Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

I tend to be a very organized person. I like to plan. I enjoy the process of planning, and then I enjoy having everything be smooth and fun and efficient because I planned well. I’ve never had to pull an all-nighter. In college, if I stayed up all night, it was either because I had insomnia or because I was having a good time. The good time often involved playing bridge or hanging out with a cute boy. Both seemed totally worth the sleep deprivation.

I even plan when I’m not going to plan. If you plan that you’re going to be spontaneous, are you still being spontaneous? I’m not sure, but that is totally me. When I purposefully have no plan, I lower my expectations instead, and then it usually all works out very nicely. I’m also usually aware ahead of time of backup plans and which plans are super important versus which plans can be changed without it being a big deal. I don’t even do these things on purpose a lot of the time; my brain does them automatically.

Enter the Creative Process.

There are many parts of the creative process I can plan too. I can plan uninterrupted writing time. I can make daily word count goals, or scene revision goals, or what-have-you. I can make lists and notes and world building sheets. I can outline until the cows come home. I almost always know within a week or two when I’m going to finish a draft. I know what scene I’m going to write tomorrow.

But to my infinite discomfort, there are aspects of my creative process that I cannot plan. Novels, it turns out, are complicated; they consist of many interlocking parts, and sometimes the parts don’t interlock the way I think they’re going to. Sometimes either my planning or my execution is imperfect, and things aren’t set up properly the way they were supposed to be. Sometimes I come up with an idea that is ten times better than what I originally planned to do.

And sometimes ideas simply aren’t ripe. This sounds kind of woo-woo, and that annoys me, but for now, for me, it also seems to be true. Some ideas aren’t ready to go when I want them to be ready. They have pieces missing, and I can sit and think and think and think, and the pieces don’t always fall into place. And then I can’t write the rough draft because I don’t understand the novel well enough to start putting down words. I don’t know who all the POV characters are, or I don’t really understand what I’m trying to say, or I don’t have a solid structure to hang everything from, or my world doesn’t make sense yet.

And then suddenly, in its own damned time, a piece or two or three will fall into place, and the novel idea is ripe, and I can contemplate writing it and maybe even make an actual plan.

I find this both annoying and exhilarating. Annoying because I want to be able to plan further ahead, and more reliably, and I want my ideas to always cooperate with me. Exhilarating because there is nothing like that feeling when a few pieces DO fall into place, and suddenly I’ve got something where before I had nothing at all.

Anyway, I’ve been pounding my head against a novel idea for the past few months, and it wasn’t budging. So finally I turned my head to a different, older idea, and a few pieces fell into place, and maybe I’ve found my novel project for 2016. I certainly hope so.

Because I’m usually happiest when I have a plan, and I can work towards it.

This is an otter. It is very cute and otherwise has nothing to do with this blog post.

This is an otter. It is very cute and has nothing to do with this blog post.

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I am happy to report that I did in fact host my party this past weekend, and in spite of a flurry of winter flus and colds, I had plenty of fabulous and creative people in attendance. Challenge met.

I have a great interest in experimenting with social gatherings (otherwise known as parties) and creating different social experiences for people. I’ve been most intrigued by designing parties that encourage mingling, meeting new people, and getting to know slight acquaintances better (as opposed to sticking within already established friend groups and/or the people you came to the party with) and parties that cultivate creativity. (I’m also interested in the idea of fostering deeper connections between people, but I haven’t experimented much with that yet.)

The Albion experiment:

Some months ago I read about Emily Short’s San Tilapian Studies, a “narrative entertainment” for 30-40 players, and I instantly wanted to try it. Check out her post for a detailed description, but in summary, there are three different color stickers, and each person gets two stickers of the same color. One color is an item, one color is a descriptor, and one color is a function. The goal of the game is to put together three stickers, one of each color, into an awesome item (or in the case my game, a magical artifact). Then you put the stickers in a book and add drawings and/or text about it.

I used the rule mechanics almost exactly as stated in the blog post, with one exception: I changed the part about one sticker being a vile forgery, so people could match up both their stickers if desired. I re-themed the game to be high fantasy and titled it “Reclaiming Albion.” The story went that we were all native Albion scholars researching our magical heritage, which had been stamped out centuries before when an evil empire had conquered Albion.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Results and Observations:

I waited an hour after the stated party start time to launch the game; I wanted a critical mass of people present to give more possible match options. Time from the launch of the game until it finished was about three hours, with another half hour for sharing, although most people were not playing for the majority of that time.

