To Boldly Go Where No Boy Has Gone Before

•August 18, 2017 • Leave a Comment

All-new post into editing mode and will publish next Friday. For now, this reminder that independence has its price. Cheers, Mike

Completely in the Dark

MySide_1“I’m in the middle, without any plans,” Alice Cooper sings, “I’m a boy and I’m a man.”

In the late summer of 1978, I was 18, still living at home with the Family Project and working nights at Tonka Toys.

And I didn’t know what I wanted.

Well, sorta.

You see, I wouldn’t have gotten there without the help of one Samuel Gribley and James T. Kirk—the former a 1960s Canadian preteen, the latter captain of a Federation starship in the 23rd century.

When and where I first saw My Side of the Mountain (produced in 1969), it’s hard to say. It could’ve been in Maryland, shown in class at Farquhar Middle School, or broadcast on network TV.

Sam Gribley, all of 12, lives in Toronto with his mother, father and two younger sisters. In the film’s opening scene, Sam peers through a fence at zoo animals…

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Total Eclipse of the Heart

•August 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

New post in the draft hopper, not ready for publishing. So, in light of our forthcoming total solar eclipse, here’s this chestnut about the last time it happened, back in 1979. Enjoy!

Completely in the Dark

So where were you when the sun went out?Eclipse2

In North America, the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century occurred on Monday, Feb. 26, 1979.

Apparently it was a big deal.

The journal picks up the story: “Eclipse. …All that you buy, beg, borrow or steal. There is supposed to be a total eclipse of the sun today at 9:35 in the morning, lasting until a little before 11:00. I’ll notice the change when I walk out of History.”

PARTIAL BEGINS

Things weren’t going very well at the U. I was struggling to make it through winter quarter, and night work at Augsburg was draining. “School is really a problem,” the journal states. “I’ve got to register for next quarter today. Sunday I put my ACT loan application in the mail at Ridgedale. I absolutely can’t wait until next school year.”

You see…

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This Nobody Is Still Doing Everything With Nothing

•August 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I promise you: a new post in August. But here’s where joy meets work in my world, so worth a revisit.

Completely in the Dark

“…if it’s natural, something glowing from inside, shiningviciousfreizelogo all around you, its potential has arrived.”

“What Is the Light?”
The Flaming Lips

I nearly threw away this entire blog just based on what I thought some people were thinking.

Gonna let that soak in for a minute.

The thing is, I stopped writing altogether. I looked back over my shoulder. Then I started comparing myself to other writers and artists, became self-conscious, and sunk deeper into despair.

Stupid, I know.

But this—this old journal entry—kick-started it for me, even though it’s four years after the story I want to tell all began. So let’s crank up the mojo and begin there.

An Oct. 2, 1991, journal entry reads:

“Last night I had a dream about Fingerhut [the company I worked at in the late ’80s, early ’90s]. There were mongrel dogs bothering me in a meeting. I…

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The Lost Year

•July 28, 2017 • Leave a Comment

End of July and noodling posts for August editorial slate. More to come! Enjoy your summer, friends! MM

Completely in the Dark

The very last entry of 1982: “2 Sept. Back to work 8:30 am”LostYears1

But it wasn’t until Saturday, Jan. 7, 1984, that I picked up the journal (an all-new National 43-571) again.

So for heaven’s sake, what happened between Sept. 3, 1982, and Jan. 6, 1984?

In a letter to Abi, nearly two weeks after returning from our trip, I confessed: “My social life is an absolute sham. I feel ill and pensive. Back at work, I’ve contemplated my duties and it’s dawned on me that it makes me miserable.”

By Jan. 18, 1983, I was corresponding again with Lindsay. Apparently I’d phoned her brother’s flat from Gatwick the day I flew out. She wasn’t there, so I left a message with a flatmate. “I doubted you received the message,” I wrote, “and boarded the plane a bit dismayed—I thought I’d lost a friend!”

LostYrs2I even…

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Working on a Miss Terry (Part 2)

•July 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[Ed. note: Last of two parts.]

