Thursday, September 25, 2008

Update to Current Projects III: Ghostwriting

As reported early in the life of this blog, here to be exact, I'd been hired to ghostwrite a book about Boston's 400-year history of innovation for a local non-profit. Phase I was to write a sample chapter, a rationale, and synopses of the various chapters. We presented it to a literary agent in late July. He asked that we work on the rationale to bring out what about the story is of sufficiently universal interest and value that someone in Chicago or Seattle would care about what happened in Boston in 1630 or 1750 or 1820 or 1990. The chapter itself he said he liked, but to pitch it to a publisher he needs to be able to make the case that the book would have a strong national readership.

So, we made the changes and resubmitted the package. Today, we heard from him. He rejected it. The content, again, he thinks is fine. He just doesn't think people outside of Boston will care much about it, and publishers these days are looking for potential returns that would justify a minimum initial run of 150,000 copies. He sent us a list of other area agents and wished us luck, but my client is of the opinion that this agent represented our best shot at getting the book published.

Hence, my first rejection letter. I am now pursuing agents for my novel. Anyone out there in the publishing business, please make yourself known.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Grave And The Gay: Chapter One

Well, folks, here we go. Here's the first chapter of my first novel. As discussed many posts ago, the title of my book is The Grave And The Gay, and it's a retelling of a 17th-century English folk song known by various titles, perhaps the most popular being "Matty Groves," performed masterfully in the previous century by Fairport Convention. It's a classic tale of adultery and murder between the classes, revolving around the roguish hero, Matty Groves (in my version, as in much older variants, his name is Matty Musgrave), and the unhappily married Lord and Lady Barnard. For more information on the song and its variants, click here.

And now, as a sneak peek at my work, and in the fervent hop of attracting comments and critiques, here is the first chapter of my story. Please don't be shy; your input can only make the story better and, of course, one that someday you would want to buy for yourself. However, do also please be gentle, as this is my first time offering such a major work of mine up for public comment. It's not long, and the action picks up as the story goes on, but what I want to know is whether or not, after reading Chapter One, your curiosity is sufficiently piqued so as to want to read more.

The Grave And The Gay
By Jason M. Rubin

Chapter 1

Even as the morning sun dried the dew on the exterior of her bedroom window, Lady Barnard’s exuberant breath created a moist fog on the interior-facing pane. It was the first morning of spring, and she looked out with hopeful eyes on the servants in the yard and, more particularly, the townspeople passing her grand home on the street. Instead of white, the endless, hopeless still white of snow drifts, there were colorful figures in motion against a deepening green and grey background.

With her face still close to the glass, Lady Barnard used her hands to work the wooden bolts that had kept the window closed tightly against the winter chill. When they were loosened, she flung open the window and into her face flew the insistent, long-awaited guest: that southwesterly wind that clipped the green fields of Dublin, carried the moist, mossy aroma of peat over the ocean and round the Isle of Anglesey, at last depositing this timeworn trace of spring to the thawing English county of Lancashire, and into Lady Barnard’s room.

It had been a brutally hard winter – dozens had died of exposure or illness – and this much-anticipated sign of change was as welcome to the Lancastrians as the sight of Noah’s dove had been to the survivors of the great deluge. Together with the increased chatter of returning birds and the reappearance of tight green buds on vines and shrubs, these heralds of the new season inspired a restless euphoria in all. Never mind that one’s breath was still clearly visible at dawn and in the evenings, or that fires as much for warmth as for cooking still burned in hearths. No, impatience prevailed, and folks were already out and about, planning and preparing for the Eastertime celebrations to come.

At this season, in taverns, on porches, in fields, and even in the rear pews on Sunday mornings, small bands of enterprising young men enlisted like-minded merry-makers to join their pace-egging troupes. Outsiders may be unfamiliar with this tradition and confused by its name. Yet those of you who learned your Latin will know that “pace” is from pacha, or spring. And eggs, of course, are the season’s primary symbol of rebirth. The pace-eggers journey from town to town each Easter Sunday in wild costumes and with a song of entreaty, requesting favors – usually eggs boiled in onionskin or coins of any value – which they repay with a farcical play.

