Working with My Mentor, Playwright Edward Albee: A Retrospective

I read that Edward Albee died recently.  He was my professor and friend and I have many memories of him that I would like to share, including a handwritten correspondence that we kept up for many years.

Back in January of 1992, I jetted down to Houston my 1978 Chevy Nova to enroll in the MFA program in Creative Writing at University of Houston.  I had seen in the AWP book that Edward Albee was adjunct to this program in the theater department, and it was my main reason for applying.  I was already working on my MA at the Bread Loaf School of English and honestly didn’t think I would get in, seeing as University of Houston was ranked #2 for Creative Writing, right under Iowa.

So, in Jan. ’92, I signed up for a fiction workshop with Rosellen Brown to see if I would like the program.  Even though I only took one course with her, she would later step in on my final thesis committee, a committee on which Albee also served in 1994.

My first semester in Houston was a bit lonely, but I went to the Alley to see Albee’s Marriage Play, where I actually met him after the performance–and we talked casually for a bit.  He was very approachable.  It wasn’t until fall of ’92 that I learned I had to again apply to be in his class.  He accepted six plays to produce and I was in his production workshop in 1993 for my play Do Not Miss the Main Attraction.  We were given a student director as well as actors, and for the entire semester watched our plays come alive.

Albee and I had lunch many times.  He liked to recite Dorothy Parker and was fond of telling me that I needed to always keep my sense of humor.  My play he had chosen was about a mother who gets her family together for a final dinner because she’s “quitting the family.”  What began as a one-act in Houston with a few performances in May 1993 ended up being produced in LA for six weeks at the Attic Theatre and reviewed in the LA Times, LA Weekly, Dramalogue and LA Reader.

When I asked Albee for a quote, he and I were talking on the phone.  “You can use this,” he said, “‘I remember Do Not Miss Main Attraction from a previous production where it was anarchic, rambunctious and often brutally funny.’  Don’t forget the first part!”

I of course did forget the first part and only used “anarchic, rambunctious and often brutally funny,” something I have felt guilty about ever since, especially since Albee never wanted anyone changing the words of his plays, down to high school productions.  He viewed his work as one might a work of art.  “You wouldn’t go in and change a painting, would you?  So why do they think they can change my words?”

I asked him for a recommendation once and this is what he sent me, handwritten:

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Over the years we maintained a correspondence through letters.  He was on my MFA thesis committee the day he won his third Pulitzer for Three Tall Women, and I appeared on CBS Sunday Morning with him when I was taking his Playwriting course.  He called me the night before it appeared, “Damon, we’re going to be on t.v.”

I also introduced him at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston after poet Bob Phillips asked me to do so.  Over time I saw him in New York when Mel Gussow wrote his biography; in fact, I went to staged reading of Counting the Ways and Listening in Manhattan, after which Mel and Edward were signing the bio–and I have a copy of that book that I love.

One time my mom went to see him read in Virginia and he wrote later in the PS, “I think I met your mother.”  Some of his letters could be harsh about my work, forever insisting to “write from my gut.”  He could tell when I was lost in the annoyances of my mind; I wrote several failed plays because of this.  And he always knew the difference between gut and mind.

I asked him to read a piece of academic writing once, and he snapped back, in a letter, “. . . send me the scholarly (ha!) piece whenever you want.”

People used to mispronounce his name as Al Bee.  But he would correct him with “Awwwl Be.”

One sign-off still moves me: “Take care; be well; work hard; expand in all directions.  Edward (real name).”

Right before this sign-off, the wrote me the words I remember the most:  “But . . . the big game is the only one that’s not minor league.”

As a teacher he was the American Dream, for a writer like me.

And . . . lights for Edward.

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Things That Separate Us From the Animals (Including James Franco)

I am an avid list maker and have been since I was an adult cognizant of the disorder of things.   Roget was famous for his own beyond the synonyms he is eponymously associated with.  I’ve always gotten a lot of pleasure from jazz, espresso, literature and numerous other creature comforts, so I decided to compile a list of Things That Separate Us From the Animals:

  1. The Semi-Colon–Punctuation mark of the deities.  A neologism of the comma and period.  Truly up there with the paper clip in terms of use.
  2. Jazz–I would mention Henry Threadgill and David Gibson here, current jazz composers.
  3. James Franco–His directing of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God alone would make the list, but his recent acting in Wim Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine just enhances his presence here.
  4. Second-hand bookstores–Most of my life has been spent in these, The Strand in Manhattan, Powell’s in Portland and Downtown Books & News in Asheville being my favorites.
  5. The Trumpet–Kind of a beautiful instrument to play and even draw.  I’ve never seen a raccoon hit a home run, for example.
  6. Baseball–Short stop?  Come on.  The animals definitely don’t have this.
  7. Tricycle Magazine–Buddhist mag that comes out quarterly.
  8. The French Press–Lately have been putting dark roast Mate in here.
  9. The Sunday New York Times Magazine Puzzle Section–Used to only have the Crossword but now with two KenKen puzzles and numerous other treats like Skyscrapers, my whole day is consumed with them.
  10. Orbit DVD in West Asheville
  11. Espresso Machine–I’m fond of my Capresso.
  12. Trains
  13. Tiffany Pen

