BULLETIN: Don’t miss watching Marilyn Singer’s interview tonight as part of the Kennedy Center series. Here’s what Marilyn just sent me. Caroline Kennedy’s POETS AND PRESIDENTS: Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles R. Smith, Jr., and Marilyn Singer, interviewed by Maria Salvadore, can be heard starting this Friday, Jan. 21, as part of the Kennedy Center Performing Arts Program. If you’re interested in hearing this, you can register for free at: http://www.kennedy-center.org/education/pwtv /
It’s such a treat to feature Barbara Robinson today. She might not want to admit that she has participated a number of times as one of a four-member cast doing readings from plays by Sandy Asher based on my poems or our poems. I’m amazed the lady hasn’t won a Tony. Anyway, here’s my friend, Barbara.
My writing career – that sounds fancy, and for a long time, when people asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “Oh…I type.”..in case, I guess, that turned out to be the whole truth. I began as a short story writer, in the days when there was a vibrant market for short stories in the popular magazines. It was a great training ground – the accepted length was five thousand words, which for me was about 11-12 pages. No room there for vivid writing, or for six juicy words instead of one workhorse of a word…no room, really, for anything that didn’t feed the story, so I murdered many of my darlings.
Nevertheless, it’s my favorite form, and it’s served me well, as several stories turned into books or large parts of books..most notably, a short story published in McCall’s in 1967 – The Christmas Pageant – which became The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – book, play, tv movie, short reading version which was performed in Symphony Space in New York, and, as of Christmas 2011, a picture book. This is a scenario I wish for every writer who wants the work to stay around a while…but it is not a process free of angst.
Adapting the book as a play was the easiest, only because I had studied theatre in college and knew most of the rules about playwriting..and broke one of them right away. You’re not supposed to use a narrator in a play -‘show it, don’t tell it’ – but I couldn’t bridge that gap, maybe because the book itself is in the first person. I had to be sparing, though, in the narration – a play just has greater forward momentum than narration (or should have) and really needs to move along.
Then, too, what reads well doesn’t necessarily speak well, so you have to try out the lines. One example – Beverly Slocum whistling the carol What Child Is This, and passing out on the altar, is funny to read and to picture, but messy to say. And, of course, there were practical concerns – you can’t burn things down onstage or, to my regret, have a crazy cat destroy a school room. I tried to get that in, but soon learned that cats are lousy actors.
No special concerns in the reading version, which was designed for two actors – Anne Jackson and her actor daughter Roberta Wallach. My job here was largely editorial, cutting out whatever parts of the story or whatever language didn’t serve the actors. They were very much on their own in a static situation – sitting on stage in two comfy armchairs, living room set, no bells and whistles. I also had to assign, with their input, who would read what.
Neither were there practical concerns in the movie – we could have a fire, and the Vancouver Fire Department, and even a crazy cat. But a movie is not a book, and I soon realized that there was not a reader on the other end of my story, but a camera. I had to learn to ‘see with the eye of the camera’ and then write that. This was the strongest advice of all the movie people. Best example – I had written four good crisp lines of dialogue, and the director said, “Yes, they’re really good, but one camera shot will do the job of all four lines, and do it better,” and he was right. It’s tempting to think that the words don’t matter, but they matter very much to the actors, who have to create and hang onto a character through the disjointed, out of order filming sequences. The actors all told me that whenever I moaned about the loss of some precious words or phrases. You have to murder a lot of darlings in the movies!
The picture book is brand new to me, and both intriguing and scary. I had the notion that the text must serve the artist – must set up the picture, so to speak – but was told by editors and authors that I had it wrong way to – that the artist would find the picture in the text. I found it hard, though, not to think…Oh, I’ll use this little bit of story instead of that one because it will make a better picture. The trouble with this is that I’m not an artist, don’t have an artist’s eye, and can’t really know what will make the best picture for a particular story moment.
Many fewer words in a picture book, an d I found that it was rarely the juiciest word or words that proved to be the right ones…which took me right back to my early writing days – fewer words and no vivid writing. Full circle, I guess.
I haven’t yet seen Laura Cornell’s pictures – and isn’t it a blessing on this project to have her take on the Herdmans again! – but when I talked a little bit about this book during a school visit, one little boy said, “I can’t wait to see that book!”