After I handed out the stickers, there were a couple of really fast matches, mostly between significant others and tight friend groups. I was a little worried that the game would be over extremely quickly, but after that initial burst, players began to be more picky with their matches and explore options before deciding. The matches also became more difficult with less stickers in play, requiring more exploration. People began to mingle outside of their immediate circles. Did everybody do this? No. But it did give more opportunities for people to approach each other and get to know each other while working together, which was really cool to watch.

Perhaps because my party was smaller (~20 players), there were a couple two-sticker matches that couldn’t find a third sticker that was a good fit. In those cases, I waited a while to make sure a match wouldn’t materialize, and then provided a third sticker that would complete the artifact in a fun way.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Lessons Learned:

1. While this party was certainly more flexible than a standard mystery party, it still mattered that players were present at or near the start time of the game because later on, there were less stickers in circulation. I’d emphasize arriving early-ish in the invitation next time. That being said, for people who didn’t care about playing, arriving later was fine because there was more socializing happening then anyway.

2. I received a few suggestions of changes in implementation that could be interesting to try. One was to hand out four stickers at the beginning of the game instead of two, although I’m not certain about this one, as it would increase the options so hugely at the beginning. Perhaps another way to achieve something similar would be to have two rounds. The other suggestion was to make an explicit rule to encourage more mingling: for example, that everyone is only allowed to collaborate with each person once or that no collaborating is allowed with anyone you came to the party with. I tend to like to have as few rules as possible, but the results of either of these rules would be interesting to observe.

2. I provided paper to glue into the book to avoid a bottleneck of people wanting to draw/write/etc. and having to wait for the book. However, many people wanted to wait for the book anyway. I think perhaps if I had provided fancier paper, people would have been more excited to use it. (That being said, people began to use the paper once they realized how long a wait it was.)

3. I provided many different colors of ballpoint pen, as well as black gel pens and markers. I thought I’d gone way overboard, but people loved having a big selection. Next time I’d be tempted to provide an even larger variety of supplies.

4. At the end of the evening, several players were very eager to share their work and see other people’s work. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this! We sat around in a circle for storytime, when I showed all the illustrations and read the artifacts and text out loud. It was quite entertaining, and it allowed people to share their experiences from the evening.

5. I didn’t realize the book would be as amazing as it is. People took the opportunity to be creative and ran with it. Included with the stickers were: many drawings of artifacts; a map of Albion and surrounding areas, complete with broken seal; short stories; a limerick; and magical recipes concealed in a specially folded paper. It made me realize how excited people can get when presented with the chance to be creative together. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise since kids are the same way, but I see it in practice less frequently with adults.) I think having the atmosphere be fairly low pressure helped minimize feelings of self-consciousness as well. (Contrast this with indie RPGs that require improv, which provide very creative experiences but are too stressful for some people.)

All in all, a fun and successful party! And I made enough stickers that I could do another one. I think that re-theming the party could also keep it fresh enough for several parties with many of the same guests. (Or maybe I just think that because I’d love to do a science fiction theme.)

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

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Writing is not glamorous.

I don’t know if there’s anyone left who thinks it is glamorous, but since there are apparently still people who think writers are all rich (excuse for a minute while I try really hard to stop laughing), I bet there are also people who believe in the glamor.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing (except when I hate it). I’m glad I’m a writer. It suits my personality and my interests like nothing else I’ve discovered. But I don’t love it because it’s glamorous. I love it because I love story and characters and thinking hard and messing about with words and plot points and how is this emotional arc going and playing with index cards and taping them all up on my closet like some very strange modernist piece of art.

There is a little bit of glamor. Occasionally I dress up and go to an awards ceremony that most of the world doesn’t know is happening. I’ve met a few writers I really admire. In my book club, when we were talking about the motivations of the author this one time, I could say, “Well, I’m friends with her, and these were the points that seemed most important to her.” But this isn’t the bulk of my experience.

My writing uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.

My writing uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.

Talking about being a writer isn’t glamorous at all. People want to tell you about how they think they could be a writer (Awesome! Go do it.) or they had this one idea and why don’t you use it and split the profits (No thanks, I have plenty of my own ideas) or what about that self-publishing thing they read one article about that one time? They want to talk about the money involved, which I pretty much NEVER want to talk about, or they want to talk about what other job I have, which I also pretty much NEVER want to talk about. They want to know what I have published, even though even if I had a novel out, odds are they wouldn’t have heard of it. They want to tell me how they don’t read, or they used to read, or how their friend’s cousin’s husband’s mother is also a writer. Some of this is fine, some of it is less fine, but none of it is terribly glamorous.

Neither are the daily realities of being a writer. I used to spend large swathes of time in my pajamas until I moved and had to get dressed to take the dog out (although I have considered putting on a coat on top of my pajamas to get around this little problem). I sit at the computer for hours at a time, often not doing all that much. In fact, I’ve become a master starer. Also a master of switching to my browser window when I should be solidly in my word processor window.

