Thursday, December 31, 2009

And so we reach the end of another...

(NOTE: This went out to my friends and family in email form but I know there are plenty of you who keep up via the blog, so...)

It’s the end of a decade – the end of the decade nobody knew what to call. “The Shrub Era”? “The Oughts”? Now people can comfortably settle into the teens and how nice that will be… I’m sure we all hope…

I would like to say a word or two about this past year, 2009, but before I do that – a word or two about this decade. You might say this was a pretty bad year for me, unemployed for 11 months without a nibble on a job or a sale, but please consider… I began this decade with the loss of my first wife and spent four or five or six or seven years finding my way out of those mires. I’ve lost friends, Megan foremost among them. I lost my father. I went to the Grand Canyon to try and kill myself and found that self-destruction does not end when you step away from the edge. All in all, there were other years I would wish to repeat far less than the one that just past.

This past decade held more than its share of lovely memories as well. This was the decade of Vicky. I won’t say we never have our problems but there’s no one I would rather have them with. This was the decade I returned to the stage. I wrote my first play in this decade. Imagine this for a second: in the last 10 years (yes, I’m going back to 1999 – sorry – chronology sucks), I have completed nine novels and 12 full-length plays. My sales record may be abysmal but I’ve had four staged readings and I can say that with every novel or play my quality improves just a little bit. I have learned that being an artist is not about making money and I have found fulfillment in that. This achievement is due mostly to my first book on philosophy, a memoir called Climbing Maya.

I’ve been blessed – in a completely unreligious, non-spooky supernatural way, I assure you – with the gifts of so many people. Annie and Lori convinced me to write my first play. Steve offered to direct it before he even saw it. Sherryl and Chris and Stephanie and Tony have worked with me along the way, supporting me with their amazing talents – especially Stephanie who is my most dedicated fan and who has cheered me on all along the way despite my lack of monetary compensation. Eric has inspired me to take my writing to the next level and, along with the Orange County Playwrights Alliance, have provided me a home amongst peers. Sean has been a friend who has stood by me every step of the way, through some of the worst times for us both. And my family – the screwiest bunch of lunatics you ever want to meet – has popped in and out, together and apart, for too many weddings and too many funerals and not enough lottery winnings. Then, there are those I met, those who came back into my life, and those who left, all adding to a cast of characters I could never measure up to in any of my writing. And then, there is Vicky. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have started writing again after a significant drought. She married me in the good times and has stuck by me in bad. Heck, she’s kept the trains running on time while I’ve been off on this artistic excursion. (Yes, we recently acquired trains…) She started out refusing to be “a fan” and is now one of my biggest. She’s the best friend I could hope for and she’s also a colossal pain in my ass and I consider myself lucky.

It’s been one hell of a decade, is what I’m saying.

So, this year hasn’t been the worst. It didn’t need to be the best… would’ve been nice, but… Say what you want about unemployment and what you like about the economy, here’s what I got. I’ve had eleven months to pursue being an artist, which is something most people don’t get. That pursuit produced eleven plays and the beginnings of my next novel – good work including a play about finding your way after the death of a loved one, crazy work including a Marx Brother’s comedy with one protracted poop joke, political work about the death of ethics, and one very surreal absurdist piece that makes me believe I’ve finally after all these years created actual art. It wasn’t the year I wanted. It was the year I got.

This might not have been the decade I wanted when I rang it in with a certain someone so many years ago but it was the one I got. So it is with everything. So it is with life.

And so I close with a suggestion that you may not have the happiest new year and the next decade may not bring everything you want, but it will be what it will be. Find the good times, find the loveliness, and share them with those who matter to you most. That’s what one decade has taught me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I guess you can say I’m all caught up…

It was spring or it was early summer. I was 16 or 17 years old. Okay, so much of it is a blur but the things I do remember were that we were all standing at the top of the stairs in front of Valley High School’s auditorium. Roy Johnson, only a couple of years older than me but more self-assured than any age would make me capable, was showing off his new short story. It was called Snails or something. The important thing was it was genius.

And everyone was saying so.

