Happy Summer Solstice!

The official change of the seasons. I’ll oblige with some appropriate versification from the Middle Ages–in the original Middle English. (The modern translation is a touch … earthier than expected!)

Red Poppies at Argenteuil, Claude Monet
Red Poppies at Argenteuil, Claude Monet

Sumer is icumen in,
Loude sing cuckou!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed,
And springeth the wode now.
Sing cuckou!

Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Loweth after calve cow,
Bulloc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Merye sing cuckou!
Cuckou, cuckou,
Wel singest thou cuckou:
Ne swik thou never now!

Much Ado about Much Ado

As you can probably guess by the title of this post, I’m about to rhapsodize about my favorite Shakespeare play (among the comedies, anyway. Hamlet may hold that spot among the tragedies).

I think one hallmark of a favorite play is how many times you can see it performed/adapted without growing tired of it. And as I sat in the movie theater last weekend, getting ready to watch Joss Whedon’s new film version of Much Ado about Nothing, I reflected on the reasons for the play’s lasting appeal for me. Wit, wordplay, a romance between equals, absurd or potentially absurd situations, and a delicious happy ending are among them, of course. But there are also dark elements to Much Ado: shame, slander, jealousy, deceit, malice, guilt, sorrow, painful choices, and a not wholly painless redemption. But those elements make the happiness at the end seem sweeter because it’s more hard-won.

"There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn."
“There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.”

Looking back, I’ve seen about seven or eight different versions of Much Ado About Nothing, counting both stage and screen productions.  The first was a much-praised version starring RSC actors Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack as Benedick and Beatrice, the primary couple, held as part of the Olympic Arts festival in 1984. Jacobi was elegant and polished, perhaps more the courtier than the soldier (the costumes showed a Cavalier influence, all lace and ribbons) but still effective, while Cusack was a moody, almost solitary Beatrice, hovering at the periphery of her family and still carrying a torch for Benedick, which she appeared to resent. (There is indeed a hint in the play itself that B&B had a previous involvement that ended badly.)

"What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?"
“What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?”

Soon after, I saw a grimmer, more serious, more traditionally staged BBC adaptation, with a dour Benedick (Robert Lindsay) and a brittle Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). They nailed the church scene, though, so I forgave them the grimness.

In subsequent years, I saw some open air productions of Much Ado About Nothing, one set in mid-nineteenth century America, another in a more modern era, reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s (the actress playing Beatrice seemed to be channeling Katharine Hepburn at her most mannered). And while in graduate school, I attended a minimalist version performed in modern dress by five British actors visiting the U.S. Despite the skeleton cast, which performed multiple roles between them, the production worked very well.

"Serve God, love me, and mend."
Serve God, love me, and mend.”

The best-known adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing would have to be Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, a bold, colorful, rambunctious romp set and shot in sun-drenched Tuscany, featuring a properly witty if somewhat manic lead couple in Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson, and performances that run the gamut from serviceable to splendid to just plain . . . strange (Hello there, Michael Keaton as Dogberry!). While somewhat lacking in subtlety, this version is still loads of fun, especially when one is in a “summertime” mood.

"Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion."
“Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”

And just a few years ago, thanks to the magic of video, I saw the acclaimed 1972 television production of Much Ado, directed by Joseph Papp as part of his Shakespeare in Central Park project. Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston, both startlingly young and gorgeous, played Beatrice and Benedick against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century America. You can imagine all the soldiers returning in triumph from a short action like the Spanish-American War, high on their victory and ready for romantic diversion that the ladies are no less willing to provide. Outdoors are gardens, gazebos, porch swings, and even a dainty miniature carousel. Benedick and his friends gather at the town barber shop, Beatrice and her friends sneak out into the garden to share a cigarette between them, and Dogberry and his minions engage in a Keystone Kops-like chase of the villains all around the stage, complete with flashing strobe lights. It’s a charming, off-beat staging that proves Americans can perform Shakespeare just as adeptly as their British counterparts.

So how does this new version compare? Quite well, I’m happy to say. I didn’t know what to expect, especially after hearing that the director shot this movie in black-and-white film in 12 days, essentially in his back yard (albeit a very spacious, even luxurious-looking back yard), with a small cast of actors he’s previously worked with on other projects, many of whom are unfamiliar to me.