The dramatis personae of this play includes such characters as the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave, and, of course, the notorious Old Tosspot, whose coal-blackened face gapes and guffaws above the basket he waves to hold the aforementioned favors. In his other hand, the stronger one in fact, he holds a straw tail stuffed with pins, which he swings madly towards those who either are slow in paying into the basket or who have the temerity to try and steal its contents.

Following the play – not the Passion narrative as such, although it is typical that a death and rebirth of sorts transpires – Old Tosspot again bullies the crowd for favors. The eggs, then, are eaten (and shells crushed, lest witches use them as boats) and the coins shared and pocketed, or else tendered in exchange for mugs of ale. The pace-eggers then make their way to another village and the entire act plays out again. By the end of the holiday, the pace-eggers would have consumed enough eggs and ale to keep them in their beds well into the following day.

Yet even as the men were organizing their bands; even as the women were cleaning their houses and making room in their kitchens for the game they would pluck and cook, and the pies and cakes they would bake; even as children dreaded the clean, newly knit clothes they had to wear to church, and the switch they knew would be taken to them if they misbehaved during the service, even with all this activity at high pitch, still Easter was half a fortnight away.

Perhaps a milder winter would not have inspired such impatience to greet spring and all its wonders. Yet in truth, rarely is spring met with indifference, especially here in Lancashire, still a Catholic stronghold, where the faithful greet this time with hope, for we all have the capacity to change, to grow. And we, too, if the sun finds us and we strengthen in the warmth of its light, we, too, may be reborn in an eternal spring.

It was in this optimistic atmosphere that Lady Barnard drew the new peaty air deeply into her nostrils, and in exhaling released a winter’s worth of loneliness and frustration. The crisp, invigorating breeze felt good on her pale, oval face, framed by dark hair tightly drawn at the back in a bun. She closed her eyes so only the lids could know the lake-green circles underneath.

I bid you welcome, spring, she thought to herself, and may winter not soon return. In truth, as cold as it had been out of doors the past few months, it had been just as frigid within her stately home – and for an even longer duration. Though she was not a prisoner in her home, her comings and goings were carefully controlled by Lord Barnard, who had an odd, seemingly irrational dislike of people gossiping and sharing information about what went on in each other’s lives and homes. Clearly concerned that Lady Barnard would talk as such, he severely limited her trips into town; though in truth, not much at all went on in their home.

After ten years of marriage to Lord Barnard, there had yet been no children. Furthermore, it had been far too long, in Lady Barnard’s opinion, since the act of conception had even been attempted. Now, with the advent of spring, Lord Barnard would resume his hunting trips. She would be left alone, which, after all, she found preferable to being ignored. This day, however, as nature’s insistent cycle moved one-quarter turn, Lady Barnard decided she would like to spend more time among the townspeople, go free of the servants more frequently (for well she knew that servitude chains both slaves and masters), and even see if there might still be more to her appeal than that overly familiar visage which appeared in her looking glass.

Then a scowl formed on her face, as she turned away from the window. O, that I could ever be like the girls I see on the street, fluttering about and flirting in plain view, with no care nor shame, she thought. Lady Barnard sadly turned back to the window, continuing to spy enviously on those who have fewer means yet far more freedom than she. It may not be a good life they lead, she thought, but it is a life they own, a life they control. I am no more in charge of my destiny than these French draperies are of theirs. In truth, she admitted, I am much like the draperies, the furniture, the china and silver. We all are affectations, decorations for my Lord. We are that, all that, yet nothing more.

With that distressing thought, her focus became distracted and though she continued to look out the window into the yard below, in truth she saw nothing; or rather, her mind did not acknowledge what was within her view. Thus it was that she took no notice of the figure passing into the scope of her vision, the man known affectionately as Little Musgrave. To his long-deceased mother, he was Matthew Musgrave. To his friends, and he had many, he was Matty. He was Lord Barnard’s stable hand, and had Lady Barnard truly seen him she would have thought him familiar-looking yet been unable to identify his name or place. The stable was but one of many places to which she never ventured. Matty, however, looked towards the grand home as he walked and could see Lady Barnard’s eyes facing his direction. He assumed she was looking at him, but as she did not appear about to give an order, he continued on his way.