As Ellen Terry relates in her memoirs:

“No one knew where I was. My own father identified the corpse, and [my sisters], at their boarding school, were put into mourning. Then mother went. She kept her head under the shock of the likeness, and bethought her of ‘a strawberry mark upon my left arm.’ (Really it was on my left knee.) That settled it, for there was no such mark to be found upon the poor corpse…”

In 1988 I listened to as much music of the period as I could lay my hands on. Queen Victoria’s favorite composer, next to Felix Mendelssohn, was Arthur Sullivan. I was doing a lot at once, but I think the eye came before the ear on this coincidence.

I had in my library an edition of The History of Punch, the British humor magazine. As I flipped through its pages I stopped at a group photo taken in 1867 of an amateur performance of Tom Taylor’s A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing and Sullivan’s first operetta, Cox and Box, or The Long-Lost Brothers. In the photo I was surprised to find Kate Terry—and Nelly, seated next to Kate and toying with her necklace. She’s flanked by a young Arthur Sullivan and George du Maurier, while her sister laughingly turns to a teasing Mark Lemon. Arthur Lewis, Kate’s fiancé, stands in the back, eyeing Kate.

While on one of my library excursions I came across a recording of Sullivan and Burnand’s Cox and Box and listened to it. The overture is straight out of the Victorian music hall style—with a smattering of Offenbach—rollicking, cheerful, yet with an ominous undertone, like you’d hear in a campy melodrama.

In the story, a devious landlord named Sergeant Bouncer rents the same room to Mr. Cox (working days as a hatter) and Mr. Box (who, as a printer, works nights). Neither lodger knows of the other’s existence, so Bouncer gets double rent for his room. When asked about strange proceedings involving misplaced matches, gridirons, and furniture, Bouncer launches into his “Rataplan”—a nonsensical military march—just to change the subject.

Finally the lodgers discover one another and Mr. Box relates to Mr. Cox his faked suicide by drowning to avoid marrying the girl who—unbeknownst to him—Mr. Cox is engaged to marry. It gets even more complicated. Before all the characters go into a “Rataplan finale,” Box interrupts with an insight: “You’ll excuse the apparent insanity of the remark, but the more I gaze on your features, the more I’m convinced you’re my long lost brother!”

Cox: “The very same observation I was going to make to you!”

Box: “Tell me, in mercy, tell me…have you such a thing as a strawberry mark on your left arm?

Cox: “No!”

Box: “Then it is he!”

 

ANOTHER MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

By the autumn of 1988 I was buried in Research-Somewhat-Gone-Awry.

I had stacks of notes. I was afraid I’d researched myself out of writing a first draft.

That’s probably when I fell in love with the new angle of my story, straight out of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You see, Nelly made her stage debut as the Fairy Queen Titania in March 1863, a few months after meeting Watts and Godwin for the first time. It was in a sense the first adult role she’d played, and Godwin—ever the theater aesthete—designed her dress for the performance at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Since completing the first draft of the script, I’ve come to realize that my story is about three lives: Nelly (pictured at right, in 1881), Godwin, and Watts. In my mind, the three symbolized characters from Shakespeare’s play. Nelly begins as Puck, who somehow transforms into Titania; Godwin appears as Theseus, Duke of Athens (Architect of Industrializing Britain) and, by night so to speak, as Oberon, King of the Fairies (and Defender of the Theatrical World). Watts began to fill a less-flattering, but nonetheless important, role of Bottom the Weaver, transformed into an ass’s head and beloved of the spellbound Titania. The interrelationship between these characters/roles took on a new fascination for me, but I was determined to make more of a reference than an issue out of it in the first draft.

It’s a central metaphor to Nelly and Godwin’s relationship: the quarrel between the Fairy King and Queen and their subsequent reconciliation, which I made as Godwin and Nelly’s flight that night of October 10. Their relationship comprises the last quarter of the script, but the lines that bring them together in the first quarter carry an undertone of the elopement to come, and the working title of my screenplay:

Godwin/Oberon: “Then, my queen, in silence sad, trip we after the night’s shade; We the globe can compass soon, swifter than the wandering moon.”

Nelly/Titania: “Come, my lord; and in our flight, tell me how it came this night, that I, sleeping here was found, with these mortals on the ground.”