An intimate moment between Beatrice and Benedick
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

Vanity project? It could have been, but fortunately, I found myself charmed, rather than irritated. The setting was contemporary–the men wore business suits and traveled by limo–but the black and white cinematography gave the film a timeless feeling, and the small cast and confined staging gave the production a special intimacy. It really did feel like “a family affair.” The text of the play was cut by about a third, some roles were eliminated and others pared down, but the story didn’t suffer for it overall.  Because I didn’t know the actors well, I could focus more intently on the characters they were portraying. So Amy Acker played a clever, coltish Beatrice–a trifle klutzy at times, but not too broad or slapsticky–while Alexis Denisof was a witty but slightly curmudgeonly Benedick. The setting gave a new resonance to the couple’s skittishness: who dares to be emotionally vulnerable, to wear their hearts on their sleeves, in this slick, superficial modern age? Whedon also makes explicit what is only implied in the text: that Beatrice and Benedick were romantically involved in the past, and it didn’t end well. But while they fight whenever they meet, they also can’t seem to stay away from each other. Their exchanges have an almost private quality to them, as if, even in a room full of people, they’re not really paying attention to anyone else. And once each is convinced the other still cares, their defenses crumble like wet sand.

There are other nice touches too: one minor character gets a gender reassignment that works surprisingly well in context, another minor character adds a subtext to his actions that I’ve never seen or even considered before, modern technology is used to entertaining effect at several points in the story, and nearly everyone is seen with a glass in hand, suggesting that alcohol fuels some of the play’s more absurd situations. And for all its seeming slickness, the film delivers a sweet closing image that will satisfy even the most diehard romantics.

So, do I recommend it? Absolutely. If you love the play and are intrigued by the possibilities of a modern reimagining, you’ll find it worth your while. I’m even thinking of seeing it again–especially since it’s opening in more theaters next week. See you at the movies!

Writing Advice from a Younger Self

SapphoGenerally, I’m not overly comfortable doling out advice about writing. The process is so different for everyone, and what works for some may not work for others. And I certainly don’t mean to set myself up as the ultimate authority on the subject. On the other hand, I an grateful to all the writers who have taken the time over the years to post their own thoughts on the craft. There’s nothing quite like discovering that a successful author may have the same opinion on a subject as you, a struggling, aspiring writer. Or finding that the method that author suggests turns out to be just the thing to get you through a tough spot in your manuscript–or even your life. Bottom line: it usually helps and seldom hurts to pass on whatever you’ve learned to others in the same boat. And for writers, who so often live in their own heads, conjuring worlds and people out of imaginings, the reminder that they’re not alone can be a particular blessing.

This List of Ten was posted on my old blog, approximately one year before I completed my first submittable manuscript, four years before I signed with an agent, five years before I received a contract, six years before my debut novel was published. Reading it over, I was amused by how earnest and vehement I sounded. And yet, surely earnestness and vehemence are not only pardonable, but inevitable when discussing your life’s work and consuming passion.  I also discovered that, despite the intervening years and everything I’ve learned since, I still believe in everything on that list. So, this remains, more or less, My Truth. Maybe it’s someone else’s Truth too. In any case, in the interests of paying it forward, here are Ten Things I Feel to be True About Writing.

1. Any writing worth doing is worth doing well. I’m vain enough to want something out there with my name on it to be as good as I can make it at the time of creation. That doesn’t mean that I won’t look back on that project later and see more of its flaws. But if I know it was the best of which I was capable at the time, I’ll find a way to make peace with it, deficiencies and all.

2. Writing and reading are inextricably connected. The more you read and the more exposure you have to writers (both good and bad), the more you develop a sense of the written word and how it works. Many of my favorite writers were and are avid readers themselves.

3. Writing is an organic process and process is as important as destination. Who hasn’t dreamt about writing a masterpiece/best-seller? I sure have! But that doesn’t happen often or overnight. Allow yourself the time to be derivative, clunky, and even (gasp!) not very good. A writer is a work-in-progress too, and very few are brilliant first crack out of the barrel. Keep writing, keep learning, keep developing — you’ll get where you want to be eventually.

4. Don’t write about what you know, write about what you love. Write about what stirs your feelings and provokes your thoughts. Write about what excites and interests you, because if you’re bored with your subject–however knowledgeable you are about it–how can you expect anyone else not to be? As a corollary to this, once you’ve discovered what you love, find out what you need to know about it, whether through experience, research, or discussion. However, you don’t have to be a starship captain or a detective yourself to write a good SF or mystery novel.

