Monday, March 29, 2010

Writing for stage and screen

In a couple of days, would-be screen writers and playwrights will participate in Script Frenzy--a thirty-day effort to create one hundred pages of original scripted material during the month of April. (You can learn more at:

While I have never attempted to write for stage or screen, over fifteen thousand others have decided to take the challenge. I know from participating in the sister challenge, National Novel Writing Month, in several past Novembers, that it takes an enormous amount of focus and will to accomplish such a feat. I have great respect for those making the attempt, and will cheer them on from the sidelines.

After all, the world needs more good scripts. I don't know about you, but with more television channels, and thus more entertainment hours to fill, it seems good writing is harder than ever to find. In fact, many programs suffer from one of several ailments.

Sitcoms often fall ill with "double pneumonia"--where the double-entendre is the only tool writers use to leave the audience breathless with laughter. Unfortunately for audiences, this condition is seldom infectious, and usually leaves viewers in a mirthless catatonia accompanied by a laugh track.

Dramas appear to be more susceptible to "Repetoid Arthritis." It is a stiffness caused by repeating plots from other dramas from years past. This is particularly the case with police dramas that sometimes also suffer from "RecysCSItis," a painful ailment caused by recycling CSI episodes.

Movies are not immune to these illnesses, either. Many suffer from "Heartburn" from too many trite relationships or "Technothrombosis" defined as a film so clogged with technology as to prevent any story from coming through.

And the Broadway stage? Some would say it has flatlined. It is the place Disney movies go into the afterlife, and "revival" of works that left only weeks before no longer seems out of the ordinary.

So, go for it, writers. Write your scripts. Your new, fresh voices are needed. You are all that stands between us and a host of illnesses, or even worse--more "reality" shows!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moving out, moving in, moving on

My mother is moving into an assisted living apartment this month.

It's not that she is leaving the house where I grew up or anything, so the move is not laden with all the angst of losing the family homestead. She is moving from an "independent living" apartment to a "personal care" apartment in the same retirement complex.

It couldn't be much easier. They're giving us most of a month to clear out the old place while she gets settled in the new. While the new apartment is smaller, most of her furniture will fit. They are very supportive there--trying to make Mom feel at home. She will get more help with her medications, three meals a day, and they'll even do her laundry. In many ways, it could not be a better move.

What is she losing? Not much in real terms. She no longer has a patio garden, but she had stopped tending it. She no longer has her bird feeders, but she had stopped filling them. She no longer has a full kitchen, but all she made there was coffee and cinnamon toast in the morning and an occasional lunch of microwaved leftovers. She used her oven to store groceries.

But her move still makes me sad.

It is not just the fact that the walk to the old dining room had become so long that she never went anymore, asking that the one meal provided each day be brought to her apartment. It isn't that she now needs a walker or a transport chair to make any but the shortest trips. It isn't even that she had become so confused by her medications that she needs someone to bring them to her four times a day to make sure she takes the right ones at the right times. These are the obvious signs of her growing older.

As I go through the things that will not go into her apartment, though, I see other evidence of her gradual decline. As her memory failed, she made hundreds of notes to herself. The older ones were about whom to call to have dry cleaning picked up and what places would deliver food. Newer ones were dozens of notes with my phone number, and reminders of how to dial the phone. This is the woman who taught me to use a phone, and now it is almost beyond her ability to use one herself. In the six years she lived there, she went from a person who drove, made her own appointments and kept them, and really could live independently, to one who has given up her car, cannot keep track of her calendar, and can barely manage with an enormous support system around her.

She is still better off than many in her facility. She can bathe herself. She can dress herself. She can find her way to the dining room. But she cannot remember how to turn on her television, and has forgotten that there is a list of the channels she would most enjoy taped to the back of her remote control. She cannot track a conversation, and ends up in a feedback loop of asking the same questions over and over. She has lost the ability to follow what she reads; no magazines or newspapers come to her door anymore. It is not just her apartment size that is shrinking--so is her world.

The last thing she would ever want is to be a burden. That is the reason she decided to move into the retirement facility six years ago. They guarantee her care for the rest of her life.

While she is never a burden, she is a responsibility. I am the only one of her four children who is within three hundred miles of her. Only I, along with my wonderful family, am in a position to keep her world from becoming even smaller, or her days from becoming a monotonous string of emptiness. I try to keep the more distant family alive in her memory, even though she sometimes has trouble recognizing their names or even their faces.

And one day, I know, she will have trouble recognizing me. As sad as this day is, that one will be much worse.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deciding to write

How much of becoming a writer is due to choice?

I have known many writers who have told me that they had no choice in the matter. They HAD to write. It was what they were born to do--and without it they would suffer severe psychic or physical pains. I listen to them and wonder why I don't feel that way.

I have always been a writer. I did a little creative writing when I was young, but when I went to college, I chose to major in political science. It required that I write a lot, but for term papers and essay exams. After college I went to law school where clear, concise writing was essential. But neither college nor law school required me to do any creative writing. Research, analysis, and critical thinking were the skills that I honed.

After law school, I did a stint as a law book editor, acquiring a more discriminating eye and sharper scalpel. Then, as a practicing attorney, every day required that I do a lot of writing: correspondence, pleadings, briefs. Next I joined academia. As a professor and pre-law advisor, I have written lectures, articles, speeches, and even a book.

