Friday, May 14, 2010


I will continue with my AWP posts in the coming days, but before it closes, I wanted to recommend seeing CABARET at the Storefront Theater. Set in 1930s Berlin just as Hitler is taking power, the musical focuses on the collision between Nazism and its characters--an american novelist, a British actress, an owner of a hostel (which approaches something closer to a brothel), a jewish businessman, and, of course, the performers working in Berlin's hottest nightspot, the Kit Kat Club. Featuring orgies, naughty nuns, a tune dedicated to a pineapple, Hitler in booty shorts, and a gorilla, this is definitely no ordinary musical. I saw this show last week and was blown away! Here's why...    (from a writer's perspective)

(if you hate spoilers, you may want to just go see it now, and then read the rest of this post afterwards)

1) Multiple Embedded Narratives

As you can tell from the brief description above, A LOT is going on in this musical. What strikes me about Director Matt Hawkins' presentation of Cabaret is its storytelling power. Instead of focusing on the larger story of the Nazi ascent to power, Cabaret tells multiple stories. There is the love story (perhaps the most traditional) of Sally the british cabaret performer and Cliff the american novelist, the more heartbreaking love story of Fraulein Schneider the hostel owner and Herr Schultz the jew, the story of increasing Nazi oversight within the cabaret, the story of Ernst the Nazi operative and his strained friendship with Cliff, the story of the cabaret Emcee's defiance against the Nazis, and (one of the most interesting and effective threads in the narrative) the story of a curious relationship between the Emcee and a little boy (more on that later).

What's impressive is that even though these narratives are interspersed and don't always have direct causal relationships with each other, the play remains coherent, clear, and fast paced. Indeed, all of these narratives work together, creating an experience that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't feel fragmented because everything is relevant, urgent, and resonant. The intimate set design at the Storefront Theater is a key part of pulling this off. It is gritty, dark, and spare with its catwalks, dancer poles, and exposed lighting. But from the first number, the viewer feels immersed in the world and in all of that world's stories. 

2) Polyphany, Or Multiple Voices

This is related to multiple embedded narratives but worthy of its own discussion. It would be easy to abstract the Nazi threat into a sort of monolithic evil. This, indeed, is the approach of many stories dealing with this subject matter. Don't get me wrong, the Nazis are the villains of this story, too, but Cabaret gets at the tragedy by focusing on characters in crisis, crises which, though affected by the Nazis, are more about the characters' own existential dilemmas (an idea that Milan Kundera often discussed). And because each character has a different existential dilemma, each character's response to the growing Nazi presence is different. 

Schultz, who perhaps has the most to lose of any character, chooses to be in denial about the threat because he is mainly concerned with marrying Schneider. Schneider chooses to do as she's been advised and not marry Schultz because she is poor, old, and feels, as with everything else in her life, that she must deal realistically with the hand she's been dealt. Sally also chooses a sort of denial because she cannot escape the fantasy world of the cabaret ("life is cabaret" she sings in her last number, which is surprisingly unsettling). Cliff chooses to run because the party in Berlin is over; the fantasy of the cabaret has been shattered for him, so he leaves. And the Emcee, in many ways the most heroic character, chooses to defy the Nazis because she, ironically, refuses to let the cabaret remain in the fantasy world; she makes it a vehicle of protest against Nazi intolerance (with disastrous results). 

Thus, since Cabaret focuses on a multiplicity of characters, stripped down and defined by crisis moments, the tragedy of Nazi power is felt in the everyday decisions of its characters, so it is felt more viscerally. The characters are being forced into corners they don't want to be in, and each reacts differently, their varied voices driving the tension. 

And, of course, the actors' performances are superb, bringing all of these characters to life!

3) Economy

Even though runtime is over two hours, this fast-moving show is efficient. We know the traditional love story of Sally and Cliff already, so it is okay to get it in just a few scenes that, again, focus on crises, on decisions. We don't need much more than the get-together, trouble-in-paradise, and break-up scenes. This provides room to get messy and let the quirkier parts of the musical in--the pineapple song, a threesome that turns into an orgy, a slideshow that chronicles the love story of a human and a gorilla, a Hitler parody that features Satan as a bride. We also know the Nazi narrative. We don't need any exposition about the threat that Nazism represents. Schultz simply has to to mention he's jewish in an early scene, and we automatically feel the tension. We know we are in 1930s Germany, after all, and Schultz is probably not going to see a happy ending. But all of this exposition occurs silently--the ominous presence of the masked Nazi avatars standing in the catwalks, for example. We know what that means; the implications require no explanation.

