I Never Met A Meta That I Liked

I have become very fond of “iZombie,” a show with writing that did not settle for the obvious with the premise[s]. Mystery Writer Brain is quite satisfied with the less than obvious solutions and occasionally very devious means of murder. The cast settled into their roles and hit their strides in about five episodes [compare “Buffy,” where they found their comfort level in Season 2], and the lead, played inevitably by a New Zealander playing an American better than most American actresses, rings changes on the personality shifts brought on by ingesting murder victims’ brains [yes] with subtle touches rather than over the top caricatures.

Except, except, except … I am perfectly happy to accept any fantasy/sci-fi/non-reality world as long as it follows its own internal rules. [See previous rant about Steven Moffat’s writing for “Doctor Who” in my FB note.] There is a character on “iZombie” who is assuming an alias while leading her double lives. I just picked up that her name in one life is Gilda, while in the other, Rita. Rita Hayworth played “Gilda,” of course.

While it is perfectly possible for a  character named Gilda to adopt the Rita alias in tribute to her namesake, it also throws me out of the world. It’s the writer signalling the viewer that, “Hey, this is written! Here we are! Are we not clever? And how clever are you for noticing?”

This has popped up in a few other shows and/or movies that I’ve enjoyed. In “Angel,” the “Buffy” spin-off, John Rubinstein had a recurring role as the head of the demonic law firm [no redundancy joke here, please] Wolfram and Hart. In his last scene, immediately before his demise, he’s shouting, “I want my corner of the sky!” Being about two decades older than the target audience for the show, I spotted the reference to the song, “Corner of the Sky.” From the show, “Pippin.” Which I saw twice on Broadway. With John Rubinstein as … Pippin, singing that song.

It’s cute, it has nothing to do with the plot, and provides a self-congratulatory wink. Yes, there are people who like that kind of thing, but it takes you momentarily out of the world, and the gain, the smugness of feeling you’re on the inside with the writer, is outweighed by the annoyance of being distracted.

Last example: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The Marvel movies are filled with Easter Eggs and shout-outs to the loyal fans, making them all part of the big, happy club. Nothing wrong with that. I am not geeky enough to know or spot all of them, but I have been going to and for the most part enjoying these interconnected movies. So, there’s a scene where Cap reconnects with Nick Fury, who has [spoiler alert, but you’ve seen this by now] faked his death. They meet by Fury’s grave. Carved on his tombstone, the Biblical quote beginning with “The path of the righteous man …” that was used by Jules in “Pulp Fiction.” Both Jules and Nick Fury were played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Again, cleverness rears its head. See? says the writers. We’re so cool that we can reference other movies while inside the movie! But it jolts you outside the zone they have [hopefully] put you in.

As always, I am guilty of that which I critique. In my book, “Jester Leaps In,” a character named Simon is later revealed to be a former member of the Knights Templar. “Simon’s a Templar?” exclaims another character. And those of us old enough to remember “The Saint” will no doubt see the halo appear over Roger Moore’s head.

Forgive me. I was young.

The Pi Song [posted on 3/14/15, natch]

Back when I was in the Lehmann Engel Workshop, I worked on a proposed musical adaptation of Douglas Coupland’s book Microserfs. Out of that came the following lyric — think of it as an Andrews Sisters number.

THE PI SONG

Way down yonder in Ancient Greece,
There once was a fellow who gained fame.
A mathematical sage from the Golden Age,
Archimedes was his name.
He once drew a circle in the sand,
And what he saw there made his eyes pop.
He discovered a number
That disrupted his slumber,
‘Cause once he got it going then it wouldn’t stop.
And since Roman num’rals weren’t invented yet,
He named it for a letter in the Greek alphabet.

He called it Pi.
Not beta, not theta, not chi.
And what was first discovered by those ancient Greeks
Is now a source of fascination to us modern geeks.
I like Pi.
Although I can’t explain why.
It’s beyond all computin’.
It even puzzled Newton,
So just keep salutin as the numbers march by
Some fellas try to tell us that they can solve Fermat’s Theorem.
But if they don’t know  Pi, I’d never go near ‘em.
I’d even fear ‘em.
Give me Pi.
Don’t be coy or shy.
If you know a thousand digits,
You’ll give me the fidgits.
No mental midgets need apply.

