A Look Behind A Wounded Name

June 15, 2013 at 10:41 am (A Wounded Name, Writing) (, , , , )

When you tell someone about a project you’re writing or have written, one of the first questions you usually hear is “Where did it come from?” Or, as my agent puts it, “Your brain must be a terrifying place.” (Reason a billion and one that Sandy and I are a really great fit) And most of the time, someone asks me this, and I just kind of start to stammer. The truth is, I have no idea where most of my stories come from. I remember strange things, I think of strange things, and they all just sort of stew together in my brain until suddenly two or more things click together and I sit up and go OOH! THAT COULD WORK!! I can occasionally trace back influences, things that have been roiling around in my mind for weeks or months or even years, but I can only really think of two projects where I could specifically point to something and say “This, this is where it came from”.

But A Wounded Name is one of those projects.

In some ways, it starts out as a pretty broad answer: a lifelong love of Shakespeare. I was the kid who brought Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure to elementary school with me, struggling through the language, and even though I got none of the subtleties or dirty jokes, I could more or less understand what was going on. It was in eighth grade that the appreciation shifted into something deeper, and there are two reasons for that.

The first was that my friend Carl, who was in Junior Thespians with me, performed the dagger monologue from Macbeth for the Districts and State Competitions/Festivals. And did it REALLY WELL. Even the kids in the audience who’d never come up against Shakespeare before got it. Even if they didn’t know the story or the character, they knew that this guy was coming seriously unhinged- and planning something really awful.

The second was that our gifted humanities teacher, Mrs. Shaughnessy, introduced us to Shakespeare in a way that was FUN. We read through Henry IV, Part I in class, and it’s a history play, so it’s easy to get bogged down in the poetically framed politics, but she very brilliantly focused on Hal and Falstaff. Dude, Shakespeare was FUNNY! And PERVY! We were cracking up about it, and when there was a filthy joke based off of slang we didn’t understand, she explained it. This sweet, delicate-looking, soft-spoken teacher in her fifties actually stood there and explained to teenagers that this page and a half of text was actually full of jokes about whether or not a guy’s junk worked. And, to reward us for successfully getting through the play, we took an end of year field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where they were performing As You Like It, and we DIED. The performance was amazing, incredibly well done, and that’s when we finally understood that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read.

Seriously.

Shakespeare wasn’t published within his lifetime. It was after his death that some of his friends got together and published his plays. Before that point, you experienced Shakespeare by actually experiencing it, by seeing it, hearing it, feeling it. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, and some of us took that to heart.

The next year, three of my good friends and I decided we wanted to do an ensemble acting piece for Districts. We were nervous, because we were freshmen in a program that wasn’t, at the time, freshmen friendly, but two of us had done the summer theatre program with the school and gotten to know a bunch of the older kids, and more importantly the teacher, who was also an old friend of my family, and we figured if we put together something really good, it wouldn’t matter that we were younger, maybe we could still get a spot. I honestly don’t remember how we ended up with the play we did- I remember us looking, all of us digging into any play we could get our hands on. I don’t remember who found the winner.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is an absolutely brilliant play that’s woven through Hamlet, but it’s pretty much based off of two lines.

TWO LINES. In all of Hamlet an entire play was able to be based off of TWO LINES.

And they’re an innocuous two line set, nothing glorious or earth-shattering.

CLAUDIUS: Thank you, Rosencrantz, and gentle Guildenstern.

GERTRUDE: Thank you, Guildenstern, and gentle Rosencrantz.

Now this is one of those places where performance is everything, because you can do a LOT of different things with those two lines. Most productions just kind of gloss over them. After all, Ros and Guil are hardly significant characters. They are so generally un-important, in fact, that Shakespeare gives us absolutely nothing to distinguish between them. They are utterly non-distinct, a pair never seen separated. So, some productions play off of that by saying that Claudius doesn’t know them that well, that he puts the adjective with the wrong name, and so Gertrude is gently correcting him with her statement.

Stoppard took those two lines and spun out this wonderful journey of one existential crisis after another, where these two characters are totally at sea in everything that’s going on around them, and lost as they are, can’t help but cry out again and again WHO AM I AND WHAT AM I DOING HERE? Guildenstern even argues, though he thinks he’s talking about the situation, that rather than being opposite sides of the same coin, they are actually the same sides of two coins, able to be manipulated separately and yet still the same thing. This play is fiendishly intelligent, full of wordplay that would make the Bard proud, a tragic sense of inevitability, and yet an unapologetic love of the absurd. Ros and Guil are adrift, are utterly incapable of understanding everything going on around them because Hamlet is, after all, a play where everyone has secrets from each other, but they’re being manipulated by EVERYONE, everyone is trying to use them for their own ends and aims. And in Stoppard’s play, the director is the devious, somewhat implacable Player, leader of the company Hamlet hires for his trap.

