Ovid v. Aristotle

I saw In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play last night here at the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.  I had not read the work before seeing it performed, and I was so excited by it!  Er… stimulated by it.  Ah… intellectually stimulated by it?

Whatever.  The point is that I’ve talked on this blog in the past about the problem of gender balance in the professional theatre world, and it’s exciting to be reminded that there are women finding success writing complex, literary pieces that subvert the male gaze.  Go Sarah Ruhl!

I’ve been trying to tease out what it was that worked so well for me in this piece, and I am reluctant to say that it has to do with Ruhl’s gender.  I hate when “women’s writing” is separated somehow from “writing,” and while this blog does talk a lot about gender and the arts, that wasn’t originally its purpose.

Yet Ruhl’s story in ITNR very obviously concerns women, and the historical dismissal of legitimate female emotion as “hysteria” in a world that left no place for it to be expressed and received.  The play cleverly interpolates visual metaphors with cleverly crafted dialogue patterns to drive home its themes— the overly loose and tumbling “female noodlings”(as Stoppard might call them) of Mrs. Givings vs. the sterile, clinical speech of her husband, the (sometimes comical) artificial stiffness and stoicism of the closeted lesbian assistant that gives way in the second act to the emotion beneath… most of all, Ruhl’s writing sympathetically portrays the tragic tension between men and women in a world that restricts their actions as effectively as a corset.

When I read this piece on Ruhl from the New Yorker, I thought “This is it. This is why her play feels like an authentic female perspective.”

As a storyteller, Ruhl marches to Ovid’s drum rather than Aristotle’s. “Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.” She went on, “His is not the neat Aristotelian arc but, instead, small transformations that are delightful and tragic.” And she added, “The Aristotelian model—a person wants something, comes close to getting it but is smashed down, then finally gets it, or not, then learns something from the experience—I don’t find helpful. It’s a strange way to look at experience.

Read more of this New Yorker Profile of Playwright Sarah Ruhl: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/03/17/080317crat_atlarge_lahr#ixzz1u6IOxdKP

I can’t help comparing this to the historical distinction between “men’s work,” which is linear and progresses through a series of concrete accomplishments, and “women’s work,” which is cyclical: laundry is clean, then dirty, then clean again, and meals must be cooked every day ad infinitum.  The popular narratives that we are used to consuming through film, TV and literature almost all follow that Aristotelian model.  Every novel writing handbook that I have marked up emphasizes its importance, to the point where Aristotelian storytelling is conflated with storytelling itself.  This may be a rational approach, but it’s not a real one.  In our lives, one plus one does not always equal two.  Put two experiences into the human brain, and the result of their collision could be anything: the color of sunset over the cemetery in your hometown, the taste of cold air on a summer morning, the sound of conversation in the next room while you are trying to sleep.  Are these connections and experiences any less real because we do not understand their meaning?

The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”
In Ruhl’s plays, turbulent feeling can erupt at any moment, for no apparent reason; actors are challenged to inhabit the emotional moment without motivation.
I like looking at stories through this new lens— less about gender (which, like race, has more to do with the constructs that our culture builds around it than inherent qualities of the thing itself) and more about the structure of the narratives we consume.  Little metamorphoses can be just as weighty as bombastic conclusions.  I would love to see a shift away from the constant need for climax  into a space where the action itself is meaningful.

Inspiration for Foggy Days

It’s a weird thing, writing.

Sometimes you can look out across what you’re writing, and it’s like looking out over a landscape on a glorious, clear summer’s day. You can see every leaf on every tree, and hear the birdsong, and you know where you’ll be going on your walk.

And that’s wonderful.

Sometimes it’s like driving through fog. You can’t really see where you’re going. You have just enough of the road in front of you to know that you’re probably still on the road, and if you drive slowly and keep your headlamps lowered you’ll still get where you were going.

And that’s hard while you’re doing it, but satisfying at the end of a day like that, where you look down and you got 1500 words that didn’t exist in that order down on paper, half of what you’d get on a good day, and you drove slowly, but you drove.

