Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Still in print - after all these years.

One of my earliest holiday stories is published in this collection by William and Morrow Press.  Enjoy!

The Magic of Christmas Miracles

Doctor Zhivago Revisited



Don't let it happen to you again.

Hire someone to get up there, remove that damn snow, and install one of these "Roof Deicer" puppies.

When the icicles started to form on the ceiling of my front porch, I cried "uncle" and bit the bullet.

I'm paying five strong men to remove the ton of snow on my roof.  Honest to Pete - they sound like Santa's reindeer up there. . . but at least my roof will not go the way of the Metrodome.


Stay warm.  Stay dry.

Stay in Texas.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

I was sixteen the year my father left.  That Christmas there was no tree for decorating, no turkey ready for roasting.

My mother took a job as a cleaning lady at a near-by college.  I was only a sophomore in high school, but I could work too.

There was never enough money for our mortgage, our gas and electric bills. And so it came to pass that I sold hats at the Emporium in downtown St. Paul.

I signed every pay check to my mother.

I knew my father had taken up residence in a hotel somewhere in the center of the city.  Both my mother and I knew he kept company with a woman he met in a bar on 7th Street.

In those days, men didn't leave their families.  Children who came from divorced families like mine were considered the product of a "broken home."  I lost friends when my father ran off with another woman.

I was a child but, even so, I knew that what my father had done was impossible for my mother to accept.  Raised by Swedes, she refused to forgive a man who brought irredeemable shame to our family and her marriage.

Neither one of us ever wanted to see him again.

The days after the holiday were grim in the city.  The lack of snow had slowed the shopping to a dead drizzle.  I was on vacation until January 7th, and so when my manager called me in on the 6th I was glad for the work.

"It's the twelfth day of Christmas," she smiled when I arrived, "and what did your true love give to you?"

I told her I had no "true love."  What I didn't tell her was that I had no one.   My father took everything with him when he left.  My security, my confidence, my family was gone.   I had only a discouraged, exhausted mother, frantic with fear over our poverty and desperation.

"He might not be your own true love," my manager said as she stepped aside that January morning.  "But someone who love you is here to see you."

I looked over her shoulder and saw him standing against the marked-down holiday corsages.

My father's eyes were dark and shaded in something that resembled sorrow. It had been seven months since I had seen him last.

He wore the old familiar Frank Sinatra hat he wore the day he walked out on us. The tulips were in bloom back then.  I recall the irony in their bright promise, their glorious springtime blessing rising up against the bitterness and anger he threw at my mother as he slammed the front door.

Now he stood before me,  as shriveled and dry as the January wind he escaped.  His old tweed coat was pulled tight across his chest.  He was smaller than I remembered.

This happened over forty years ago. Even so, no matter how long or hard I live, I will never forget the ache in my chest when he spoke to me.

"Hi, darlin'," he said.  "How's my little Duchess?"

I walked toward him, feeling older than I ever have, older than I will ever feel again.

"What do you want?" I asked. Something cold and hard took hold behind my heart.

"I thought," he stammered, "I thought, if you want, I mean, I thought I'd take you to coffee."

I reminded him I didn't drink coffee. I was only sixteen-years-old.

"A donut then," he said.  "I'll buy you a glazed donut. You like glazed donuts, don't you Dutch?  I'll buy you a glazed donut."

"I'm working," I said.

My manager, out of nowhere, wrapped her arm around me.

"He calls you Duchess?" she chirped. "You go. Go get a donut with your father.  He's your father isn't he?  Let your father buy you a donut."

He looked at me again, his face calm, unmoved.

"What do you say, Dutch?" he asked.

"I don't need a donut," I announced.  "I don't want a donut."

My father never flinched.  "I don't blame you," he said.

I guess not, I thought.   I guess you don't blame me. I'm not to blame for the mess you tossed me into.  I'm not to blame for your miserable choices, for our wretched poverty.  I guess you don't blame me.

"I thought, I only thought. . ." he stammered while I watched him back away.

"It's only a donut," my manager laughed.  She turned to me, invested in this turning out well. "We're not at all busy.  It's only a donut."

She was wrong, of course.

I walked away from them both; my manager and the man who stole my childhood, the traitor who destroyed my family, the coward who broke my mother's heart.

Behind me, I heard my father's stuttering, clumsy exit as he made his apologies to my manager and left the hat department of the Emporium.

"Why?" she asked.  "Why didn't you go? I don't know a girl alive who wouldn't be thrilled to have a donut with their father."

"He's not my father," I said.

I watched the color rise in her cheeks as she shifted under my lie.

"He seemed like a nice enough man," she said as she walked away.

Nice enough for what?

The twelfth day of Christmas is January 6th.   Only after I caught the bus home, after I made grilled cheese sandwiches for my mother's lonely dinner, only then did I remember.

January 6th is also my father's birthday.

He died the following year, alone in a hotel room he rented by the week.

I never saw him again.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Gentle ripping and kind repair


"I got plenty of nuthin',
And nuthin's plenty for me.
I got the sun, got the stars,
Got the deep blue sea. . . "
-Gershwin

Someone  ran off with all my stuff.

A stranger broke into my home and stole my history.  Every thing of material value is gone. My computer. All my fine jewelry; most of it original to my Swedish grandmother.  A beautiful opal ring I purchased after the death of my mother.  All my pearls; a life-time collection.

Losing valuables is like losing a piece of one's heart.

At first I thought the loss was my fault.  I misplaced them, I thought.  Hid them under the bed, behind the couch. 

Why would anyone target me?  The goods, I thought, had to be stashed right under my nose, and it was I alone who did the shashing. Anything else was unthinkable.
The police confirmed the robbery.  My friends fussed over my vulnerability.  I clucked at their concern, and assured them I changed the locks, secured the windows.

But when the shadows fell and the evening came, I dug again through my underwear drawer, looking for my lost jewelry.

If course, the stuff was not stashed.  It was gone.  Someone meticulously took it.  Ripped me off.  Hurt my feelings, took away all my trust. 

