Mon. June 18, 2018: Follow Your Dreams — A Personal Story #UpbeatAuthors

Monday, June 18, 2018
Waxing Moon
Jupiter Retrograde
Saturn Retrograde
Pluto Retrograde

I’ve lived my life by that motto.

I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was six years old. I published in school magazines and newspapers. As a teen, I wrote plays, and I did press releases and other articles for local and regional newspapers about the high school music groups with which I was associated.

In college, I got away from the writing (although I wrote plenty of awful poetry) when I committed to theatre. I graduated high school early, tested my way out of freshman year, and entered Florida State University in Tallahassee mid-year. I took a stage lighting class. I was supposed to put in 20 hours of lab work in the theatre during the semester. I put 20 hours in my first week and never left the building until I transferred to NYU’s film and television program a year later. I got terrific experience at FSU, and even picked up a few side rock and roll gigs.

I transferred to NYU and got into the film department. My first day in film school, I met the guy who still, all these decades later, is one of my closest friends. But, because I was practical and a problem-solver, I wound up more on the production management level than the writing level. I had two brilliant professors, who encouraged me, and with whom I’m still in contact. One was my screenwriting professor, and I wish I’d studied more with him. I still use what I learned from him, in screenwriting, playwrighting, radio writing, and novels.

I picked up theatre jobs here and there. In other words, I started earning my living in the arts when I was 18. Any non-arts job I ever had was only temporary, and in between shows, for the cash. I knew I wasn’t suited to an office job or anything the fearful call “a real job.” Honey — working in the arts is about giving EVERYTHING and leaving it out there. It’s far more real than ANY office job. So shut the eff up.

When I graduated from NYU, I moved to the west coast for three years to work in regional theatre. I knew I needed experiences outside of New York. I loved it, but I also knew that if I was going to realize my dream of working on Broadway, I had to be in New York. While I was west, I spent some time in LA and knew it wasn’t for me.

I came back east, initially to help with a family issue, for two months. I immediately landed a stage management job and worked my way up in the off-off-off-off Broadway community. (I had worked as a stage manager and production manager in San Francisco, and as a props person in Seattle). I switched to wardrobe (as a stage manager in small SF companies, I’d often both stage managed and handled quick changes). I worked my way from off-off-off Broadway to off-off Broadway and then to off-Broadway. I did some work in New York as a stage manager and an associate production manager, for the Pearl Theatre and for Manhattan Class Company. I did wardrobe for the Vineyard, and then spent several seasons at Manhattan Theatre Club, which led to open-ended runs rather than repertory.

While I was still working off-off Broadway, I spent three years working during the day for an art book publisher. I learned an enormous amount that has served my writing career well, working both sides of the table. I worked in the development offices of the Neuberger Museum and the Guggenheim Museum. At the latter, I spent my lunch hour walking the museum, immersing myself in the art. I worked part-time for five years for the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, when it was so small the staff consisted of the Executive Director and me, putting on seminars and support groups and roundtables and award shows. I learned so much.

It was at Manhattan Theatre Club where I had the honor of working with Arthur Miller and Athol Fugard within the same six months. I’d started writing again. Even though I was the wardrobe girl, Athol respected that I wrote, that I was starting to define myself as a writer. He invited me to sit in on rehearsals any time I wanted, to ask any questions I wanted. I did, and I learned an amazing amount from him. He directed what he wrote, but he kept his writing self and his directing self separate.

On the first day of rehearsal, in his opening remarks, he said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the writer is dead in this process. There will be no revisions during rehearsal. The bad news is that I promised him you chaps would speak every line exactly as written.”

I loved it. He demanded respect for the words. No paraphrasing (which American actors tend to do more than any other actors, claiming to be “in the moment” when, in reality, most of them simply haven’t bothered to take the time to memorize).

I worked with Arthur Miller within the same six months (their plays were produced one after the other in the season). I adored him. He was one of the most vibrant, vital, intelligent people I ever met. He used to hang out in the wardrobe room during the show sometimes.

At the time, I was getting back into writing. Monologues for actresses with whom I worked, who couldn’t find good monologues for auditions. Who landed the job every time they used something I wrote for them. I was also working on a short story, for a themed competition.