Apparently writing is part of my DNA--or at least a part of my everyday life. Perhaps I never feel the requirement to write simply because I am always writing something.

But writing fiction is something I have taken up relatively recently. So is fiction writing a choice or calling?

It is probably a bit of each. I love reading really good fiction. Being carried off by the written word into another reality that stays with you long after closing the book is an experience I have loved since childhood. The challenge of creating that experience for others appeals to me in ways that writing nonfiction never could.

And it is a challenge. Every page, every paragraph, every word dares me to make my writing better. I get out my scalpel and my editor's eye and try to sculpt the words in ways I never did with nonfiction. Academic writing is a skill; fiction writing is an art.

So, for me, writing fiction is a choice--a choice of how to answer my calling.

How about you? If you write, is it a choice or a calling?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Are blogs worth it?

As anyone can see, I am new to this blogging thing. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am also new to Twitter and Facebook.

I could see right away how Facebook could be useful in getting or staying in touch with people at a distance. Since I joined, I have seen how it is also fun for contact with people you see every day--or at least every week or so. But blogs and Twitter? I couldn't see the point.

I used to think blogs were only for people who had an overabundant ego and thought the minutiae of their lives to be so interesting that the whole world would like to read it. But as I become more immersed in the blogosphere, I have learned a lot about how useful blogs can be.

I now follow blogs from many sources that I find extremely interesting. For instance Writers Digest has a blog that I follow on Facebook that offers advice on writing, editing, and marketing for authors. While I do not take everything they say as law, I find it useful to read what others are thinking about the craft. And, occasionally I have found answers to questions I had not been able to resolve from other sources.

Publishers' Marketplace is another terrific resource. It helps me stay informed about the world of publishing--its trends, concerns, and prospects for the future. While one must pay a fee to be a full-fledged member of PM, they offer a free newsletter every weekday called "Publishers' Lunch" sent directly to your email inbox.

The blogs of other authors, when chosen carefully, can also be a terrific source of information and inspiration. (One must chose judiciously, though, or the entire day can be consumed by reading others' blogs, and not getting any of one's own writing done.)

So count me as a convert. I am happy to admit that my prior prejudice against blogs was unjustified.

Now if I could only figure out the point of Twitter!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Visit to the Morgan Library

I had never been to the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York City before today. In fact, I really didn't know it existed until recently. But when a fellow Jane Austen fan talked about its wonderful exhibit of Austen's letters, first editions, and even a partial manuscript, it piqued my interest. When my daughter, Emily, told me she was intent on going, we decided to make a day of it.

Driving into New York was easy from my home in eastern Pennsylvania. It was a warm and sunny day for early March--just right for a road trip. Route I-78 took us nearly the whole way to the Holland Tunnel, and once on the island finding the museum was easy. Parking is usually a problem, but today there was a free, empty space for us right across the street from the Morgan Library. We entered, paid our admission, and went right for the Jane Austen exhibit.

It was an amazing collection. Most of Austen's letters have been lost, but the ones that still exist give us a peak into the real-life world of one of the best novelists in the English language. This exhibit included many of the remaining letters of Jane to her sister, Cassandra, wherein she related her activities, thoughts, and concerns. While Cassandra had "edited" some of the letters by literally cutting out references to family members, one could get a sense of the woman who wrote them. She was intelligent, observant, and unlikely to suffer fools easily. I think I would have liked her.

Jane's handwriting was small, even, and precise, despite her having used a quill. She made the most of her precious paper, squeezing in lines on the margins, or even writing a few lines perpendicular to the rest of the page when she ran out of room. The last part of the exhibit I read was a heart-wrenching letter from Cassandra to their niece, Fanny, to notify her of Jane's death, at the age of forty-one, from causes that are still undetermined. It was written over 190 years ago, but it still made me sad.

After the Austen exhibit, we still had some time before the library closed, so we decided to look at J. Pierpont Morgan's library.

I am not sure what I thought it would be, but the reality far exceeded any possible expectations. There were three rooms open to the public: the librarian's office, J. Pierpont Morgan's "study," and the main library room. The first of these was impressive. The librarian's desk is surrounded by antiques and a collection of books--pretty much as one would expect. The study, though, was amazing. It was surrounded by shelves filled with books, red silk damask walls, an enormous fireplace, portraits and other artwork, and an adorned 16th century coffered wooden ceiling that had been brought from Europe and fitted for the room. Track lighting and state-of-the-art security and fire suppression systems had been attached to the ceiling, but it retained its sense of age and history. The study was once called the "most beautiful room in America." J. Pierpont Morgan spent much of his time there, entertaining notable guests, smoking cigars, and playing solitaire.

As grand as the study was, it was nothing in comparison to the main library on the other side of the rotunda. It has three stories of inlaid walnut bookcases housing Morgan's collection of important books from the past five hundred years, including three of the forty-eight Gutenberg Bibles known to still exist--more than in any other single collection. One was on display when we were there. The Morgan Library must be on the to-see list for every bibliophile.

One inescapable impression from the Morgan Library is the enormous wealth it took to amass such a collection. I, for one, am grateful that J. Pierpont Morgan, and his son J. P. Morgan, chose to use their wealth to assemble these pieces of literary history and mastery together, and then to make them available to the public.

I encourage you to learn more about the Morgan Library at, or if you are able to visit New York, to stop and spend a few hours at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.