Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

It's a bit early here in the eastern U.S., but I'm sure it's not too soon for some of you in other parts of the world.

It's been an interesting year - and in some ways, I mean "interesting" in the sense of that ancient Chinese blessing/curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Lots of ends, lots of new beginnings.

We lost our two oldest pets - Mojo the cat in the spring and Katie the dog in July. In August, I found a wee calico kitten named Kismet who is a joy and a terror and entirely perfect for us. My older daughter, S, graduated from high school, then started college at the College of Charleston, a good 11 hours away from home. My younger daughter, M, is now a junior in high school with an after-school job, and, as of about two weeks ago, a licensed driver.

My 9-year second marriage came to an end. A run of good health also came to an end, but as it turns out in both cases, things are improving, the health a bit more slowly than I'd like, but still - it's all good. In fact, despite the ends, it's the beginnings that have me saying it's been a Very Good Year.

Here's wishing you and yours a very good new year - I hope you find peace, prosperity, and love.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

All In by Benjamin Percy - another commitment post

I have a confession to make. Within Word, I have a folder labelled "Other People's Writing." It holds things like favorite short stories written by Tessa Gratton, stories people have asked me to critique (so I can find them), and things that really spoke to me found from a variety of places. Some of them are poems, some of them are blog posts, and some of them are articles.

And thus it was that I remembered I had a piece stashed in that folder that discussed the idea of commitment, maybe slightly differently than my last two posts. I won't post the whole article here, since you can go straight to Glimmer Train and read it yourself, but it's a piece called "All In" by Benjamin Percy. Here's brief excerpt.

I used to be the same way, nervously rationing out my ideas.

Tony Early (the author of Jim the Boy) cured me of that. Years ago, I was talking to him about his story, one of my favorite stories, "The Prophet from Jupiter." He said that he put everything he had into it. "I was tired of holding back," he said. His stories up to that point, he felt, had been good. But he wanted to write something truly great, an earth-shaker. So he put every last drop of himself, all of his best material, into a single story.

And it worked. "Prophet" appeared in Harper's, scored a National Magazine Award, and to this day is widely taught and anthologized.

There was a price. After he finished the story, he lay on the couch feeling emptied, carved-out, certain he would never write anything again. This lasted for two weeks. And then the well filled back up.

I encourage you all to read the full article.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jude Law talks about HAMLET - another post about commitment

Once upon a time (in April of 2010), I put up a post about Carl Sandburg's poem, "They All Want to Play Hamlet". The poem includes at its heart these lines:

Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad
   and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then
   to say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking
   a heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.

And I think Sandburg was onto something, because just the other evening, I caught Jude Law on The Charlie Rose Show, where, around the 24 minute mark or so, the discussion turned to Hamlet. I loved what Law had to say, and it resonated especially because I was already thinking about commitment (albeit from a much lighter sort of entertainment).

So I did what I do, and I watched and rewatched (and rewatched and rewatched . . . ) and transcribed some of their conversation for you:

LAW: I would certainly say it's the most rewarding part I've ever read or played

ROSE: Because?

LAW: Because not only do you have on paper some of the most beautiful, introspective and revealing speeches written in the English language, you also have the opportunity to imbue them with yourself. It becomes a very personal journey, so somehow you are playing a character that ultimately is a journey into your own being.

. . .

And yet also on top of that, it's just a great story. You have a great journey. You see. Faustus is a great character, with many levels that allow you to interpret – to put yourself on him - it's not a brilliant story, the way its structure kind of falls apart in the middle. Hamlet is this phenomenal journey which has every peak, every trough, you know, rhythmically worked out.

ROSE: You said once that you don't play Hamlet, Hamlet plays you.

LAW: . . . .Yes he does, because the spirit of him, as I said, it sort of tattoos itself on you for a time, for the duration of your run. And then it's passed on.

ROSE: You said to me as you sat down, for a while there you didn't go see other Hamlets because you felt like he still was within you.