I track word counts and pages and chapters and daily goals. I get worried if I’m not in possession of a sufficient quantity of blank index cards. I try to fix problems and then fail and eventually get frustrated and wander to the fridge, only to realize I’m not hungry. Then I go stare at the screen some more. Sometimes I stop and think about how I spend my time, and I’m simultaneously thrilled at what I do and dumbfounded by how boring it all seems from the outside.

“What did you do today?” someone will ask, and I stare in confusion for a moment before saying, “Well, I wrote.” I decide to leave out the getting the mail and washing the dishes and hanging out with the dog and reading a bunch of articles that have nothing to do with anything I’m working on but are pretty interesting and checking to see when that movie I want to see comes out. My days are all very mundane, really. The excitement happens inside my head, completely out of view of the casual observer.

No, writing is not about glitter and wealth and fame. It’s not about slinky sequined dresses every day or eating caviar out of inappropriate stemware. It’s not easy or simple or painless or uniformly pleasant. It’s not about glamor.

It is, for me, about passion, and that’s something I find altogether more interesting.

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One of the things I love best about being a writer is the wonderful necessity of feeding my muse.

Don’t get me wrong; I do my very best not to follow my Muse’s fickle whims. I try to write a prescribed amount of words regularly. I try not to start new projects if it will mean leaving an already started project unfinished. I force myself to write when I don’t feel like it.

But that doesn’t mean my brain doesn’t need feeding while I’m engaging regularly in the creative process. In fact, it can be positively voracious. And the more I feed it, the happier my writing process tends to be.

Favorite Ways to Feed the Muse:

1. Travel. Yes, I know, I am constantly singing the praises of travel, but I am hard pressed to think of anything that delivers a bigger punch of Muse deliciousness. New places and cultures, new experiences, new people, the beauty of nature, art treasures, learning about history, eating amazing and sometimes strange foods–travel has it all.

2. Doing something I haven’t done before. Because we don’t need to travel far from home to have new experiences, whether that be going to a new place in the area or trying a different restaurant or taking a different route for your daily walk/jog. In a couple of weeks, I have tickets to go see my first magic show, and even if it’s on the cheesy side, I am fascinated to be having this experience. (Plus, I get to wear a cocktail dress. Double win!)

3. Going to museums. Because at most museums, I learn something new or see something beautiful or experience something different (see #1). Next on my list? The Disney museum in San Francisco.

4. Experiencing story outside of my own writing. This can be anything from novels to movies, TV series to theater, role-playing games to video games. Sometimes I need to read a certain kind of novel, and other times I really need a different vehicle to experience story. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of plays. Good, bad, or wildly uneven, it’s all grist for the mill.

5. Finding another creative outlet. Even though my current focus is on writing, I feel so lucky to have spent so much of my life practicing and studying to be a musician. Sometimes there is nothing my brain needs as much as becoming entirely focused on something creative but DIFFERENT. Very very different. A quick thirty minute voice practice session and I can come at a writing problem in an entirely different way. Which is similar to

6. Moving the body. Exercising, dancing, taking a walk around the block, or jumping up and down for twenty seconds, all of these activities pull us back into our physical bodies and give our brains a chance to work on a subconscious level.

7. Talking to people. The more interesting people we surround ourselves with, the more likely our social time will prove to be inspirational. You never know when an off-hand comment from a friend will trigger a thought that turns into a blog post, the perfect telling detail, or a solution to a tricksy plot problem.

What our your favorite ways to feed your muse?

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“Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery… People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.”

— Ben Okri (Thanks to Theodora Goss for bringing this quotation to my attention.)

I love this idea, of sustaining life as a dream. Dora rightly stated that this is what artists do, but it is what all of us can do, if we so choose. It is what I would like to do, and I think my (limited) ability to do it is part of the best of me.

Of course, most of the time I don’t think of my life as a dream, or a fairy tale, or an adventure. I forget. I get caught up in my to do list, the daily minutiae, my worries and little dramas. One of the reasons I loved living in London so much was that being removed from the very familiar helped remind me of life as a dream. But here in my life right now it is much harder to stay connected to my own fairy tale.

So as I think about the not-so-distant future, I am asking myself: If I was running my own fairy tale (which I pretty much am), what would I do? Where would I go? How can I help myself develop my own personal world of enchantment?

Photo by Frank Wuestefeld

Transformation is a powerful magic. I half-joke about hating change, and of course the reason I hate it is because of the price. As any budding fantasy writer knows, all magic has a price; all magic systems must have drawbacks in order to compensate for the sometimes insanely powerful effects magic can gift to its user. In our world, the price is often pain and discomfort.

