Sunday, May 25, 2014

Don't Tell Me About the Queen of the Night

In June, I'm going with some friends to attend a performance of Queen of the Night at the Paramount Hotel in NYC. Shelling out $200, and I have no idea about the show's theme, who's in it, who wrote it, how long it runs or anything else about the production. Apparently there's food and drink involved, so I don't have to eat before the show.

Oh, and there's this photo I saw in The New York Times of a beautiful woman wearing a headdress:

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But other than that, I don't know a thing about Queen of the Night. Nada. And please don't tell me about the Queen of the Night. I don't want to know. "Immersion theater," meaning shows where you, the audience member, are pulled into the production by the performers, and you walk amongst them and the set and the props, is a very personal thing and can't really be explained. You interact with the show and feel yourself becoming part of the performance.

I've done this before at Sleep No More and Then She Fell, voluntarily wandering around in a state of confusion, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It's the best.

At Sleep No More, an entire four-story building on the West Side has been taken over by the show. Somebody told me that the old Twilo nightclub used to be there, but now it's called the McKittrick Hotel, and it's the site of a nightlong mystery theater where performers rush around dancing and stripping off their clothes and washing off blood in the bath. I've heard the show is partially based on that Scottish play by Shakespeare and partially based on romantic mystery films of the 1930s, which sounds fine, but I've been to Sleep No More four times now and I still don't know what the hell is going on.

The point of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is to:
  • explore dark rooms enveloped in a moody soundscape and a peculiar smell of incense
  • happen accidentally upon a large dinner party in a ballroom with a cast of handsome, despairing characters who all seem to hate and mistrust one another
  • open drawers in ancient wooden desks that contain bits of hair and hospital reports written in spidery script
  • try not to bump into any of the strangers that are wandering around with me (did I mention that all audience members must wear Commedia dell'Arte masks?)
  • eat penny candy out of giant apothecary jars, and 
  • follow a woman I believe to be Lady Macbeth up three flights of stairs to her bedroom

John Singer Sargent's 1889 painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

When I went to Then She Fell, my friend led me into the theater building blindfolded, and by the end of the evening I had played games with a white rabbit, drunk tea with a mad hatter and brushed the hair of a pretty girl in a blue dress named Alice. Don't ask me what it all meant....Well, I guess what it meant was that once upon a time, a New York woman ventured out into the night for an immersive theater production and came away having lived a personal experience that engaged all five of her senses.

I love a good story. And after years of seeing plays, watching movies and reading books, if a talented theater company wants to offer me an intriguing assortment of people, places and things to become absorbed in, I'm happy to tell myself a story of my own devising, even if it is non-linear and makes no sense to anybody but me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Merry Christmas & Happy New Novel

Going to England for Christmas on Wednesday. Yay! That's where I was inspired to start writing my first novel. It's an inspiring place.

Here's how my novel begins -- and it draws on a lot of the "bad girl" research I've done over the years about women in history. The first draft is nearly finished. Yay! Perhaps in the new year I'll get back to blogging. Perhaps...
 Inga’s night had been restless, and she was glad when the morning light through their tiny bedroom window grew bright enough to allow her to get up. She rose as Mike slept on, and she crept down to the kitchen and dressed as fast as she could. It was a good thing he was sleeping so deeply after his night out. Finishing up with the packing had been easier.

She found a wet, sour-smelling washrag in a corner of the kitchen sink, and though it didn’t matter anymore, she poured fresh water into an empty dishpan, added some soap and a capful of bleach. She threw in the rag, gave it a swish and a scrub, and hung it to dry on a peg next to the sink.

Turning away from that final chore, Inga pulled on her coat and searched in the left pocket for a small jar of Imogen’s fancy French hand cream. She unscrewed the silver lid and applied a generous dab to her rough hands. As she smoothed the cream into her skin, she gazed into the middle distance, then pulled a handwritten note from the right pocket and placed it on the kitchen table.

December 21, 1918
Dear Michael,
I am too young for this. I’ll always love you, but I am leaving. Please don’t try to find me.
Love, Ingeborg

She bowed her head over the table, pressing her palms against the oilcloth that she had bought all those months ago with her pin money and paused a moment — no, several long moments — eyes closed. A shadow crossed her face.

Inga took a deep breath, straightened her back and opened her eyes. She walked to the hall closet and pulled out a large leather valise, Imogen’s valise, which Inga had been hiding for several days.