At first, I missed everything I lost.  I missed my rings. I missed communicating with ease on my comfortable, familiar computer. I missed waking in the morning to the glass box of beautiful pearls on my dresser; the hand-knotted, perfect treasures I polished and adored.
Then it happened.

Like a wash of white light, I stopped caring. 

I did not forget my pink cameo ring.  No.  I can describe the sparkling garnet, surrounded by diamonds; a unique piece that will never be replaced.

I cannot forget.  But I no longer care.

I didn't ask for this cold, vague sophistication.  My indifference came with a price.  I've lost my innocence, my trust.  I've lost my investment in prettiness.  Now I know the ugly, peaceful truth of the aesthetics.  Beauty cannot be purchased or possessed.  In the end, we own nothing.  The things we hold in our hands and drape across our bodies do not become part of what and who we are. 

Security cannot be secured.  Valuables have no value.  Safety is a myth.

The insurance folks assure me that, although I will not recover the value of my "valuables," they will pay me enough to replace the lost computer. 

The rest  - the beautiful pieces of my personal history - belong to history.

And of course, to the thug who took away all my stuff.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Not sweating the little things and other lies

I know. It's been a tough month.

The Tea Party mopped up.  Sara P. seems in charge.  Obama and the boys want to play nicey-nicey and the other team is insane.

And everywhere we turn the message is the same.  The recession is over, good times are coming, and the unemployment rate is the highest since the Great Depression.

Crazy, huh?  So, what's a mother to do?

I'm trying to keep my eyes on the prize.

In times like this, my sanity is my first priority.

When I was a younger woman, easily swayed by the tides of political prejudiced, I was often discouraged.

No more.  I remember the words of my mentor, The Reverend Calvin Didier.  Cal once said, "Kristine, I'd worry about this calamity if I hadn't lived through the same thing three decades past."

With age comes this kind of tender wisdom.

So, if you're younger than fifty, take heed.  In the next decade you will begin to observe the following;
  1. Repetition of phrases you heard in your youth, like "supply side economics."
  2. Repeated reference to codgers who, once upon a time, made a good decision for the betterment of our common life.
  3. Fear tactics - constant insinuations that the end is near, and that those in power are determined to ruin our lives.
  4. An easy to solution to the difficult circumstances we navigate.
Ignore all these things and you will reach your sixties a happy camper.

That's all it takes.  That, and regular exposure to common sense ideas, decent acoustic guitar music and great conversation.

By the way - I'm available for any of the above, if you're interested.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Baby wants a new pair of boots, mom!

They cost more than a day's wages for most of us.

Still - if your kid wants them, you'll go in the hole for UGG boots this winter.

Boots are a big deal to a kid.  Trust me. 

I'm old enough to remember the "Kickerenno" boots of the 1950's.  This ground-breaking, earth-shaking style was radical for one reason only.  A girl had to take off her shoes before she put on her boot.

That's right.

Prior to the Kickerenno, we were life-sentenced to galoshes. Those of you too young to remember the boots that slid over your shoes are too young to remember Kennedy and have no business voting against my Social Security benefits.

When the Kickerenno came along, the galoshes were  tacky, tacky, tacky.

I remember begging my mother for a pair.

"Have you lost your mind?" she asked. "If anyone's getting a pair of fifteen dollar boots in this family, it sure isn't going to be the eight-year-old."

So much for child-centered parenting in the 1950's.

My mom would roll over in her grave (if she had one) to see the boots I wear today.

Frye boots.  Yup.  The coolest in town.

Tall, they are.  Beautiful, buttery leather.  And as comfy as the bedroom slippers I slip in to when I take them off.

I'm guilt-free when I wear them.  Why?  Because when my babies were little girls, they always had the best boots money could buy.  UGGs weren't in fashion then.  Sorel boots were the rage. 
Warm, snuggy, ridiculously expensive and the only boots my daughters would wear - I sold my soul every year to make certain they showed up as well dressed as any of their friends.

Those days are gone.

My daughters are both successful, competent, capable women - able to buy their own damn boots.

So, I bought mine.

I have to admit - they are so cool that when I wear them, I'm a little self conscious.

Yup.  I bought the Dorado boots.

But here's the deal - - - I bought them from the Thrift Store where I paid under forty dollars.

How did I luck-out?

I swear, it's Karma.

All those years, buying Sorels, wondering why. . . who would have thought the universe would, in the end, reward me for selfless mothering?

So - - - all you young moms out there - - so it's winter.  So what?  So your kid wants UGGs.  So they're ridiculous.

So shut the hell up and do the right thing.

Trust me - you won't be sorry.

That's right. . . I said it, and it's true.  Like butter.  Butter!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just when you thought no one was watching. . .

Get over yourself!
I know you've thought about it. You knew last year what you were going to do.  You promised yourself that this year you would not make a damned fool of yourself trick-or-treating throughout the neighborhood with human beings half you size and one decimal your age.

But here you are, sneaking through the costumes at the Halloween Super Store, hoping no one notices the Baby Boomer trying on the Hilary Clinton mask.

It's okay, bunky.  No one will turn you in.

Remember when your mom and dad dressed up as ghouls on October 31st and handed out caramel apples to their favorite little kids?  You weren't embarrassed.  Okay  - maybe that's not a good example.

How about this - remember when your big brother kept carousing for candy, long after his beard came in and his voice changed?  No one made fun of him, did they?

I know - I know.  You're sixty three years old.  And yes, I agree - there is a difference.

But lighten up, toots. 

When all else fails - remember what your mother used to say when you were afraid you were making a fool of yourself.

Don't worry what people think.  Most don't.

Buy it.  Buy the damn Sarah Palin costume!  And have a happy, happy haunting!!






Friday, October 22, 2010

Elementary, my dear Watson

In his latest incarnation, Holmes inhabits the 21st Century

An exhibition is on display in St. Paul - a new PBS program begins this Sunday and Sherlock Holmes, the totally cool Robert Downey Junior film is now available on DVD.

So - what's the deal?