We fell in love with this play, and we finally found a scene we thought would work for all four of us, where Hamlet welcomes his pair of old school friends to Elsinore and bids them be respectful to the Player. From that point on, Ros and Guil are trying to figure out what’s going on, and the Player is…well, let’s call it less than direct. There’s a lot of stumbling over words, because English is, after all, a bizarre language, imprecise at the best of times. We practiced and practiced and practiced, we watched two or three different movie versions of Hamlet, we watched the movie production with Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss (which is brilliant, by the way), we argued ENDLESSLY over stupid things. Seriously, we spent probably five weeks arguing over the pronunciation of gesture until we finally asked someone. But we had a fairly solid piece when we auditioned, and so our teacher gave us a slot for Districts, and we started practicing even harder.

Our rehearsals often got sidetracked, because as much as we wanted to polish this and make it awesome, the word-play was fantastically fun. We kept looking outside of the scene, or even all the way back to Hamlet to pull in context or hints or allusions because there was just so much wealth to work it. And we asked questions. Not just what does this word mean, or what is he trying to say here, but bigger questions.

Is Hamlet actually crazy?

Does the Player know all of what’s going on?

What are the consequences of trying to understand the situation?

And we asked questions that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene, but were just such interesting questions that we couldn’t help ourselves.

Does Hamlet love Ophelia?

Why does Ophelia lose it?

How much does Gertrude know?

How much does Polonius know?

SO MANY QUESTIONS, and we could debate them endlessly. Honestly, in high school the four of us could debate almost anything endlessly, simply because the discussion itself was that much fun.

We took the piece to Districts and did REALLY well. We got straight superiors, so all three judges in the room thought that we did an amazing job. Not the absolute best job they saw in the room (Critics’ Choice) but a really solid, wonderful job. We were ecstatic. And because of those straight superiors, we automatically got one of the very few slots available for State. Which…pissed off a bunch of the upper classmen, who felt they should get preferential treatment because we had three more years ahead of us to compete. To which our teacher replied that if they wanted that badly to compete in State, they should have worked harder, done better, and ranked higher.

Our teacher didn’t really put up with anyone’s crap.

State is a lot harder than Districts- you have to get at least an excellent at Districts to be able to compete, and because of limited slots, each school tries to bring its best stuff, so the judges rank accordingly. We got an excellent at State, and were ridiculously happy about it.

Senior year, in a fit of nostalgia, we decided to do the same piece again. We hadn’t all four been in a single competition piece since freshmen year, so there was something that felt pretty right about it, and we knew even at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to all be going to the same colleges. And this time, we had three more years of debates under our belt, three more years of independently dissecting the play we’d all fallen in love with. And someone, one of the parents, I’d suspect, decided to get a picture of us this time.

RosGuil03

Now, keeping in mind that this picture was taken TEN AND A HALF YEARS AGO, we have, starting at twelve o’clock: me, as the Player, Betty-Jane as Rosencrantz, JD as Hamlet, and Jeff as Guildenstern.

This time, the ensemble piece wasn’t our main focus. We all had different things we were doing that year. JD was in a duet pantomime (I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am, which was absolutely hysterical and won Critics’ Choice), Betty-Jane had monologues and a duet acting scene that were both absolutely brilliant (and off the top of my head I can’t remember your scores, Betty-Jane, sorry!), Jeff was doing Publicity Design (Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative), and I had a solo, a duet musical, and Playwriting (for Playwriting I received Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative). We were mostly focused on all of that, so this piece was really just for us, something fun to do together because we’d all been so crazy busy with everything.

And it was. It was brilliant, and fun, and we did well at Districts and not quite as well at State, and that was okay. Because we loved it, and we had a blast asking all those questions again, and asking better questions, deeper questions, questions that used the play as a stepping off point and tried to apply the possible answers against the broader human condition.

Okay, we were super pretentious in high school- aren’t most high schoolers?

The next year, Jeff and I both went down to the College of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida, him for the technical track, me for the performance track. Our senior year, he did the theatre honors track, combining that thesis with his honors college one, and he and his honors classmates created, from the ground up, a study on Ophelia. They researched and debated and eventually wrote and designed a production called Remembrances, also known as the Ophelia project. I went to see the performance, and really, it was just brilliant. From every standpoint, honestly, the writing, the acting, the design and execution.

