Tuesday, January 10, 2012

'Bitter Milk Kills the Kittens'

Last night, the first rehearsal for Lorca in a Green Dress went splendidly. Before the rehearsal, we had a meeting with the board members of the Teatro Bravo Company, to discuss the reading of the plays sent to the company for staged readings in the spring. I was given five plays to read before the meeting, and I have to say, it is hard to reject plays that you have read, when so many of these writers have spent so much time writing them. In an ironic note, before the meeting, I checked my email to find a rejection notice on a query letter and sample I had sent out for the novel, Charlie Foster. Although I've gotten much better about rejections, when you get one, it lingers in the mind for several hours, but as the years stack up, and you learn the nature of the business, the rejection doesn't sting like in the old days. The marketing dynamic is this: For every hundred queries or plays that you send out, there is a slim possibility that one will get a positive response. It is much easier, however, to send out letters and pdf files via internet than it was in the days gone by. It used to be a six-month or year process just to see if someone would even take a look at what you had. Now, the rejections are much faster. A week or so ago, I got a rejection that was an obvious form rejection. (This is a letter that is obviously written to reject en masse without having to write anything personal.) It was such a lousy form letter, that I wrote a rejection letter to the rejection letter. That was fun, and made sure I did it in the spirit of absurdity and not out of anger. Bitterness is the enemy of the artist. Bitterness builds a wall that keeps you from freeing creativity. Bitterness will kill your creative impulse, bitterness will kill the kitten. I think it's prudent to have a bitterness meter, and check it often. My advice to young writers is, get the rejection, ponder it for awhile, examine the nature of the letter, and move on. As Mary Kole, an agent for Brown Literary Agency wrote in this recent letter, an acceptance is highly subjective. So often, the timing of what you have is in the hands of the universe. Agents, publishers, managers, are people too, with their own experiences and tastes. And so often, they are looking at the market. What might not work now will maybe work later, so you keep sending, sending…

As I was sitting at the table, myself rejecting one of the plays, I thought of the young man who had written it, checking his email each day to see if by some grace of the Gods his play would be selected to have a staged reading. The sad fact of the matter is that if he continues to write, it may be years before he gets that letter of congratulations. Most writers quit before that letter comes. Talent is definitely a good thing to have on your side as a writer or artist, but experience and craft take years to develop no matter how talented you are. Back in the years when I was coaching gymnastics, I learned something very valuable. It was never the most talented gymnasts that got us to the National finals. More often, it was the less talented with an understanding of a work ethic. So often, extremely talented people rely on the talent to always be there, but variables do funny things to talent. I'm a pretty lousy guitar player, so I have to play my guitar more often than most. No one would hire me as strictly a guitar player, I've had to develop other variables that give me some worth, and that is truth.

Fortunately, there were two other plays that I really did like, and one that I loved. It had the ambition of youth and talent, and someone who had a meticulous eye for form. As it goes through other readers, it may or may not end up in the reading series, but whether it does or doesn't, I have a note to write to this playwright to encourage her. There is blood and sweat on her pages. Oh, one more irony. The other play I liked was submitted to the committee by the agent I had for a few years in the nineties, Susan Schulman. She let me go because I signed a contract for a publication while she was on vacation. (I was such a rookie) And, for the record, she was really mean about it. I have to admit, although I don't think its bitterness, I've always wanted a part of success to show her that she missed something. Although it’s a small part of my motivation, it is a steady variable that helps keep me going. And now, so ironic, I'm reading a play of one of her clients to reject or accept it. Now, what would you do? The fact is that the playwright was very good and I really liked his play. If you stay in the business of writing long enough, the universe will reveal itself in funny and ironic ways.

So, the rehearsal went well, I have a wonderful, intelligent, and talented cast, and the journey has begun. Talk about a thousand variables. What will it look like? What will the actors wear? What will be the tone of the text and the acting? What will the publicity look like? With a swelling cast and crew of fourteen people, will sickness strike? Tragedy? Will someone suddenly take an acting job in California? If we spend the hundred and twenty hours it takes to plan this party will people show up? Will the sky fall? These are all questions that you quickly ask, but in the big picture, after the years of doing it, you get to a place that you can handle whatever happens. And in the end, the magic of theatre will come through, and as instincts are telling me today, this one is going to be a special one…and that is what you must always think, one image, stacked upon another, until the images take the form of matter. Let's find out why Lorca was killed for being a poet, shall we? It seems like a worthy task, and well, I have nothing better to do..