Think about our economy.  Think about our relationship to law and order.  Do you see any similarities with  these early days of the 21st Century and the 19th?

And why this fictional character now?

As you consider the above, think of this as well.  The popularizing of the vampire myths and the elevation of ghouls to glamor.  What do you think?  Is there a relationship between our love of Sherlock and our love of pure schlock?

If you're a Holmes fan, tell us why.  If you're a vampire lover, share your opinions.

Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.




Friday, October 8, 2010

Write, write, and when you're finished, write some more

Like the fool I am and I'll always be, I once taught a class at the Loft titled, "Free the Horses; Overcoming Writer's Block."

I hate to brag, but I've never been "blocked" as a writer in my life.  So, what the Sam Hill was I was thinking when I offered that damn class?

You can imagine the folks who enrolled.

Okay - now before I go any further, if you are one of the unfortunates who took this class from me, my sincere apologies for what I am about to reveal about your sorry-self.

But come on now - - I mean. . .

There was the earnest, middle aged banker who never had time to write the novel that was screaming to escape his sad, vacant life. He sat beside the young woman so filled with rage over her husband's infidelity that her cramped soul yearned to break loose and slam all men in one glorious sashay through creative non-fiction.

And then there was the one woman in the class who said she couldn't write because she was "afraid."

That's right.

Afraid.

Don't get me wrong.  I gave everyone in the class a wonderful experience.  I was kind to all of my students. There was not then, nor is there now, anything to "fear" when writing for one of my classes. No animals were harmed in the writing of any Loft sponsored essay.

And so I comforted the poor, frightened woman who couldn't bring herself to pick up a pen.
I was a nicer woman in those days.

Today, I'm afraid I'd cut loose on the poor thing.

"What the hell are you afraid of?" I'd scream,  I'd  hate myself in the morning.  But good Lord, get over yourself!  Afraid of writing?  We're talking about a pen, a piece of paper and a great idea.   Nothing malignant, nothing homicidal.

You, however, are not like the poor unfortunate souls who staggered into my Loft class.

You want to write.   You crave it.  When you cannot do it, you become irritable, surly.  You sometimes drink rather than write, but you would rather write than drink.

A pad of paper, squared at the corners, makes your bone marrow ache.  Touching a fountain pen stops your lungs from functioning, and a spiral notebook, new and inviting, is enough to bring you to tears.

You love ink.  You love the way it flows across the page. You thrill at the wondrous ways you write the letter "G."  You wish you could do this all day, every day.  Oh please, God.. . . take not this great love from me.

You, my friend, are the real deal.

So get to it.

Some people love to shop.  Others love to tinker in the garage, organizing their tools, sharpening their lawn-mower blades.

Some people like to fiddle around with water colors or golf until they drop.

You?  You envy Steinbeck. You wish you had written the first book about Rabbit.  You love stories about Salinger and wonder why he never phoned to ask about your literary muse.

So don't tell me you're blocked.

I won't hear it.

I know you.  I know how much satisfaction you get when an editor publishes you; when you're recognized on the street by a reader who says, "I love the way you write."

You love the way you write too.

The year book, the newspaper, the poetry journal; that's you. While the others in the office are playing Sudoku behind the supervisor's back, you're working on your outline, your poem, your short story.

Never stop believing there's room for you.  In our father's house are many mansions. One is prepared for you.

Own it.  Love it.

Write it.







Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why I will not run for public office

There are many reasons why I would enjoy a run at the school board, a county commissioner seat or city council. Most days I'm certain I would be a better Governor than Pawlenty, especially concerning decisions affecting the poor, civil rights, the critical separation of church and state and of course, reproductive freedom.


And I've been asked. When I lived in Rice County, the local DFL leadership frequently sought me as a candidate against the notorious John Tuma, anti-choice, pro-gun legislator turned lobbyist .

But I had a real life in those days. I had children to raise, sermons to write, a man who was always in the way. There was no time for political posturing.

Now, my children are grown, my church turned Republican, and my former husband is working on his fourth marriage. My real life disappeared long ago. Even so, I cannot run.

The reasons are simple. After almost sixty years of speaking, writing, working for the poor and advocating for women, I have something my mother warned me to never have.

I have a reputation.

I'm known as an outspoken advocate of the poor; a family-first woman with a wider view of "family" than the average bear. Google my name, if you don't believe me. I'm flattered that some of my essays have been identified as the "best" on the internet and the "most progressive" of printed media.

My name is not at all "household," and yet, I've been called a "dangerous American" by people who have never met me.

Last week, an executive head-hunter phoned. He had a client, he said. A Twin Cities corporation, seeking an experienced writer, editor, copywriter and communications professional. He asked if I was interested.

I was. I am. And so I forwarded my latest work. The headhunter, bless his heart, is a young, young man. He looked at my material and gushed with approval. National Public Radio. Column in the Star Tribune - surely, he said, the client would be interested.

Seriously? Interested in a woman who's name makes a conservative corporate officer turn to salt? I don't think so.

But last week, once again, I nurtured a vague and rather adorable hope. This morning the recruiter called me, baffled. I am, he said, the obvious candidate for this position. Still, the hiring manager asked for a second person - the next on the list. He didn't give a reason, the recruiter said, confused and irritated.

I comforted him. "I don't mind," I said. It's the truth. I don't.

But I don't put myself in front of firing squads either.

That's why I'm not running for office. Momma was right - the only thing a girl has is her reputation. Me? In cahoots with the likes of Klobuchar, Pawlenty and the other hooigans who promise one thing and deliver nothing? Not on your life.

I have a reputation to uphold.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

PAPER DADDY based on truth

What role does a father have in this new, devastated economy? Kristine Holmgren set about to answer that question by writing her new stage play, PAPER DADDY.


When it was complete, PAPER DADDY enjoyed a successful staged reading at THEATRE IN THE ROUND PLAYERS (TRP) on Saturday, September 26, 2009. According to the Executive Director of TRP, the audience was largest stage reading ever hosted at the theatre (more than 120 participants). Within days following, PAPER DADDY is under consideration for production on several stages in Minnesota.