4) The Emcee and the Boy

Haha, I was trying to fit this into my discussion in a more elegant way, but this really was my favorite piece of craft in the show and deserves its own place on my list. If you see this production, watch these two characters closely. Their relationship is the most fascinating one in the entire show. It embodies all the things I have described above: It is an embedded narrative, it is a voice that includes its own existential dilemma, and it is incredibly economic, involving absolutely no lines, just a few brief but extremely powerful actions, mere gestures even. For all the lechery the boy witnesses in the cabaret, the Emcee seems oddly concerned with preserving the boy's innocence. And the tragic course this relationship takes packs a massive punch to the gut. It hurts, it breaks your heart, it makes your hairs stand on end. So...

Cabaret is running until May 23rd! GO SEE IT!!!

And, check out the Hypocrites' website to find out more about their unique productions! 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


One last chance to see Democracy Burlesque's HOT FOR TEACHER show at Mary's Attic! Come eat a tasty burger and sip on an alcohol laced milkshake before the show at Hamburger Mary's, then head upstairs to the attic and get ready for a knee-slappin' good time! 

Things you will see:

An old prospector,
Puppets interviewing the intelligent citizens of Wrigleyville about civics and politics,
A Texas-classroom jam session,
"It's Not Easy Being Green" performed by a vaguely familiar little green frog,
A ukulele number about evil unicorns,
Lots of naughty students,
And even more nasty teachers.

Show starts at 7:30 tonight! (May 11th). Doors open at 7:00. 10$ basic admission. 15$ gets you admission and choice of a free drink. (Mary's Attic has lots of pricier microbrews, so it's actually a decent discount)

AND, if you are a writer that has ever had to sit through a fiction, poetry, or non-fiction workshop that has gone a little awry, I have authored a comedy sketch that I think you will enjoy... 

Come on out! And meet me beforehand for a burger, eh?

Friday, May 7, 2010


This is the beautiful convention center that housed AWP 2010. NO BEAR! DON'T GO UP THERE!

"Plot as Ritual, Not as Representation" was one of the best discussion panels I attended the whole weekend. The panelists Debra Monroe, Lynne Barrett, John Dufresne, and Antonya Nelson each spoke on the tricky concept of plot. Plot is essential for a story, but how do we turn our well-written scenes and little vignettes into something with a plot? Or, how do our stories avoid borrowing plots that already exist? 

Debra Monroe began the discussion by providing some background. In the 1980s, the trend was minimalism. No one talked about plot. It was a dirty word, forbidden in many classrooms. Realism was the buzzword of the decade. Stories were about character, psychology, and tension. Writers were supposed to reveal the complex interior of their characters and not be so concerned with events in the exterior world. Plot was an artifice, the least realistic part of writing fiction. Now, it seems almost condescending to mention Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but it remains the most useful example of this kind of minimalist realism. 

Then, something strange happened. As if she were some sort of dealer, students began to approach Monroe in shadowy hallways and dark alleys. "Hey, I think I'd like to try some plot," they said. "Excuse me, can I get some more of that plot?" These rebellious students, though frightened of being caught and outcasted, seemed earnest in their desire for a new way to talk about storytelling, a way that included the best techniques of how to do plot. 

With the audience hooked, Monroe introduced her approach to plot: ritual. Like plot in stories, rituals are an artifice. Yet, no one objects to ritual. Weddings are recognizable as weddings because they all share similar features. But at the same time, any given wedding conflates and distorts the traditional paradigm. The wedding can be deeply familiar yet startlingly new to its attendees. Plot should incorporate old and new in the same way. The traditional paradigm of plot pitches an antagonist against a protagonist. Most of the action is exterior. There is a sense of rising tension, climax, and resolution. In the modernist plot, the protagonist-antagonist paradigm goes interior, psychological. Tension is often unresolved and climaxes are much less overt. 