And sometimes you come out of the fog into clarity, and you can see just what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you couldn’t see or know any of that five minutes before.

And that’s magic.

-From Neil Gaiman’s Blog


Writing Roadblock of the Week

We had to get a shock collar for the dog last week, since she keeps chasing deer out into the road. She has responded to it so quickly— we only had to push the button once or twice before she became reluctant to test the limits of her tether again.

This connects somehow with the conversation I had with my writing partner L— the other night about our shared middle school miseries, the lonely and contradictory world of precocious children trapped between the world of adults and the world of children.  The manners and words that are enforced by one group are anathema to another, and to a self-aware child the shift between the two creates a kind of split— in striving too consciously for perfection in either sphere, something of the authentic self, the instinct, is lost in the gap.

"I'm thinking about joining the mathletes."
"You can't do that, it's social suicide!"

L— and I both had the experience of our vocabularies becoming dangerous, something that stood between us and the comfort of obscurity.  When your things are regularly stolen, torn up, thrown down the hall; when you are pushed down stairs and into lockers, when the boys behind you regularly make a target of the back of your head while chanting the words that you realize you should not have said— it presses a button of fear and shame and embarrassment that is difficult, later, to un-press.  It creates a kind of tether that limits how smart it is safe to be.  It happened to me, and I’ve watched it happen to younger cousins or girls that I babysit for.  It’s such an accepted cultural thing that young women have to change to fit in— and not only is it not always considered problematic, it’s often glorified.

"Tell me about it, stud."

L— and I are both attempting first novels,  and for me there is a panic attack that I have to push through each time I sit down to work.  Sometimes I can conquer it, sometimes not.  It’s that old zap of “THIS IS UNSAFE!” that prevents me from stepping beyond the social boundaries imposed so forcefully when I was young.

I can't imagine why they thought I was weird...

But those limitations no longer apply.  I bought something that looks suspiciously like a Jedi hood the other day, and I have received lots of compliments on it— and if I didn’t, I would still wear it because I am twenty f-ing six years old, and I do what I want.  The people I hang out with now are not random strangers that I am stuck in the prison of public education with, they are awesome weirdos like me.  So why is it still so hard to overcome the wave of nausea that overtakes me when I sit down to write and find myself about to cross the line back into that imaginary world that I had to give up in order to fit in?

My present self is pretty much my former self with more weapons and a higher corset budget.

Anyway, I’m interested in whether other writers have encountered similar feelings, and how they can be managed or overcome.  Discuss!

Quote of the Day

[. . .] I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

There are so many things we can’t say, because they are too painful. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent. I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”

Jeannette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal

Writing Strong Women into History

I’m having a bit of an issue, this week, with the finicky balance between historical accuracy and modern readability for historical YA fiction.  My writerly instincts are at odds, and it’s making a mess of my first draft.

Here’s my dilemma:  On the one hand, I want to create a believable early 19th century world.  There’s nothing I hate more than reading historical fiction full of whiny 21st century teenagers and anachronistic slang.  Yet— I also feel a very modern desire for my two heroines to overcome some of the restrictions of gender and social class to become self-actualized human beings, and to meet the male protagonist on a more equal footing than they probably would have, if we stuck strictly to historical facts.

"Don't let the facts get in the way of your imagination." -Sam Levenson

This is a conflict that every modern writer has, on some level, when delving into a past that doesn’t share the opinions and prejudices of our own.  Still, we’re not writing for dead people— we’re writing for our peers, who live in a modern world.  And at the risk of making excuses for my own bad behavior, I’ll argue that a novel set in any time or place is often more interesting when it deals with the outliers, not the rule.

The thing is, most of the novels I’ve read that successfully paint the heroine as a whole human being instead of a foil or a fantasy still end with love and marriage— and most of my favorites were written by women who had lived through the time period in which they set those novels.