Fewer than twenty paces hence, Matty came upon Alexandra McLean, who was doing the Barnards’ laundry. A red handkerchief held back her straw-colored mane. Beautiful even in damp, loose-fitting work clothes, she stood chest-high to her visitor. As Matty approached, she gladly suspended her work and placed a lid on the tall pot of water that sat on an open fire beside her.

“Good morning, Alexandra,” said Matty, with a knowing grin on his strong and pleasant face.
“And to you, Matty,” Alexandra replied, dabbing her moist forehead with her apron.
“Will I see you in the loft tonight, fair maiden?”
With mock incredulity, she said, “Oh, is it my turn again so soon, then?”
“Whatever could you mean?” came another mock-incredulous reply.
“I shan’t promise you. I don’t see myself finishing before nightfall, unless I collapse where I stand. The Lady has me cleaning all the quilts and carpets today.”
“Odd thing. She was just staring at me from her window as I passed along from the stable.”
“It’s not so strange for a woman to stare at you, now, is it, Matty?”
“Well, she’s not just any woman, is she? I doubt she even knows my name.”
“Ah, but I’m sure she knows a pretty face. And I believe she has been lonely,” Alexandra added.
“What makes you say that?
“I wash the bed linens,” she whispered. “Many a tale is told in soiled sheets. The Lord and Lady’s are unusually clean, if you understand my meaning.”
“Perhaps they employ that long dining table in place of a bed,” said Matty.
“I would prefer hard wood or even cold marble to straw.”
“Then accept this offer. Tonight you will ride me like a horseman and I will take the quills in my backside.”
“You are a true gentleman, Little Musgrave. A true –”

And at that moment, the occasional lovers were interrupted by Darnell, the Barnards’ personal assistant. Such position made him a “house” servant, a more prestigious role than those like Matty and Alexandra, who toiled out of doors or in other quarters.

“Matty Musgrave,” Darnell called.
“I am here,” replied Matty.
“Lord Barnard wishes to see you immediately.”
“For what purpose?”
“I neither wish to know nor need to know,” Darnell replied, without the disinterest he would wish to display. “It is my Lord’s desire to speak with you and while I do not comprehend the affection he seems to have for you lately, I am merely fulfilling my duty in informing you of his request.”

Looking down at Matty’s feet, Darnell added, “Might I suggest you change your shoes so as not to track manure into the home?”
“The Lord loves his horses and he loves me,” teased Matty. “How, then, can he be upset if my shoes bring both his loves to him?”

As Darnell stifled a shout and Alexandra muffled a laugh, Matty bid them good day. When the strutting stable hand neared the house, Darnell said to Alexandra, “He is a disgusting brute.”

“Yes, though you have to admit he is honest about it,” she replied.
“You’re too good for him, you know.”
“So you’ve told me. Thank you for your concern, Darnell. Now if you don’t mind, I need to attend to the washing.”
“I can do better by you.”
“Can you, then? How? You work in the house, but you are not master of it.”
“Alexandra, you know I have feelings for you. I am a decent man. I have a good position. The Lord and Lady treat me well. As my wife, you would improve your standing with them.”
“Is that your offer, then? That I should be a servant’s wife? Am I to be servant to a servant?”
“Well, what can Matty offer you?”
“Laughter, Darnell. Laughter and passion. And nothing more because I desire nothing more. You know Matty. He’ll not be chained to a wife, nor I to a husband. It’s enough for me that I can sit out on a spring morning and earn a wage and a meal.”
“You’re a lovely girl, Alexandra. But you have no sense. I will not stop courting you, not until I have saved you from yourself and your demeaning relationship with that, that…stable hand.”

Suddenly, a bell rang, it’s jingle emanating from the open window above.

“That’s Lady Barnard,” said Darnell. “Remember what I have said. Remember that I love you, Alexandra.”

And with that, Darnell followed the same steps that Matty took into the house, looking down all the way to check for traces of manure. Alexandra watched him walk away, then returned her attention to the pot and placed another log in the fire beneath it.

© Copyright 2008, Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Future Projects V: Family history 2 - my sister

The first line of Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, is: “What can you say about a 25 year old girl who died?”