Like a present-day wedding, a postmodern plot incorporates the traditional and modern paradigms. Our lives are neither an arc of rising tension, climax, and resolution nor are they scenes of unresolved tension followed by an anticlimax. A postmodern Plot uses pieces of the two paradigms. Like ritual, "Plot is not an imitation of life's details as much as an antidote to the random way in which we experience life's details." Ritual, like Plot, helps us tell our story. 

Next, Lynne Barrett advised conceiving plot as a wheel rather than a linear construction. In a linear plot, the cause and effect relationships are direct, known, and fully understood. A character performs an action and the desired result occurs. In a wheel plot, a character performs an action that produces a result opposite from what the character expects. The cause and effect relationship is, therefore, indirect, unknown, and not fully understood. This creates a wheel shape: a character setting something in motion that doesn't go in a straight line, it turns in an unexpected arc. 

This means, of course, that characters must be acting with intentions, even though the actions are producing results that they do not expect. The character is, in other words, making a mistake. A 1980s realism approach would have a writer imagine a flawed character, but Barrett's approach says to create a character who makes mistakes. A mistake leads to action, and action leads to plot, and action that produces unexpected results leads to an interesting plot. Indeed, the plot is still present in minimalism. In a story such as Hemmingway's Hills Like White Elephants, we are only seeing a small piece of the plot, about five degrees of the wheel's arc. But there is still an action, there are still unintended consequences. White Elephants is still a story with a plot. 

John Dufresne's presentation was particularly impressive. The man basically improvised an entire short story before our eyes! And in the process, he created about the clearest most concise step by step process on how to write a story that I've seen. He began by saying that characters have to have something meaningful to do. "Don't resist the plot," he told us, "embrace it. Let the necessary plot do your thinking for you. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach." 

To write a story, Dufresne said to create a character that wants something, goes after it, and either gets it or doesn't. (During the presentation, Dufresne created Ruth.) First, decide what the central character wants. (Ruth's husband tells her he's leaving her. She decides she is going to try and save her marriage.) Why does she want it? (Security, their kids. They have been married for 25 years.) What are the results of pursuing it? (Multiple confrontations with her husband, a re-examining of their relationship, facing the relationship's multiple flaws.) Does she get it? (Yes, but in doing so, she realizes she has trapped herself in an imperfect marriage.) If there are multiple characters, which character has the most to lose? (Ruth.) This will help you decide whose story it is. (Ruth's.)

Thus, the writer forms plot with a series of questions. Every time the main character tries to get what she wants, the author writes a scene (confronting the husband, reaching out to relatives for help, using the kids as manipulative tools). It is this intense questioning approach that will help the writer avoid borrowing a plot and falling into that genre trap. Story writing, Dufresne said, is like launching an arrow. Once you have launched it, there is only one possible place for the story to go, and you discover that trajectory by answering a series of unrelenting questions, by taking the path with the most resistance. The answer to these questions will tell you what to write next. Thus, plot generates, not stifles, a story's content. 

The final speaker was Antonya Nelson. Nelson explained that in graduate school, teachers criticized her stories as not stories but vignettes, character studies, and brushstrokes. She was striving for a Carver-esque minimalism but realized she was misunderstanding what was going on in his stories. They were not plotless, they simply lacked the exterior events of a traditional narrative. Nelson said she had a breakthrough when she began to understand plot as a shape. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is told in the shape of passing alcohol back and forth across a table. This back and forth shape creates the sensation of movement, a tension between polarities, where there is not an obvious sense of plot. Thus, even if the movement's shape is not obvious, the reader still feels satisfied. 

At the end of Nelson's presentation, I realized that Monroe, Barrett, and Dufresne had each described the same approach. All four speakers were describing different shapes to impose on a story to "forge a plot that is resonant and yet startlingly new," to both create a plot and avoid a familiar, borrowed plot. Monroe's shape was the ritual, Barrett's the wheel, Dufresne's the trajectory of an arrow, and Nelson's the back and forth motion she identified in Carver's story. That is, the panel was providing the attendees with metaphors--metaphors to pull out of our toolbox when the tension in our stories is falling flat, when we have a scene or a character and can't figure where to go. 