There’s always room for Pi.
If I don’t get it, I’ll surely die.
It may seem irrational; it don’t make sense.
But without it I can’t figure out my circumference.
If a man knows Pi,
He’ll make me swoon and sigh.
If he knows my conic sections,
He’ll conquer my affections,
‘Cause I like to make selections from IQ’s that are high.
I’m not a gal who mixes Pascal into her amours.
But if you know your Pi then the only number I’ll ever want is yours.
Maybe someday I
Will meet a man just like Pi.
If I met such a man, it would be so sweet.
He would completely knock me off my feet,
‘Cause he could go on forever and never repeat.
That’s my kind of guy.
He’d be neat as, sweet as,
Gimme a P, gimme an I, that’s all you need to spell it.
Neat as, sweet as,
This is the finish, so come on, ladies, sell it!
Neat as, sweet as,
Pi.
Pi.
Pi.
Come on, baby, gimme that Pi!

R.I.P., Lew Soloff

I was saddened to hear of the death of the great Lew Soloff. If you hadn’t heard of him, start with the original Blood, Sweat and Tears albums — that’s him on trumpet on “Spinning Wheel.” He went on to be one of NYC’s top session men, playing for everyone there was.

When I was in high school in NJ, our jazz band would go every year to a clinic at Indian Hills HS. Soloff was there as a clinician. In between, he and fellow trumpeter Jon Faddis wandered into the auditorium and started to play “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” in thirds with as corny and rinkitink a style as you could imagine. Then, right at the point where we were all laughing, they took it up about two octaves and blew us away.

In the 80’s, I once went into the city with my dad. We went to hear a concert of avant-garde music at the MOMA Summergarden, then down to the Village Gate to catch the George Russell big band. Soloff was at both gigs. We chatted with him about the coincidence, and he was gracious, modest and grateful.

When Wynton Marsalis started with Jazz at Lincoln Center, he did an Ellington concert from the original charts. He had Soloff on the Cat Anderson chair, which meant that he took the high notes. At one solo, he hit a note so outrageously out in the stratosphere that all of the other trumpeters, the best in the business, turned and stared at him. He just shrugged and kept playing on.

He will be missed.
Give him a listen here.

What I Learned From Irving Berlin

     By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music.

And he was, by and large, an abject failure.

How do I reconcile these statements? In fact, how dare I call someone like Berlin a failure? This is a man who, as a Russian Jewish immigrant, pulled himself out of the New York City ghetto and taught himself how to play the piano, albeit only in one key, making the harmonic sophistication of his songs all the more impressive. [He used a transposing piano which changed keys by use of a lever.] This is a man who had one of the all-time best-selling songs in “White Christmas,” who wrote one of the great Broadway song scores with “Annie Get Your Gun,” who lived to be a hundred and is estimated to have written anywhere from over 1250 to over 1500 songs in his lifetime.

Yet that last statistic backs up my second statement about Berlin. It is an unbelievable number of songs. By way of comparison, in my eleven years of an admittedly part-time, third career as a lyricist, I have written about a hundred songs, more or less.  And I depend on collaborators for the music, because I have no skills or training as a composer. Berlin did both, and did them extremely well at times.

So, let’s assume the total number is 1250. Now, suppose you could list these songs in order of quality. I would start with “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” in the top spot, followed by “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day [To Be Caught In the Rain],” but that’s my list. Look at the first ten songs, and you have ten of the greatest songs ever written. Same with 11-20. And you keep going, through the great anthems [“God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade”], through pretty much the entire score of “Annie Get Your Gun,” and so on.

By the time you get to 41-50, you’ve gotten to songs that maybe you’ve heard of, maybe even have heard played or sung, but rarely. After 60, you’d be hard pressed to even identify a title as an Irving Berlin song. The chronological Wikipedia list, found here, highlights sixty of the songs with their own articles. While not a perfect indicator, it gives a rough proxy as to which of the songs merited further discussion [although “Si’s Been Drinking Cider” seems to have been an accidental highlighting.]

Now for some math. Sixty out of 1260 is a success rate of about 4.8%. Flip it, and it’s a failure rate of 95.2%. Pretty damn high, which proves my second statement.