One more note on bitterness: A healthy dose of anger out of experience and conviction is not the same as growing bitter. Respect for the work and your personal knowledge of who you are as an artist IS worth fighting for. The relationships between artists, agents, managers, artistic directors, etc. are like any other relationships that might form. It's usually the second date that will tell the tale. Personal experience. One last comment for artistic directors. Get to know the artist if there is something that interests you. Some artists come with their work, that's just the way it is. Dogma in theatre can become just as pervasive as it becomes in religion, keep your mind open. Sometimes, communication comes in the form of something real. There are a thousand stories in the naked city, find the one that works for you, and find people who are not afraid to communicate with you. I've actually had correspondence with agents who rejected my work, but because I wrote and asked questions, they were willing to write back and I learned some neat little tricks. However, be forewarned, some agents, artistic directors, managers, etc. cannot take any kind of personal affront. Be careful, and remember letters that were written with passion used to be the way things got done. Not so much any more, I'm finding more and more that critical thinking is mostly offensive to the thin skin of the artist.


Gerry said...

Hmm, this entry should be of interest to anyone who writes and has to think of somewhere to send it. I have gone through all kinds of experiences trying to catch a break, so my recommendation is always make your intellectual life as interesting and stimulating as possible, so you can take rejection in your stride. I am 80 and am still trying to get a major piece of work published, having submitted plays, novels and now memoirs. I am consulting with Dan, my youngest son, and thinking of going the self publishing route on the internet as an e-book, why because as I as a writer always had many strikes against publication I thought-- difficult subject matter that publishers all shy away from but which I could not alter, it being from my life experience, the fact that I was a woman and that I was from the out of the way state of Utah with experiences there intellectuals had trouble relating to.
I am just about to rewrite my second volume of memoirs, the years after 20. I am sure many will think I am a mighty strange woman who read that, so that possibility finally caused me to keep my expectations low. Self publishing might get my memoirs out there, but just because I am different I doubt I will have a best seller.
The challenge is to have an interesting life anyway, with many books to read, good discussions with talented book readers, and so on. My family provides me with the best ones. We can always challenge each other.
I have written many volumes of letters alone and still do write them. I love a discussion and have started many. I started a policy years ago of taking my kids with me to the library and getting them into the habit of reading books.
I just do not think you can write books if you don't read them.
"Eleanor and Franklin" is the current book of history I am reading by Joseph Lash. I will start on a Pulitzer prize bio of DuBois after I finish it, also called Biography of a Race by Lewis. What is the last book you read of note and what are you reading now?

Bohemian Cowboy said...

I think its true that getting published or getting an agent is a difficult to do, but I also think its part of the quest of 'making some kind of living' as a writer. As with all things in a society that's increasingly more about the money something will make rather than the merit, there is always the challenge of finding someone who still believes in merit. As I read more and more articles and hear interviews of writers who are self publishing, it can be looked at one of two ways. An agent or publisher can sit back and just wait for the sales of e publishing to emerge and then swoop in and seal a deal, or maybe there are agents and publishers who are still 'old school' and ready to take a chance on a piece of writing. One thing I do know, is that the internet has given artists more power to create their own destinies, but they have to also be able to assess their audiences and find them. That isn't easy, but people are doing it, and many of them are writers who publishers would dismiss in a second. The action is in the task of trying, researching, and learning from what comes back. I'm more determined than ever to research and try and understand these options, stone soup will do that to you--poverty is always an edge, but not always a strong enough statement for a society that measures success in portfolios. It's actually fun to write a letter to an agent or publisher to try and get their attention, but its tricky...I don't mind tricky. As for what I'm reading? Stacks of unfinished and earnest plays... a couple of mine I know are in a stack somewhere...