However, and this is an important point, these metaphors are not prescriptive, they are descriptive. They are descriptions of what is going on when writing is working. Most of us execute these shapes in our narratives intuitively, subconsciously, and we don't have to think about them when letting our words flow onto the page. It is when we get in a bind, though, that considering these metaphorical shapes for plot may help us get out of the weeds. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Above is a picture of me and my friends Heather and Alex (taken by the illustrious Adam Morgan) in front of Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. We may have missed the very last session at the AWP Conference to catch a Colorado Rockies game... may have...

For those of you who are not familiar with the AWP Conference, AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It is the primary organization that fosters contact among the country's creative writing programs, literary organizations, and literary presses. The AWP Conference features three days of discussion panels, pedagogy forums, readings, book signings, and probably the country's largest literary journal, magazine, and small press book fair. Not to mention, there are a ton of evening off-site events to attend, which usually involve drink tickets (yay!), tasty hors d'oeuvres, and comrade-time with the best people on the planet: other writers!

So for the next several posts, I am going to provide an inside look at the AWP Conference. I attended a ton of discussion panels and walked away with a pile of notes. Michael Chabon gave the conference's keynote address, and I saw readings by George Saunders and Etgar Keret. The book fair was enormous, and when I returned to Chicago, my suitcase was bursting at the seems with new books (most of them free!). I listened to some of the country's finest writers speak on plot, reader reaction vs. writer intent, the ten-minute play, the non-linear plot in playwriting, writing about place, defending the mfa in academia, the advantages of a creative writing PhD, and much, much more. And Denver is a beautiful city. To hear all about it, stay tuned!

Saturday, May 1, 2010


To celebrate the return of the LAVADEMON (AHHHHHH!!!!!), I am promoting Democracy Burlesque's latest show HOT FOR TEACHER at Mary's Attic. Democracy Burlesque is this amazing little theatre company that specializes in political satire comedy sketches. We produce a quarterly variety show featuring sketch comedy, stand up comedy, live music, puppets, and, of course, family friendly burlesque acts! Oh, and we donate a large chunk of the proceeds to worthy Chicago causes. Nice!

This is my fourth time writing sketch comedy for Democracy Burlesque. Each show is organized around a politically pertinent theme. The first show I did with DB last summer was all about labor, jobs, unions, working, etc. The second show dealt with healthcare, and the third was an hour long radio special that parodied the conservative talk show establishment's idea of "the war on Christmas." That show was a lot fun. I wrote a sketch about Santa getting waterboarded at Guantanamo Bay Prison. I know. How funny am I, right?

This show's theme is education! From naughty students and scolding teachers to civic minded puppets and that cooky ol' prospector you went to school with, there is plenty to laugh about when you're laughing about learning! HOT FOR TEACHER has it all! Come see us at Mary's Attic in Andersonville at 7:30 pm May 4th and May 11th. 

For more on Democracy Burlesque, check out their...

This show may feature a sketch set in an MFA fiction workshop. So all you Roosevelt students better watch out! 

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Some material I've written is going to be in a comedy sketch/variety show at the Strawdog Theatre in Chicago. The show is called Democracy Burlesque and the title of the upcoming production is called "Labor Pains," a social/political satire of the working world, the rough economy, organized labor, and being the little guy. 

Show dates are July 21st, 28th, and August 4th. Those are tuesdays.

There will also be a clown named Toast and some great music. I have seen a number of the sketches in rehearsal and there is some mighty funny stuff! Please check out the website and consider attending one of the three performances. This looks to be a great show!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Miles Harvey visits Roosevelt University and tells us to explore!

Creative nonfiction professor and author Miles Harvey stopped by Roosevelt University yesterday to read from his new book Painter in a Savage Land and talk about how he wants his students to approach writing. I think everyone in the Roosevelt University Creative Writing Program who attended agrees that Miles Harvey had some great insights!

Painter in a Savage Land is the story of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the first artist to travel to the what is now the continental United States with the express purpose of recording the New World visually. The artist and 300 Frenchmen land in Florida in 1564, and an adventure full of shipwrecks, mutiny, and discovery begins. This book is both a fascinating and exciting piece of creative nonfiction. 