 

RAW WRITING

Author Peter De Vries once said: “I love writing. It’s the paperwork I hate.”

When January 1989 arrived like a bad joke, I knew I had to put away the mad research scientist role and nail myself down to some raw writing. After all, I knew vaguely where I was going, so why be afraid?

I don’t know why writers complain about writing. There has to be a reason to write. There has to be a story to tell. Although I’m suspicious of pencil-happy Pollyannas who clutch lucky rabbits’ feet and spit out screeds of paper, I also think that anyone who treasures an idea or image will get up the next morning after a blank-sheet hangover and have another punch at it. Again, it’s the story that’s important.

I spent months screening The Wandering Moon in my head and saw every scene of it as clearly as a garbage burner on a Midwestern city skyline. I knew what I had to do.

I had to write it.

In between breaks on the first draft, I dropped notes to friends in England and wrote letters in response to research queries I’d made the previous year. Then I promised myself a reward if and when I finished the first draft: I’d visit England to see my friends and tour locations in the story. I cached away some money and kept working at the draft.

By the end of October 1989, I was wrapping up its ends, like a diaper on a newborn baby.

 

DEAD … OR SLEEPING?

For two weeks in November 1989 I toured the British countryside looking for the scraps of Victorian England that remain. At the Watts Gallery in Compton near Guildford, curator Richard Jefferies told me, “We’re nearly rounding that corner for good, never to see it again…” At the end of my trip I met with Jefferies and his assistant Hillary at the gallery.

There, hung in the shadows of tourist off-season, above the gallery tomcats dozing on wooden floor grates, were the legacies of G.F. Watts—and the full-size original of his painting Found Drowned. It shows the body of a young woman lying under the arch of a bridge by a riverbank, a lone star shining in the night sky above her.

Mr. Jefferies and Hillary looked over my script and we talked about the relationship between Watts and Ellen Terry. The story was told how when Nelly left Watts at the end of the marriage, he destroyed many of his sketches and paintings of her. Hillary confirmed this by showing me one of Watts’ sketchbooks from the time of the marriage, with many pages ripped out.

We also talked about the connection with Tennyson, Knowles, and Pritchard, and Hillary retrieved from the library an edition of William Boyce’s diary. She located an entry dated Nov. 8, 1868, which noted that “the actress Ellen Terry has been found drowned and it is believed she had been despondent over some argument with her sister.”

I was amazed.

At the Ellen Terry Memorial Library and Museum in Smallhythe, Kent, I met with curator Margaret Weare and her husband Tony. In the short time I had there I went over Ellen Terry’s books, looking for traces of her relationship with Godwin. Perseverance paid off in two ways.

As I sat in straight-backed wooden chair, paging through an old notebook, Tony Weare pointed out that the drawings of tile designs and sketches of birds were in Godwin’s hand.

“You’re also sitting in one of his chairs,” he added.

The past is just sleeping, I thought. It isn’t dead.

At Freshwater Bay, on the Isle of Wight, I saw the house where Watts and Nelly spent their honeymoon. “Dimbola” as it’s still called, has been partially renovated into holiday flats. The other abandoned half awaits renovation or demolition. Up the road is Tennyson’s home, Farringford, now a hotel. I stayed there a night and tried to locate the bathroom where the photo of Nelly was taken, but the place has been so completely renovated and commercialized that it was hard to tell which room it had been.

In Bath and Bristol I toured the Theatres Royal, and at the Bristol city library I located Godwin’s theatrical column in the Western Daily Press for 1862. He began each column with Jacques’ line from As You Like It: “I must have liberty, withal as large a charter as the wind, To blow on whom I please.”

In London I stayed with my friends and met with Joy Melville, author of a biography of Ellen Terry and her daughter Edith Craig. We met at Waterloo station, and then had coffee at her flat while she looked over my first draft. I asked her: “Has anyone made a film about Ellen Terry?”