And I was so desperate for attention back then that I said something like, “So? I can do that.” I was so young that my brain hadn’t quite caught on. Now, if I said something like that, my brain would immediately be asking, “What? When did this happen? I didn’t know about this!” Which is probably why I don’t say things like that any longer. In fact, now when people ask me if I’m a writer, I tend to shrug it off.

But not back then.

And everyone knew it. The guys up there on the top of the steps weren’t just my friends in high school but the other guys from theater, who knew me well enough to know I was full of shit. Talented? Sure. Smart? Maybe. But without a doubt completely full of shit. They turned on me like a crown of young men will and very quickly had me saying things like, “Yeah, I’ve started a novel at home. I just haven’t shown it to anyone, yet.”

Nestor, a big guy who could be your best friend or most vicious adversary depending on lunch or which was the wind blew, suggested he’d really like to see that book. Yeah, Ken, why don’t you bring that book to school and we’ll let you know how good it is…

My stride was calm and confident as I walked home that afternoon, all the while wishing to run because I knew I hadn’t started a novel. In fact, I’d never written a thing in my life.

Oh sure, there were those articles and goofy comedy bits I did for the school newspaper way back in junior high. (This was before My Side, the column I had in high school and so on.) But that would hardly count. No, I had to come up with the beginnings of a novel or fess up to being full of shit.

So, I went home and wrote the beginning of a novel. I wrote several chapters of a book I’d never finish – but there it was. And it wasn’t bad. And, I thought, I really could do this. Imagine!

Roy Johnson never became a famous writer but odds are he became happy. At least, I hope he is happy wherever he is. If it weren’t for him, I would never have become a writer… and I’ve been trying to prove it ever since.

This memory popped back into my head the other day, as I put the last lines down for a new play. That makes six full-length plays I finished this year. Six. Wow. And a sudden, strange inclination had me counting all the books and plays I’d written.

One by one, I counted off the books:
My Side
This Land is My Land
A Hex Upon Rynia
The Sons of Rynia
: A Rynia trilogy whose books I never got around to naming
Vampire Society
A Grand Canyon
No More Blue Roses
With Eyes to See
Climbing Maya
Love of Your Life
Daughter of a One-Armed Man

Last Ditch

Sixteen. Sixteen books.

One by one, I counted off the plays:
Everything Changes
Whatever Happened To Me?
After You Fall
Murielle’s Big Date
Murder, Zombies, the Devil… and stuff…
Sometimes We Find Our Way
Diamonds to Go
The Death of Ethics, etc.
Friends, First
Happily After Ever

Twelve. Twelve plays.

That makes 28 full-length books and plays. This doesn’t include the short plays or short stories or poems or essays or (god forbid) blog entries…

And then I did a bit more math… and I realized that for every year after Roy Johnson and that first moment when I boasted that I could write, I’ve completed writing one book or one play. One a year since the age of 16… still trying to prove myself.

And another memory pops into my head. Ms. Von’s English class… a girl named Michelle asked, “Ms. Von, do you think Ken will ever make it as a writer?” Ms. Von tilted her glance over at me. “If he remains prolific, he will.”

If he remains prolific.

Well, a book or a play each year for 28 years… that’s gotta count, right?

And I thought of this… and I laid down the opening of a new book. This one’s called The Wrong Magic and it’s about how we rely on magic in our lives, in our relationships, and how unreliable it really is… Of course, that’s not all. I’ll tell you more later…

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What every writer must do…

So, I’m working on this new play: Happily After Ever. This will be my sixth play this year and a damned good reason to quit for a while. I’m exhausted in a very real sense.

Strangely, though, what has happened possibly as a result of being so prolific is that I’ve stumbled onto one of the presumptions of theater and found a way to tear a hole right through it. The resulting work is better than anything I’ve seen myself produce mostly due to scale alone. It’s not just a “bigger is better” thing; it’s one of those times when you set the bar so high you don’t think you can clear it.

Which brings an important point to mind.

It may be this way for any artist but, surely, it applies to writers. When you’re producing your best work, when you look at it and think “Did I really do that?” you’re in a pickle because until you finish whatever project you’re on you are forced to continue at that level. Mediocre writing provides shelter for the lazy; you never have to work too hard to keep that up. But who wants mediocre? Your whole aim as an artist is to reach those impossible heights!