Adventures in Quasi-Modeling

I had kind of a funny experience with modeling in New York City.  First, let me explain that I didn’t set out to become a model, nor did I evolve into one either.  It started when I was at Ruby’s in Rye, New York, and a fellow told me I should contact his agent on Park Avenue.  So I did and ended up getting calls for go-sees for the next five years.  I would train down from Greenwich, Connecticut, to Grand Central, travel all over Manhattan, and spend a few minutes saying some inane lines for egg commercials or Vaseline ads.  Sometimes, they just took my photo.  One time, a young woman working at one of the auditions said to me, “You know, like, you’re here for your hair.”  When I first started to model, I didn’t realize that print and commercial modeling was less about runway and fashion and more about filling up bank advertisements with smiling people.  Mark Roddenberry ended up taking photos of me in Manhattan and up in Shelton, CT.  Before that shoot, I had a ponytail and cut it off leaving a big hole in the back of my head.  The result was that the top of my hair became sort of a blond pompom poof, apparently much in demand because my agent loved the photos for my comp card.  At the Vaseline go-see, I was asked to strip to my underwear.  A man behind a table with two people flanking him said to me, “You know . . . you’re gonna have to shave your chest if you get this job.”  For me it was a fun excuse to travel to the city, after which I went to the Frick or the Met or the Whitney or MOMA.  Or to a film.  Then trained back to CT.  I was called in for request go-sees for a lot of big companies.  No one ever called me back.  Except for once.  For my one actual job I was cast in an Internet Microsoft commercial.  A costume designer called me to work out the shoot.  I prepped my lines for several days.  The night before the shoot, my agent contacted me and said it had been aborted.  I was still paid $1000.  So the only job I ever received money for during my brief New York City modeling career was for something that never happened.  I wish I had more jobs like that.

I Wrote Naughty Fragments

After teaching essay composition college courses for the last 25 years around the country, I have found that this teaching can ruin my own fiction, if I’m not careful.  I currently am finishing up my latest novel, Too Late to the City, my 9/11 book.  And I found something quite intriguing during the process.  Stuck on page 50 for six months, then on page 100 for another four months, I decided to break paragraphs into sentences and to create more chapters.  In adding this white space to the novel, I also learned that I had been too essayistic in my prose, relying on complete sentences, no run-ons or fragments, when many creative books out there ignore the rules altogether.  So I decided to ignore the rules a bit and it gave the book breathing room.  I wrote naughty fragments.  Oooooo.  In the end it was seismic shift in my own style and the novel became better as a result.  I started by unpacking it at page 140 and realized I had stuffed a 250-page book into 140 pages.  The result was a return to an actual style that wasn’t teacherly anymore.  But after grading freshman intro essays all the time, the use of the fragment became anathema for even my own work.  It’s good to separate teaching writing from writing writing.  Naughty fragments.  Need to write more of them.

Theatre or Theater? To Re or Not to Re.

How is it spelled?  Theatre or theater?  No one knows.  I’ve been thinking a lot about my time on the stage and working in film and television.  My mom was a stage manager of many plays and I grew up in large-scale musicals and playing lead roles in Shakespeare.  I hated every minute of it and was often so nervous that I shook and quasi-peed my trousers.  In college at Davidson I nearly majored in acting, but after I didn’t get a role I wanted in Streetcar, I kind of gave up on plays and focused on my writing.  I didn’t much like the attention anyway, always being more private.  I mean, I could perform and act but it didn’t make me too happy.  I had some minor roles in Mamet’s The Water Engine at Davidson and acted in Mill Fire at Bread Loaf in 1991.  When I got to University of Houston for my MFA, I happened to meet Edward Albee after his Marriage Play in downtown.  We talked a bit and I later took two of his graduate courses, one a production workshop where he produced my first play, Do Not Miss the Main Attraction, and one a Playwriting class.  I also acted in November, another play he produced in the Albee workshops.  Albee served on my MFA thesis committee and won his third Pulitzer for Three Tall Women on that very day he had to meet to approve my book.  CBS Sunday Morning came and filmed us and he called me at my home in Virginia during break to tell me about when it would air in 1994.  Off and on I would be in a play here and there, acting in Loyalties at Bread Loaf in 2003 and most recently, in 2015, in Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin.  I played a judge and a musician.  This Bread Loaf production was a double-bill with To Kill a Mockingbird.  And recently in Asheville a short play of mine was a finalist in a short-drama competition.  An Intellectual Discussion with the Madonna.  There were other plays.  You do something enough and it kind of becomes a part of  you.  I’m not sure why I resisted the theater.  People assume I’m gregarious but ultimately I like to be alone.  Theater is chaos.  It’s a human mess in every way.  I also got to study with Oskar Eustis from the Public Theater, really one of the best teachers I ever had at Bread Loaf along with Carol MacVey, my acting teacher there as well.  So lately I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship to playwriting.  The play Albee produced later went up in LA for six weeks at the Attic Theatre and was reviewed in LA Times and Dramalogue.  A lot of these productions, whether I wrote them or acted in them, come back to me in a flash of faces.  Maybe I fear the chaos.  Maybe it’s just time to be in another play.