The Northfield Arts Guild will host the premier of Holmgren's first play in the spring of 2012.

What is it about this play that causes an audience to resonate?

The connection is simple; Kristine Holmgren has always been able to tell a good story, and tell it well. In PAPER DADDY, she brings us tells a narrative that exposes the real-life consequences of our current economic downturn. She tags these times, "The Great Recession of the early 21st Century" for good reason; her stage play exposes the human suffering behind our tumbling finances, and the painful, courageous and miriad ways our American families struggle to prevail.

Before Kristine Holmgren became a playwright, she all ready had an audience. Her loyal Minnesota readers have depended upon her for decades to communicate deep empathy and compassion in everything she writes.

Holmgren's commentary through National Public Radio All Things Considered and her editorial commentary column with the Star Tribune never failed to lift the veil on our collective potential and the power to find grace, healing and potential for redemption in our common life.

With PAPER DADDY Holmgren steps outside her comfort zone of political commentary and editorial critique. Through the creation of unforgettable, unique characters, she takes us into the landscape of storytelling and soft satire; a territory where her mastery of the well-told tale is both comfortable and compelling.

PAPER DADDY is a play in two acts set in Northfield, Minnesota. When the play begins, former Carleton College faculty dean Franklin Pomeroy is found dead in the arms of a Minneapolis hooker, leaving the disposition of his cremains to his former, bitter wife Charlie. The ashes are on her kitchen table, and Charlie must organize a slap-dash memorial.

Since her husband’s abandonment, Charlie skirted poverty by renting rooms in her formerly grand Northfield home to colorful strangers - each affected in their own way by the Great Recession of the early 21st Century. Charlie's daughter Sam, is unique among the characters. She is a successful attorney, single, brilliant, sassy and beautiful – and raised to believe men are unnecessary.

A shocking announcement from Sam and a surprise visit from an unexpected mourner shift the play’s center of gravity from bitterness to humor, and Charlie and Sam learn more than they bargained for about marriage, forgiveness and the ties that bind.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dancing in the Dark

The frame of the story is clear.  The beginning flows like long-learned choreography. An exquisite tango of dialogue and action, tension and comedy, your play moves from scene to scene, driven by imagination and magnificent plot.

Then, like a flash of brilliance on a darkened stage, the great notion vanishes.

Without warning, the generous idea is gone and the writer feels like a naked fool, dancing in the dark.

Nothing exposes a fraud more than a poorly constructed stage play. Flopping in the middle of Act II is punishment, stepping onto the hardwood floor in great tap shoes with no dance step in our repertoire. 

How to avoid pain and failure?  Three things - prepare, proceed and pray.

Prepare

As with any other form of writing, every good play is first inspired. 

The first blush of art is always a brilliant flash, an insight to an eternal truth.

My best ideas come when I'm swimming.  Half-way through my twenty-minute routine, I feel my new story unfold. 

I feel it; I do.  I don't see it.  Deep in my bone marrow, hard in my stomach, I feel my story begin. 

My main character, damaged (of course) and hopeful; her odd companions eager to help her succeed.  Her children/dependents/pets spot-check the comic relief and her lover emerges at the close to make the story sexy and real.

But inspiration alone will not float a boat.    If I want my story to come alive I have to get out of  the pool and write.

One of my former students once told me her particular reason for her "writer's block."  True, she called herself a writer.  True, she had ideas and inspiration.

Her imagination, she said, was so vivid she couldn't focus on any one concept, story or plot. 

I assured her that an imagination that stifles creativity is all in her imagination.

If she were to give this vivid imagination an opportunity to find shape, she would discover the hard truth; writing is a craft.  It morphs into "art" after years of practice.  In the beginning, like all things, writing good prose is possible for all of us.

Like every other form of writing, a good play is planned. Message emerges from structure.  A strong beginning, a thoughtful and compelling plot line and a satisfying close are the building blocks upon which we construct our art form.  me

I know - I know.  I too wish I could stay in the pool and swim into a completed stage play - draw down the inspiration without effort.  I cannot - and neither can you. 

Our craft is enjoyable work.  It is, nonetheless, work.  Hard work.  That's why they pay us for it when we deliver its product.


Proceed

Nothing happens when nothing happens.

If you want to write  a stage play, you must write a stage play.

This seems simple.  For many people, however, it is not.  The secret is to do what you need to do.  And actually do it. 

Set a goal for each writing session.  Some of us like to assign a number of words or pages to each experience.  Others set a finite goal of completion; an outline, Act I, a completed scene.

Whatever goal you set, be true to your promise.  Meet your expectations.  Trust me - your first attempt will not be satisfying.  You will rewrite whatever you write.

I am on the fourth rewrite of my current project.  Each time I pick it up, I find flaws.

You too will learn the art of self-critique.  Learning to proceed is the hardest lesson the writer engages.

For over twenty years I lived in a small town full of people who called themselves "writers."  None of them - not a one - published a damn thing.  During that time, I joined several "writer's groups" for feedback on my work.  I found that the majority of the people in groups should have been in therapy.  They were not looking for an artistic community; they were looking for a place to heal from trauma or to hide from trouble.

If you want to hang out with people who want to talk about writing, please feel free to do so.  Writer wanna-bes are a dime-a-dozen.  So are the people who want to affiliate with writers.

If, however, you want to write - then you must pick up your pen and write. But you knew that - didn't you? 

Pray

I don't care if you believe or don't believe in a god.  It doesn't matter.  If you don't "pray" as you work, your work will be heartless.

I've read some of the nonsense that passes for theatre today.  Vampires in conversation with werewolf nurses at the pediatrician's office  - - - zombies chatting it up with closeted homosexuals desperately seeking  a vampire bite to get over their addiction to night meanderings. . . all nonsense.

I've been invited to playwright groups where this kind of stuff is read and reviewed.  I kid you not. In the same environment, theatre based on reality was denigrated; the playwrights humiliated for being too "realistic."

Envy, cowardice, naivete and ignorance abound in this business.