Spunky, confident, historically accurate women who get the guy are just great— but what happens to an Anne without a Gilbert?  What about characters that don’t end up partnered?  What about characters whose main story arc isn’t a romance?

I can think of a couple of YA historical fiction novels that do this well.  Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy does an excellent job placing a young girl with essentially modern sensibilities so firmly in a historical time period that we believe her utterly.

I’m envious of how masterfully done this book is!  Still, I can’t apply too many of Cushman’s tricks to my project— I’m working within the restrictions of a traditional fairy tale, with three female narrators, two of which are not entirely human.  Tackling a historical world that is also a fantasy world, three different narrative voices AND  a love triangle means that at any given time I’m juggling too many story elements to feel like any one of them is staying constant.  A change in one part of the story has a massive ripple effect on everything else, until to avoid going crazy/writing in circles I just have to keep forging forward with notes to fix inconsistencies later.

I don’t know that there is a solution to my problem, or a trick to doing this well.  It might just be about that ever-elusive line between good writing and bad writing, between lazy cliché and characters with depth.  A character like Catherine who knows how to read even though she’s a 14-year-old girl in Medeival England and hates the idea of an arranged marriage can fly in Cushman’s book because she’s well-written, while a Harlequin heroine with those same qualities rings false because she’s been hastily written and poorly researched… and has early ’90s hair.

Insight or advice about writing strong women into history without tweaking out the conscientious reader would be much appreciated.


Nugget of the Day

My morning kick start was reading this “Things I Wish I’d Always Known” piece over on the Ploughshares blog.  Short, simple, and a good reminder to keep doing what we’re doing.

(photo credit to the amazing Laura Petrilla!)

Oscar Films get Bechdel Tested: 2012

Since I was writing the other day about women’s roles in theatre and film, I thought it would be interesting to share this rundown of how the 2012 Best Picture nominees size up to the Bechdel Test.  (Spoiler: 7 of the 9 films fail it.)


Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in site, only the wind and your breaking heart.  Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating.  As soon as Lenny began speaking, I knew I had mainlined it. I felt like I was strapped in the cock pit with the stars in my face and the expanding universe on my back. In my opinion, that’s the only way a writer should travel. When I finished “Tall Tales” I thought, this one is a keeper. This is a trophy brought back from the further realm, the kingdom of perpetual glistening night where we know ourselves absolutely. This one goes on the wall.

-Kate Braverman

Old News is (Sadly) New Again

I know that this topic was played out a couple of years ago, but I’ve found myself thinking again about the kerfuffle with the 2010 Wasserstein prize, and what it means for young women trying to get started in the writing life— especially in the male-dominated arenas of theatre and film.  Here’s a link to Mike Lew’s original letter that sparked a lot of conversation on the topic.

For those of you who didn’t hear about this at the time, I’ll summarize: basically the panel in charge of choosing a winner of the annual Wasserstein Prize— a hefty financial boost for an undiscovered female playwright under 32— decided that there were no young women worthy of the award.  They didn’t give it to any of the 19 candidates.

In an industry that is undeniably a boys’ club, advocacy and encouragement of new female voices is desperately needed.  For those of you unfamiliar with or skeptical of the gender gap in theatre, I can assure you from personal experience that it’s omnipresent.  Though productions at the high school level are flooded with talented girls with years of vocal, acting and dance training, the roles available both in straight theatre and musicals are still overwhelmingly male.  (Here’s a New York Times article about it, if you don’t believe me.) When we are onstage, so often it’s in roles that are glorified set dressing— I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten my ta-tas out in some slinky outfit while my male costars prance around fully clothed.

Women behind the scenes are even more rare, with numbers of female playwrights and directors dwindling and stalling at numbers that have barely budged in decades.  The quote below is from statistics taken in the early ’00s, but I’ve read since that this is still fairly accurate:

This current season of 2001-02 as listed in American Theatre magazine actually shows a decline, with directors at 16% and playwright representation at 17%, back at the 1994-95 percentages. (When productions of Shakespeare are removed from consideration, playwright representation increases to only 18%.) Considering the considerable media attention given to Eve Ensler and Vagina Monologues, playwright Susan Lori Parks, who won a McArthur genius award, and the ubiquitous Broadway director Susan Stroman, this diminished presence of women is puzzling .