Miles Harvey also shared some of his thoughts on writing. He said he tries to get his students to be explorers. To seek out questions that haunt them and won't let them rest until they've found an answer. He said that great creative nonfiction starts with a question that troubles the writer so much that the writer has to pursue it. He also talked about "place" in writing and how puzzling it is that place seems to be disappearing from the work of younger writers. Someone will write about his apartment in New York City without so much mentioning the city in the outside world. Someone will write about their traumatic childhood without mentioning how rural Iowa fits into the story. Harvey was not talking about simple landscape descriptions, he was talking about world building, how place defines characters, their values, their assumptions, their realities.  

Harvey and the other attendees offered their ideas on why developing writers seem less concerned with place:

1) Since we are so connected by the internet, networking sites, cell phones, instant mass media, we subconsciously assume that everyone's experience is the same regardless of place.

2) With the suburb explosion in America's cities, every place IS starting to look the same (Applebee's, shopping mall, cookie cutter homes, etc.) 

My own personal thought is that with the explosion of MFA writing programs, blogging (hahaha), livejournaling, and memoir writing, fiction and nonfiction have turned egocentrically autobiographical. Of course, we all bring ourselves into our writing, I don't see how you can avoid that, but I do see a whole generation of young writers who think they can now make a living writing nothing but personal memoir or fiction inspired by autobiographical events that could just as well be nonfiction if they changed a few character names. Looking at commercial writing, I think this is especially true, and self-disclosure on the internet has become the new form of self-expression in the twenty-first century. Excuse me while I go twitter this random thought that just popped into my head...

Okay, I am back. In some ways this is good because it gets people interested in writing, and indeed, I think this is how many of us first become interested in writing. It's an art that appeals to the ego. If you are like me, you probably wrote about a defining experience of your childhood for a high school English II assignment, and your teacher told you it was funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. This, of course, made you feel like YOU were funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. And instead of looking at the story and everything you did right--your craft, your language, your grounded sense of place, your handling of tension (things you probably couldn't even articulate at the time), you looked at yourself and concluded YOU to be the strength of your writing. You narcissist! I am completely exaggerating of course, but I think there is something to that. 

When I think back to books on writing that I read even as late as undergrad, I realize how much those books appeal to the developing writer's ego. In fact, that is probably why those books are commercially successful: "Do continuous journal writing exercises for hours on end, record your every thought, get it all out there on the page, some if it will be ugly, but some of it will be surprising, insightful, even beautiful." That thinking has great value in generating someone's interest in writing, and that egocentricity is an important developmental stage that many writers have to go through. But I think this is what creates insular writing if one doesn't unlearn that approach just a little bit. 

I suspect most writers can never completely escape their own ego. We are, after all, artists, and presumably we think highly enough of ourselves to put our words out there for an audience. However, I see a lot of writing that is incredibly egocentric, self-focused, and exists solely for the writer's own catharsis. This, I think, is the possible reason for the general neglect of things like place. Writers are turning inward, because that is what they have been encouraged to do, because that is how they first found those clever sentences and witty remarks that caught their first mentor's attention. That kind of validation was incredibly valuable and possibly essential for us in becoming the writers and artists we are today, so it's a tough habit to break, to stop writing for yourself and start writing a product for an audience. But writing ultimately has to be an ego-less process, because it's the story that is the most important, not you. (Sorry!!!) 

Anyway, to come back to Miles Harvey, I loved what he said about writers needing to be explorers. And no, Mr. emo livejournaler, he wasn't talking about exploring inward (we all do that enough), he was talking about turning outward, walking around your city, traveling, researching a topic, reading history (gasp!), looking at paintings and old maps, engaging questions that trouble you, and coming back with a report! 

I conclude with a quote from the director of University of Las Vegas' MFA Creative Writing Program. The program requires ALL of their students to serve in the Peace Corps before finishing their MFA (weird?).  At the AWP seminar I attended, he said "our fiction and nonfiction workshops are a lot more interesting." Is this because that program literally forces their students to be explorers? To first turn outward before turning inward to finish up those theses? I suspect that has something to do with it.