Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do

If you are a writer, sooner or later you are going to be asked to get up and read your work before a live audience. Even for a teacher or more seasoned writer, having to get up and present your work can sometimes be nerve-wracking. You may find yourself being nervous and struggling a bit. The first time I ever read, I was at Barnes and Noble in New York. Some of the challenge was the material. The poems I was reading were on the difficult side of the scale, it was an unknown and large audience, and I hadn’t rehearsed beforehand. At the end of the reading, a lady walked up to me and said, “I hope you get healed, honey.”

I laugh at it now but at the time, she was compassionate and all I could do is think of my mistakes. After that, I made a mental list of “what to do next time”which I thought I would share.

Slow Down: Many writers read too quickly. At most readings, you will be presenting alongside other writers, and you will be given some sort of time allotment. Pick something you know will fit within the time you have so you don’t have to rush. There is nothing that ruins a reading like speeding through your carefully selected words.

Read Like You Mean It: By the time you get up to read your work, you are probably going to be sick of it. Whether you are reading poetry or prose, chances are that by the time you present it to an audience, you’ll have revised it a hundred times, and a lot of the emotion will have gone out of it for you. You’ll see all the changes you’ve made, the things you still don’t like about the piece, the places where you’re going to stumble while reading. But that’s not what the audience wants to hear. What you need to present is the original emotional energy that made you write the piece in the first place, whether it was ten days, ten months or ten years ago. Navigate you way back into the feelings behind the story, so that you can communicate them to the audience. When we read a poem or storyit becomes a “lived experience,” so that as you read, you need to leave enough time, space and tone in your voice for the audience to experience each emotional turn and shift that you take them through.

Choose Pieces That Read Well: I think some poems and stories simply read aloud better than others. Sometimes it helps to select pieces with strong sensory content, density of images, or velocity of language. They’re often the crowd-pleasers. Think about saving the more abstract, cerebral pieces for the printed page.

Rehearse: This goes without sayingYou should run through your piece once or twice before you get up to read. Rehearsing warms up your voice and your body for the performance. Even the most established singer would never get up to perform without first doing a few scales. The same is true for the writer reading. If you warm up beforehand, it will help your presentation enormously.

So those are my suggestions on reading your work. I’d love to hear from you in the comments section, about your experiences reading your work, and any thoughts you might have.

Green is for Luck

SONY DSCMany years ago, I was at a lecture on St. Patrick’s Day and a brusque and somewhat imperious man, was scheduled to read from his novel. I was surprised to see he had a glass of whiskey  hidden behind the podium—suffice it to say, I recognized the color and it was not lemonade. Every time he read a page, he took a swig of whiskey. It was a long reading. When it was over, he couldn’t move, and some assistant had to cart him off, but I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, get a grip.” And I thought that up until I had a different type of audition and looked into the camera and thought, if only…

Even if it’s ridiculous that I would have been nervous after being handed the sides, the first time I was asked to improvise I was so nervous; my mind went blank.  Auditions in Europe weren’t done this way.  After I left Europe for New York I never expected to be in front of the camera again.  But back in Los Angeles, by sheer coincidence and a friend who introduced me to her friend, casting agent and Englishwoman Susie, I was back on the saddle again.  I landed an agent in West Hollywood who had me going out.  By then, things had changed.  I still remember the cameraman telling me, “Just pretend you’re talking to me.” Ironic, that now what I do for a living is stand up in front of people and talk. And I am always a tad nervous, like butterflies in my stomach but never as bad as having my speech impaired.  But there is something about reading something, having to memorize it and synthesize it in your own words, incorporating your voice and body into the delivery and into a camera, that felt different, as though naked and literally baring my soul.  It would be a little bit like going to a psychiatrist and beginning to talk and then realizing that there are millions of people listening to you.

Matters were not helped along by the fact that I got to the audition about an hour early. I am chronically punctual, and the positive side of that is that even with traffic, I arrive on time, but the bad side is that I am always roaming around, trying to kill time, and in this particular instance I was getting hungry and there was forty-five minutes to go.

