Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kidding Around

Here are some thoughts that might come to mind when someone says, "Boston's Green Line":

  • Squeaky
  • Smelly
  • Cold
  • Hot
  • Crowded
  • Late
  • Did I mention squeaky?

For others, including my 11-year-old son, Owen, the Green Line conjures images of adventure and intrigue. The oldest subway stations in America are on the the line -- Park and Boylston stations. You travel through the heart of Boston when you're on the Green Line. You go past Fenway Park, TD Garden (home of the Celtics and Bruins), the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science and historic Boston Common.

My son also loves to keep track of which trains are running on which lines (the Green Line has B, C, D and E branches), and which ones are in or out of service.

As some readers know, I've been working on a children's picture book about riding the Green Line. A few years back, inspired by countless subway rides with Owen, I started writing a book about a generic subway ride. I had a hard time with it, and gave up. But then my sister-in-law's husband, Todd, asked if I wanted to write one specifically about the Green Line, for eventual inclusion in the line of products that his company, Sidetrack Products, sells.

The process is taking longer than I'd expected, but things are heading in the right direction.

Back in late October I gave draft copies of the book to the licensing agents for the MBTA (aka the T), which operates the subway. Two weeks ago I heard back from the point man, who likes the concept of the book. He had some questions/comments about the look of the book, and stressed that I need to make sure I get any necessary clearances to use the names of Fenway Park, TD Garden, the Red Sox, etc.

The bottom line, though, is that he's excited to sell the book because there are no other T-themed children's books available. So yesterday I met with Martina, the illustrator, to address some design issues in order to make headway on a next draft to give to the licensing guys.

In the meantime, I'm waiting to hear back from the two publishers I mailed the manuscript to three months ago. Several years ago one of the companies published a children's book about riding a T bus; the other is based in Massachusetts and is looking to publish its first books.

As I told Martina yesterday, I hope that by the end of this year to have an agreement in place to publish the book. I've already got a draft for a Red Line book, in hopes that if the Green Line book does well, there could be a series including all of Boston's subway lines.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

More memoir inspiration

When my stack of books-to-be-read shrank to dangerously low levels, I took to the attic stacks to see what I'd overlooked. I found Modern American Memoirs, a collection of 35 excerpts from writers ranging from Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, to Harry Crews, Wallace Stegner and Margaret Mead.

While reading it, I've alternated between being inspired and getting depressed.

As regular readers (reader?) know, I've been working on a memoir about a road trip I took in 1988 (see November 13, 2013, "Drafting"). I started writing it in earnest in April 2012. Last year I had a handful of friends and family read it, while I took a nice long break from the process. I got back several useful comments about the manuscript, and in the early fall started in on another draft.

My buddy Jim, who curated the Movable Feasts short story collection that I contributed to, told me that I needed to "punch up" my prose. I took his comment to heart, and have been trying to do that, while simultaneously editing my copy down to tight sentences.

Those may seem to be opposite goals, but they're not. I'm trying to make the story come to life, to make it less "newsy," which is a common problem of mine in writing anything from songs to emails to short stories. I blame my journalism degree. Using more vivid language, however, doesn't mean wasting words and extending sentences. I want everything I write to be bright and useful.

I find it too easy sometimes to edit my manuscript without making the complementary changes in tone. I've looked over the chapters so many times that the whole process becomes rote. There is a big challenge in this process, but I'm equal to it.

Making the challenge even greater is reading some of the fantastic stories in Modern American Memoirs.

Take, for instance, this passage from Stegner's Wolf Willow, which mixes memoir, history and, evidently, fiction:

What we did on the homestead was written in wind. It began as it ended -- empty space, grass and sky. I remember it as it originally was, for my brother and I, aged eight and six, accompanied my father when he went out to make the first "improvements." Except for the four-foot iron post jutting from the prairie just where our wagon track met the trail to Hydro, Montana, and for the three shallow holes with the survey stake at their apex that marked the near corner of our land, there was nothing to distinguish or divide our land from all other, to show which 320 acres of that wind and grass were ours.