I wrote the first draft on butcher paper in between cues in the wardrobe room. I typed it up and worked on revisions between cues (there were long periods where I didn’t have any quick changes with my actors). I hid the pages in the room, but Arthur found them one evening when I was on the deck doing quick changes.

I was mortified when I returned to the room and found him reading the pages. He was Arthur Miller! I was, well, me.

He looked up and said, “This is good. What are you doing working backstage?”

“I like it. Plus, you know, I like to do things like eat. I have to pay the rent.”

“You need to write full time. You’ll never be the writer you can be, find your full potential, until you rely on it to pay the bills.”

David Mamet told me something very similar when we worked together.

Arthur gave me some suggestions on the text. He never treated me like “less than” because he was Arthur Miller and I was a wardrobe girl scribbling in a corner. He always treated me like a colleague. We kept in touch until his death, and he always pushed me to do better, be more — and only write.

It was quite a few years before I had the courage to only write — and it was AFTER I’d accomplished my dream of working on Broadway.

The monologues I wrote expanded to plays, the plays that would take me to fringe festivals in both Edinburgh and Australia. I found my work got a much stronger reception in Europe than in the US. It wasn’t angsty enough for the American audiences at the time; there was too much sharp humor.

I landed at the Public Theatre and worked with one of my idols, Hal Prince. Another person at the top of his craft who liked and respected everyone with whom he worked. The assistant designers at the Public were working on Broadway and took me with them when the show at the Public closed.

I found myself learning how to be a swing dresser on Broadway, on the production of MISS SAIGON, and in the union. Each series of cues a dresser performs during the course of the show is called a “track.” If you read my novel PLAYING THE ANGLES, set backstage on a Broadway show, my protagonist Morag is a Broadway dresser.

MISS SAIGON had 13 tracks. I learned them in 26 performances. You follow the dresser once to learn it; the dresser follows you as you do it. Within three months, after swinging every track on the show multiple times, the lead actresses who played Kim requested me when their regular dresser took another job. I stayed with the show for five years, until it closed.

It was an amazing, creative group. We wrote plays, songs, other performances, and all went to each others’ shows. Which took place at midnight, in various venues around the city. We put on our own shows, and hung out with the cast & crew of other shows like SNL at KGB. We did The Easter Bonnet Competition and Gypsy of the Year and Broadway Bares to raise money for AIDs and breast cancer. I worked the Tony Awards once and attended it twice over my years on Broadway.

I think I had four shows I wrote produced during that time, in small venues. Dozens of monologues and short pieces. A few short stories published. MISS SAIGON closed and I worked on other shows at other theatres: RENT, GYPSY (the Bernadette Peters version), FOLLIES, 42ND ST, SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS (with Mark Hamill, who became one of my favorite people ever), URINETOWN, and then as a swing on the first 3 1/2 years of WICKED.

I loved it, but I knew I was aging out. Physically, it was getting tougher and tougher. Mentally, I was struggling to get the writing done and work full time on Broadway. They’re not kidding when they say, “The theatre is a jealous mistress.”

By this point, I was also day-playing on television shows shooting in New York. For the money. I could earn in one day on set when I earned in a week on Broadway. I liked it. I learned so, so much. But I didn’t love it the way I loved Broadway. I’m better suited to theatre production than television production. Which is a shame, from a financial standpoint.

I was also writing about sports for various publications. I covered horse racing and ice hockey. Thirteen years’ worth of Triple Crown races; traveled with a minor league hockey team for eight months as background for a book. Covered America’s Cup races and learned about sailing, although I can’t even swim.

By this point, the first Jain Lazarus Adventures were out, ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, DIXIE DUST RUMORS, and a bunch of short stories and anthologies. I was writing for calendars and almanacs. I was doing marketing writing for companies. I was writing and teaching and working on novels and trying to build a writing career as the publishing world changed. I hit a point where I had to make a decision. I had to decide if I would stop writing or if I would give up Broadway.

I knew I couldn’t continue physically on Broadway much longer — heavy costumes, raked stages, blowing out my knees running up and down concrete steps carrying stacks of clothes.