I knew I couldn’t digest anything but to keep myself alert and peppy I found a bakery and had a latte, thinking the milk might help. After my drink, I went to the bathroom to re-apply lipstick and take one last look at myself. Green also Envy

Anyway, now there were about thirty minutes to go and I walked back to the studio and there was another woman—who arrived in one door as I opened another.  We argued over which of us would walk into the audition first, and for some God-unknown reason she also wanted to sit in the chair I had selected.  Teaching myself feng-shui at the time and implementing directions for prosperity, I had to sit in that corner. I am good about sharing, but I was absolutely convinced she was going to knock my chances—I could feel my blood pressure rise—and so every time she came in my direction, I would put my hand up to block her way. It seems funny to me now, but at the time I was ready to strangle her.  But then an acquaintance, showed up, which was a great treat. And from then on everything went well. It turned out there were quite a few people in attendance, some of whom I didn’t know, or had ever seen, but they all smiled and were friendly, except for the arguer.     

I waited for my friends audition to be over, and on the walk back to our cars, I was relieved to be alive and for the first time in a while I felt relaxed. In fact, I was quite calm and then the argumentative woman came by and said, “Better luck next time!” The rest of that discussion I’ll leave to your imagination.    

A Satisfying Social Drama

It’s no secret…the year 2012 for films I saw and books I read were unmemorable.  However I did find stories that were intelligent on a medium that I have made a point to veer from… until now and that is cable television and PBS.  The writing and the casting of Downton Abbey is sharply etched.  It’s gorgeously shot with beautiful art-direction and the fascination doesn’t stop there— its writing and acting is brilliant.

LadyVioletCertain tender scenes play in my head long after I turn off the set.  Last Sunday I felt I watched a royal wedding again (in tears). But the character that I adore most is the brazen matriarch Maggie Smith who plays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.  She is multifaceted and flawed— the strongest and most outspoken of the bunch.  Lady Violet, advice is far from politically correct, by today’s standards, and she is a bit rough around the edges but she doesn’t let her age or gender prevent her from getting things done. The best part about her is her wit and impeccable delivery of dialogue. It’s so good, I watch pen in hand thinking to myself— I wish I would have written and said that!

Naturally you would have had to have seen the show to understand its context. But for a lesson in dialogue, here are some of her finest quotes.

1. “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house . . . especially somebody they didn’t even know.”

2. “One way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.”

3. Cora Crawley: “Are we to be friends then?”

Lady Violet: “We are allies, which can be a good deal more effective.”

4. “Well, give him a date for when Mary’s out of mourning. No one wants to kiss a girl in black.”

5. Mrs. Crawley: “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Lady Violet: “Oh, I must have said it wrong.”

6. “Your quarrel is with my daughter, Rosamund, and not with me. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

7. “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”

8. Cora Crawley: “I hate to go behind Robert’s back.”

Lady Violet: “That is a scruple no successful wife can afford.”

9. “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.”

10. “Oh really! It’s like living in a second-rate hotel, where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave.”

 Have you watched the show? Who is your favorite character?

Inquisitive Breed

Sometimes it’s fun to think about the beginnings of stories, without figuring out where they’ll end. Of course, if I can figure out where it will end and who the characters will be, that’s all the better. But a lot of times I only have a start, and I chew over that for a while, and then it disappears. So I’m passing along this start to you and maybe you can make something out of it.  

I was at the doggie park.  It was early evening and after my dog didn’t want to play fetch with me I purposely sat down on a bench.  I chose a seat in front of a woman who stood along the fence who looked quiet. She wore a shabby outfit, was hunched over, and looked like she had a hard life and a long day at work. Just as I nestled in and began to look around me, another woman burst on the scene, a loud, tall Soccer Mom type who lit a cigarette and stood next to my quiet lady. I figured she would do what I would do, which was close my eyes and hope she went away. Soccer Mom asked the quiet lady about her dog, and lo and behold, they both had the same breed. The quiet lady began talking to her. They were both involved in divorce and custody battles, they loved their children, and were frustrated by various things. I was touched as I listened at what a surprising turn the whole thing had taken. These were two women who never in the world would have connected, and here they were.