Trust me - if you have something to say, the will to say it, and the craft to begin the telling of your story, you will get little support.  If you have a story grounded in reality, you will need the power of your spirit to follow through in the telling. Our world is too superficial, too lazy to honor good, true, honest work. 

If you don't pray, you won't prevail. 

Let your spirit be nourished by the truth that upholds all inspiration and rewards all honesty.  Open yourself to prayer - ask for, seek, receive and celebrate guidance and support from the universe.  You won't be disappointed.

Step into the light

A great writer once wrote, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it."  So it is with the story you have to tell.

Drop your pretense.  Forget about the vampires, the demons, the werewolves you once believed were compelling.

Tell us your story.  Live in the frightening light of your own truth.

And fear not.  The dance will go on. 

The darkness shall not overcome it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes it's hard to be a . . . well, you know. . .

Admit it.  We don't get no respect.

I used to think we were overlooked because we couldn't write about sex the way the boys do.

We don't seem free enough with violent images.  Our prose is, a little (how shall I put this?) wimpy.

We write like girls.  That's what I used to think.

Then came Dominique Adair, Denise Agnew and of course, Anne Rice.

Overnight, all bets were off.

Back in the 1980's, when I was studying the craft, writing my fanny off and getting published one-in-three times, the rule of the jungle was this; successful women writers wrote about small animals, little children and the agony of living without a man.

There were no vampire slayers in those days.  Mary Tyler Moore was about as liberated as the media and the publishing industry wanted their chicks. 

Those of us who had anything to say were careful how we said it.

When my marriage fell apart and I wrote an essay about the consequences of male depression on the American family, my editor refused to publish it.

"Why write about something so upsetting?" he asked.  "It's much easier to understand women's depression.  Let's keep this whole thing simple."

Lucky for me I found another market for the essay.

Luckier still that, as my life opened following my divorce, the market opened as well.

 Women writing about loss, desire, anger and remorse is no longer seen as demonstrative of mental instability.  Unlike Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, we needn't kill ourselves to be true to our art.

Still - respect?  Nah.  Not that.

Several months ago I attended a poetry reading at a local pub near my tiny cottage.  The readers were, by and large, women.  However, three men lined up, eager to share their words.

One after another, the women rose and read well crafted concoctions of their perspectives on love, death, community and loneliness. The applause was modest and polite.

At the close of the evening, the men rose, one by one, and read.  To a man, their work was filthy and disparaging of all the elements held dear by the women.  The "C" word, the "F" word, and many iterations of   urine, defecation and perverse sexuality were outlined in raw, ugly detail.

The room emptied as they read.  One-by-one, the women and their partners rose and left until the room was empty.

I approached the final poet.

"Tell me," I asked, "why you chose to read what you did tonight.  Did you notice the room was dominated by women?  Did you think about your audience?  Did you consider how we might have heard your poetry?"

He scratched his beard with a grimy index finger and looked into my eyes.  He was not a young man; fifty-something at least.  He knew better.

"Women?" he chucked.  "There were women here?  I didn't see anything worth paying attention to to.  Except my buddies.  And so I read what I did for them."  He stretched, reaching to the ceiling, his hands landing on his round, beer-extended belly.  "None of us are much for emasculating literature."

Anne,Dominique and Denise aren't emasculating much of anything these days.

Me?  I think that might be my mission.

Watch me write an entire play and never use an obscene word.  Watch me craft an entire theatrical production without denigrating a woman, humiliating a child, or limiting the emotional range of the men in my production.

Watch me.  And when the curtain drops, the lights go black, and the lesson is learned, join me as I leave the theatre, imagining a better world.

That's what I'm up to these days.

And that, my friend, is worthy of respect.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weeping in the playtime of others

It all started in the cheap seats.


Once upon a time admission to the movies (we called them "movies") was a dime.  Disney movies?  Twenty five cents.

And for that little piece of silver, a girl got a few decent cartoons (featuring anyone from Mickey to Buggs), a newsreel (the equivalent of a contemporary "public service announcement") and a few hours in the dark with a box of Dotts and a bag of popcorn.

Movie stars were more beautiful than anyone else; the men were stronger, the women blonder than anyone we knew. 

Even so - we came for the stories.

The struggle of virtue over seduction, valor over greed - we loved to watch the good guys win. When one of our heroes was slapped back by despair or discouragement, we held fast to our arm rests, knowing that, if all were as it is supposed to be, everything would be all right in the end.

Somewhere, lost in the magic, I began to write my own stories.

The hero was always a woman - - no, let me state that again.  The hero was always a girl.

An innocent; a sweet thing - a creature wretched with hope and eternal in her belief that the world is, always and foremost,  a  wonderful place.

Like every girl, however, she faces terrible limits.  A cruel father,  a classmate who hates her without reason, a sibling with a personality dipped in evil and roasted in sadism.

Early in elementary school, I gained a reputation as a writer.  My first grade teacher suggested I try a stage play.  The cast would be my playmates; the plot could be my choosing.

Elizabeth Taylor (left) as Helen in the 1944 version of Jane Eyre
When ever this opportunity was offered, I jumped.   In first grade, I wrote the Thanksgiving play.  Second through fourth - a play for Halloween.

My fifth grade teacher,  Miss Leonard, sought me out on the playground one cold January morning.  

I was in my usual place, hidden behind an empty propane tank, watching the pretty girls hold each other; their angora mittens and matching caps tiny against the fierce St. Paul wind.

In those days we were not allowed to wear pants to school  When we were outdoors in below zero weather, we hugged each other to stay warm. 

Or rather, they did.  Hug each other, I mean.  The pretty girls.  No one hugged me.  I preferred to hide behind the propane and pretend to be a real person.

And so it came to pass that Miss Leonard approached me with a grand proposition. 

Would I, she wondered, write a play for Valentine's Day?

Of course I would.

The story had been brewing for years; beautiful Judy Snyder would be my heroine, bad-boy Dick Nestle would be my villain. 

And the hero would be Scott Strecker.  Oh, my goodness, yes. Scott Strecker.