Grasping the handle with both hands, she heaved the overpacked bag out the apartment’s front door, shut it quietly, and took care not to make too much noise descending the tenement’s creaky stairs. At the landing, she peeked out the entryway window at the patch of sky above the buildings of the Lower East Side. The weather was clear, and the snow had melted from the sidewalks of Rivington Street.

Inga stepped outside. She struggled down the stoop, crossed Norfolk Street, and began her journey north with small, slow steps, dragging her bag behind.

There. Now she was gone.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Why I Write

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I only like to split an infinitive when I intend to break the rules.

I’ve been infected with the writing sickness since childhood, and it has only gotten worse as I’ve grown older. As I write this, it’s Sunday morning at 11:48 a.m., and I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t written yet today. I went to the farmers’ market instead of writing early, breaking my promise to myself that I would put in two hours of work.

Back before the sickness really took hold, it was enough for me to go to the farmers’ market of a Sunday morning and feel virtuous while buying locally grown vegetables and learning how Brooklyn composts. But now my writing sickness is in full flower, so here I sit repenting for my sin, delivering forth words like counted beads on a rosary.

I’ve heard some people refer to the sickness as “feeding the monster,” which reminds me of that 1960 cult movie directed by Roger Corman, "The Little Shop of Horrors," about a sad-sack gardener in a flower shop, Seymour, who has inadvertently created a Venus flytrap hybrid with an insatiable taste for human flesh. Seymour starts out by nourishing the plant with his own blood and eventually ends up murdering people to feed his monster, Audrey Jr. (named after a girl who works with Seymour at the flower shop). With every feeding, Audrey Jr. keeps growing bigger and bigger and more out of control. It turns out that she has the ability to speak, and she makes constant demands: “I need some chow!” and “Feed me. Feed me! FEED ME!” That pretty well describes my relationship to the writing monster I’ve inadvertently created for myself.

Seymour confronts the insatiable Audrey Jr. in Roger Corman's "The Little Shop of Horrors"
When I was younger, I didn’t know what to write about, and I thought the whole trick to writing conformed to that old cliché: the sudden flash of inspiration. When inspiration struck, I told myself, I would finally write story after story, book after book. In the meantime, I read story after story, book after book. The narratives that appealed to me most involved runaway girls, sneaky free spirits setting out on adventures, strangely solitary girls making their way alone in the world. Pippi Longstocking sailed the high seas, Harriet the Spy hid in dark corners and wrote unsparing critiques about the people around her, Wanda Petronski told her rich classmates that she had one hundred dresses at home even though she wore the same faded blue dres to school every day.

I suppose you could say that even then, my subject, which falls into the easy categorization of “bad girls,” had already found me. My recognition of it, though, didn't strike in a sudden flash. Bad girls crept up on me slowly and steadily, especially when events in my life went wrong, and now I find that the subject is an eternal spring, the one true thing that compels me to write and keeps me writing. I’ve got a couple of novels and short stories in progress, and they’ve all ended up sharing the theme of runaway girls who do wrong.
In another “Why I Write” essay, George Orwell says that he, too, fed a wee monster that grew bigger when he began to write in earnest. As he describes it, as a boy he seemed to be making a descriptive effort almost against his will, under a compulsion that came from outside.

“For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc. etc.”
Orwell says there are four great motives for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Orwell chose politics as his subject, or rather, the subject chose him. Yet even the author of those great political novels Animal Farm and 1984 admits that anyone who examines his work will see that when it is “downright propaganda,” it contains the sort of literary aesthetic that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.

“I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood,” Orwell writes. “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself."

I, too, love scraps of useless information. Indeed, I suspect that it’s those very scraps that motivate me to write more than anything else. I hang on to those odd little pieces of information, those forgotten moments that no one has any reason to remember, fleeting feelings, random thoughts….and I try to call attention to these scraps that speak to me.

Some time ago, when I spent the greater part of a year at the British Library “looking up the dirty parts in old books,” as I liked to tell people, I stumbled across a volume in the rare books reading room, written by an unknown author and published in England in 1804. Titled “Eccentric Biography; or Memoirs of Remarkable Female Characters, Ancient or Modern,” it credits the French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos with owning a favorite small dog named Raton, “taperly and elegantly formed with yellow hair.” This Raton was Ninon’s constant companion and reflected or mirror his mistress’ dainty? appetites wherever she was invited to sup.