I chose writing.

SPRING AWAKENING was my last show as a swing on Broadway. The last event I worked was a staged reading of ALL ABOUT EVE, which had a plethora of people I loved working with involved, AND I got to bow out by working with Jennifer Tilly, Keri Russell, Peter Gallagher, Annette Bening, Angela Lansbury, Zoe Caldwell, and more. It was a great way to leave the business. I’d heard so many stories about how wonderful Peter Gallagher is, and thought, “No one can be that great” — he IS that great, and even better. I’ve never laughed as much with anyone as I did with Jennifer Tilly, and I loved working with Keri Russell (we had five quick changes in a staged reading, which means walking around holding scripts).

I moved away from New York to write. There are challenges. I live in a place that is a prime example of how trickle-down economy does not work. I live in place that, if you’re a working artist who visits, they fall all over you, but if you chose to LIVE here, you’re considered a failure and should get a “real” job. Honey, this is a real job. Granted, most of the clients who pay me well are remote, but I’m working a real job. I’m writing material that helps businesses grow and spread their message. I’m writing books that I love. I’m writing plays and radio plays that invigorate people.

I have always made the choices to do what I love. To fight for what I want, to refuse to compromise and be forced into work I hate. I have made plenty of personal compromises along the way.

Every single one of them has been worth it.

Just because I love what I do does not mean I don’t deserve to be paid for it. Loving my work does not mean I don’t deserve to earn a living at it. I do. And nothing less is acceptable.

Those who don’t have the courage to follow their dreams often try to punish those of us who do.

They are not worth our time or our energy.

Do what you love. Follow your dreams. Make them your reality.

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Inspiration from Place #UpbeatAuthors

Note: This was a previously-committed to post for the #upbeatauthors group. If you want to read about my response to Hurricane Harvey, it is the post above this one. I am not ignoring the suffering.

Trish Milburn‘s topic for the day is “Places that Inspire”. That covers a lot of ground. I can find ANY place I visit inspiring. I keep detailed travel journals when I go anywhere, and write up the details, especially sensory details. I collect maps and historical information. I collect contact information for chambers of commerce and tourism boards, so when I write about a place, I can go back and get the emotional geography correct.

Because setting is a character in my work (and I teach courses on it), it’s important to me to get the physical and emotional geography of a place correct. I’m pretty good at discerning when an author hasn’t visited a place and hasn’t done enough research to understand its unique feel/personality. Yes, it’s fiction, and it’s important to use imagination. But, if you are going to use a real place, or do what I call “stretching geography”, where you add the fictional places that support your story into a real environment, you need to get the physical and the sensory details right.

That’s a lecture for another day. 😉

For today, I am going to share with you some of the places that have inspired specific pieces of work. I’m having trouble posting photographs, but clicking through the links will get you all kinds of great images and information.

New York City
I grew up in a suburb of New York City, and spent plenty of time there. After a year of college elsewhere, I transferred back to NYU for film and television production, and then, after two years in San Francisco and a miserable year in Seattle, I moved back and worked my way up in theatre until I worked on Broadway. I loved the city, especially Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the various New York Public Libraries, NYU itself, and all the neighborhoods. I lived through 9/11, in which 42 people I knew (firefighters, mostly, and cops, and people I’d gone to school with who worked in the towers). New York is an important part of my work.

It’s the primary setting for the Nina Bell Mysteries, which are in the 1990s, following a college graduate trying to build her life in the arts. She lives on E. 6th Street, and is an NYU alum, and works at theatres similar to the Public. I use my diaries from those years to make sure I have the geography right, and the events and how they affected those of us trying to ignore said events.

It’s where TRACKING MEDUSA, the first Gwen Finnegan mystery starts and ends. The book starts in the Gramercy Park area, and has major events at the main New York Public Library and a chase scene inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(The book re-releases in January 2018. Visit http://gwenfinneganmysteries.devonellingtonwork.com for more information).

