Let’s set the Wayback Machine to last Friday, Sherman–the 13th, appropriately enough.
Seven or eight people were gathered in my living room, preparing for a readthrough of my radio play The Innocent Moon.
I think you could describe The Innocent Moon as a very personal homage to the Space Age–a a celebration of what was, an elegy for what might have been. There are six voices, each vying with the others to make their viewpoint known. Beyond that, I’ll say little. No spoilers or cryptic hints. Not my style. Although I do make reference to Werner Von Braun and “Rocketship X-M”–
Since around mid-January I’ve been doing a ridiculous amount of research. Most of it was purely background, boning up on my history, trying to stir up some strong visual images…and maybe there was a touch of nostalgia involved as well. I’ve been a space nut for forty years and looking through books like National Geographic’s Encyclopedia of Space gave me goosebumps. I made copious notes and then commenced arranging what I had into a coherent narrative.
Editing is a nerve-wracking process for me; the level of sustained focus that’s required, pure concentration. It’s very draining and at that point I am totally immersed in the world of the piece I’m working on. I lose track of the hours and days flit past.
For more than six weeks I bent to the task of making something worthwhile out of a hodgepodge of prose bits, poems, quotes, factoids and ephemera. Most of the time the work felt inspired and I liked how everything seemed to come together so seamlessly…
I felt quite confident and more than a touch self-satisfied as I watched people arranging themselves on the sofa and the chairs we’d provided. They quickly flipped through their scripts and then Sherron and I made some preliminary remarks, introducing the play, providing some information on the characters and framework.
I checked my watch and took note of the time as the reading commenced.
Sherron and I had agreed beforehand that neither of us would read. She would handle the direction: cue the actors, read the linking passages and indicate the sound effects. My role was to sit back and listen, stay alert for any minor glitches, a troublesome spot or two besmirching an otherwise masterful literary offering.
As the reading progressed I sank farther and farther back in my chair. Ours was an amateur cast, even my two sons assigned roles (we needed all the male voices we could get) but they acquitted themselves well.
No, the problem wasn’t with the acting.
For one thing The Innocent Moon was long. Wayyy overlong. As in close to twenty minutes past its due date. The BBC competition has a strict 60-minute time limit and I had blown that all to hell.
Okay, the length was one thing but the play was also listless, ponderous, meandering. Maybe even (choked sob) pompous?
I tried to hide my dismay from the readers, most of whom found the run through quite enjoyable and were happy to share their thoughts. It might have been all the wine we provided and Sherron’s tasty snacks. The atmosphere was downright festive.
And meanwhile I was thinking holy shit, I have got a massive amount of cutting to do and that fucking radio play has to be away by Wednesday at the latest. Whenever I could, I’d sneak away from the gathering, run up to my office and make notes about revisions.
The following morning, Saturday, I got to work.
I was fucking ruthless.
In the original draft, I used a lot of quotes and excerpts from various literary works. There was one big snag when it came to that: copyright. From early February I revised the script repeatedly and it wasn’t until around March 10th that I had a workable draft. The contest closed March 31st. Which didn’t give me a lot of time to secure necessary permissions.
But I did my best.
It’s a pain in the ass trying to find out who own the rights to poems fifty or sixty years old, the authors no longer among the living. I contacted publishers and sometimes I got replies and sometimes I didn’t. Ditto with agents.
But after enduring the readthrough redux, I decided to cut all but a few of the quotes, simplifying matters nicely. I was still going to have trouble explaining all the moon-related movie and music sound bites included in the text but I’d deal with that when the time came.
For five days, I went at the script with barely controlled ferocity. Anything that wasn’t fucking nailed down, was out. The script was pared, carved and whittled to the bone…and then the most beautiful thing happened. Without all the surrounding clutter, the characters’ voices emerged and for the first time I really heard them and developed a better understanding of what differentiated them, as well as their relationships to each other. As always, Sherron’s love of good, strong, distinctive characters came in handy and her advice really helped as I worked on the final draft.
Yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon, Sam and I walked downtown and mailed The Innocent Moon to the BBC Playwriting Competition.
It was an extraordinary process, yet another valuable learning experience. I debated whether or not I wanted to submit The Innocent Moon to a staged reading but, in the final analysis, it was the wisest possible choice. Without hearing it read out loud I would never have recognized the piece’s many flaws and shortcomings. I would have gone on believing it was the masterpiece it wasn’t. An important object lesson.