“No,” she replied, not to the best of her knowledge. “But it would be magic if it were…”

And later the same day, on an enormous whim, I wandered into David Puttnam’s Enigma Productions office, just down from the Victoria and Albert Museum. I told the secretary that I wanted to see Mr. Puttnam “if he was in.” Another gentleman, Colin Vaines, overheard my request and asked if he could help, if I’d had an appointment with Puttnam. “No…I hadn’t…” I said I had a screenplay I felt Engima might be interested in and gave him Nelly’s story in a nutshell.

“Do you have an agent?” he asked, looking at a copy of the script. “Can we keep this?”

I declined. After all it was just a draft and I was there to see if I could whip up some interest in the idea. He gave me his card.

“You’ve got a lot of pluck walking in here like this,” he said.

I left feeling like I’d taken my own swing at the Berlin Wall. Nothing can compare with the joy I felt. The film I had seen in my head, that I tried to put on paper so that others could see it, was that much closer to reality, if only a tiny bit, even if I was the only person to believe in it.

I knew others had sensed it, too. After talking with a friend about the changes of 1989, we got on to the script and its coincidences. Where had it all come from? Why this particular story, and why Ellen Terry?

“Well,” my friend said. “Maybe it’s time the world met her again.”

Working on a Miss Terry (Part 1)

•July 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[Ed. Note: Here’s how to approach 1989. The following was written in 1990 after I returned from England, but it’s a great place to start. Part 2 goes up next Friday. Cheers, MM]

Last year, in one of those borderline-obsessive bursts of energy some writers know well, I fell in love with a story, sequestered myself from friends and family, wrote my first screenplay, The Wandering Moon, and took the finished first draft to England.

It was a crazy year.

If you look at the subconscious side of it, here’s how it all really began.

In 1980 I was an art aide at the college I attended, and collected clippings from art magazines left to me by the department head. In an article on nineteenth-century photography, I saw one of the loveliest photos I’d ever seen. It was the portrait of a young woman, her hand raised to show her wedding ring. So surprising was the beauty of the picture that I clipped it at once without noting the caption. I attached it to a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” and stuck it on my wall. Along with my other junk, it followed me around for seven years.

Then, in 1988, while at the Ridgedale library, I came across the same haunting photo on the cover of Roger Manvell’s biography of the English stage actress Ellen Terry. I knew nothing of her at the time, so I checked out the book and read it—hoping to get a clue to the mystery of the sad wedding photo.

What I discovered was a story that has completely captured my imagination these past two years.

THE STORY

Ellen Terry, heir to the English theater tradition from Burbage and Siddons to Kean and Macready, was born in a boarding house adjacent a theater in Coventry in 1847. As a baby she slept in the greenroom dresser drawers of provincial theaters and, when she was old enough to talk, was coached in Shakespeare by her insouciant Irish father. She made her stage debut in The Winter’s Tale at nine years old.

From that moment on, the remaining 72 years of her life would be devoted to the theater, and her greatest triumph playing opposite Henry Irving at London’s Lyceum through the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

But it wasn’t the life of some “Grand Dame” of the English theater or a sweeping epic of Victorian culture that drew my imagination in deeper. That wouldn’t have been enough to goad me into writing a screenplay.

The real stimulus came when I read that on the night of Oct. 10, 1868, Ellen Terry “faked” her own suicide to run off and live with the architect Edward Godwin in the Hertfordshire countryside. Three years before, she’d been married to the portrait painter G.F. Watts, who was then nearly three times her age.

I was fascinated by the events surrounding her disappearance and, as Ellen Terry relates in her own memoirs, the discovery of her double: “A body was found in the river—the dead body of a young woman very fair and slight and tall. Everyone thought it was my body…”

FALLEN WOMEN

Victorian society was conspicuously run by men. The arena of public affairs was “no place for a woman,” and the theater—that hazy zone between public and private life—was slowly becoming acceptable ground where both sexes could meet. When G.F. Watts met Ellen Terry in 1862, she was a little-known actress eclipsed by the greater fame of her sister Kate. Watts, encouraged by his friend the playwright Tom Taylor to woo the older sister, painted a double portrait of Kate and Nelly, but fell in love with Nelly. Hoping to remove her from the “dubious society of the theater,” he married her on Feb. 20, 1864, when she was still only 16 years old.