So what then can I say about a seven-year-old girl who died, other than she was my sister and I was exactly one year and two weeks old when leukemia ended her life? She was, in fact, exactly seven years and one week old when she died. I was born on February 12, 1963, her birthday was February 19, and she died on February 26, 1964. I always thought that was interesting.

Interesting in retrospect, of course, because I have no actual memory of her. In fact, there was a time when I didn't even know of her existence. I was perhaps four or five or six - some age when everything seemingly was as fuzzy in real time as it is in hindsight - when a friend (a second cousin, actually, though we always felt more like friends than family) said to me one day that I used to have a sister. At the time, I did have a sister, Amy, four years my senior (another sister, Judi, arrived when I was seven). No, my friend said, you had another one, named Donna, but she died.

Not knowing the term "bullshit" at that age, I'm guessing I merely called him a liar, then went home to ask my parents. I was shocked to find that it was true. I did have another sister. So why weren't there any photos of her in the house? Why didn't anyone talk about her? Why didn't anyone tell me? These were questions that remained either unanswered or answered unsatisfactorily to an inquisitive young mind such as mine.

Through snooping, I found the occasional photo. My favorite, which unfortunately I no longer have, showed her playing with me; I have what appears to be an empty KFC bucket on my head. Most tantalizing in my memory is that we used to have a junk closet that I loved to explore. In it was a tape recorder, a mini reel-to-reel job. The batteries were dead but I found if I manually turned the reels you could hear someone's voicing speaking in slow motion, Lurchian deep tones. It was unintelligible and I think back on it wondering if perchance Donna's voice may have been on that tape.

Anyway, I grew up with the unspoken Code of Donna Silence (CDS) and when Judi came along it never occurred to me that she should know about her. Until the day when she was probably about the same age as I when I found out about Donna, maybe closer to six or seven because she could read well. She, too, had been snooping around and was going through my father's wallet. There she found an interesting yellow square of newsprint, which she brought down to the den and proceeded to read to the family. It was Donna's death notice. Within seconds, my mother put her hands over ears and yelled "Stop!" My father sprang up and took the little square from Judi's hands. I was a mute witness, yet the scene brought back my feelings from my own rude introduction to the CDS.

I'd like to be able to say that things changed after that, but they didn't. I was too young to understand the unbearable grief of losing one's daughter. I only knew that I felt cheated. In my teens and twenties, I kind of adopted Donna as my guardian angel. Any near miss I was involved in I chalked up to her intervention. This included a traumatizing plane ride home from my honeymoon in Ecuador when I was 30.

Prior to that, however, I decided that enough was enough. I was more than simply curious about Donna; she was my sister and the very reality of her existence was being denied to me. Bad enough I didn't have a memory of her, I also lacked a community willing to help me create a memory of who she was. Urged and guided by my soon-to-be-wife, a social worker whose grab-the-bull--by-the-horns philosophy was hardly Rubinesque, I finally confronted my parents one night.

As lovingly, gently, and empathically as I could, I sat them down and told them that I needed to know my sister, and I needed them to give her back to me. Difficult as it was for them, they proceeded to tell me stories about her, both the good and the bad. Then my mother went up to her room and came back down with photos of her that she had kept in her night table drawer. They told me about her personality, the course of her sickness, and, courageously, of her death. I was chilled to hear my mother say that as Donna was drifting in and out of consciousness, she opened her eyes, looked at my mother, and said, "Oh, I thought you were holding Jason." Those were her last words. My name was her ultimate utterance.

I decided then and there that I needed to bring Donna back to life. I needed to write her story. I began to do some research by talking with family members. They were cautious in sharing their memories; not only was it still painful for them, but they wanted to be sure it was OK with my parents that they talk about her. They all had signed on to the conspiracy of silence out of love and compassion for my parents. Eventually, you could almost hear the pop of pent-up testimony as people began to speak about her freely.

I visited her elementary school and managed to get a few papers from their archives, including a registration form in which my mother notes her interests and tastes. I got a copy of her autopsy report from Children's Hospital in Boston, the request form signed by my mother's neurologically impaired hand at my semi-covert insistence. I was told that Donna's eyes were donated; someone in the world sees through my sister's eyes. For all I know, I've looked into them.