LAW: . . . . Funny enough, I think Alan Rickman said that to me when I was about to play it, he said, "You won't want this play for a few years." Because, and he was right, you feel a sense of – it's not ownership - If you're playing something that taps into your emotions on that level, where you feel that you're really putting yourself out there as, in the end, a human stripped, a human revealing their sense of what it is to be a human, a character that's revealing what it is to feel alive, and to play with the idea of being alive and dead, mad, not mad, every night, I think the key's in you, that just hearing that dialogue, would open. I was a little scared of it.
Turns out that Rose's next guest was none other than Ralph Fiennes, who was also talking about Shakespeare because he stars in and directed a modern version of Coriolanus, co-starring Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and Jessica Chastain. It looks extremely violent and extremely good. (Hear that, Tessa Gratton?)

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On commitment

I have a confession to make: I haven't been all that committed to the writing process of late. I could bore you with explanations as to why that's so, and they include valid reasons like health issues, my divorce, S leaving for college, etc., but part of it has been a lack of commitment.

I was reminded last week how important it is to be committed to what you're doing, and the thing that reminded me of it was my annual watching of the movie Elf starring Will Ferrell. Really, this could apply to any of his screen work, whether it's his Funny or Die piece where he's dealing with a potty-mouthed toddler landlord, his cheerleader skits on SNL, Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, or any of those other goofy characters, or even (or perhaps especially) Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, but what reminded me of the need for commitment was Elf, and, in particular, this scene:

He commits 100% to being a guy raised as an Elf. A guy raised someplace where everyone is happy, and Santa is real, and work is fun. A guy who doesn't understand human culture, really - at least not yet. A guy who thinks Christmas and Santa are the Best Things Ever. Will Ferrell inhabits the character (all of his characters, really) so entirely that he never winks at the camera (in reality or even impliedly). He doesn't hesitate. When Will Ferrell played Buddy the Elf, he was really and truly Buddy the Elf. His excitement over Santa is palpable, just as in a later scene, when a guy in a Santa suit shows up who is not really Santa, his outrage and disgust are genuine, and you can sense they are both bone-deep.

Will Ferrell's commitment to becoming whatever character he's playing - no matter how off-beat or quirky - is inspiring to me. And it's reminded me that when I sit down to write, I need to do it with actual commitment. This means a few different things. First, that I need to make the commitment to sit down and do the work. Second, that when I sit down to do the work, I need to be willing to really and truly go wherever it is that I need to go for that particular piece. If it's a serious poem about real emotions, I need to be willing to open that particular vein. If it's a picture book, I need to be willing to commit to playing with the text and the ideas, and to be willing to commit to allowing my inner 4-year old to run wild. If it's my YA novel, I need to commit to writing the emotions and actions down in a way that will communicate to an eventual reader precisely what the character feels and what they are doing or sensing.

So today, I'm really glad for Will Ferrell's performance as Buddy the Elf. And I aspire to be more committed - I'm not even going to wait for the new year.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Boxing Day!

I hope you have all been enjoying your holidays. I've been enjoying lighting candles each night for Chanukah, and the tree looks quite pretty (with occasional un-decorating by Kismet, who finds the origami giraffe to be really fun to play with - any breakables are too high for her to reach, and there's no garland and certainly no tinsel on the tree, tinsel being deadly for kitties).

Last night I spent a "traditional" Jewish Christmas, which means that I went out for Chinese food for dinner. (The kids spent the day with their dad, doing the Christmas dinner thing last night.) Tonight I'm serving brisket and latkes - must make applesauce this afternoon! - for Chanukah dinner.

And over the next few days, I'll undoubtedly ponder things like What Happened This Year and What I'd Like To Happen Next Year and such.

Meanwhile, if you're in the mood to celebrate Festivus, you can participate in the Annual Airing of Grievances over at Mother Reader.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Writing by Stephen King

You can read some of my thoughts about Stephen King's marvelous book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft over at Guys Lit Wire.