The awful truth behind all fiction and play writing is this  - the writer yearns for all the good things that come to her characters. 

Somewhere deep in my fifth-grade imagination I knew that I would love Scott Strecker until the day I die. But if I was ever to have a happy ending with him, I would have to write it and give it to Judy Snyder.

I knew Judy loved Scott.  She told me herself.

Before my front teeth came in crooked, before my forehead began to break out in tiny white heads and before we both noticed that Judy's mother was thin and my mom was - - well, a mom - - - before all that, Judy and I were best  friends.

The teeth, white heads and my overweight mom changed all that.  By fifth grade, Judy Snyder no longer spoke to me.

Childhood is accommodating.  It never occurred to me that Judy might be a shallow, inconsiderate snob.  No.  Judy was beautiful and I was Kristine Holmgren.

And I knew that Judy's solid gold circle pin, the pink poodle on her pale blue felt skirt and her perfect pony tail. .  . all these things endowed her to be Scott's own true love.

Me?  Chopped liver.  No, seriously.  I mean it.  Honest to Pete liver.  Chopped.

And so I wrote a wonderful Valentine's day play where Judy, misunderstood, almost loses Scott's frail attention.   The plot, as I recall, was a little Doris Day and Rock Hudson with some Jane Eyre thrown in for good measure.

The lead character, inspired by Scott,  finds himself failing fifth grade.  He thinks, fool that he is, that his hope is in Judy Snyder.  Brilliant Judy, he believes,  who will fall for any little flirtation, will save him.

All he has to do is ask, and Judy will do all his school work.  Of course she will.  She's a girl, isn't she?

At the close of Act I, we get an inside look at the pressure upon our darling Scott.  Motherless, raised by a drunken, cruel sot of a man, Scott's one salvation is his position on the football team.  He's the quarterback - the hero.

But when his bully father sees his January report card, Scott faces real fear. Better grades, screams his miscreant father, or no more football.   And he means it!

Our adorable anti-hero never doubts that Judy will save him.  His mother abandoned him - he knows she left because his father was such a loser.  But Scott was quarterback.  If his mom was around, she'd be so proud.  And this girl, this Judy - how could she resist him?   He approaches her.

Will she, please - oh please will she finish is math notebook?  Football takes up so much time, and he needs to win the big game.  He loves her eyes.  He knows by her smile that she likes him too. Will she please help him?  Please?

At the close of Act II our heroine Judy, torn because of her reckless love for Scott, stand strong.  That's right - she resists.  She does the right thing.

Scott flunks arithmetic.  His father beats the bejeezus out of him.  And he loses his quarterback position with the team. 

And this is a  happy ending.

Because - as in all my plays - in the end,  the male lead realizes  how wise and good is our heroine.

Judy's inability to deny her high ground teaches him a lesson. Goodness is uncompromising.  Scott's mother, who left him with his cruel, awful dad, is not a good person.

Judy, however, is.  And so Scott falls madly, deeply and wildly. And Judy gets to  keep it all - her virtue, her reputation, her multiplication skill and the love of the cutest boy in fifth grade.


The love of the cutest boy in fifth grade.
Me?  I didn't have a "date" until my senior year of high school.

Maybe that's why playwrights and fiction writers talk about the loneliness of the craft.

Not because we do it alone, although of course we do.

Not because we're often rejected, although of course we are.

Rather, because we write of lives we know but do not live.  Listen to what we say when you hear us interviewed on public radio.  We talk about the emotional depth of our characters - the fierce challenges faced by our leading men, the vulnerabilities of the female leads, and the soft, quiet decency of every one of our imagined people.

Seldom do we speak of our own experience.

Memoir is the land of narcissism.  Nonfiction is the terrain of intelligence and confrontation.  Fiction and theatre are the lonely territories of the outsider, populated by a strange, curious creature who weeps easily, loves deeply, and hides in the corner of the playground, waiting for another opportunity to watch her characters embrace.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hanging with my homies. . .

Writers don't affiliate like other people.
Normally, I don't consider myself a "family" person. 

Writers don't affiliate like other people.  Many of us try - - we marry, have children. 
But in the end, the merging is difficult.  Writers have a difficult time following through with commitments when something creative is brewing.  We have a hard time staying loyal and true when inconsistencies interfere with our relationships.  

With the possible exception of love for off-spring, writers are conditional friends.  Mess with a writer and you might never see her/him again.  Treat a writer badly and he/she will go away. 
Every writer I know goes to the fair.
The one exception is the great Minnesota get-together; the state fair. No matter how you treat us, every writer I know goes to the fair.  Wouldn't miss it. Maybe that's because we know we won't be noticed at the fair.  Our conspicuous "people watching" is a common past time at the fair.  We're not seen as the leering, curious, often creepy voyeurs we are.  At the Minnesota State Fair writers blend in with the rest of humanity.

And there's another reason we like to go to the fair. Writers who attend the fair can fake family.  When we walk the fairgrounds, we sidle up to the elderly and pretend to belong to their clan.  We stand a little too close to a young mother cuddling her toddler.  We lean in as the sixteen-year-old tells his girlfriend that he's breaking up with her after this ride on The Old Mill.  In short, we pretend we're normal.  
Today, at the fair, I stood this close to Garrison Keillor.  I swear, if I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched him. 

I should have done so.   We're friends, you know.  Garrison and me.  Sure,  he knows me. He even gave me a compliment once.  He knows me.

But today, at the fair, I stood in the pushing crowd,  listening  to his wisdom over the loud speaker - like the rest of the fair-going Minnesotans. Like the rest of my family.

My brothers in flannel shirts, my uncles and cousins wearing dopey Twins baseball hats and carrying WCCO canvas bags - my sisters-in-law in too-big sweatshirts, white-white tennis shoes and jeans with large, rolled cuffs - - I stood among them all and listened to Mr. Keillor's every word. 

We laughed.  We snorted.  We ate our cotton candy and ignored each other. 

