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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

romeo-and-juliet1At the Globe Theatre in London last week, a professor from Rosehampton University gave a short lecture about Romeo and Juliet before the production began.  In discussing the origins of the play the professor said, as an aside, “Of course, as we all know, Shakespeare didn’t invent anything.  All of his plays were based on stories that would’ve been familiar to audiences at the time.”

I was musing about this when I got the following email from a novelist friend:  “I am struggling so on my new novel … I cannot find my way into the story, which breaks my heart, but I cannot give it up, either.  Do you have any tip for finding your way into a very thorny story?”

As everyone knows who has read this piece about the trouble I had writing my new novel, I am quite familiar with this problem.  So here’s something that worked for me.  While writing both The Way Life Should Be and Bird in Hand, I studied novels that successfully achieved something that I wanted to do – and essentially copied their strategies.

When I was writing The Way Life Should Be I wanted the story to move really quickly; I wanted to begin scenes in the middle.  I’d just read The Lovely Bones and admired how Alice Sebold varied her chapter openings and seemed to jump right into the action in each new scene.  So I literally wrote the first few words of each scene in Sebold’s book in a notebook.  Then, when I was stuck, I looked at the list of scene openings for inspiration.  I didn’t actually copy her words, but I found that this list of phrases triggered my own ideas for starting in the middle.

Here’s another example.  Writing Bird in Hand, I was obsessed for a time with Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.   I loved the multiple points of view and the paradoxically intimate but slightly detached voice(s).  Bird in Hand is nothing like that book, but I was influenced, in writing it, by how Cunningham achieved a kind of patient unfolding.  The scene in my novel with Ben in the flower shop is my secret homage to Cunningham – and of course to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway … which provided the inspiration and the source material for The Hours.

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Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, leafing through USA Weekend, I came across an interview with Laura Saltman, an entertainment reporter for a tabloid TV show, Access Hollywood.  When asked “What do viewers want?” she replied, “The D’s — divorce, death, drugs, derangement, dysfunction.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

tragedyAnd then I started thinking about literature.  I thought King Lear.  I thought Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth.  Let’s not even discuss the bloodbath of Titus Andronicus.

I jumped ahead a few centuries to Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby.  I thought of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.  (I believe he hits all the D’s.)  I thought of James Frey’s bestselling faux-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.

In an April New York Times Magazine interview, Joyce Carol Oates – who regularly and notoriously tackles the D’s – talked about the title story in her recent collection, Dear Husband.  It’s a letter from a woman to her “dear husband,” in which she explains why she drowned their young children in the bathtub.  “Why do you find violence so alluring as a literary subject?” Oates was asked.  She responded, “If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write “Moby Dick” than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art.”

The highest – and of course the lowest. As our collective obsession with Michael Jackson signifies (yup, that particular narrative contains every single ‘D’ ), the elements of tragedy enthrall us at every point on the spectrum.

In fact, as I write this now I realize that my own new novel, Bird in Hand, has at least three on Saltman’s list:  divorce, death, and dysfunction.  If I’d understood the pull of the D’s, maybe I’d have thrown in drugs and derangement for good measure.  Or is that measure for measure?

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