Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.

I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Plot Master Class in Brooklyn! A Podcast on Queries! And a Panel on Native Lit!

On Saturday, November 8, I'll be teaching my Plot Master Class as a one-day workshop to benefit Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York. The Master Class forces you to take an in-depth look at the plot of your manuscript through the pre-class homework; then I dissect all of the elements of plot in the course of the workshop; and then we put everything back together again by the end, at which point you should have plenty of knowledge about making plots operate effectively, and a number of tools to strengthen your own. It's the most popular course I offer, as I've taught it both online and at multiple locations around the country, and while it's always an intense* day, it's always a lot of fun too.

And this edition is truly for a good cause, as all proceeds will go directly to Park Slope United Methodist, my lovely, progressive, inclusive, social justice-minded church in Brooklyn,** which will also host the event. As this is being independently organized, you do not have to be a member of SCBWI or any other writers' group to attend; all you have to have is a manuscript in mind, a curiosity about plot, the fee, and the ability to get to Brooklyn on Saturday the 8th. Please check out the registration page here, and if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me through that page or leave them in the comments below. Thank you!

Oh! And while I am here and talking publishing:  The newest episode of The Narrative Breakdown features me and Katy Beebe -- also known as KTBB among commenters here, also known as my best friend -- talking about query letters. Katy wrote the original Query Letter from Hell that appears in Second Sight, and anyone who can parody something better know her subject inside and outAnd indeed, Katy also wrote an impeccable query letter for her picture book Brother Hugo and the Bear, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year.

We discuss both of these queries in the course of the episode, and throw in some advice on copyright, synopses, and effective summaries besides. Please check the show out!

Oh! Part Two: On October 4 at 2 p.m., authors Joseph Bruchac and Eric Gansworth and their editors -- Stacy Whitman of Tu Books and moi, respectively -- will gather at the New York Public Library at 42nd St. for a public conversation with Betsy Bird about the writing, editing, and publishing of Native American YA fiction. I'm super excited about this panel, as I learned a great deal from working with Eric on his terrific YA novel IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE, and it's rare to get an opportunity to talk about those lessons and share those experiences. Please check this out too!

* Read:  slightly brain-melting (but in an enjoyable way).

** If you want to take the Master Class but for some reason you object to the funds going to a church, let me know, and I'm sure we can work something out.