Nelly was vivacious, independent, and unaccustomed to the life Watts had been leading for the previous 13 years: as artist-in-residence to a wealthy and bohemian London couple, Henry and Sarah Princep. When Nelly married Watts, she came to live under the same roof as the Princeps. It was an awkward arrangement from the start.

Watts was then 47 years old, but looked closer to 60. Chiefly a portrait painter, he prized himself as an allegorist with sweeping large canvases titled Love and Death and Time Unveiling Truth. Light fare like that.

He had lived alone for years, had a weak physical constitution, then was taken in by the Princeps, who nurtured his talent and showcased him to family and friends as their resident genius. Apart from a brief honeymoon on the Isle of Wight (where the photograph I’d first seen was taken, in Alfred Tennyson’s bathroom of all places), Nelly spent most of her time modelling for Watts’ paintings. But her untamed nature proved too much of a match for the patience of Watts and his patrons and, after less than a year, the marriage was annulled and Nelly was sent home to live with her family.

Two years prior to her marriage to Watts, Nelly had met the architect Edward William Godwin in Bristol while performing with her sister at the Theatre Royal. Godwin was then a married man of 29, successful in business, and an active contributor to a local theatrical society. After Nelly was separated from Watts, she wasn’t to see Godwin again until 1866, when he was then a widower and she a married woman “without the benefit of a husband.” By 1868 they had fallen in love, and on the night of October 10, after performing at the Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre, London, she disappeared with him into the countryside.

I knew that night was the beginning of my film.

I read everything I could on the subject and mused over the details of “the suicide.” Before she had left for the theater that night, Nelly had placed the handwritten words “Found Drowned” in the corner of a carte-de-visite photo of Watts she kept in her room. When this was discovered by her parents, they had reason to fear the worst.

Then another book gave me a clue. “Found Drowned” was the title of a painting Watts completed in 1851 after he had returned to England from a trip to Italy. I conjectured that Nelly must have seen that painting in the studio while modelling for Watts and, on the night of her elopement with Godwin, gave her husband a parting shot.

A METAPHYSICAL SOCIETY

Before I wrote a word, I did a lot of reading. I gave myself an ultimatum: all through 1988 I would research the project, take my notes, write query letters to historians and museum curators, wallow in “what if…” but, by 1989, sticking to a schedule, I would write a first draft. I avoided trying to answer questions like, “What if someone else has produced a film about this?” “How can I write about a time and place I’d never lived in?” or, “Why should I bother to write something that in all likelihood will never be produced?” I decided that those questions I could not immediately answer, I’d leave for later. Indecisiveness I’d leave for others.

There was a damn good story to tell. The more I read, the stronger I felt about that.

The Metaphysical Society of London met for the first time on Nov. 10, 1868, at the home of architect James Knowles in Clapham. Attending were the astronomer Reverend Charles Pritchard and the poet Alfred Tennyson.

Now, Tennyson had known Nelly from the days of her marriage to Watts, especially from walks they took together on the Downs above Freshwater Bay, where Tennyson lived with his family, not far from where Nelly and Watts had stayed with Julia Margaret Cameron, photographer and sister to Sarah Princep.

I took advantage of the coincidence of the Society’s meeting exactly one month after Nelly’s disappearance to contrast Nelly’s individualism against the best metaphor for Victorian society I could find: a men’s club. I now had a framing narrative for the film, the Metaphysical Society, with the story of the events leading up to Nelly’s “drowning” told to the other gentlemen by Tennyson. Three-quarters of my first draft was written in the context of Tennyson’s story.

No sooner was I relishing this angle when another presented itself.

The rabbit hole only went deeper.

Approaching the Frontier

•July 6, 2017 • Leave a Comment

“The man with imagination but no knowledge is like a bird with wings but no feet.”

There it was—a collection of quotes stuck in my bed frame, written in the early 1970s when I was preteen.

I found them last spring while I was moving.

While it’s not particularly connected to what I’ve been thinking about lately, which is where I last left off, at the beginning of 1989: the year that probably changed the course of my life, there might some use for the old saw.