A week later, I’m standing under a shady tree at the doggie park and three big bruiser types come in.  They’re smoking and talking about some guy who was getting out from jail and I wasn’t sure if they were felons or police officers. All of a sudden a voice pipes up, and I’m darned if it isn’t my quiet lady wearing the same outfit.  She begins talking to them about the last of the great heavy-weights, Mike Tyson and various other boxers and they begin a conversation.

John Cheever the short-story writer called the Chekhov of the Suburbs wrote a story about a woman who keeps showing up to visit people who are dying, and I began to get a spooky feeling about this lady. What if she was a figment of my imagination? What if she was a killer purposely looking for loud smoking types? What if she was just a really lonely woman who could only connect with people at the doggie park? What if I should just read a book and stop listening to other people’s chatter?

What do you think?

Nanu Nanu

I was reading somewhere online about the vast majority of indigenous languages still spoken in the United States that are on the verge of extinction.

Taken aback, I thought other than perhaps the Native-American tribes who speaks anything other than English in this country? I think that Americans are afraid of languages and resist learning them.  Its part of not wanting to give up control.  The melting pot encourages a fusion of culture and speech when it’s far richer to expand and motivate your left brain function. Our whole consciousness is framed by language and the loss of it serves as a break from identity.

Linguist Elizabeth Little spent two years driving all over the country looking for the few remaining pockets where indigenous languages are still spoken — from the scores of Native American tongues, to the Creole of Louisiana. The resulting book is Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Lost Languages.

Speaking three — okay truth be told, maybe only two and a half but having a good ear whenever I even say the word “schmootzik” Yiddish for dirty to my Coco when we’re at the doggie park I get blank stares as if I’m from outer space.

For anyone who speaks more than one language, some words have more power and pizzazz in a foreign tongue. It brings to mind, when I was growing up name-calling was “verboten” in our household and grounds for punishment.  Telling my brother who was eleven months older, that he gave me “asco” Spanish for nauseate was the ultimate insult and would leave me feeling very satisfied.

If I were to embark on learning a language facing extinction, I would choose Yiddish and here’s why.

Before I met my husband I went on a blind-date with a man who spoke it fluently.  We were at an upscale restaurant breaking bread for the salad. I wasn’t the least bit impressed by his looks but I was about to find out what a wonderful conversationalist he was.  He told me that his father had said (in Yiddish) that he was so forgiving that a person could spit on his face and he would say it was raining.  I snorted my bread from laughter!

There is a depth of Yiddish that shows complexity and humor.  It’s loaded with a secret code of expressions, including terms of endearments, complaints and insults. And although it is fading fast since the Jewish European wipe-out, my wish is that it lives on. So I’ll end with a Yiddish proverb: If one man calls you a donkey, ignore him. If two men call you a donkey, think about it. If three men call you a donkey, buy a saddle.

Lost Translation

Language can be tough to master. Today I found a list of English words that Russian multilingual novelist Nabokov (the author of Lolita reportedly found difficult to pronounce. He used diacritical marks to help him remember which syllable to stress.

In high school, I learned French from a native speaker.  In college, I had two French professors; one spoke with a British accent, another was Belgian and tried to sound American.  I suppose it reflected where they had done their graduate studies. All this made for an entertaining mix of regional dialects with foreign accents. So when I moved to Europe, I was never entirely sure how to pronounce certain words, words I came across mostly by listening to Radio France International and Canal Plus. Then there were the baffling exceptions, words which didn’t sound at all the way they were pronounced. But eventually, my ear grew accustomed to the nasal sounds of Paris French. Then I arrived in New York and went to film screenings at the French Institute Alliance Française  After the movie a discussion would take place in French. And intoned by a native New Yorker they had such a hard edge to them. I dared not speak! I never compiled a list —but now know had I implemented the Nabokov method I would have comprehended more and been less lost.

What about you? Ever learned another language and been utterly confused?