And this is why Irving Berlin inspires me and gives me hope as a writer. When people ask me for writing advice, the most significant thing that I tell them is to write every day. What you write may or may not turn out to be any good, but the sheer act of writing it will make you a better writer. It’s a muscle, a mental muscle that needs constant exercise if it is ever going to improve.

    And if you write enough, some of it will be good.

And if it isn’t good, set it aside and move on to the next thing. I knew a composer once who told me that he didn’t want to bother writing any bad songs because he thought he only had so many good songs in him. I disagree with that whole-heartedly. You learn from the bad. You develop an aesthetic sense that will help you down the line. Look again at the chronological list in Wikipedia and see how the percentage of significant songs increases as Berlin matured. [It goes back down as he ages out of his prime.]

The young Berlin wrote “Ephraham Played Upon The Piano” and “Don’t Take Your Beau to the Seashore,” and his career survived [the latter song is fun, by the way.] George Gershwin said of him, “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”

I didn’t get Berlin when I was a young teen working my way through my dad’s fake book. The songs seemed corny, and he never completely made the transition to the integrated musical, although a case can be made for “Call Me Madam” in that regard. His greatest work came when Jerome Kern died before taking on the score to what would become “Annie Get Your Gun,” causing producers Rodgers and Hammerstein to bring him on. As I have developed and improved in my own lyric-writing, I have come to appreciate the idea of telling the story in the song without drawing attention to the songwriter. Simplicity, in other words. Sondheim, in his essay in Finishing The Hat, says “Berlin is a lyricist whose work I appreciate more and more the older I get. His lyrics appear to be simple, but simplicity is a complicated matter, as well as being hard to achieve without a quick slide from simple to simplistic.”

By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music. Most reckonings. Including mine.

About Casting

In my previous post, I wrote about visualizing actors for characters. I don’t do that for fiction, but when it comes to writing for musical theater, that changes. The reason is that the voice, specifically the singing voice, matters. Whereas a written character’s voice could be anything [and the few audio versions that I’ve heard of my work sound nothing like I hear the characters], when it comes to musicals, you have to be thinking, “She’s a soprano, not legit, with a theater belt and the ability to rock out when we need her to.” And once you do, you start remembering performers who meet those criteria.

Which means that you are essentially casting the show in your head while you’re writing it, and I have found that to be a useful thing. You’re moving the imaginary characters around an imaginary stage anyway to make sure that the scenes work and that people have enough time to change costumes, so you might as well have specific people for your templates rather than a SimRep group [and wouldn’t that be a fun game to have?]

The more I’ve gotten to work in theater, the more performers I have met. Every one of them is in my mental database, waiting to leap out and sing their imaginary little hearts out. And I don’t typecast them — the ingenue in one show becomes a biker chick bartender in another; the straight high school senior segués into a gay, thirty-something editor. It all comes down to the voice and, to a lesser extent, the age.

In the year after I had been in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, I was looking for a compatible composer to work with. I had come up with an idea for a show to be made up of thematically-related musical sketches and one-acts. I had been influenced by my experiences both watching and participating in the Raw Impressions Theater Company, who put together evenings of eight ten minute musicals written in forty-eight hours by eight pairs of writers and composers who had never worked together before. They usually had a cast of ten covering the whole set, and the performers were seriously good.

So, as I began thinking about what I would write, I also thought about the practicalities. I wanted to use six performers, three men and three women, all versatile. And thinking about the characters in the pieces became mixed with thinking about who would play them. The characters suggested the performers, the performers suggested more characters, and in my head, where I was director, designer and audience, I was having a great time enjoying the show.

Of course, if you get to the point where you actually can have a reading or, if you’re lucky, an actual staging of the show, the actors you dreamed of may not be available because they selfishly have their own lives and needs. In the case of “This Happened To Someone I Know,” the anthology musical which I ultimately wrote with composer Mark Sutton-Smith, I did get four of the six to record some demos. I later got a different four of the six to do a reading, and it was sweet hearing their actual voices doing what the voices in my head had done [no medication needed here, folks. Relax.]

But, if you can’t get the performers you dreamed of getting, here’s the wonderful thing about living in NYC: There are a lot of performers here, and many will happily come in to read or sing for you, either because they hope that this will lead to work for them if you ever strike gold, or because they realize that all of us in this community [and I am willing at this point to include myself] need to have this symbiosis continue if musical theater is going to be created.