I'm trying my best to make my book purely nonfiction. I've done a good job putting the narrative arc together, and filling in details culled from audio tapes, journal notes, newspaper articles I wrote and conversations with my fellow road trippers. And I've got a primary theme: my struggle to break out of my comfort zone and just have a good time during our adventure.

But I worry that the story is too boring at times. My buddy Jim suggested that if I opted not to punch up the story as is, I should fictionalize the tale in order to make it go in all sorts of crazy directions.

I fictionalized some of the stories from the road in my collection, (C)rock Stories: Million-Dollar Tales of Music, Mayhem and Immaturity (BUY IT!!), so I'm not interested in taking that road (pun intended).

So I'm hoping to get some ideas from Modern American Memoirs about how to make my story pop without sacrificing the truth. Stay tuned....

(For more writing that's inspired me, see May 25, 2012, "Inspiration.")

Friday, January 3, 2014

Something about jarmusch or lurie or edson or all three

The title of this blog meant something when I wrote it down several weeks ago. Now, I have no idea what I wanted to say about filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train") or John Lurie and Richard Edson, who starred in "Stranger Than Paradise." But I'll come up with something, so stick around.

I saw "Stranger Than Paradise" during college, in 1984, on the big screen at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, NH. I loved the absurd dialogue, the aimless road trip, the cool clothes and my introduction to the wild music of Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

I developed a crush on the female lead, Eszter Balint. She was Euro-cool with her accent, cigarettes and defensive attitude. Here's the trailer:

Balint has since appeared in other films (Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog," Steve Buscemi's "Tree's Lounge") and recorded music on her own and with many others, including Lurie.

Lurie was snide and funny, and dressed like nobody I knew. He had done a few small films before "Stranger." Since then he's appeared in several more, including "Paris, Texas" and "Wild at Heart," two movies I enjoyed, although I remember nothing about them. In 1991, he hosted "Fishing With John," a show that featured him angling along with underground heroes including Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper.

I saw Lurie and his band, Lounge Lizards, years ago in Cambridge, Mass. They were terrific, and Lurie was just the same in person as he was on screen: droll, stylish, sarcastic.

Here's my favorite Lounge Lizards song:

Edson was sweet and a bit slow. "Stranger Than Paradise" was his first film. He's worked consistently ever since, appearing in films ranging from "Desperately Seeking Susan" with Madonna to "Good Morning Vietnam" with Robin Williams, and TV series including "Vegas" and "Perception."

Years after seeing "Stranger Than Paradise," I learned he once drummed for Sonic Youth, which in my mind made him forever cool.

As for Jarmusch, I've seen a bunch of his movies since "Stranger Than Paradise": "Down By Law," "Mystery Train," "Night on Earth," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Coffee and Cigarettes" and "Broken Flowers."

Other than "Stranger Than Paradise," I haven't seen any of these other films more than once, so little from them sticks with me. So what's my point?

Just nostalgia, I guess. I rarely go to see movies any more, never mind films. I miss the days of small, independent, quirky works of art in which little ever happens. I don't know much about the mumblecore school of movie-making, but I'm guessing it's like Jarmusch's films -- small, stupid, goofy, uncomfortable, clever, cute, raw.

I can relate to this kind of art. As I've gotten older, I've become more comfortable with the notion that I'm not the deepest well in Artesia. I write fiction that doesn't include enough physical description. I don't develop full-blown characters. In my non-fiction, I have difficulty expressing what I was feeling at certain junctures, and my ability to flesh out other characters leaves something to be desired.

In my short story collection, (C)rock Stories: Million-Dollar Tales of Music, Mayhem and Immaturity, I focused on telling a story and not so much on character development. I'm OK with that, because I knew my limitations. I wanted the stories to feel like something one friend would tell another about "that time we saw Foghat in a small bar" or "when we played that lady's funeral in New Mexico" or "getting ripped off on our way to an Echo & the Bunnymen concert."

Slice of life, I guess you call it.

I'm always working on this, trying to push myself to show, rather than tell, to use a full paint palette instead of employing No. 2 pencils. But as "Seinfeld" showed the world, sometimes it's OK to build something from small, seemingly unimportant moments.