The Muse, Man!
I would love to tell you, my gentle and attractive readers, that the only way I can pour out the words that fill this column is by sitting at my 18th-century rolltop desk in the library of my vast country estate in Quogue. It is with deep regret and a certain sense of peevishness that I tell you this would be a lie of epic proportions. I actually don’t need complete silence, a view of the sea, or flaming Rigaud candles to complete my …Prying! column. I don’t pine for slumber-time visits from the website gods.
What I need is…a deadline. The day before my column is due, I can usually be found feverishly making well-placed phone calls to various publicists and talented friends who have been blessed with the gift of sound bite. Call me quirky, but I’d like to think this technique is what gives the column such a breezy, chatty air. The words are typed into my Grape iMac almost before they have fallen out of my pried-on subject’s mouths. I recently decided to delve into the minds of some very creative writers to see just how and when the Muses come to visit them.
WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES GET YOUR CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING?
(Composer, performing at Firebird Cafe, Saturdays in September at 9pm)
“I write all my lyrics in the morning from my bed. I turn off the phone, lie in bed, and write. Alone. Oh God, I don’t want that to sound too pathetic!
“I think the mornings are so good for me because I want to get as much raw material out as possible before my internal editor is fully awake. I let him sleep in. When the lyric is nearing some form of completion, then I actually get up and go to the piano to put it all together. The words almost always come first. Only once did I have the melody first; that was for a song called ‘A Powerful Man.’ I had found a tape I’d made some time ago while I was noodling at the piano. I heard it again, liked it, went to bed, and BOOM…the lyrics! Sometimes, a lyric will wake me up out of a sound sleep. It’s like God knocking on the inside of my head!
“One time–and I love saying this–I was in Bali. Isn’t this a good story already? At four in the morning, the whole first verse of a song was spinning around in my head. How bizarre is that? I kept thinking, ‘Leave me alone, I’m on vacation!’ The lyric was, ‘The car door slammed. He runs into the house and up the stairs to find her lying naked on the bed, her head in her hands, her heart in her words. She says, I cannot do this anymore.’ All that from a nap in Bali!”
(Currently working on Full Circle, a commissioned, one-act opera about
the Algonquin Round Table)
“It doesn’t matter when or where I write but, in writing comedy, something inside does have to open up. I have to get a little internal giggle. Sometimes it isn’t funny at all when I’m writing it, but then sometimes I laugh my ass off. It can be totally clinical, as it was when I wrote my first song a million years ago, called ‘Moon Over Piggott.’ (That’s a town in northeast Arkansas where Hemingway lived.) I personally think the song compares to Schubert; not favorably, particularly, but it compares. The last line of the finished product was, ‘Any macaroon eatin’ at noon near a lagoon is gonna be soon in a spittoon under the moon over Piggott.’ Now, that’s clinical. The big question became, ‘What rhymes with oon?’ It’s still everybody’s favorite song that I do because it’s so damned silly. I performed it in salons in Georgetown for people sitting on straight-back chairs, looking at me like I was some kind of marmoset–but, by the time we got
to those ‘oon’ rhymes, they were snickering and snorting like school kids.
“On a more serious note: I’m writing an opera libretto about the Algonquin Round Table, which of course involves some of the funniest characters who ever lived. Well, how the hell do you write lines for them? I literally sit at my computer and ask the characters individually to talk to me and to tell me what they should be doing. It’s like channeling. What do they want to say? I hear the line, scream with laughter, and then write it down. Nobody’s more entertained than me! At first, it was such a daunting project. I’ve placed all the characters in the present. The first thing I saw was Dorothy Parker walking into the hotel saying, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!’ I absolutely heard her say it. At one point the characters are talking about present-day celebrities, and the subject of Madonna comes up. Dorothy says, “Oh, Madonna! She’s younger than Callas and older than Christ.” I swear, I couldn’t have written that. It was Dorothy.
“There’s hardly anything about me that’s writing this opera. Tallulah Bankhead is talking to a young couple and says, ‘You obviously belong together–like clotted cream and livestock.’ When a line like that comes shooting out of the stratosphere, you just quickly type.”
(Jerome Foundation Emerging Playwright Award, It’s Not My Fault, It Was On
Fire When I Got There, Theater For the New City, September 27-October
“I have to trick myself into sitting down and actually doing the work. I get all my ideas while I’m walking around town and I jot them down, thinking, ‘When I get home, I’m going to spend three hours in front of the computer.’ Then I get home and think, ‘Oh wait, Lucy‘s on!’ Or, ‘Gosh, they’re showing Make Mine Mink on Turner–I can’t miss that!’
“When I finally con myself into sitting down to write, first I have to check my e-mails several times, then I play solitaire for at least an hour. Only then I can finally open that file and do my homework. I eventually get it done because of guilt: Maybe I promised someone a draft and it just needs to be finished. If I set up tasks for myself, I can be very good and disciplined, like my mentor taught me. If I don’t, I turn into a 13-year-old who doesn’t want to do his homework. Once I get into it, though, I can spend hours writing and I get very angry if I have to leave.
“The trick is to learn to keep personal deadlines. If I’m blocked about something and I’m not happy with my ideas, this can be very hard. That’s when I feel totally useless and think I can’t do it at all. Of course, if I have good ideas, it’s very exciting to sit down and work.”
Click here to visit Jim Caruso’s website.