So, what happens when a performer you craved is unavailable? You network. You find others, and they know others, and before you know it, your imaginary repertory company is legion. And someone will come in who was nothing like the person in your head and put an entirely new spin on the character, and you, the writer, sit there and think, “Oh! This character can do that!” For example, when Mark and I wrote “Girl Detective,” we recruited Kimmy Brownell for the table reading. We had met Kimmy when she learned four songs at the last second for some demos when our original singer came down with a cold. Right before the table reading, Kimmy had a family emergency. She sent me a list of possible replacements, with a notation next to one of them, “She rules!”

Her name was Lauren Blackman. She looked nothing like Kimmy, and we didn’t know how good she was. Turned out she was real good. When we later did a staged reading in NYC, she came back for the role and came up with a reading of the line, “Like what?” that sent both Mark and me into hysterics. Too long to explain, but the point is, I wrote that line, and I had no idea it contained what she found in it.

Sometimes you get even luckier. We wanted a young voice for Casey Ames, Girl Detective. I remembered that the older sister of one of my son’s friends had gone to the Performing Arts High School in NYC, and then on to study musical theater at Pace University. I contacted her, and had her learn one of Casey’s songs. And that’s how I started working with Tara Novie.

Tara has become one of the mainstays of my imaginary repertory company. She’s not merely a great singer. She’s a great musician [not every singer is]. So good, that she allowed Mark and me to take musical risks, knowing that she had the capability to take them and run with them. There was a moment in “Girl Detective” where Casey, self-styled high school detective, comes across a murdered man, and breaks dow because things suddenly got real. Mark and I independently arrived at the idea of using musical fragments to create the theater equivalent of an operatic mad scene. The structure was unconventional, the meters shifted into some less standard rhythms, and we ended up writing a piece that I love to this day because Tara had come into this role and we knew she could do it [and she did]. Unfortunately, it’s not up on the website, but you can hear Tara [and Lauren and many other good folks] here.

So, when I began writing “The Usual,” which had its basis in one of the one-acts from the unfinished “This Happened …” musical, Tara took over in my mind from the actress who was part of the original six. “The Usual” was a three person show: two women, one man. For the visuals, I had Tara, the fabulous Kristin Maloney, who had done demos for “This Happened …” and performed the one-act “Bad Reception” from that show, and Gil Brady, who Mark had recruited for “Girl Detective” from his imaginary repertory company.

See how this works? Only when we got to the table reading and recording for “The Usual,” real life intervened in good and bad ways. The bad: Mark was diagnosed with lymphoma, the treatment of which naturally slowed down his composing. The good: Kristin was pregnant. The delay in the completion of the score pushed things past her due date. She recommended Jillian Louis, who was incredible, and a completely different type than Kristin. [Go to the Musical Theater page to hear Jillian, Tara and Gil on those songs.]

And then “The Usual” was done at the Williamston Theatre in Michigan, and that cast, Joseph Zettelmaier, Emily Sutton-Smith and Leslie Hull, was nothing like Gil, Jillian and Tara. Their takes were different; Tony Caselli, the genius director, found beats and notes that I didn’t know were there, and it was all brilliant.

So, what I have learned: I can cast as much as I like in my head, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get those people. But if I don’t, I can’t wait to see what these characters of mine will turn into when the new folks arrive. I will keep writing for Tara, and Jillian, and Nick Cearley and David Perlman and so many others, because they help me imagine who these people are. Theater characters are meant to be played by actors, and by more than one if you want the show to live on.

And the other great thing about it is that you keep making new friends.

Casting about

Ming-Na Wen has returned to network television as Melinda May in Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Disappointing, badly written first season, unfortunately, and for those of us who remember her wonderful breakthrough in “The Joy Luck,” it is sad to see her reduced to the Hollywood you’re an Asian Woman, so you can be the kick-ass martial arts chick syndrome. Mind you, she can at 51 wear the catsuit Diana Rigg wore at 24 in a much different “Avengers,” as well as carry through fight scenes that Rigg never could, so props to her, but she’s woefully underused.

Seeing Ms. Wen invariably reminds me of a conversation I had with my mystery writer buddy S. J. Rozan at some Bouchercon several years back. She was talking about how she would cast her series featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith [read them if you haven’t], and Wen’s name came up. Wen would have been good had it been done then. The time lapse since that conversation has taken her out of contention. Lydia Chin is, of course, a Chinese-American detective with some serious martial arts chops, but those are rarely deployed — the detecting is the thing.