And now, I'm for bed.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Holiday Dinner To-Do List by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

With Chanukah starting on the 20th and Christmas only days behind, most everyone I know is getting ready for a major holiday meal (or two, or three, depending). Today, I thought I'd share an original poem of mine. It's an instruction poem, which means just what it sounds like - it's a poem written as a set of instructions. It's not exactly a Martha Stewart checklist.

Holiday Dinner To-Do List
by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

Begin your preparations five days ahead.
Defrost the silver,
Polish the turkey until it gleams.
Iron the table,
Fold the extra leaves into the tablecloth.
Four days ahead, shop.
Remember pie; forget salad – it is better left too late.
Start the oven two days before,
neverminding a day has been skipped.
Develop the cranberry sauce;
Combine the gravy giblets;
Finish the pie, but not whip the cream.
If stuffing the turkey, stale the bread.
Put rings on the glasses, lay knives to guard the plates.
One day before, store the casseroles:
Peel them into the fridge for safekeeping.
Remember salad.
On the holiday itself, baste the white wine.
Preheat the turkey. Stuff the oven.
Baste the potatoes; mash the salad;
Reheat the conversation; enjoy the side dishes.
After the meal: Brew the whipped cream.
Beat the coffee into stiff peaks with a bit of sugar.
Remember the rolls, unbake them.
Clear the guests, wash the table, wait for next year.

Check out other Poetry Friday entries by clicking the green box:

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Monday, December 05, 2011


I am dancing - nay, almost prancing - about with glee because of an email I received this afternoon. I've had a poem accepted in a forthcoming Steampunk Shakespeare anthology - my rewrite of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 has been deemed "very well done" and will be in the forthcoming antho. My version mentions Babbage and the "difference engine".

Here is the Bard's original:

Sonnet 55
by William Shakespeare

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments,
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils* root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick** fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

*broils: tumults, battles

**quick: probably intended for its double meaning: 1) fast-burning and 2) the sort that burns something to its quick, or its very heart/center

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first eight lines are grandstanding, in a way: "Monuments shall fall into ruin, but not your reputation" is the gist of it. The next six lines take a slight turn (or volta) when the focus shifts away from monuments falling to wars and the ravages of time and more to the active nature of the poem and its ability to preserve the memory and reputation of the Fair Youth: "My poems about you will keep your memory - and therefore the essence of you - alive until Doomsday".

Discussion: First, let me say how very much I love the line about "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time", "sluttish" being a word which here means "disgustingly dirty", and not actually something sexual. Second, let me say that this poem conjured for me an image of fallen statues, which naturally called up "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which I discussed as part of last year's National Poetry Month posts, with its image of trunkless legs standing in the desert.

Of particular interest are the personification of war through the invocation of Mars, the Roman god of war, and how Shakespeare claims that Mars is no match for poetry. In fact, he claims that poetry will outlast war, while the physical things built by men will not. (A different sort of take on ars longa, vita brevis, which is usually interpreted as meaning that a particular work of art - say, a marble statue - will long outlast a human life. Shakespeare's art is his poetry, which he claims will outlast even those marble statues (and he has been correct in some cases, as with respect to works of art destroyed by war or the ravages of time).

The final couplet is an extremely pithy summary of what he's been saying all along: "So, until judgment day, you live in my poem, and as a result, your spirit is kept alive in that of all lovers."

Pretty bold claim, and yet who am I to argue? Four hundred years or so after it was written, this poem is still around and we're still talking about it and about Shakespeare's obvious love (platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise) for the Fair Youth, whose identity can only be guessed at (although many believe it to be Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton). Still, that Fair Youth's spirit is kept alive, is it not, by these poems? And while it would be tempting to dismiss Shakespeare's talk of "powerful rhyme" and his claims of keeping the Youth's reputation and memory alive until Doomsday as hubris - and I'm nearly certain he took crap for it during his lifetime and was undoubtedly accused of puffery, to say the least - it would seem that the Bard might be having the last laugh. For while it is not yet time for the final judgment (best as I can tell), there are plenty of folks still admiring Shakespeare's "powerful rhyme".

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