– Read more statistics from this study here.

All of this, and you’d think that the people whose job it is to encourage women playwrights would at least be in our corner.  But no, it was left to a (brilliant, but) male playwright to stand up for us.

The thing is… maybe some of our work isn’t as thoroughly polished or developed as that of our male counterparts.  What can you expect, in a culture that still teaches a girl to encourage and support her boyfriend’s success and self-esteem over her own?  I don’t pretend to be above this— you’re talking to a girl who practically made a career out of hauling equipment and working merch tables for Boys in Bands— but I do see it, now, as problematic.

The thing is, making art is hard.  Without consistent encouragement from others, and without a firm and irrational belief in your own ability to succeed, it can be nearly impossible.  And few girls survive adolescence these days with that kind of blind, cocky faith in their own awesomeness.  Lots of boys do—often because they had really awesome girlfriends working their merch tables and teaching them which direction is stage right, or how to generally not behave like a doofus.

So how do we right this inequity?  The whole thing is hopelessly complicated.  Studies show, for example, that it’s the women on top of the ladder, not the men, who are the cruelest gatekeepers.  Maybe it’s the mentality of “if it was hard for me, it should be hard for you,” maybe it’s the idea that there are only so many coveted positions to go around.  Maybe it’s just the relentless indoctrination into a culture of jealousy and competition that drives us to tear one another down.

Even more often, we hit the self destruct button and give up on ourselves before we’ve had a chance to test our abilities.  Kathryn Chetkovitch writes very eloquently about this:

Most women I know are reluctant to say, ‘I am better than her, and her, and her – OK, I’ll keep going.’ And most men I know rely, when necessary, on some formulation of exactly that. Plus women have not only each other to compete against (in devious and exhausting ways, requiring much track-covering and nice-making as they go) but men to envy; because it’s still the case that women writers are compared to each other, and the big (as opposed to, say, lyrical) literary novel persists as an essentially male category. Women’s books are still not talked about in the same way men’s books are, and women are still sensitive to that.

Read more here.

Blah blah blah, it’s the same old story.  So tell me— why aren’t we able to tell a new one yet?

Slow Writing.

I wrote today.  I’ve been writing every day for the past month or so, actually, which marks a big step on my road from “girl with a BA in writing” to “girl who has actually written something worthwhile.”  On one hand it feels good to finally be making definite, regular progress in the direction of my goals.  On the other hand, I see how quickly my friends crank out creative material and I wonder if I’m doing it wrong.

Because… I’m a slow writer.  I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, because I can be sitting for hours with no distractions and a clear vision of my plot, writing consistently— and still only get a total of 2o0 usable words per hour when all is said and done.  Every November I watch friends document their NaNoWriMo projects, and overwhelmed with awe and despair.  I know better than to even pretend that I could accomplish 50k words strung together in any kind of sensible order in only 30 days.

Yet… I want to write.  I like to write.  I have a story that I want to tell.  It’s just taking me




The idea for this novel came to me 4 years ago.  Two different drafts were scrapped 70 and 90 pages in, because I realized that I did not yet have the foggiest idea of how to write a book.  I started over, with a detailed outline this time, and now between research and world building and keeping characters consistent and feeling my way around the first person voices of my three narrators… I am slow.

There is always a correlation drawn between speed and intelligence.  One has a “quick wit” or is “slow on the uptake.”  In school, I scored in the highest percentile of everything except for something called “speed and accuracy,” which was literally a test where you did nothing but copy letters into the corresponding bubbles as quickly as you could.

I panicked, and placed in the 10th percentile.

So does anyone else have this problem?  Pathological slowness?  And is there a cure?  Thanking you in advance for your insight.