It’s fun to mentally cast one’s characters, and I wonder how often the actors selected match the writer’s intent. Colin Dexter loved John Thaw’s portrayal of Inspector Morse, and the books that came out after the BBC series began seemed to reflect the actor more and more. On the other hand, the fans may have their own idea of a character in mind. There was a huge brouhaha when Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher. “Reacher is tall! Cruise is not!” screamed the fans, forgetting that Cruise not only is a damn good actor, but also possesses the most credible physicality in fight scenes of any major Hollywood star. I’m sure that Lee Child’s reaction to the casting was along the lines of “I like people who are going to make me money.” [The movie underperformed, but a sequel is in the works.]

A question writers often get is, “Who would you cast in the movie of your book?” This sends us into reveries of endorsing checks with large numbers to the right of and beneath our names, walking down red carpets in tuxes, appearing on national talk shows while trying to appear modest and witty, yet self-deprecating. The truth is, unless you are also the executive producer, you, the writer, will have no control over any part of what happens once you sign away the rights. And you agree to this because the first part of the fantasy, that large-dollar amount check, overwhelms everything else.

I have nothing against this process. [It’s only happened to me once, with a short story that came thisclose to being made, with a screenplay by an Oscar-winner and another Oscar-winner lined up to star. Fortunately, I didn’t spend the money I didn’t get before I got it, which I didn’t. Long story for a short story.]

As to who I would cast — I try not to think about it. I’m writing characters who need to come to life on the page, as opposed to barely fleshed-out movie proposals disguised as a novel. I tend to underdescribe them, which might be a fault, but I prefer to give a bare bones description and let the readers flesh out the rest with their imaginations. There will be bits and pieces — Theophilos, my jester, is tall, skinny and flexible enough for tumbling and acrobatics, but we don’t know much more. His age wasn’t pinned down precisely until the fifth book, An Antic Disposition, which was his origins book. Claudia, née Viola, is given a little more since we see her through his eyes, but not much.

Did I play the casting game with them? Yes, of course. I had the movie fantasies like anyone would. But these characters started forming in the mid-Nineties. The actors I would have cast then? A tall actor with a good singing voice who was adept at physical comedy — Kevin Kline leapt to mind, and if the movie had been made immediately, he would have been great. But he’s 66 now. For Viola at that time, I needed a woman who was a chameleon, short and thirty-ish. I was a big fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still am, but she’s 53.

Even if Hollywood buys the rights, it takes years to get anything actually made, and therein lies the problem. So, if anyone comes knocking, I’ll sign away my characters with alacrity. [Maybe I can get them to let me write the screenplay — nah, who am I kidding?] And I’ll hope to God they get it right. Or make it better. As much as I loved Baum’s Oz books, I’m glad that MGM made Dorothy old enough to be played by Judy Garland. It would have been a much poorer movie if she had been the age depicted in the original Denslow illustration.

And I’m a patient man. Matt Smith isn’t old enough to play Theophilos yet. But he will be. And I hear he can sing.

Dak’s Law

“Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.”

Recognize that quote? Of course, you do. Dak [or Dack, depending on the source] was Luke Skywalker’s gunner in the battle scene early in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The moment he uttered those fateful words, every thinking being in the theater knew that he was toast.

As a writer and as a viewer, I am irked when I am aware of the writing — which is to say, when I am aware of the open manipulation of my sympathies. When this happens, it creates the opposite effect. Instead of being sympathetic, and later saddened at the sudden and wholly unanticipated demise of said sympathetic and startlingly wrongly optimistic character, I sit there thinking, “Really? They’re doing that?” And the inevitable demise has no impact whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is manipulation. But good writing doesn’t let you know it’s happening. The use of this particular cliché undercuts the surprise, the shock, the pathos. Maybe I am oversensitive to it, but my resentment is at the clumsiness of the attempt, of the contempt of the writer for his/her audience. [I await the comments of any of my readers who wish to point out instances of my doing exactly this. Never said I was perfect.]