That transformation actually began the year before, even though my journal at the time devotes a mere eight handwritten pages to 1988.

An entry on Wednesday, Nov. 23, declares, “things have changed for the better, though. I’m working nights at Fingerhut as a regular staff proofreader under the ruse that I will be going back to school part time Winter Quarter. I say ‘ruse’ because that rhymes with ‘excuse’ and that’s how I’m looking at it. I like working nights—more pay, less hassle with people, solitude to get things done.”

But what’s even more interesting about the entry is the next paragraph. I touched on my relationship with Sally, a coworker at Fingerhut, adding intrigue to what I originally wanted to write about here: dealing with other people, protecting myself, yet still enjoying being in the world.

The following paragraph spills it:

“It’s ironic, also, in the last few months—when I’d written the last entry and left it there [Ed. note, back in June 1988], a few days later Sally and I had breakfast at Benjamin’s in Minnetonka, then that night she stayed with me over at the folks’ (they were out of town for a week—Indiana, I think). We saw each other for a few weekends for another month, until July 4th (the worst 4th of July in my recent memory) when I did nothing but crash out at my apartment, got drunk and phoned her at her folks’. The next day she had asked me to phone her and we ended it again. In a way I was quite relieved—she’d touched on a true point—that I was just seeing her until someone better came along. Well, I’ll admit that I’ve never been ‘in love’ with her (I’ve always seen sex and love as two completely different things: sex as bodily function, but love as a rare and special experience, one I’ll admit that I have yet to know in its complete force.”

That admission leaps out at me, revealing maybe less about how I felt about Sally and more about relationships in general.

You see, for much of my early life, it was a touchy negotiation with the outside world.

I often felt overwhelmed by the needs of others. As mentioned, my father was probably the biggest dog in the room. I’d get frustrated when my personal world was upended by his demands. From there it projected out into other spheres: school, friends and girlfriends, then later, bosses and coworkers.

I always went inward—what I now call “stargazing”—and fixed my attention on a subject, hobby, or practice that completely absorbed me. Sometimes it was art or music; other times writing or reading. The chief absorbing love was stories. Storytelling lay at the core of all my other interests. Then family or friends would then get frustrated and “rattle my cage.” I would angrily lash out, attempting to “protect my territory.”

While there’s no journal entry marking the date, one such stargazing moment happened in 1988. I’d been killing time at the Ridgedale public library when, mindlessly skimming through the racks, I pulled down a copy of Roger Manvell’s biography of the English actress Ellen Terry. On the cover was Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Terry at 16 years old, taken in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s bathroom, of all places.

Immediately I fixed on the photo—it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen! It deserved an exclamation mark! I recalled it from years before when I was thumbing through art magazines as an art department aide at Lakewood Community College.

I had to know the story behind the photo. So I checked out the book, devouring it in days.

So, on Feb. 27, 1989, I wrote in the journal: “I’ve started a draft of a screenplay of Ellen Terry’s early life in the mid-Victorian theater entitled ‘The Wandering Moon’ and I’ve set a completed draft deadline for October. In November, for about two weeks around my 30th birthday, I’m planning on visiting London again…” I’d arranged to stay with old friends Lindsay and Abi (who then owned homes in Forest Gate and Wood Green, respectively), visit museums, art galleries, and locations in the script, and do research toward a rewrite.

“If I achieve these goals (all realistic) this year,” I wrote, “Then 1989 will be the most successful year I’ve had since I graduated from high school…I haven’t had a personally satisfying success since I wrote The Crowded Room in 1979. What a start! I mustn’t let the obnoxious little black voice belittle my hopes. One step at a time! Hooray!”

Which, ironically, leads us back to the opening quote: Imagination (seeing the story in my head) was the bird with wings. It could fly, but how would it land if it had no legs?

(Answer: by writing day after day, one step at a time.)

That “obnoxious little black voice”—the thin borderline between self and others—would have to be strictly policed. I was hyper-aware of how the world would add distractions and rob my concentration.

The frontier of the imagination is always there—I know that—but it took years of figuring out how invite others into it without jeopardizing the work I wanted to finish, someday.

And time was of the essence.

 
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