Of course, now that I am the father of two girls, ages 12 and 2 (with the older one, I swear I held my breath the entire year she was seven), I have much more empathy and sympathy for my parents' reaction to Donna's death. Honestly, I don't know how I could ever endure a day or fall asleep at night after such a tragedy. Yet they did. My mother laughed and cared for people until her illness took her away, and my father worked hard day after day making a good life for the three of us who remained.

Since my intervention, through to the current day, photos of Donna are displayed proudly in my father's house. At the time of her yahrzeit (the anniversary of her death by the Jewish calendar), we all light candles and/or visit her grave, activities that we had never been invited to share in when my sisters and I were young. Coincidentally, her grave is directly across from a girl who, though 11 I think when she died, passed away on a February 26 as well. It is thought that the two are fast friends down there.

Speaking of graves, Donna was the first major death in the Rubin family of my father's generation that made everyone realize that they should buy plots. Today, my mother, my grandparents, my uncle, and other relatives are in the same row as Donna. I remember passing her grave at my uncle's funeral, and a great aunt looked at her plaque and said sadly, "She brought us all here."

When I see the stones left on her plaque I know there are many people who knew her and will always remember her. Gradually, I am getting to know her, too. A biography of a seven-year-old girl won't be a thick volume, but it will be heavy with unlived days, unfulfilled potential, and the unfought fights and never-felt embraces between a big sister and her baby brother.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Future Projects IV: Monkees tribute band

OK, you're thinking, now he's gone off the deep end. How does one go from wanting to novelize the romance between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stage a one-act play dramatizing the spreading of one's friend's ashes at a sacred childhood spot, and develop other creative fiction and non-fiction works, to forming a band to play the repertoire of the Monkees? What can I say, I'm a renaissance man.

I love the Monkees. I have ever since I took my sister's copy of their first album. I then got their Greatest Hits, with the original orange and black cover. And of course, I loved the TV show. But, say the critics and the cynics, that's really all it was, right? A TV show about a band, and the band was just actors who didn't play on their records, right? Wrong. While the individual Monkees were indeed cast for a show, their first hit single preceded the show's debut. They provided all the vocals, and Mike Nesmith contributed two original compositions (his song, Different Drum, was already a hit for Linda Ronstadt).

Therefore, in terms of the level of participation of the members in their recordings, the distinction between the Monkees and a group like the Temptations or even the Jackson 5 seems pretty small. Furthermore, the Monkees, at least Nesmith and Peter Tork, actively campaigned for the right to play and write on their records. More Monkees performed on the group's third album, Headquarters, than Beach Boys performed on Pet Sounds. Motown had the Funk Brothers, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector had the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees also benefited from studio musicians. It makes them no less of a legitimate band.

Ultimately, though, the proof of the pudding is in the grooves. They were great singers and they sang great songs, written by some of the best songwriting talent around at that time, including Goffin-King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Boyce & Hart, and John Stewart. With his contributions, Nesmith was one of the earliest pioneers of country rock. Micky Dolenz was a soulful singer with relentless energy. Davy Jones was the balladeer, but could also put some English on uptempo rockers. Peter Tork was underutilized but whenever he was featured, his efforts stood out.

So anyway, I play drums and I've always wanted to form a Monkees tribute band. Aside from loving the music, it's also a fun idea. Now, I need to be clear that I don't want a band that dresses and acts like the Monkees, nor do I want a band that slavishly copies the original recordings. I just want a band that plays this music well and with enjoyment. I even have a name for the group: MonkeeJuice. This is a tribute to the Boston-based cover band, BeatleJuice, that was fronted by former Boston (the group) vocalist Brad Delp before his unfortunate suicide a couple of years ago. BeatleJuice played Beatles songs for the sheer love of the music, and that's what I want to do with MonkeeJuice, too.

Unfortunately, the guys I've played with over the past few years aren't so much into the idea. One show, one time, we played Last Train to Clarksville, with me on drums and vocals. Other than that, I can't get these guys to buy into the idea. At the same time, I'm a bit hesitant to pursue this project more heavily. One of the guys I've played with decided a few years ago he wanted to start a Steely Dan tribute band. He placed a notice on Craig's List and was inundated with offers from people all over the country. He assembled a large group and rehearsed with them for a long time until it started to splinter, with some people complaining it was getting too jazzy, and others saying it wasn't jazzy enough. If this can't be fun, I don't want to do it.