Favorite 20 Random DVD List

I see a lot of films and used to direct programming for a film festival in Greenwich, CT, for a couple of years.  I discover many hidden European flicks in college and local libraries.  And of course I’m lucky enough to be able to bike to Orbit in West Asheville, the best DVD shop in the galaxy.  I sit around compiling lists all the time and came up with this mix of horror, European, arthouse and olderish classics.  I think you’ll find these films amazing.  I decided not to label them by genre so you can come to them without any prior judgment:

  1. Wolf Cop
  2. American Mary
  3. Phenomena
  4. The Great Beauty
  5. Carmen, first in The Flamenco Trilogy
  6. The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, Chinese Puzzle Trilogy
  7. The Mechanic (Charles Bronson)
  8. Runaway Train
  9. Moonrise Kingdom
  10. Saint Laurent
  11. Prisoners
  12. ’71
  13. The Apu Trilogy
  14. Fedora
  15. The Salvation
  16. Hard Times (Coburn, Bronson)
  17. Sleep Tight
  18. Tenebre
  19. James White
  20. Bone Tomahawk

Novel Writing Conceptions, Past and Present

When I holed up in a Silver Lake apartment in Los Angeles in 1994 and wrote The Onion Scribe in six weeks, then put it in a drawer for a year, I never gave much thought to process.  To me, I wanted to spew it out and get it done.  I would later work at Book Soup on Sunset and meet Bret Easton Ellis who edited the book and got me an agent at ICM in New York, Heather Schroder.  All quite a shock to me but quite fun going to dinners with Bret around LA–and hanging out at his American Felt Building apartment in the Village.  I ended up living at producer Mark Pick’s guest house in Beverly Hills and editing my novel.  Because the book was about the trauma of family and how writing itself helps avoid it, I really didn’t want it published.  I’ve pulled it out over the years, and it holds up as a fine first novel, but I would never write like that now, what my actor friend Jeff Parise calls “the catapult theory.”  My current novel, Too Late to the City, is a 9/11 book.  I was there three days before the attacks happened and could see the missing towers on my runs at Tod’s Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.  Some friends were lost immediately and some suffered over time, never recovering.  I had bought a place in downtown Greenwich in 2000 and was able to write a lot, take trumpet lessons, play in a few bands, teach creative writing at SUNY-Purchase and even go out to Alaska to study at Bread Loaf.  I had a lot of time to reflect.  Now it is nearly 15 years later and I’m finally ready to write the book I want.  I sometimes wonder how much writing I’m actually doing at this point since this is an ensemble piece about four characters, before and after, yet told in the first person of one of the main people involved.  I am writing scenes here and there, but once I reached page 100 I felt that it was all about organization, moving later scenes to earlier places and focusing less on the main character’s insights and more on the three others.  I think I finally arrived at a point where I have a clear picture of the whole book.  And, really, this process is as much about letting go of Onion-Scribe catapult writing as it is about finding the right architecture.  I’m in no rush at this point in my life.  I’ve had big Manhattan agents, lived in the major cities around the world.  Now, in Asheville, I appreciate the mundane purchase of my New York Times at the Shell station in Biltmore Village, hoofing back up the windy hills of Biltmore Avenue and enjoying jazz’s work on my unconscious as I do the crossword and ask, “Will I ever finish this novel?”  I think I will.