For one brief, glorious moment, I allowed myself the luxury of belonging to the marvelous crush of humanity.  Never mind they were noisy, inconsiderate, overweight and obnoxious. I gave myself permission to accept them; to suspend judgment.  I didn't notice the sneer, the irritated insult, the spankings and hushings.  The ugliness of Minnesota humanity disappeared, and I was washed in warm belonging. 

This is, after all, my Minnesota.  I belong here.  I was born, raised, trained, pushed, taunted, teased, tortured and tempered here. 

If I have anything to offer anyone, I want to offer it to Minnesotans. I want to give it freely to my people - to my family. 
I was born, raised, trained, pushed, taunted, teased, tortured and tempered here.

Okay, so we're a little on the obese side. We might not be the brightest or the best - we might not know how to elect a decent governor or how to make a decent flambe from scratch. 

But dammit - we're decent.  We're good to each other in a pinch. We're not to be taken lightly - and we're not to be battered and fried. 

We're home grown, hand made, straight-up and no-nonsense. 

That's my people.  My family.  Don't mess with them or you'll answer to me.  
Or my brother Russ.  He's the tall, bald one.  On the Harley.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Suffering - but still faithful

What happens when the play is finished,  the theatre has signed the contract, but the play won't premiere for another year? 

What does the playwright do with all the voices in the head - the imagined interactions - the premeditated emotions?

Life can get sticky if a writer isn't writing. 

I'm walking through the valley of that shadow these days.  The script is in the hands of the theatre; I know we'll be in the revision process soon. 

A "dramaturge" has been notified that my work is ready to move forward. 

And I'm crawling along,  losing my mind. 
I've tried starting a new play.  It is not impossible to do so; the writing is sound. 

But somewhere, out there, beyond the clear blue sky - - -someone is reading my work and thinking of me. 

Until I know what that means, life is a little stuck. 

Last week, fooling myself, I returned to my favorite cafe to write. The wait staff were thrilled to see me.  They gave me my favorite table in the corner. 

My Waterman fountain pen had a new cartridge.  My new notebook was fresh, white with potential. 

The language flowed - the dialogue was embarrassing and bright.

When I returned home three hours later, I rushed to check my messages. 

No word.  Nothing new about the play in development. 

When I was a young woman, I didn't understand how important it is to be faithful.  I never cheated on anyone I loved, mind you.  But that claim is impotent.  I never had the chance. 

At this stage of life,  my first love is writing, My faithfulness is holding me back.   I feel fickle to start a new project when the old one is not complete. 

Until I see the actors take position, the music begin and the lights rise on my stage, I sense the monogamy of my art. 

Before all this is over, I hope I learn to be more of a slut for art.  

After all, the women who are remembered are the women who were willing to move from project to project - never looking back. 

Perhaps I'll be like that before the final curtain. 

In the meantime, in the in-between time, I'm suffering here, folks. 

I mean - do they like me?  

Do they really like me? . 





Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Love in the time of diminishing expectations



I bought this little cottage almost ten years ago, never dreaming I would love it as I do. 


It was a homely little house, neglected and ignored for several decades when I found it.  After moving in I added  a front porch, new roof, air conditioning and all the other raw comforts required for Minnesota living. 

And I've lived here nearly a decade - alone.


It hasn't been easy.   For almost twenty years I lived at the center of a solid, American family. 

I raised two wonderful daughters,  lived through the end of my ugly marriage and the rebirth of my personality, sold our family home and moved to another city, all by myself. 

At first, the house was not enough for me.  I yearned for a husband.  Not a lover - no.  I had opportunities for affection and turned them down.  I wanted a husband; someone I could care for, cook for, provide for and entertain. 

As the years passed it became clear to me that I would not meet a man who would love me the way I want; a love that will not say "no" to all I have to offer.  The men I met seemed stunned by my domestic skill and intimidated by everything else. 


I continued the painting, landscaping, upgrading.

Then, one day  the strangest thing - my home began to love me back. 

It happened when I was paying attention to something else; perhaps my job, perhaps  my children.  Nonetheless, it happened. 

One moment I was struggling to pay the water bill, keep the kitchen door from falling off, repairing the exterior and painting every spare moment. 


The next moment, I was ambushed by comfort, surrounded by appreciation. 

The order of my study, the decency of my tidy little living room reminds me; this little cottage welcomes me as no man ever has.  When I wipe a kitchen counter, my home sparkles.  When I weed the garden, dust the floor boards, my little cottage returns the hard work with glorious appreciation. 


Writing in an orderly space has never been important to me.  I used to think if I were loved, that would be all that matters. 

I thought the contributions of a man would make my life easier, comforting and secure. 

These days, I keep my files in order, make my bed each morning with pride and precision.  I understand why Scarlet always wanted to return to Terra. 

I only own a tiny lot in a sweet little city with a cozy cottage, spare and limited. 

Still, my house gives as much love as it receives.  In the spring, it feeds my soul with the surprise of tulip blossom.  In the summer, the profusion of green grabs the chaos of color and unites the wild flowers of my garden with the meticulous appearance of hybrid roses. 


And so, I got it made. 

Unlike other writers my age, women and men, I live with an appreciative and adoring partner.


Sometimes, when shadows fall and the weary day draws to a close, I sit alone at my desk and read aloud the lines I write.  My characters chide each other, coach and encourage, reach for acceptance.

In the magic silence of this tidy cottage, I hear sweet approval. 


Yes - no doubt about it.  This little house is a great audience. 

And I am loved.  Unconditionally. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Change the world? Nah. Change Act One.

Isn't it odd how role-models find us?

I never thought, for example, that I would grow up to be a playwright. I wanted to be the first woman Pope.  

Never mind that Presbyterians don't believe in the Holy See.  I thought I had the personality to break through all that nonsense.

Although I've been writing for the theatre since I was an adolescent, I always considered my playwright activity a hobby - never a calling.

In my mind, I saw myself more of an Eleanor Roosevelt type than a Beth Henley. 

You know who Eleanor is, don't you?  And Henley?  That's what I thought. Let me help . . .