What I do want to do, however, is spread the gospel of the Monkees, a band that absolutely deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

This rarity was written by Goffin-King, sung and produced by Nesmith. Always thought this sounded like a lost Buffalo Springfield track (not that ironic considering Peter Tork was a one-time roommate of Stephen Stills).

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Past Projects II: Brainstorming class

Twice upon a time, in April and October of 2000 to be exact, I taught a class called "Brainstorming Basics" through the Boston Center for Adult Education. I did this for two reasons: a) I genuinely enjoy brainstorming and have always been curious about different methods of conducting and facilitating this creative endeavor; and b) I wanted to see if I could teach. As to the latter, I fancied myself to be like William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God or Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, or at least Donald Sutherland in Animal House. In other words, a cool, innovative, unorthodox teacher whose students would adore and idolize him. As it turns out, though I had an interesting approach, I'm just not a big performer type, with a voice and delivery that command attention and capture hearts, souls, and minds.

I started each class by playing a CD of a Monty Python sketch called "String" in which John Cleese does some amazing (and hilarious) brainstorming about how to market Eric Idle's 122,000 miles of string - which happens to be cut into three-inch lengths. "So it's not really useful," says Idle, whereas Cleese counters, "Well, that's our selling point!" and proceeds to rattle off a range of blue-sky ideas. Humorous and over the top as it was, the sketch also was truly illustrative of the two extremes of brainstorming: the stream-of-consciousness bellowing of anything that comes into one's mind the very second it does, and the instant, hyper-critical cutting down of any idea presented.

I taught that there were two phases to a brainstorming session; actually three. The first phase occurs well before the session takes place. In this phase, a creative brief is written and distributed to the brainstorming team that provides all the background information, creative direction, and context people will need to start generating ideas. A few days is then provided to allow ideas to gestate because the fact of the matter is that ideas are not obedient things - they don't come when you call them, and they don't always arrive when you need them. They tend to come when you're least prepared for them: in the car, in the shower, in bed. It's useful to keep paper and pen or a tape or digital recorder near you at all times when you have a brainstorming assignment.

The next two phases generally happen at the brainstorming session, although they can be broken up. The first of these two phases is the brainstorming itself. This is the process of generating and articulating ideas, which should be written on a board or on sheets so people can see them. Often, people will be able to offer useful variations on someone else's idea, so there needs to be an understanding and agreement at the start that this is an open, friendly, and safe process where no one's input is less valuable than anyone else's, and that all ideas belong to the group, so anyone can take license with anyone else's input, the goal being to improve the total pool of ideas generated.

The second phase is when ideas get analyzed and critiqued. They are not "judged" per se, but again, while no one ought to try to hurt anyone's feelings, the entire group has to take ownership of the ideas so as to build consensus around the strongest ones. It's important that this process be separate from the idea generation and articulation phase, because otherwise it has a chilling effect on people's thinking and their willingness to share their ideas. First get it all on the board, then decide which gets removed. This is another opportunity to try out variations on other people's ideas; slight changes can make a big difference. Whatever decisions are made in this phase must align with the direction set down in the creative brief. If people are excited about an idea that falls outside the scope of the brief, chances are it should be killed, unless it is felt that it is worth advocating with the client to adjust the strategic scope to accommodate the idea. More likely, though, it is the right idea for the wrong project. Save it for another project.

I find a good brainstorming session to be very exhilarating, and my classes would conclude with one that I would facilitate. If a student had an actual need, we would take it on; otherwise, I would make one up. Generally, these went pretty well, although there obviously was no time for the first, pre-session phase of getting acquainted with the material and doing some preliminary thinking.

Ultimately, I didn't continue to teach this class because I didn't think I was a very effective teacher. Nearly a decade later, I might be convinced to try it again. I still think I'll lead with that Monty Python sketch (the link in the sketch name above will take you to a page where you can hear the entire piece; you can also find the script of the sketch here).