Back in grade school, every girl was supposed to have a favorite movie actress. Fond of musicals and ignorant of celebrities, I learned the name of the lead in Oklahoma and was thenceforth ready with “Shirley Jones” whenever the question arose.
Film musicals peaked in the 1950s and faded fast. What happened? Television cut the movie-going audience from 90 million per week in the mid-1940s to 16 million by the late 1950s. Rock and roll changed musical tastes. The specialized expertise to film elaborate song-and-dance sequences dwindled with the end of the Hollywood studio system, which held actors, directors, cameramen, and crew under long-term contracts.
Beth Genné’s Dance Me a Song: Astaire, Balanchine, Kelly, and the American Film Musical (Oxford University Press, June 2018) traces the creation of a whole new dance form specifically for motion pictures. Fred Astaire’s distinctively American “outlaw style” fused elements from jazz, tap, ballet, and ballroom. Dancers dressed casually and sauntered out onto the street. Camerawork was part of the choreography. Genné’s “lucid and exuberant prose” (in the words of one reviewer) lets me watch old favorites with fresh eyes.
Image: Michael Kidd, Gene Kelly, and Dan Dailey in It’s Always Fair Weather. Public domain.
My old Webster’s Ninth uses each term in defining the other. Those who say there’s a difference agree that plot is a series of events linked by cause and effect, but their notions of story range all over the place. To novelist E. M. Forster, story meant the events without the links, meaningless until given a plot.* To director Martin Scorsese, mere plot fades by comparison to the character and camerawork of story.
At the University of Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake week in June, I heard story described as what the work is about, a character responding to an event or choice or challenge. The plot of my life resembles a resume with causal links: After high school in West Virginia, impatience to leave home took me to a liberal arts college in Ohio . . . The story? Here’s one version: None of my major life decisions turned out as intended, and I don’t regret a single one. Writing and exploring have been part of every turn, enriched by the unexpected that happened along the way.
What’s the short form of your life story?
*Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Sometimes I misunderstand a sentence like, “I don’t understand why people
Rhetorical questions have value. When fathers sing their daughters Libby Roderick’s “How could anyone ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful?” they aren’t requesting an analysis of their daughters’ bullies’ motives. But there’s also value in thinking like a historian. The human community could use a little more curiosity and desire to comprehend.
Sprawled on a great lawn in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts years ago, listening to classical music. Exploring ancient ruins last November in pursuit of the Greek gods. What links these memories besides sunshine and delight?
Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a cottage on what are now the grounds of the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival when he wrote A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1851), retelling six Greek myths. He frames them as loose adaptations by college student Eustace Bright to entertain younger cousins at a Berkshire country house named Tanglewood. Tanglewood Tales (1853) tells six more.
If you grew up on King Midas’s touch or Pandora’s box, a children’s book of such tales may seem like no big deal. In Hawthorne’s day it was remarkable. Greek mythology—full of sex, violence, and dubious morality—was for classical scholars, not for children. Hawthorne’s delightful retellings opened a new world to young and old. On holiday from college libraries and classrooms, Eustace Bright exhibits a lively imagination his professors would doubtless disapprove.
Just to be clear, I don’t find “success” a particularly useful concept in the arts or life. Still, I admit the word sometimes crosses my mind on a cloudy day. We hear of a successful painter, actor, novelist, or musician. They tend to be the famous ones; that’s why we hear of them. Comparing oneself to them is probably unconstructive.
Success is the achievement of a goal. Whether you’re successful depends what you’re aiming for. That needn’t be fame and fortune. It needn’t be overt; some people like explicit goals, some don’t. For decades of freelancing, I aimed to earn a living by writing and succeeded in doing so. Now I aim to do what I love and improve my craft. My most useful measurable goals are the little ones: finish drafting a chapter by the end of next week, post a blog entry every Monday, pull weeds around the irises. Where it all may lead, I’m willing to wait and see.