“She placed him in an elegant little basket near her plate, and he was literally, her officer of health,” wrote this English author from 1804. “He maintained most strictly that regimen of his mistress, which preserved her beauty, good humour, and her health, to the advanced age of nearly a hundred years. He did not suffer her to make use of coffee, of ragouts, or of liqueurs. Raton suffered quietly to pass him the soup, the boulli, and the roti, but if his mistress seemed inclined to touch the ragouts, he growled, fixed his eyes upon her, and sternly interdicted the use of these enticing dishes….When the dessert came, however, he sprung quickly from his basket, gamboled on the cloth, paid his compliments to the ladies, and received in return for his caresses a few macaroons, of which two or three satisfied his appetite.”

I have never known quite what to do with Raton, but on several occasions, I have tried to introduce both his gamboling ways and the author’s foreign manner of speech into some piece of writing I was working on. Orwell points out that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” and I’ll agree with him on the first two, but not the third. Writing is work. Finding a place for Raton and making his appearance seem natural and inevitable is a struggle.

“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand,” Orwell writes, turning to that useful metaphor of the insatiable monster. “For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

So yes, the need to be heard is a good explanation for why I write. I was the youngest of four kids in my family, after all, and talking on paper lets me express myself without teasing or interruption.

But to my mind, the greatest explanation involves the mysterious relationship between me, the writer, and you, the reader. Who are you? Why do I need you to understand why I write? I believe the answer lies in my simple desire to entertain you with a good story. At its best, storytelling allows both you and me to experience the loss of self. “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality,” as Orwell puts it. “Good prose is like a windowpane.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hannah Horvath's Twitter Feed

OK, it's time for a meta-critique of Hannah Horvath's Twitter feed. Both of them -- the real Hannah and the fake Hannah. Plus the Twitter account of Lena Dunham. It's time to do a meta-critique of that, too. For those of you who are new to this, I'm talking about Hannah Horvath, the lead character of the HBO TV show "Girls," as played by Lena Dunham.
So here we go.

Our subjects of study are three Twitter feeds as follows: 1) the "real" Hannah, as in the one in the show itself, wherein the fictional character as of Series 1 is a simulacrum of a real 24-year-old girl living in Brooklyn; 2) the "fake" Hannah, as in the fake Twitter feed that somebody, possibly HBO, created to promote the show; and 3) the human being Lena Dunham, who is now a rich and famous star writer-director-actor and I think producer, yes, almost assuredly producer in addition to writer-director-actor. I don't want to google it right now, but you can pretty much assume she is a writer-director-actor-producer.

The Real Hannah

The real Hannah Horvath fancies herself an essential writer for her time. "I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation," she tells her parents when they tell her they're cutting her off because she's been sponging off them for too long and it's time for her to get a day job.

At the start of "Girls," the real simulacrum Hannah writes personal essays and works as an unpaid intern for a literary agent in the hopes that she'll get a publishing deal for her memoir. She also tweets as @HannahHorvath (see shitty You Tube screen grab below). The real Hannah's Twitter analytics are completely, hilariously out of whack: she has 26 followers, she is following 902 tweeps, and she has tweeted 4,140 times; i.e., she has a negative follower ratio by a very large margin.
Real Hannah Twitter Feed
When we see Hannah clacking away on her keyboard in Season 1, Episode 3, she is busy tweeting something intensely personal, as in "you lose some, you lose..." as she's thinking about a fight she just had with her sort-of boyfriend. Five hours earlier, she had tweeted, "just poured water on some perfectly good bread to stop myself from eating it. ate it anyway. BECAUSE I AM AN ANIMAL." The tweet before that one, written 13 hours earlier, says: "how often do you think a guy is looking at you with love eyes then realize he's special ed/traveling with a caretaker. I've done that thrice."

Clearly, Hannah is desperate for attention, but it's a Twitter #fail. Her tweets have garnered her followers at the rate of 0.006% per tweet. (My quick calculation, which is probably wrong, because I'm better at qualitative analysis than quantitative, but this number helps me tell a convincing story so I'm keeping it.)

What should real simulacrum Hannah do to fix her bad ratio? According to Buzzfeed's top 10 tips on getting more Twitter followers, if you want to be popular on Twitter, you should care just enough and not get obsessed: "Obsessing over your follower count can drag it down, especially if you let that show through your tweets. (Complaining about not having more followers is never a good look.) Also, when you obsess, you’re more likely to tweet dumb things out of obligation. It’s OK to just step away from the computer sometimes!"