What brought this to mind was the mini-series “Fargo,” set in the same world as the great Coen brothers movie. Dominated by the brilliant performances of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, the plotting and writing have been gleefully perverse, giving me a great deal of pleasure in the twists, never mind that the three hitmen and the one amateur murderer have been exceptionally careless in leaving behind video evidence, fingerprints, witnesses and so forth.

But along comes Episode 9, “A Fox, a Rabbit and a Cabbage.” Lester’s approach to Malvo is both dangerously stupid and extremely out of character, forcing the plot points, but that’s just bad plotting. The invocation of Dak comes from the monologue of Lester’s new wife, Linda — a sad story of her sad childhood, and how her hopes that her Prince Charming would come and here he is in the form of Lester and isn’t everything going to be wonderful. And we immediately know that she is doomed.

It happened in “Dexter,” on Rita’s last episode in Season 4. She expressed her hope in the future and delight that everything seemed to be working out well for them at last, and I felt sadness at the termination of Julie Benz’s contract. Robert, my son, said he saw her death coming from the first episode of that season. Somewhere, Dak was yelling, “Girl! Get out of town now!”

So, here endeth the lesson. If you want to surprise your viewer or reader, don’t tell them the character is going to die. We may still like the character — but we’re not going to respect its creator.

Tell Me a Story

“Tell me a story, Vince.”

That was the first line of my first published short story, “A Dry Manhattan Story,” in the April, 1991 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  I have always loved the voice in fiction of one character telling a story to another. It gives life to both the teller and the listener, allowing for narrative and commentary simultaneously. It is best done on a journey or by a roaring fire. (I have used both in The Widow of Jerusalem and An Antic Disposition,and arguably those are my two favorite books among those that I have written.)

Fiction writers have it easy in one sense. We are limited only by our imaginations and our talents. We can set a story anywhere, anytime, restricted only by what our aesthetic dictates. Selecting the restrictions and imposing them is part of the fun.

But what if someone else imposed the restrictions? What if they were the following: A. The story has to be told orally, not in writing. Okay, I know how to talk. B. The story has to relate to a one or two word theme that will be given to you. No problem—that can trigger my imagination in interesting new ways. C. It has to be five minutes long. Uhh, tougher. Sometimes getting me to shut up is more difficult than getting me to write. D. The story has to be true, drawn from your own life.

Gulp.

Enter The Moth. Founded in 1997 in NYC by George Dawes Green, The Moth holds story-telling evenings, open to all. Hundreds of people jam into a café or bookstore for the weekly StorySLAMS, and a few dozen intrepid (or narcissistic) souls drop their names into a bag. Ten are selected at random. An emcee, usually a comedian, holds forth in between the tales, and panels of volunteer judges score the tale-tellers on a scale of one to ten. The highest score earns the teller the right to compete against other winners in a quarterly event called the GrandSLAM, held in an even larger venue. The winner gets—nothing but bragging rights.

The program has expanded across the nation, adding events with longer stories and a radio show on NPR, earning a Peabody Award along the way. It remains one of the best bangs for the buck anywhere. And it’s a rush, as I can attest from experience.

I had been approached early in The Moth’s history about participating, but felt that my talents were better suited to fiction. Two years ago, however, I thought of one story from my past. I came in, was picked—and won on my first time out. Since then, I have been in two more StorySlams and two GrandSLAMS.

I have found that it takes a different set of gears for true life tale-telling. The narrative voice belongs to a character named “Alan Gordon,” who is an aspect of me slightly larger than my daily persona. The Procrustean nature of the time limit becomes a major factor—do I stretch or do I cut? I usually shape it in my head rather than committing to paper for the freedom to improvise if inspiration pops up mid-performance, as it frequently does.

My second StorySLAM win was for a theme that you’d think would be in my wheelhouse: Mystery. But mysteries in fiction are common. Mysteries in real life—not so much. Yet it was musing upon the paradox of a mystery writer lacking mystery in life that led me to the winning story, which I literally composed on the subway ride from Queens to the Manhattan venue. What was it? Well, it’s a tale best told out loud—and it will be. It’s going to be featured on the radio show and podcast sometime in 2014. The details will eventually be posted at www.themoth.org. Until then, you can check out the site for events near you, the radio schedule, and current podcasts. And if you have a tale to tell, come on down and give it a try.

But remember—you only have five minutes. And it has to be true.

Gulp.