PLAYING THE ANGLES, the first Coventina Circle mystery, releasing on October 2, takes places in various NYC locations, most of it in the Broadway neighborhood, since much of the action takes place backstage on a Broadway show. So that’s midtown. I used to live in the area, on the corner of 42nd St. and 8th Avenue, over a strip club which is now a comedy club, across from the Port Authority bus terminal, and a short walk to the Broadway theatres at which I worked. I’d regularly walk back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so I could spend time in Central Park. ANGLES also has scenes in Greenwich Village and Morag’s Upper West Side apartment. The second book in the series, THE SPIRIT REPOSITORY is mostly set in Greenwich village, around the publisher for whom Bonnie works, and the bookshop that Rupert owns, with forays to the Upper West Side and down to the Bowery. Most of the books in the series will have NYC locations, although I plan to get them out of the city at times! (http://www.coventinacircle.devonellingtonwork.com)

SAVASANA AT SEA, the first Nautical Namaste Mystery that releases in November, starts in New York City, at Union Square, where yoga studios have bloomed in the last few years. It also has locations at the cruise ship piers, and Sophie shares a brownstone in Brooklyn, inspired by one owned by a friend of mine.

I love the city deeply; I just don’t want to live there any more!

SCOTLAND
I have a deep love of Scotland. Two of my shows have been produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and I lived in Edinburgh for a month at a time with each. I’ve visited the city frequently, and travelled a good deal throughout the country: St. Andrews, Skye, the borders, but especially Ayrshire, where I’ve rented an apartment in Culzean Castle through the Scottish National Trust a couple of times.

The area is amazing — friendly people, beautiful scenery, great food. A basic conversation in passing can be the seed of a story.

A big chunk of TRACKING MEDUSA is set in a fictional town in Ayrshire, not far from Culzean, where Gwen and Justin confront Gwen’s past and discover the secrets of the Medusa statue.

Eastern and Western Scotland are very different from each other, in atmosphere, in geography, in sensory detail. The jet stream allows Culzean to grow tropical plants. The coast around St. Andrews can’t mistaken for the isle of Arran in the west. And the Highlands are a world unto themselves (not to mention that the signs are in Scots Gaelic first and sometimes English underneath). Someone from Glasgow speaks differently than someone from Edinburgh than someone from Skye. The cadence is difference, the timbre is different. Yes, there’s a “Scottish” accent different from English or Welsh or Irish, but there are also regional differences within it. Each one is delightful in its own way, but easy to pick up a false ring in a piece.

It’s very obvious when a writer sets something in Scotland and has never visited — it comes across more like a Rennfaire in upstate New York than genuinely in Scotland.

Northumbria
This is Hotspur Percy country, which is why I originally visited when I first graduated high school, and I keep coming back. The border shifted — it’s England, it’s Scotland, it’s England, it’s Scot– you get the idea.

Northumbrians have a thick north England accent, thicker than Yorkshire, but different from Scotland. They are very proud of their area.

My favorite places are Alnwick (now famous because the castle is used for Hogwarts) and Alnmouth. But my ultimate favorite is Lindisfarne, Holy Island, still cut off by the tide twice a day.

Lindisfarne has the ruins of a Priory, where illuminated manuscripts were created, and a castle. Two hotels, several pubs and shops, holiday cottages, a few people, a lot of sheep. When the tourists leave and the tide comes in, and it’s cut off, it’s magic.

I first learned about Lindisfarne when I was a kid, reading HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN magazine, when they had a story about monks saving the illuminated manuscripts. I vowed to visit, and did, right after high school. I can’t stay away. I have photographs that show the erosion of the ruins over the years.

A section of TRACKING MEDUSA is set there, at some of my favorite places, including the Abbey, the beach, and the kilns.

I’ve also visited the battle site of Otterburn. It was autumn when I was there; no one else around. I walked through the darkening woods, it got quieter and the birds stopped chirping. You could feel the weight of the dead. I had similar sensations when visiting Glencoe and Culloden in Scotland, but because Otterburn is smaller, more isolated, and more overgrown, it stayed with me more strongly.

Prague
Prague is an amazing city, centuries of history handled like they happened last week.