The Fake Hannah

Upon further inspection, god knows who created the fake Hannah Twitter feed (see below). HBO? A fixated fangirl? The Hannah Horvath @HannahHorvath_ Twitter profile claims that it's not affiliated with @HBO or @girlsHBO. But then the profile also provides a link to hbo.com/girls, so god knows what's going on.

Anyway, somebody from April 13 through April 22, 2012 posted 24 tweets on @HannahHorvath_, quoting funny lines from the show. The very first tweet on the fake Hannah Twitter feed is identical to a tweet in the simulacrum Hannah's Series 1/Episode 3 Twitter feed ("just poured water on some perfectly good bread to stop myself from eating it. ate it anyway. BECAUSE I AM AN ANIMAL"), which feels very meta to me, a layered palimpsest of destroyed and rebuilt culture-content reflecting the reification of the real in a commercial context. It's no coincidence that this fake feed appeared around the same time that the show premiered on HBO on April 15, 2012.
Fake Hannah Twitter Feed
The fake Hannah's analytics are impressive for a Twitter feed that lasted merely 10 days. In that time, fake Hannah posted 25 tweets, followed 197 tweeps (a subject worthy of an essay in its own right or at least a very long footnote) and gained 11,727 followers.

That's an impressively positive follower ratio. This Hannah is not desperate. She's a pop culture commodity.

@HannahHorvath_'s final tweet, posted on 22-April-12, reads: "'You want me to call you?' #mistakesGIRLSmake. #GIRLS." The penultimate tweet, posted 15-April-12, reads "I'm 24 years old, don't tell me what to do," followed by a bunch of promotion-worthy hashtags. It was retweeted 68 times and favorited 21 times -- not a bad showing at all for a fictional character who is allegedly desperate for popularity.

The Human Being Lena Dunham

Which brings us to the human being Lena Dunham, whose 6,517 tweets have won her an algorithmically exponential 1,128,538 followers as of 11:46 a.m. ET Saturday 10-Aug-13 (see below). The human being Lena Dunham, meanwhile, follows just 413 tweeps, many of whom -- like Lena Dunham herself -- have blue ticks against their names, indicating Twitter-verified accounts "used to establish authenticity of identities on Twitter," meaning rich and famous people.

Lena Dunham follows actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, sex columnist Dan Savage, Eat, Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and Planned Parenthood. I haven't figured out yet how to see whether they're following her back, but I assume they are.

Her followers include a lot of nobodies who go by their first name only, including Bethany @BethanyLois 85 (who has tweeted 3 times, has 6 followers and is following 73 people), Nella @nella1704 (who loves animals, reading, Green Day and Gwen Stefani) and Kashmir @faggotmaria (11,156 tweets, 184 following, 234 followers, sample tweet: "I just went around and followed celebrities because, why not").

Lena Dunham Twitter Feed
To get personal about this, I'll just say that at my job, where I'm a web editor, I run one of my site's Twitter feeds, which explains why I've studied how you do Twitter. In my personal life, I have a lame-ass Twitter feed, @joycehanson, with 308 tweets, 136 following and 136 followers.

So yes, I'm one of those tweeps who gets all matchy-matchy with the analytics and carefully avoids looking too desperate. Plus, I can't think of anything interesting to say. I tweet about my blog posts and Yelp check-ins, and try to get clever on rare occasion -- "Today, I'm working at home, on drugs. Benadryl and Ibuprofen can be taken together as cold medicine, apparently" -- then feel embarrassed about self-revelation and stop tweeting for several weeks.

Basically, I'm another nobody. And I am now following @lenadunham.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Come to a Bad Girl Blog Reading on Aug. 1 in the East Village

You're invited! Please come to a Bad Girl Blog reading this Thursday, Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m., at the Identity Bar & Lounge. This is an open mic reading that features four top-rated "Silver Tongued Devils," and I am one of those devils!

I'll be doing a mashup involving this blog post -- Bad Girl BlogTimothy Leary: She Comes in Colors -- 

plus a bunch of other stuff about rich old hippies, sex and drugs! Wow! If you're in NYC this is your big chance to support the downtown open mic storytelling community
Details here:
Rimes of The Ancient Mariner”
Recurring the first Thursday of every month in the basement lounge at Identity Bar
     511 E. 6th St., between Avenues A & B
             www.identityloungenyc.com/
Open mic signup at 7 p.m. Fifteen open Mic slots plus four featured performers.
Curtain up at 7:30 p.m. sharp and runs to 10:30 p.m.
21 and over only
$7 Admission 
Please arrive early so we can start promptly at 7:30 p.m.