5. There are going to be moments when the words and ideas come flooding out and you know, beyond a doubt, that writing is what you are meant to do. But there will also be fallow periods, dry spells, and periods of mind-bending frustration. There is no one way around these difficulties. If you’re driven enough and stubborn enough to overcome them, you’ll find a way.

6. Don’t be so wedded to one idea or scenario that you close your mind to other, possibly stronger ones. I’ve had the opportunity to practice that myself recently, more than once. In one case, changing the main POV character revitalized everything. In another, reworking the setting has opened the door to all kinds of possibilities, intimidating but exhilarating too.

7. Some projects will get finished, others won’t. It depends on how much you care about each. It’s not a crime to lose interest, change your mind, or take a stronger liking to a different plot bunny. (Disclaimer from Present-Day Me: just make sure you’re not under contract for one of those unlikely-to-be-finished projects. That could be a problem!)

8. Character is the strongest aspect of any fictional work. If the characters are compelling enough, most readers are willing to follow them anywhere — or at least to give them the benefit of the doubt. Character should drive story, not the other way around.

9. Sharing your writing is worth the risk. Betas and/or Wise Readers can be invaluable, whether they offer wholehearted encouragement or incisive critique. It’s a good idea to have both, though. Just let them know which one you need most.

10. Be true to your vision. That doesn’t mean stop listening to good advice from readers on how you might improve. But if some element crops up that feels inherently false to you, think twice about keeping or including it. At the end of the day, it’s still your baby and no one else’s.

Walking in a Purple Wonderland

800px-JacarandatreeThere is some sweetness not to be seen in air,
Not to be trapped in rain, not to be found
In earth, that made this sky of blossoms flare
In blue and sparkling daylight out of the ground;
Some struggle of more than earth is in triumph here
In that gesture of joy and fulfilment lifted on high
Where, dancing with pale blue fire, the branches rear
And the dark twigs hold the sky up to the sky.

Touch the tree with your hand: it is only wood,
A pillar of rain and earth; and what will you find
But rain and earth in its flowers or curious blood?
Yet you cannot hold this tree in a hand of the mind.
Its roots in the earth where some blaze of midnight is lost,
Its boughs in the light wherein more than the stars is concealed,
The jacaranda flames on the air like a ghost,
Like a purer sky some door in the sky has revealed.

While the blue shade falls like a blessing on grass and stone,
I feel the Presence who waited all winter with me
And worked unseen while I watched, with rain and sun
And earth in her hands to make of a simple tree
The loveliest mask that beauty wears on earth.
Is it her banner and symbol the branches bear,
Or the living spirit herself come down to birth,
Glowing in a flesh of blossoms upon the air?

–from “The Jacaranda,” by Douglas Stewart (1913-1985)

I don’t remember much about the day I accompanied my sister to her high school. I was only eight or nine at the time, and my recollections of who we met or what was said–beyond the observations that we looked a lot alike (observations that are made to this day)–are hazy at best. But I remember my first sight of the trees blooming alongside the walkways leading from one building to another: slim, graceful, grey-barked trunks, delicate green fern-like fronds, and trumpet-shaped lavender flowers with a fragrance like spiced honey.

It was years before I actually knew those were called “jacarandas,” but they’ve remained my favorite tree. Like the lemon, the avocado, and the grey squirrel, jacarandas aren’t indigenous to California but they’ve thrived here, putting on a splendid show every spring and sometimes in the fall, if the weather is mild enough.

Resize_P05-28-13_09.00-1Right now, as June begins, jacarandas are starting to hit the peak of their bloom season. The trees are thick with clusters of flowers, ranging in hue from pale lavender to deep violet, and their scent hangs in the air like a cloud, especially on mild, still mornings. They shed liberally, so that there are almost as many flowers on the ground as they are on the branches, and on my walks, I sometimes need to watch my step so I don’t slip on them or crush the honeybees I occasionally spot crawling out of the downed blossoms. (This seems a rather dangerous way to gather nectar, but I can’t blame the bees for being unable to resist the smell.) And motorists who park under jacaranda trees sometimes complain about the sticky residue the flowers leave on their cars.  But, by and large, most Californians welcome the jacarandas’ blossoming, and enjoy the few short weeks of walking in a purple wonderland.