Locals sigh and talk about how nothing has been the same since The Battle of the White Mountain. I thought that was in WWII, and understood how it could still have an impact. Then I looked it up at it was in 1620! That gives you a good sense of the emotional geography of the place.

One also always has the sense of being watched. It’s not “Big Brother” or left over from Soviet occupation. It’s all the statues on the roofline that stare down at you.

I plan to use Prague as a setting for several pieces, but it’s in an upcoming serial novel about filming a television show, and part of the pilot is shot in Prague. There’s a lovely sequence on the Charles Bridge between Old Town and Mala Strana, because it’s so different on either side of the bridge.

Cape Cod
One of the reasons I moved here is because the place inspired me so much. My family’s visited since 1968. The National Seashore at Eastham and Race Point Beach in Provincetown are two big favorites, as is the Aschumet Sanctuary with all its holly trees, closer to where I actually live.

I’ve set a lot of pieces on Cape Cod. Morag’s family has a house here in PLAYING THE ANGLES. I’ve used it in quite a few short stories, and in an upcoming novel called THE TIE-CUTTER (Ayrshire, Scotland, is also heavily involved, as is Iceland).

Living here and visiting are very different, so I encourage any author who writes about the place to do more than a flying visit, if you expect me to believe your characters are more than summer people! No matter how many years I live here, I will always be a washashore, which is fine with me. It’s also a term I’d never heard in all the years I visited, but everyone made it clear to me once I moved in!

Any place can provide inspiration, if you look for it. Take time and get to know your home region. When you travel, don’t just post on social media and take video with your phone — experience the place directly, and then it will resonate in your writing.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010
Last Day of Full Moon
Pluto Retrograde
Mercury Retrograde (say what)

I was up for 22 hours yesterday, from 3:30 in the morning until nearly 1:30 this morning. Feel like a truck rolled over me. I’m not used to that kind of schedule anymore, especially when I’m not paid television rate!

So it seems Mercury went retrograde over a week ago — why wasn’t it in my calendar? That calendar’s starting to get sloppy. It also explains oh, so much.

I struggled with the writing yesterday. I don’t know how I’m going to get this done. I’m happy with the bones of it, the first few chapters thrum along well, but I’ve lost the rhythm of it, and trying to force it back isn’t working. I’m considering doing an all-nighter to finish, but it still wouldn’t be polished. My time should have been planned better, I should have front-loaded it more rather than getting derailed by events I couldn’t forsee, but that’s not what happened.

I also have serious reservations about the place that put out the call for submissions. They haven’t liked my work before, and, frankly, when I’ve read anthologies of theirs from which I’ve been rejected, I’ve felt relieved not to be included, because I thought the stuff chosen was AWFUL. Not just, “oh, it’s to someone else’s taste”, but downright poor writing, storytelling, and cliched characters. If that’s their “house style” — I don’t want to write to that style, so why am I even submitting?

The call to submission sounded unique and fun, and as soon as I read it, I had ideas, that’s why. But it’s silly to think “this time will be different, this time we’ll be a good match.” We’re not. It’s been proven. Either I change to their “house style” — which goes against what I like to read and write — or I don’t submit. I’m not “their” type of writer. And, other than a few pieces written by a friend of mine, which contain good characters and storytelling, everything I’ve read from their house has been a disappointment.

The characters and situations I’ve set up here are really fun and lively and different from anything I’ve ever seen before. I don’t want to give them the short shrift for an on spec deadline. I’ve already changed storylines simply on the basis of word count, rather than what serves the story best. I think part of the reason I’m struggling is that I know this is not a good match for me. Sort of like when I struggled to meet the deadline for OLD FASHIONED DETECTIVE WORK, knowing I needed to pull the Jain Lazarus series from its original publisher. So I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. If, suddenly, it catches fire later today, hooray for me, and I might get it out the door tomorrow with notes for changes should it come back. Otherwise, I’ll just plug along, and, when it’s really ready, send it to a different publisher.

It would be horribly ironic, though, if I sent out something I felt was weak, and that’s the piece they liked, rather than polished pieces I sent previously!