I’m sure there will be many fine entries to the Beeb’s contest and the chances of my even making the shortlist are mighty slim. But win, place or show, The Innocent Moon is a worthy contribution to the field of radio drama. And while it would be challenging to produce, my play has all the merits of a work that would appeal to those who are fans of “theatre of the mind”.
I hope you’ll get a chance to hear The Innocent Moon some day.
What started out as a lark, a chance to write something on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, ended up an hour long radio drama.
And now you know a little about how that came to be…
Two weeks into intensive revisions on my novella and every distraction, everything that pulls me away from the fictional world I am in the process of creating, is infuriating. The mundanities of life require attention—paying the bills, attending parent-teacher meetings—but I am resentful of such “trivialities”. When I’m focused on a project, my solipsism becomes downright scary. I forget to eat, wear the same clothes, grow a beard, drift through the house like a blind cat (present, but unseeing). Hour after hour up in my office, leaving only to use the washroom or grab something (anything!) to eat. I suffer withdrawal symptoms when away from my imaginary creations for even short periods of time. I pine for my characters. I miss their voices. Often find it difficult to follow dinner table conversations, occasionally forced to feign an interest in what my wife and sons are saying. A hard admission to make.
I am utterly immersed in this novella. For eight to ten hours a day I walk around in it and breathe the same air as its inhabitants. When I’m not working, I get the feeling that my characters remain in limbo, awaiting my return. There are divided loyalties, a sense of being stuck between two realities, the disorientation that results from that, confusion, my office door opening to a hallway I don’t recognize at first…
During these times, I have no interest in interacting with the outside world. I care little for consensual reality, ordinary rules and conventions; sometimes I go days without leaving the house. That is my entire universe and, believe me, it’s a whole lot bigger than it looks from the outside. My office is maybe 10 X 12 but its physical specifications are irrelevant. It is a cramped space capsule and time machine all rolled into one.
Viewed dispassionately, I lead a pretty dull and ritualized existence. I do nothing outside of reading and writing and hanging out with my family. I have no social life and a limited circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I’ve known for a long time. I challenge any future biographer to scrape up enough worthwhile material to fill a short article, let alone a fucking book. Good luck concocting something of interest with daybook entries like this:
Slept poorly (siege dreams again)
Into office immediately–Coffee
Break for lunch
No decent mail
Good progress today
Boys home/ Sher home
Supper (shepherd’s pie)
Few more edits
Crash with book/ in bed 11:00 p.m.
And that goes on for pages and pages and pages…
That’s my life. And that’s why I need that ability to project myself into the worlds I fashion one word at a time. Because my daily routine is so unbelievably fucking tedious and boring, it would kill a sane man. Retreating into fantasy is coping behavior, plain and simple. If I didn’t have this crazy, vivid imagination of mine I would’ve gone off my nut ages ago. I’d have never made it out of childhood.
Thanks, G.F., and I appreciate that, but I also recall writers like Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.) and Isherwood and Graves and Grahame Greene and Anthony Burgess, world travelers and brilliant diarists, leading fascinating lives and growing vast reputations. Their long shadows still touch us today.
Is this it for me? Sitting in this room day after day, composing sentences, stringing them into stories or novels, producing vast reams of paperwork to little actual effect? A recent journal entry touches a sore point, my terror of being a man of no consequence. Making no mark, leaving nothing noteworthy or commendable behind me. As faceless and anonymous as a body tangled in a mass grave.
There’s a sense now that I’ve got to break out of this rut, seek new experiences, engage with the big, wide world and see what that inspires. Inevitably this brings up thoughts of travel. Are my fictional settings becoming too constricted and too familiar? Would some exotic backdrops lend a little something extra to my tales? Is this cloistered, claustrophobic existence I’m leading stunting my growth as an author and artist?
“The clouds change. The seasons pass over our woods and fields in their slow and regular procession, and time is gone before you are aware of it. In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.” (Thomas Merton)
I need change. I crave it. A door opening. Opportunity knocking. A thrown bone. A crumb of praise. Signs of hope. A phone call out of the blue. Something completely unexpected and scary and exciting. To make my heart race. To break this terrible thrall…