Its sense of time was fluid- interspersed with scenes from Hamlet were moments where the fractured pieces of Ophelia interacted, and memories of happier times with her family. It didn’t try to define Ophelia- it tried to explore her. To understand her.

During its larval stage, Jeff and I used to get together every Thursday for Wine and Laundry night. I lived in a place that didn’t have laundry facilities, and I lived in an area where you REALLY didn’t go to the all-night laundromats unless you wanted to get mugged or raped, and at that time, my weekends were dedicated to Job Number One, which was retail, Job Number Two, which was rehearsals and then performance for the Renaissance Faire, Unpaid Job Number Three, which was tech work on the shows the college put on, for which I received mandatory credits, plus working on my own honors thesis, which was a novel. The only thing that made the weekends distinct was that I didn’t have sit-down class. So, Thursday nights, where conversations would range over every possible topic, and frequently came back to Ophelia, because we both had a long-held interest in her.

Backing up slightly, at the end of my junior year, I’d proposed a thesis project that would take seven questions from/about Shakespeare’s plays and explore them as novellas. One of these seven pieces was going to be about Ophelia, a fractured time piece where her sanity has already slipped but she’s still trying to tell us the story, only she can’t piece it together in the right order. I ended up not doing that because my potential thesis advisor and I disagreed on how to approach them. I didn’t want to research other takes until after I’d written mine, so as to avoid influence, and she felt I needed to research them first so I could support my own opinion.

I love research, but an academic researcher I’ll never be.

And in a way, I was a little grateful that it fell through, because of all the questions I’d intended to face, that one TERRIFIED ME, and when it came to writing, I was only learning to be brave at that point. Back then, I thought if it scared me, that was a sign I should do something else. So, I went back and looked at the only original novel I’d ever finished, back from the beginning of freshmen year of college which desperately needed to be re-written pretty much from the ground up, and asked around for advice on who to approach as an advisor, given that the Creative Writing Dept had never waivered me in to their classes, and at the end of the year, when I met with Dr Omlor, my advisor, for my final evaluation, he told me I was an idiot if I didn’t try to get published.

Over the next few years, Ophelia kept creeping out in small ways. The next year, when I was taking a poetry class at the community college (long story), she found her way into one of the poems. The prompt was to take lines from established pieces and use them within our own poem. I borrowed from both Hamlet and T.S. Eliot (several of his poems, really), and what came out was…I loved it. And I suck at poetry, so for me to say that I love this poem is really kind of extraordinary. There was something broken about it, the way the original lines were left justified and the borrowed lines right justified, the way your eye had to travel across the page, the way the original lines could be read entirely on their own and still tell the story but the borrowed lines added something…I don’t think I’d ever loved one of my own poems before. At about the same time, I was writing a Harry Potter fanfiction called (and here I’m outing myself, oh well) “Where the Breezes Know My Name”. It’s a STRANGE little piece, but at the time it was the most poetic prose I’d ever written, and for YEARS I swore about it, because I thought it was beautiful and there was no way in hell I could unravel it from the original source enough to use it for anything original.

A few years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with Ophelia’s voice in my head, specifically the first few lines of the book, which have remained unchanged from that moment.

The sky is blue today.
Blue like glacier ice, like hidden springs. Blue like jays’ wings, peacock feathers. Blue like my mother’s skin.

Well. Hello, Ophelia!

But I was in the middle of another project at the moment, one that was quickly growing to the point that it needed to be split into two books (and will thankfully never, ever, EVER see the light of day), so I wrote down the lines on the notebook beside my bed and figured I’d forget about it.

But Ophelia, as a figment, is sneakily persistent. She’d pop up in my dreams, shoving these eerie and lovely and unsettling images at me, I’d hear her voice and write the lines down on napkins, scrap papers, business cards, sometimes even my arm or the back of my hand if I didn’t have anything else handy. Ophelia would not go away, and she was bound and determined that she wasn’t going to be quiet.

Having Ophelia in my head was like edging into a kind of insanity, and it didn’t really stop until I finally sat down, typed the first lines in a fresh word document, and let her take the reins.

From start to finish, the first draft took twenty-three days, and because of work and other obligations, I couldn’t write every day. Once I typed in the last line, it was like this massive weight was off me, like suddenly I could breathe again. For weeks, I’d been drowning in Ophelia, and suddenly my head was clear again.

But where she first started gaining form, where the questions first started giving her a distinct and permanent existence in some part of my brain, was 1999, when Jeff, JD, Betty-Jane, and I first sat together over a battered library copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which an eye towards taking it to competition.

And that is the story behind the story, behind A Wounded Name.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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