I have to see how today goes — I’ve got to take my mom on an appointment and do battle – I am sick and tired of corporations who hire individuals taking delight in hurting Senior Citizens, thinking they can take advantage of them because they’re old. Today is a day when it’s a damned good thing I don’t own a gun or have a carry permit, because today I’d use it inappropriately and without remorse.

Last night was wonderful. The trip into the city wasn’t particularly torturous, for once. Read my book, had my music on. Caught the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square, walked over to the 1,2,3 line. The 2 & 3 Express trains were jam packed and I didn’t want to be squished, so I took the local 1 instead. Much roomier. And I got out a stop early, walking the last 10 blocks up Broadway. I haven’t been in that neighborhood for years. It’s been gentrified, and, on one hand, it’s cleaner, but they’ve taken down quite a few graceful old buildings and replaced them with ugly ones, and the neighborhood’s character isn’t as much fun.

Symphony Space itself is beautiful. My friend was the very first in line, and we had our pick of seats. We sat about 8 rows back, in the middle. The celebration was the 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — held on her 84th birthday. The panel consisted of Kurt Anderson, Libba Bray, Stephen Colbert, Oskar Eustis, Mary McDonagh Murphy, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Isiah Sheffer. Excerpts of the book were read, and themes and meanings — both personal and universal, were discussed, along with some audience discussion. Unfortunately, several of the audience members had a different agenda — not discussing the book, but trying to get Colbert’s attention. He was very skillful and graceful in diffusing such greed and awkwardness and getting the discussion back on track. Everyone on the panel was interesting and engaging and the opinions and discussion were fascinating.

I’d crossed paths with Oskar Eustis back in San Francisco, when he was running the Eureka Theatre. I’d moved to SF to work at the Eureka, which had burned down when I got there. I got a job, instead, at the One Act, where I remained for the duration of my life in SF. But the community at that time was fairly small, and Oskar and I crossed paths a few times. I thought the world of him then, and I was thrilled when he took over the Public Theatre here. He was wonderful last night — I didn’t talk to him after, it was inappropriate with so many people in the building — but I’m going to drop him a note. He’s one of those intelligent, funny, warm, incredibly perceptive people, and the Public’s lucky to have him.

My friend and I went to a local bar for a glass of expensive but mediocre wine and to listen to some mediocre music. The musicians in the jazz trio were good, but the first singer couldn’t discern that “loud” does not equate with “good” and had no finesse in handling the microphone. The second singer, “in from Vegas” — was just that — a third rate lounge singer. My friend and I got the giggles. There was a production meeting from a small theatre production across the bar from us — people who’d once had their shot, but couldn’t quite make it, but still love the theatre. They have day jobs and do small theatre at night, and, as much as they love what they do at night, there’s still a little voice inside that tells them they failed. They didn’t fail — they’re still doing theatre — but the fear rolls off them like a pungent sweat.

Beside us at the bar were a man and woman. He was in his 50’s — an actor whose name I can’t remember, but who I recognize from small supporting roles on TV shows that shoot in NY. I think he was in some of the stuff I worked on a few years back. I was kind of shocked — he looks good, he’s aging well, except he had Botox only in his forehead, so the rest of his face looks normal, while his forehead looks like a shiny baby’s bottom. The woman with him was in her 40’s, and he obviously Had Plans for Her that night. But she was more interested in the conversation my friend and I were having.

Caught the #1 back downtown. The Shuttle didn’t show up and didn’t show up and didn’t show up at Times Square, because, really, to have it work would mean there was some level of competence on the part of the MTA and there is none. So I popped up and walked back to Grand Central, across 42nd St. Caught the 11:10. got home by 12, was in bed around 1:30.

Elsa was relentless, starting at about 4 AM. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, fed them at 6, and went back to bed, but, by 7:30, it was no use. I had to get up. I have a terrible headache, probably from the bad wine (even one glass?).

I’ve got to help my mom today and then run some MORE money up to the vet. I’m getting a little tired of the constant demands for money. They want a credit card number, but the way they’re constantly adding charges, I don’t want to open my bill one day and suddenly see a few thousand dollars’ worth of charges they “put through” without a thorough discussion.

Will try to get some writing done, too, but the leafblowers are on. Ick.

Devon