So, it becomes exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. This is why you became an artist, for this very reason. It’s the same feeling an athlete experiences, but instead of pushing your body to an extreme you never thought you’d reach you’re getting there with your mind, with your heart, with your spirit.

Then, when you finish, you realize the odds of getting there again are pretty minute. I know, I’m thinking about that right about now, thinking, “How on earth did I do this and how can I do it again?” I have to stop asking that question, though, and experience the moment so I can remember it later. Because that day will come when I won’t be able to lay down three words that make sense and I’ll wonder, “Why did I think I could do this?” And this will be why.

It’s important to realize why you commit your life to something. Just like with any romance, it keeps the love alive.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

That moment I shouldn’t enjoy but do anyway…

A year or so ago, Vicky and I sat in an OCPA meeting just after the reading of my (then) new play, Meaning. and listened to the feedback from the small audience that was there. One person groused, “You can’t write plays about the meaning of life. You just can’t do it!” Thought this probably should have worried me, I felt the edge of my mouth raise up just a touch… I liked that.

I’ve been so busy writing this year; it’s really been the year of “Ken La Salle: Playwright”. I’ve finished:
Sometimes We Find Our Way
Murder, Zombies, The Devil… and stuff
Diamonds To Go
The Death of Ethics, The Demise of Morality, and the day we all dropped dead
Friends, First

And those are just the full-length, 90 minutes or so, plays. A list with all the shorts would be much longer. I think I’ve been writing my ass off, mostly, as justification in a way. After all, being out of work, it’s nice to say I’ve actually done something with my time. I could say I’ve been applying for jobs but with so few out there that still leaves many hours in the day.

Now, I’m ready to start my sixth play of the year, which I’m calling Happily After Ever, and my friend Stephanie gives me familiar “You can’t do that”. And I smile a bit. I think I’m most pleased (one is tempted to use the word “happiest” but this is me we’re talking about) when I’m doing something people tell me can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. Without going into details, she’s right, of course. The idea for the new play is fraught with complications and things that might kill an ordinary audience… but if I have faith in myself and in my writing, that shouldn’t be a concern.

And I find that equally amusing as I sit here late at night typing this out: me having faith in my writing. With nearly 20 novels and over a dozen plays but not a single sale to my credit, you’d think that’s the last thing I’d have. But then, I think of the staged readings I’ve had and the times when people have heard my plays at a table read and the generous feedback from those who have read my books… I’m not so stupid that I can’t tell rotten luck from rotten writing.

And I guess that as long as I’m told I can’t do something or I shouldn’t do it, as long as the very idea of what I want to write gets a reaction, it’s a far, far better thing than putting people to sleep.

As long as I can prove them wrong, at least…

Friday, December 04, 2009

Rope burns…

Just a tip to the perverts out there: No, that’s not what this will be about. Get your hands where I can see them and we’ll continue…

Vicky and I have started walking the dogs together in the morning before she goes to work. Sometimes, we’ll just go around the block. Then, there are times when we’ll walk down to the park and let the dogs get some exercise in.

Herein lies my mistake. About a week ago, Vicky and I were out on a particularly warm morning. It was so warm, in fact, that I was wearing shorts. This is an important point and one I should have considered. As we were walking through the park, Shipoopi (our little nuclear energy dog) darted around me and then darted up again so that her lead was draped across my calves…

… and then she pulled…

… and the lead pulled across my calves very quickly, leaving twin rope burns across both calves… and leaving me screaming like a little girl…

Vicky asked, “What happened?” And when I told her, her response was something along the line of “Pansie…”

The next day, the burns began to scab over. A day or so later, Vicky saw the backs of my calves and made a disgusted sound. “Wow. Those look really painful.”

And they were.

I have a great respect for those who can work with ropes and not get rope burn now that I know what it is. I also have a great respect for ropes and plan to never walk my dogs without long pants again, lest we replay that little dittie. Here it is, about a week later, and I can’t scratch them because of the scabs. They’re like two long crevices across my calves… ouch…

Let’s all try to learn from my mistake, shall we?