The trick, I think, is to turn that pain, that profound sense of displacement, into a fairy tale. To give the pain meaning, if you will. Part of that is finding the petals amongst the stones, the good that comes from the bad, the silver lining, the twist of happiness hiding at the heart of bitterness. Part of that is surrounding yourself with reminders of enchantment. And part of that is being aware of the story as you live it, to become a lucid dreamer of life.

Ben Okri is right. To stay in the dream takes enormous strength, and openness, and willingness to pay the pain price. It is not for everyone.

But for those of us who aspire to dwell there, it is its own reward.

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I can hear your groans already. Not another social media site!

But I have good news: Pinterest is simple, fun, and pretty. It can be a helpful creative tool. And it is absolutely NOT necessary for a solid writer platform. Use it if you enjoy it, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition.

Aren’t you feeling better already?

What is Pinterest?

Most simply, it is a social image-collecting site. You can create “boards” that are collections of various images you have “pinned.” For instance, you can have a “Books I love” board or a “Beautiful photos” board or a “Yummy recipes to try” board. The boards tend to be visually pretty.

You can re-pin images directly from the Pinterest site. You can pin images from other sites, either by adding a “Pin It” link to your browser’s bookmark bar or by copying and pasting the image’s url into Pinterest. You can also upload your own images for your boards.

Finally, you can browse through other people’s boards and images, comment on them, re-pin others’ images, and like others’ images. You can follow other people on a board-by-board basis, and they can follow you. Hence the social media part.

Downsides of the site:

1. Massive time suck. Massive.
2. You can only use the service if you already have either a Facebook or Twitter account. Given my privacy concerns around Facebook, I chose to use my Twitter account. However, that means I can’t look for other friends who use Pinterest, as you can only do that (to my knowledge) by linking to Facebook.
3. You can’t re-arrange the images pinned to your board, so whatever order you enter them, that’s the order you’re stuck with. Hopefully they will eventually add a click and drag sort of interface to make the boards more customizable.
4. The user interface of the site can occasionally be a bit confusing, and the “Pin It” browser button doesn’t always work.
5. As far as I can tell, there is no way to make a board private. So everything you do on the site will be in full public view. Otherwise it would make a great archival/bookmarking tool.

Ways to Use Pinterest as a Writer:

1. Settings boards: Make boards of photographs of various settings in your WIP. I recently wrote a story set in Rio, and I had an entire browser window with twenty tabs devoted to the photos I’d found. I would have loved to have the convenience of pulling all the photos together in a board instead.

2. Blog boards: If you use interesting pictures on your blog, you can pin them all onto your blog board, and have a beautiful visual representation of your blog. You can see mine here.

3. Book boards: I adore books, and it gives me happiness to click on my “Books I Love” board and see all my favorite covers staring back at me. This can also work as a recommendation board or as a record of the books you’ve read this year.

4. Mood boards: I know a lot of writers use music, often carefully crafted set lists, as a tool to get into the mood of their book. For those of us who can’t use music (I find it too distracting), we can make a visual board instead and take a look for inspiration before a writing session.

5. Random inspiration: If you can be disciplined enough to avoid the time sink factor, scrolling through the aesthetically pleasing images can be just the thing to kick-start those creative juices. Also, need an idea for a story? Maybe you can find an image that gives you the first nugget of an idea.

6. Hobbies: If you happen to have an interest in design, fashion, architecture, photography, visual art, cooking, etc., you might find this site fun outside of any writerly benefits it may provide.

Notice that not once do I mention the social aspect? That’s because I really think of Pinterest as more of a creative tool than a social site. And if you’re using it as a tool, the social aspect will follow. You’ll begin re-pinning and liking other users’ images…and they’ll know you did. You’ll find some people who have such awesome boards that you want to follow them. Maybe you’ll have to comment on a particularly thought-provoking image. You get the idea. The social part, I think, can happen organically.

What do you think? Have any more great ideas for ways to use Pinterest? Need to vent some social media angst? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I love the end of the year. Not only do I adore Christmas (it is my favorite holiday), but I like that it’s cold and it gets dark early, both of which encourage me to snuggle up indoors and reflect upon the year that is coming to a close. I plan to spend a lot of time in the next two weeks doing just that, and this week I’m going to write about the two lessons I learned this year that were most helpful to me.

I’ve been struggling with my writing for most of the year–not, thank goodness, with my nonfiction writing, so the blog hasn’t suffered unduly, but with my fiction. I have spent A LOT of time thinking about why I’m struggling and trying various strategies to make the writing work better for me. Most of those strategies failed. But in the last few weeks, I’ve finally found one that feels right.

