new writers not to submit to markets that pay less than five cents a word (the current “pro” rate).  Leaving aside the absurdity that a couple of cents per word one way or another isn’t going to make a difference in quitting your day job anytime soon, this attitude means that new writers are actively discouraged from showing their work in public unless it can hit the bar and taste of the few pro markets.  This in turn lowers motivation and increases both pressure to improve at unattainable rates of speed and accompanying feelings of futility and isolation.  For the pre-professional artist, any recognition, however small, is powerful incentive to continue, and in writing, there just don’t seem to be as many of these opportunities.

6. The stigma (or lack thereof) of indie artists: The indie music scene is vibrant, exciting, and most importantly, not overtly stigmatized.  In fact, it’s hip to be an indie musician.  Sure, you might have trouble paying your bills, but in return you get to make the music you want to make, thumb your nose at The Man, and live a musical life.  Most other musicians will either be actively supportive or not care one way or another.  Cutting your band’s own CD has gotten a lot easier with recent technology, and bands do it all the freaking time.  Contrast this with the indie writer scene (otherwise known as self-publishing).  You may have a hard time paying your bills this way too (or you may have an easier time if your name is J.A. Konrath), but regardless, other writers will sneer at you.  I’m not kidding.  The stigma against self publishing of any sort is incredibly strong.  It’s so strong that a lot of established professional writers aren’t putting their backlists (the rights of which have reverted to them) up on all the electronic platforms.  Now this might just be lack of business sense, lack of interest, or technophobia, but I find it very striking.  To me, this doesn’t even count as real self publishing because the work has already been published with a publishing house and received the full traditional treatment.  But I digress.  Most writers I’ve met are firmly in the “traditional-publishing-deal-or-bust” camp, even though distribution channels and producing a final e-edition of a novel have gotten much easier with recent technology, just as producing CDs is now easier.  The main effects of this attitude are less options for writers of all levels, not just the pre-professionals, and less emphasis on business innovation and experimentation with new business models.  Meanwhile, there are already huge amounts of self-published material flooding the marketplace with no gatekeeper, and somehow readers seem to be surviving the onslaught just fine.

All this said, I’m incredibly grateful for the assistance I’ve received from the writing communities I belong to.  My friendships and discussions with other writers have been some of the highest points of my writing life.  If anything, this analysis shows how critical these communities and fellow writers truly are.  But if nothing else, I hope this comparison between pre-professional musicians and writers will serve to illustrate the difficulty of the writing path, and encourage us to be supportive, patient, and kind to one another.

For those of us who are nonconformists, it can also act as a reminder that change may be coming, but change isn’t always such a terrible thing.

1 Note that I am most familiar with the speculative and YA communities in writing, and have at least passing familiarity with Classical, jazz, rock/pop, and musical theater in music.  What I’m talking about may not hold true in other genres or styles.

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I’ve just returned home from the LA SCBWI conference with a head swarming with information about writing.  What has stuck to the forefront of my thoughts are two talks by M.T. Anderson, author of such novels as Feed and the two Octavian Nothing novels, among others.

MT had a lot of interesting stuff to say, but what caught my attention the most was what he said about literature, and perhaps by extension, all art.  In a nutshell, he posited that the purpose of literature is to help the reader see the familiar in a different way.  (For those curious about reading more, this is a theory espoused by the Russian formalist school of literary criticism.)  By estranging the reader (for example, through use of language or various literary devices), the author causes the reader to experience the world differently and restores a sense of the unknown to what was before a habitual reaction.

I know how easy it is for me to something for granted and stop seeing what’s right in front of me.  It’s this sort of closed mind that makes it difficult to see from another person’s perspective, to fail to notice what’s going wrong (or right) in our everyday routines, relationships, and desires, to become cemented in attitudes, beliefs, or knowledge that might be inaccurate.  In much the same way as spending time in a foreign culture can shock the system and dislodge rusty thought patterns, so can experiencing art, whether that be through literature, theater, visual art, music, etc.

Following this train of thought, literature can act to help us see the world afresh like children do.  In general, children are a lot more flexible and adaptable than many adults, and they are constantly having brand new experiences.  Assumptions are harder to make without a few decades of experience and collected data to draw upon.  While reading a novel that’s using estrangement to wake us up, we can regain our childlike perspective on the world, both as a place full of wonder and weirdness and as a terrifying mystery in which many things remain unexplained or beyond our understanding.  The curtain of adult security and certainty that gives us the illusion of being safe in a world of rational order is drawn aside to expose the truth: that life is always uncertain, whether you’re two years old or eighty, and that any object, person, or event has several layers of reality beyond the surface.

While this ability to see beyond the surface is certainly useful for artists of all types, I would argue that it is invaluable to anyone who wishes to fully appreciate the human experience.  Art forces us to take notice and stop moving through our daily lives on automatic pilot.  It reminds us of what it was like to be fourteen, or helps us imagine an entire collection of possible lives we might have led (or might still lead).  It shows us the world through someone else’s eyes, someone inherently other because they are not us.  Whether we look at a Dadaist painting that skews common objects and reminds us of universal themes such as the passing of time or read a novel in which language describes a commonplace object in terms we would never have applied, the jolt tickles our brains.  Remember, it says, to really *look* instead of merely knowing.  Remember to breathe in an experience instead of getting too caught in our own heads to notice.  Remember to listen and delve deep.  Live what it is like to be a child, when the world lies before you, scary and stunning and exquisite.

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