Breathing Room


I hate what I’m writing. But I’m writing. My job is not to like it or not like it. My job is to write it.

This is novel number two. While number one is out for feedback, I’ve been working on number two. That was my New Years resolution. Eight hundred words, four times a week. In six months that’s about 80,000 words. That’s an average-sized novel.

But I hate it so far. It doesn’t breathe at all. I’m not excited. Why? Because early on, while working on the first novel, I was outlining this new one. I had a very specific idea in mind. This, unlike the first one, is going to be a mystery/ thriller, and I did some extensive outlining. I basically had written a synopsis of every scene in the book, and because the setting bounces back between the present and the past, I did a lot of historical research. I thought I was prepared to write.

But I write and everything seems terribly cliched and lifeless. I’m not enjoying doing this. It feels like plodding, plodding. It’s a mountain of gruel on my plate, staring me in the face.

When I started writing the first novel, I had no idea what it was going to be. i just wrote. Each day, I barely looked back at what I had written. I never knew what was going to come out. My first draft was basically a series of character sketches. I didn’t even know how the characters related to each other. Eventually, a few drafts later, I found out who they were to each other, but it was surprise after surprise for me.

But now. No surprises. The language is wooden, the characters are wooden, even as they fulfill the demands of the plot. Ughh.

I interviewed the excellent actor Roger Guenveur Smith a few months ago. I asked him to say what the most important thing was that he knew about acting. He barely hesitated, and said: The Breath. Breathing. That’s the source. And more and more, when I watch actors, that’s now my number one criterion. Whatever else it is, for god’s sake, be alive. I don’ t care how technically good it is, so much as that the thing breathes. In a world where everything is roboticized, it seems like our imperative is to breathe.

When I first learned to edit audio for radio production, I was enamored of the way that the editing software could cut out the imperfections, the umms and errs, the wanderings of thought. An interview could be edited together from raw audio and appear seamless. But the more I do this, the more I understand that the danger is that the edits can be too perfect. You can edit so tightly, that no breath is taken before the next thought. It will sound seductively perfect, but there’s no play in the voice, and eventually it registers as mechanical and lifeless. The listener might not even be aware on a conscious level what the problem is, but the voice will sound canned, like an answering machine message. I learned that even if you are cutting from one paragraph to another in a person’s speech, you have to leave in the breath to connect them.

So my problem now is, how do I allow breath back into my writing process? On the one hand, I don’t want to be judging myself as I write. Not in this phase of the writing. I’m just trying to get out the words, any words. But I need to let in some air or it’s going to drive me crazy. I’m making some progress. I wrote about digressions once before. So now, while writing in this phase, I’m allowing myself to digress for the slightest reason and not let it bother me. I know that, eventually, I will get back to my outline template.

It’s like doing improv acting. There’s a classic improv exercise where the audience gives the actors the first and last lines of the scenes,  and the actors must improv everything else in between. It sound difficult–how do you know that you will end up where you need to be for the last line? But the secret to doing it well is to not worry about where you are going to end up. Your unconscious will get you there if you keep going. You just need to trust that you will arrive there in its own good time.

As a writer, I have even more of an out than the improv actor. The actor feels the pressure to be interesting for the audience’s sake. But the writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience yet. I can let the breath go, and I can go where it takes me. If, in the end, it doesn’t go to an interesting place, and it doesn’t fulfill its other obligations, then I can revise –when the time for revision comes.

But for now, my obligation is only to write eight hundred words. In the breathing room, I can play as I wish.

Embedded Reporter: At Long Last, Sound

Last week, I posted a review of Roger Guenveur Smith’s remarkable play about Rodney King. I interviewed him immediately after his performance, on the night the news broke that Eric Garner’s killer would not be indicted. Although I included a link to the interview in the previous post, I’ve now learned how to embed audio directly, so I thought I would put up the interview separately. The interview was originally broadcast over WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.

Frabjous Day! Calloo, Callay! It’s now easier than ever to listen. Just press the orange button.

Rodney King: Roger Guenveur Smith’s Startling Performance Piece

The first sound you hear over the loudspeakers is that of water. What? It doesn’t make sense. Is something leaking in the theater? No, as the evening with Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King progresses, we discover that Rodney, like Hamlet’s Ophelia, has had too much of water. He meets his end at the bottom of the pool, a pool bought, literally, with his own blood.

Smith’s one-man show is a mesmerizing account of the incident and the man that sparked the LA riots over two decades ago. The evening I saw the play at the BRIC House Ballroom in downtown Brooklyn, the air was thick with the just-announced news that Eric Garner’s killer would not be indicted. The play could scarcely have been more relevant than at that very moment. Smith’s prescient fascination with Rodney King hit us between the eyes that very night.

And what a story. With just a microphone, on an illuminated square platform, Smith tells the story of what happened to King–this ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances. Smith moves and swings through the story, playing all the parts like a John Coltrane quartet, showing us the very soul of the man who would have much preferred just to go home and finish his malt liquor. This is Rodney, an uneducated man, who at his moment realized, Hamlet-like, that he had the lead part in History’s play, and must try his best to fulfill his responsibility. This inarticulate man who was forced to be silent during his entire trial delivers some of the most famous words ever said about race in America.

I can’t think of a more important performance playing today in America. Roger Guenveur Smith has grappled with history and responded splendidly, in a truly artistic way. He plays a variety of characters in the story besides King and creates a prism of history with all of its facets. The final image is a haunting one that left me shaken, and asking where do I stand in all this.

You can listen to the interview broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM that I did with Roger Guenveur Smith  by clicking here. He is a fascinating man and the 15-minute interview is well worth your time. He talks about the genesis of the play and his work as an actor, director, writer, and historian. Smith will be performing the play all around the country. You can go to his website for more information about his performing schedule.