I was reading snippets from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing when I had my Aha! moment. He gives this three-fold advice to writers: Work, relax, and don’t think. Work I felt I understood, so I began turning around the other two steps in my head. What would it look like if I relaxed while I was writing? What would it be like to stop thinking so frantically? What if I stopped trying to avoid all the objectionable components of writing, stopped being obsessed with not making any of the obvious and embarrassing mistakes? What would happen if I gave myself permission to write what I wanted to write? In short, what would happen if I trusted myself as a writer and gave myself free rein?

Photo by Paul Moody

I am cerebral sort of person, so it’s difficult for me to even imagine not thinking, but I’m also stubborn and I was determined to give it a try. I sat down and spent the next week and a half writing a short story without censoring myself. I looked forward to working on it, and the words came more easily. I even voluntarily worked on it on the weekend. Here was the joy I had somehow misplaced for so much of the year. When I finished it, I felt a sense of completion. Whether or not I had written something good, I had written something I felt connected to and could take satisfaction from.

I gave the story to my husband, my faithful first reader, without telling him I had been trying anything different. When he finished reading, he told me it was the best thing I’ve ever written.

In creative work, I think it’s important to strive. I believe in working to learn and improve, in tackling difficult themes and uncooperative characters, in experimenting to learn your craft (whatever it might be) to the best of your abilities. But what I didn’t realize until now is that there is a point when I have to let go. I have to trust that my writing knowledge will be there for me. I have to stop second-guessing every decision I make. I have to believe in my vision and voice as an artist.

And it turns out, I do have my own voice. It’s been there all this time, waiting for me to be willing to listen.

Relax. Don’t think. Trust yourself.

What lessons pertaining to your work, artistic or otherwise, did you learn this year?

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I read this fascinating article about luck a few weeks ago, but I’ve been saving my discussion of it until after my luck story came out because I love to be thematic.
The article talks about the research of Dr. Richard Wiseman, who conducted a study comparing “lucky” and “unlucky” people. He found that unlucky people tend to miss chance opportunities because they are so focused on specifics of precisely what they’re looking for, whereas lucky people tend to be more aware of what’s actually going on and are open to different outcomes. Basically, his research supports the idea that we make our own luck by noticing and taking advantage of whatever opportunities happen to present themselves.

We’ve all heard this advice in relation to dating. “You’ll find your future boyfriend/girlfriend when you’re least expecting it.” I don’t think the catch phrase actually covers it. Did I expect to meet my future husband at the specific housewarming party where we first talked to each other? No, of course not. (Is there ever a situation in which one does expect such a thing? Unless, of course, it’s a pre-arranged relationship of some sort.) But I also didn’t think it was impossible. I was open to meeting new people and having a new experience, and I went to that party with the hope that I might make some new friends. And I felt I was ready for a romantic relationship should one present itself to me.

Here’s the kicker. You might say I was lucky to meet my husband that night. He might have decided not to attend that housewarming party. Or he might have had a conflict, or received a phone call and left before I arrived. But because I wasn’t attending the party for the sole purpose of looking for a boyfriend, I think we might have met later on anyway. I would have become better friends with the party’s hostess (who later officiated at our wedding), and she would have held another party, or invited friends to go to a group dinner, or whatever, and I would have met my husband then instead. Or I would have become friends with other mutual acquaintances met at that party, leading to the same results.

It’s very easy to think about luck as relating to one specific outcome. What if, instead, we were to think about luck as more of a continuum that depends upon both our choices and our engagement with the world around us? We have to both notice opportunities as they arise and decide to act on them.

I’ll give you another example of how paying attention can work wonders. In college, I did my senior music recital in composition. I didn’t know any undergrads who had done such a thing, but “luckily” for me, I read the Music Major handbook carefully and learned that it was an option for me. Even better, after I received permission for my recital, I allowed other students to pursue the same opportunity because I had proven it was a possibility. Was I lucky? Sure. The composition professors could have decided they didn’t want the hassle of advising an undergrad composer (or been too busy to do so) and found a reason to reject my application. But I also proved the veracity of the quotation about diligence being the mother of good luck. I had formed positive relationships with the relevant faculty members; I had pulled together a decent proposal with a realistic timeline; I had thoroughly researched my major. I would never have been the recipient of this good luck if I hadn’t thought outside of the box (in this case, that all undergrad recitals were given by instrumentalists and vocalists, not composers).

What do you think? Do we create our own luck? Do you consider yourself to be lucky or unlucky (or neither)?

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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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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