Beth Henley wrote the wonderful play, "Crimes of the Heart" and then essentially, retired.

Don't be embarrassed.  I never heard of Beth either.  Not until I started writing plays and paying attention to the ones I admire. 

Before then, I considered myself a social reformer. Most of my professional life has been slapping back the powers-that-be, and educating the rest of the world to the evils that threaten to undo us. 

Been there.  Done that. 

No more fighting with the windmills for this girl - from now on, I'm only interested in dialogue to move the story along.

My heroes, growing up on Goodrich Avenue in Saint Paul, were the strong, independent, women in my neighborhood - the ones who lived without men and raised fabulous gardens and wonderful ruckuses.

Mrs. Fischer lived across the street.  When her husband died, she took a job with Saint Paul Book and Stationery and conducted city-wide book review salons for wealthy Crocus Hill matrons.  She ran the Minnesota Republican party forever, before she saw the light and turned to the left.  She died a wild-haired Democrat.

Down the street from Mrs. Fisher, Pam Kermott's mother raised her three daughters alone, working nights at the Tastee Bakery.  

A chain smoker and closeted poet, Mrs. Kermott liked to warn all of us about the evils of what she termed, "being boy crazy."  She introduced me to the work of Margaret Mead and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. "Crazy woman," she told me, "but brilliant.  Usually the two go together."
 
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn't a Saint Paul woman, true - and I don't think there was a crazy bone in her brilliant body.  

But from afar, she seemed to be my ideal - I didn't know, however, how she suffered.  When I was young, I had no idea Eleanor bore five children to a man who betrayed her by an affair with a woman she trusted. 

I never knew that, from that realization forward, she never again slept with her husband.

Henley won the Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart - - I learned this when I played the role of Lenny for the Northfield Arts Guild production.

When I studied Beth Henley, I learned that the first, professional production of her play was in a community theatre.  From small beginnings her little show advanced to a New York stage where it gained the recognition it deserved.

I don't know if Henley is or was ever married.  It doesn't matter.  No one writes or broadcasts Henley's politics.  No one cares. I don't  - that's for certain.

What I care about is the way in which her art educates me to what is possible.

My play PAPER DADDY premieres next year at the Northfield Arts Guild. 

Is it as good as Crimes of the Heart? 

You're asking the wrong woman.

Come see it and tell me what you think.  Next year, Northfield - - from there?  Who knows.  

If Mrs. Fischer could make a fabulous career out of selling stationery at Saint Paul Book, anything is possible.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

So little to make me happy

The kids were almost grown when I bought my first new refrigerator.

I remember the day it arrived.  It was huge.  The door alone held the entire contents of the refrigerator it replaced.

Two days after it settled into my kitchen, my friend Mary stopped by for a visit.  I ushered her to meet my new appliance and she smiled at the introduction.

"You're happy about this, aren't you?" she asked.  "It takes so little."

Mary was right.

Writers thrive on simplicity; when our basic needs are met, we're in heaven. A bathroom with pipes that don't leak, a functioning furnace in winter and a well stocked refrigerator give the writer security, confidence and inspiration.

I used to think I needed more - someone by my side to cheer me on, a band of jolly friends to applaud every effort and approve of every accomplishment.

Now, I think and feel differently.

The psychologist Maslov posited that human beings cannot function unless basic needs are met.

Writers do well when the rent and water bills are paid, food is plentiful and the lights are on.

My friend Mary was right.

It takes so little.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hearing voices

I write my plays at W.A. Frost, an elegant Saint Paul bar in the heart of the city.


August Wilson used to write here.  Last week the bartender showed me the bar stool where he used to sit.  Scruffy, distant, caught up in the crafting of his dialogue, Wilson drew quiet attention while he wrote. 

"He talked to himself ," the bartender said.  "Got real animated too.  Like you."

When I write my plays,  I record what the characters in my head say to each other.  In my imagination, I see their posture, watch their gestures, and write stage directions to replicate their attitudes and emotions.

I didn't realize, however, that I'm mouthing their words.  Not until the Frost bartender told me so.

"Must go with the territory," he winked as he poured me another glass of pinot grigio.  "You're all a little flaky, huh?"

Writing plays is like writing fiction - only more so.

The fiction writer creates the scene.  Pulling from a repertoire of  descriptive language, elegant vocabulary and evocative constructs, she frames a plot from thought, intention and inner-turmoil.

Playwrights give up the luxury of  building plot upon anything other than character.  Action, dialogue, and the occasional soliloquy are our only tools we have for our story telling.

Writing a play is like setting free the characters that haunt and tease the imagination.  Upon the page, headed for the stage, their voices become clear - their destinies revealed.

August Wilson talked to himself.  I guess I do too.  

I'm a little flaky.  Like him. 

I can live with that.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Holy, holy, holy

Once upon a time, I was a professional religious person.

When strangers gathered for banquets and learned I was among them, I was asked to bless the meal.

At Thanksgiving gatherings, Christmas, Mother's Day brunch, everyone turned to me for prayer.

I've buried every aunt and uncle in my clan.  My own mother asked me to do her funeral.  Years later, when she died and I asked to sit in the congregation with the rest of my family, my siblings were baffled.  It took them years to recover from my betrayal.  Such is the life of a cleric.

Now, I'm a playwright.

I rise early, make the coffee and open my notebook.  My mind and imagination are filled with the voices and mannerisms of the thousands of characters I left behind when I left the church.

The story flows; no interruption, no judgment.  If I am lucky, my stuff will one day emerge before crowds of critics. People who have never laid eyes on me, never asked me to baptize or bury, will hear my holy words.

Oh, yes. .  . I published while I was preaching.  The Star Tribune ran my work every other week.  But the church was not amused when I wrote about alcoholism, child abuse, dead-beat dads or abortion.

These, I learned later in life, are topics loathed by the church and welcomed by the theatre.

And so, my ministry continues.  My sanctuary however, is changed to a stage of thespians, audiences rather than congregations. No more benedictions - only overtures, intermissions and applause. 

Curtain up!