Monday, July 22, 2013

Playwright Ken Ludwig offers thoughts on soil quality

One thing I've learned about stay-at-home motherdom is the importance of taking advantage of any opportunity I'm presented with to have real conversations with people outside of topics involving toddler sleep habits, preschooler potty habits, toddler-preschooler eating habits, toddler-preschooler altercations, toddler-preschooler shenanigans, places to take toddlers and preschoolers for a good time, things the dog has barked at and, places the cat has pooped outside of places that the cat is supposed to poop. 

It is for this reason that freelancing for the Daily Record has been such a blessing. On a fairly regular basis, I get to call up new and usually interesting people (why else would we be writing a story about them?) and talk about new and usually interesting things. 
Admittedly, I often get sidetracked on these conversations -- veering into topics I know full well will never be able to fit into the newspaper (I can now hear the angry sighs of my editors and see them shaking their fists at their monitors. "Yeah about that Jennings," they'd say (too politely), "See our newshole is a bit tight these days and I don't know that we have space for your 50,000-word treatise on how bored the kid dressed up as Pete the Cat looked at the weekend book fair. Maybe think about cutting that down about 49,500 words, or so.")

Where was I? Oh yes, getting sidetracked. 

I just can't help it. When a majority of my day is spent listening to my almost-3-year-old tell me she's "huuuuuuuungry" and that she wants to watch "caaaaaaartoons" and trying to figure out what my just-turned-1-year-old wants when she points at the kitchen and says "dis?" I might get a little too enthusiastic during interviews.

Especially during interviews with internationally acclaimed playwrights. 

On Friday I had the pleasure of talking to Ken Ludwig about his new book "How to Teach Shakespeare to Children."

Admittedly, I'm by no means a Ludwig aficionado. While I'd heard about a couple of the plays he'd written ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy For You" and "Moon Over Buffalo") I'd never actually seen any of them. But it was exciting to speak to a writer who's both successful and prolific. And even more exciting that he was so down to earth and gracious.

During our conversation I'd asked Ludwig why he thought children should learn about Shakespeare -- how would it help them in life?

I loved his response. It touched not only on the practical -- like how it helps you understand post-Shakespeare art and literature better, makes you a better writer and helps you find your own voice -- but that it also makes you deeper. 

"It Gives you something to draw on that makes you stronger, makes you think about things in a more interesting and complex way."

Then he quoted a biography on Nathaniel Hawthorne* written by Henry James: "The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep." 

Ludwig then offered his interpretation:

"The flower of art within each of us blooms when the soil inside us is deep. When we have real resources to draw on. It doesn’t matter whether that art is medicine or engineering or art and poetry."

I really love this imagery of cultivating both your passions and your person. I think it's so critical to growing as a person and by extent growing as a civilization. When you neglect the soil -- when you choose to watch, say, terrible reality television instead of working on your novel or you decide to do away with elementary school arts and music programs to save money and focus on standardized testing, well then you might as well be salting your soil. No flowers will bloom here.

I also asked Ludwig how writing his new book compared with writing plays. He said it was easy. Writing fiction -- starting with a blank page and trying to create a whole universe -- is hard he said.

Well that's a relief to hear, I said, before telling him that I was working on my own novel and that I had the hardest time even opening the file for fear of having to stare at a blinking cursor.

"Stick to it," he told me. "The hardest part is that blank page. Literally that blank page. And you just have to think and say you need time by yourself. You need complete quiet."

Then he told me to tell my husband that I needed at least a three to four hour stretch of private, quiet time during which to work on my novel. I had a good laugh at that -- not that my husband wouldn't be willing, just that three to four hour stretches to accomplish anything -- whether it's floor-cleaning or noveling -- are hard to come by with the babies running amok.

So Ludwig confirmed what I'd already suspected: That accomplished writers don't journey to some magical land where a friendly gnome is able to read their minds, transcribe their innermost thoughts and before organizing them in a meaningful and compelling narrative. 

Like the rest of us mortals they force themselves to sit down in front of that horrifying blank page and make sense of the world.

* And for all of you out there who feel the urge to write, yet worry that nothing in your life is worth writing about, behold this excerpt from James' Hawthorne biography: 

"Hawthorne's career was probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters; it was almost strikingly deficient in incident, in what may be called the dramatic quality. Few men of equal genius and of equal eminence can have led on the whole a simpler life."
As a stay-at-home mom living in less-than-glamourous York, Pa. this is fantastic. Better than fantastic. For my life, too, is "strikingly deficient in incident" of any dramatic quality (unless you count the race to locate all the items on the grocery list before the kids implode with boredom as drama). 

Photo courtesy of Mike Baird / Flickr

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