My Top 30 Mystery/Detective/Noir/Thriller/Spy List

Over the last ten years or so I’ve really gotten into mysteries and read a lot of them for the research of my novel, The Killer Detective Novelist.  What I learned is that a genre is never 100% and that mystery and thriller and noir often overlap.  If you know me, you’ll know that I love lists, and I compiled this recent one of mysteries I love with some thriller, spy and noir thrown in there (that, to me, feel like mysteries too).  No particular order of favorites.  These have all influenced me in some manner:
1) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong

2) The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

3) The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

4) Time of Predators by Joe Gorres

5) Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife by Georges Simenon

6) Le Crime by Peter Steiner

7) Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

8) The Lemur by Benjamin Black

9) DeKok and the Dead Harlequin by Baantjer

10) Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

11) Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

12) The Crooked Man by Philip Davidson

13) A Mind to Murder by P.D. James

14) Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

15) Web of Murder by Harry Whittington

16) New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

17) Hopscotch by Brian Garfield

18) A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

19) A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton

20) The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

21) Savage Night by Jim Thompson

22) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

23) Pick-up by Charles Willeford

24) Nightwork by Irwin Shaw

25) Star Island by Carl Hiaasen

26) Nightfall by David Goodis

27) Lethal Injection by Jim Nisbet

28) The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

29) Death of a Hawker by Janwillem van de Wetering

30) All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

A lot of these books introduce ongoing characters, but I’ve only listed the first in the series.  I’ve loved reading all of these novels and they have fed directly into my own prose.  For a while there all I read was literary fiction, but you can find me reading at least one mystery at all times.  What I’ve found is that literary fiction is not that good these days, and the best writing is in these genres.  At the core of spy, thriller, noir is the mystery detective, in some way.

 

Phone-y People

Phones crack me up, especially when my college students are constantly texting on them in class and not paying attention to a single thing I’m saying.  It’s tiring, probably not as bad as the Broadway actors dealing with horrible audiences whose phones ring during performances, but pretty bad.  I think I even read a newspaper article recently about theaters in China using red laser points to single out texters.  It’s kind of awful at this point, beyond the loudmouths walking along sidewalks and polluting the soundscape with their extra-stentorian blabbage.  I’ve evolved with my phones, starting with the black brick, then the clam shell flip, then the Blackberry and now through several iterations of the iPhone.  I refuse to get an Apple ID or use any apps.

In the classroom, already a claustrophobic space that freaks out most students who don’t want to be there in the first place, phones can ostensibly be used for research, but more often than not the student just isn’t paying attention.  Via my own research after teaching around four courses per semester, I have discovered that the worst students are usually the surreptitious texters and the best ones are the most engaged.  Usually, the texter, quite simply, doesn’t want to be there.  What is texting after all but electronic images as a means of escapism?

As a teacher trying to concentrate in front of a classroom audience, I fell that it’s maddening.  It’s bad enough that most come in late and unprepared, but then you have to deal with the nervous pen-clickers, the sleepers and the ones so absorbed in their phones that it seems that they simply aren’t able to even socially engage.  To conceptualize “participation” is quite foreign to them, even when you stress that it is nearly 30% of their final grade.

Humans are unconscious for the most part and phones give the semblance of connection when in reality they represent nothing but disconnection and distraction.  Maybe I should start phoning in my college lectures, just put myself on speaker.  They might listen then.

Running Asheville

I can remember all my great runs, a 9-miler out in Priest River, Idaho, comes to mind immediately, as well as the beach at Tod’s Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, with views of Manhattan and Long Island in the distance.  This was my regular favorite when I lived in downtown Greenwich from 1998-2013.  The trails at Smith Mountain Lake State Park are near my mom’s house and I go there every time I’m home.  Lately, I’m doing more urban running, harder on the knees but actually probably harder on the shins.  Instead of three days a week, I now run every third day, so if I run on Sunday, I don’t run again until Wednesday then Saturday and so on, keeping a diurnal variation.  The problem with Asheville town running is the copious hills, meaning lots of downhills.  I don’t mind the uphills, but I think the downhills are a knee and shin killer.  That said, I have finally found a loop that mixes straight stretches, ups and downs with a good balance.  If I start off and head down McDowell, go under the tunnel and take a left at the bottom and make my way through the River Arts District, I can come up the big hill at Hilliard and weave around back to Biltmore Avenue.  The beauty of sidewalks is that they are fast; the downside is that they feel harder to run than asphalt which gives with the sun’s heat.  The other day I had a solid run and I end up seeing wonderful things like a beaver in a small creek.   I’m not sure daily running is good for my body type, but I’ve always loved doing a couple a week.  Downtown Asheville is packed so I avoid it and find the streets all but empty at certain hours.  An empty road is the runner’s friend.  In any case you can’t beat walking out of your door and having about twenty choices for loops, being right in the center of an amazing city.  Here’s a piece I wrote recently on Asheville for Act Two Magazine.  I run by a lot of these places all the time:  Hot American City: Asheville, NC