Life is a collaborative, creative, improvisational art. I’ve been trying to apply Tina Fey’s four rules for improvisation:
1. Always agree and say yes. Respect what your partner has created.
2. Yes, and. Add something of your own; don’t be afraid to contribute.
3. Make statements. Don’t just ask questions or point out obstacles; be part of the solution.
4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
When I remember, this approach does wonders for my relationships with self, others, and life. I’ll chug merrily along on some plan or routine till life ups and changes everything: “Hey, Sarah, how about this?” The creative improv response is to go with it and decide my next move. Acceptance, yes, but far from passive.
Improv makes you pay attention and stay in the present. There’s no time to second-guess yourself or fret over how people see you. Granted, life can’t always be improv. Sometimes an issue requires reflection, and agreement isn’t always possible. More often, though, living as improvisation can pull me out of myself to say yes and move on.
Thanks to Rev. Karen Armina of Madison WI for suggesting this take on the rules adapted from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (2011).
Does anyone else remember “memory lines” from high school and before? In English classes, we chose the poems to memorize, up to an assigned number of lines. In social studies, we memorized the opening of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Having such bounty at my mental fingertips is a gift, for instance when I’m in the dentist’s chair wanting something to focus the mind.
Memorization went out of fashion years ago. Educators argued that it stifled creativity or analytical reasoning. Now people ask, why remember anything when you can look it up on your phone? I submit that the process of memorization exercises mental muscles, so to speak. It promotes gray matter and neuroplasticity. Creative connections draw on a supply of remembered material to connect.
When my late mother-in-law could no longer carry on a conversation, she loved to join in reciting Christopher Robin poems familiar since childhood. In a hopefully distant future, I’d like to think snippets of memorized poetry will still be with me after all else fades into oblivion.
If you happen to be near Leicester, England, tomorrow (May 29, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.), you can attend the first Richard III Annual Lecture, co-sponsored by the University of Leicester’s Medieval Research Centre and the King Richard III Visitor Centre.
Has any monarch provoked more debate after such a brief, long-ago reign? Shakespeare portrayed a hunchback villain who murdered his young nephews to usurp the throne in 1483, only to lose it—and his life—to Henry VII two years later. Historical investigation by the fictional detective in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) concludes Henry VII murdered the princes. Ricardians—Richard’s admirers—insist on Richard’s innocence and praise his judicial reforms. Click here for a teaser about the recovery of his bones.
You might find more Ricardian passion at a Society for Creative Anachronism event than a scholarly symposium on late medieval England. Ricardianism is part of a perennial grassroots rebellion against the perceived elitism of trained experts and smug academics.
It also reflects a human insistence on seeing our public figures as either saints or villains. Real-life trained historians are capable of thinking the same man a judicial reformer and a child killer, with morals irrelevant to the shape of his back.
American fascination with the British royal family used to leave me cold. Didn’t we revolt in 1776 partly to abolish such trappings? Lately I’m caught up in the excitement of royal courtships and weddings. The heritage of “the people’s princess” Diana moves forward with a new generation who talk openly about their feelings, promote human causes with empathy, and marry for love.
Some say instead of calling your daughter a princess, you should tell her she’s strong, or brave, or smart. (Or persistent, or hard-working, but that’s a topic for a different post.) Why not all of the above? Sleeping till kissed by a handsome prince makes a poor role model, but not every princess is so passive. One grew up to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
For an African American girl, a girl of mixed race, a geeky high achiever, any girl who knows she’s strong or brave or smart, why insist fairy-tale beauty and grace are always for somebody else? A princess can be smart, strong, brave, and hard-working. A princess can be a leader who influences a nation or culture. Just look at Diana, Kate, and Meghan.*
* Never mind whether they all hold the title princess. This is about images, not titles or technicalities.
How do so many authors roll out one mystery novel after another, every year or two? Plotting a mystery is one of the hardest puzzles I’ve ever tried to conquer. Granted, it’s not in the same category as human and relational matters, or organizing for social and political change, or health or spirit or physical feats. But as mental challenges go, creating a mystery plot ranks right up there.
Beyond the central crime, investigation, and solution, mysteries interweave subplots and red herrings, motives and dangers, missteps and misdirection. Multiple points of view must dovetail, even when only one is overt. Pacing must vary without letting up. Playing fair means giving readers all the essential clues without giving away the solution. Every mystery I read sets me trying to figure out not only, Who’s guilty? but, How did the author do that?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.