Monday, May 3, 2010

Insane Choice, Sane Output

written for

Now, I'm no expert, but I have this theory about being professionally creative—which is how I define those of us who make our living by doing things like writing and acting (those are the two careers I've had, so I'm writing about what I know here). I think most humans have at least one talent, and they usually find ways to express it just for the fun of it. But some of us decide to make a buck off of ours, and that's a different deal. We can't wait for the mood to strike or inspiration to kick in, because we have deadlines and opening nights. We have to figure out how to rev up our imaginations on command. We learn to push our own psychological buttons so we can tap into our emotions on command too. It's a slightly weird skill set—okay, it's nuts—but it's my contention that once you master it, you can take on a bunch of different creative disciplines.

All the techniques I learned as an actor help me as a writer. I get inside the heads of my characters by identifying with them and seeing the world from their points of view. I never judge them, because that's the first rule of Acting 101. I motivate them by making sure I know what they want, and I let them go after it. Sometimes the storyteller in me needs a character to do something that the actor knows is totally wrong for the character. The actor always wins, because I know that characters have to be true to themselves or I won't believe in them anymore. And if I don't believe in them, neither will the readers of the book or the audience. I've got to buy the make-believe first. Believing is serious business for me. So I have to find another way around the plot point.

I write my dialogue with my actor's ear too. It's really important to me to feel like I could say any of the lines I give my characters. There are times when that gets rough—because I want to get certain information out, but it isn't appropriate for just anyone on the canvas to tell it. When I hit one of those tangles, that's when I start walking around the house, bumping into walls and talking to myself. The dogs really hate it when I do that. They worry about the kibble source drying up if one of their humans seems to be out of control.

But all those techniques are specific tricks of the trade that I've transferred from one gig to another. I think what I really bring to writing is more abstract. It's years of channeling my memories and emotions into a pretend world and doing it on command. And while I know that playing with imaginary friends is not the usual way for a grown woman to earn her paycheck—and, frankly, there have been many times when the word "paycheck" was a huge overstatement—I think by this point it's in my DNA. Or maybe I'm just addicted to it. Either way, it's fine with me because, with all the craziness, I really love doing this. Still. And I have a suspicion that most people who made the same insane choice I did would agree with me.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Remembering Peter Haskell

I worked closely with Peter on Ryan’s Hope. He was the sort of performer you love to be around, kind, generous and so damn smart. Nobody needs me to go on about what a terrific actor Peter was, all you had to do was turn on the TV and you’d know that.

What I remember most was that mind of his -- he was really, really brilliant. His interests ranged over anything and everything. So many actors are really focused on themselves, but Peter studied his interests, everything from dog training to politics. I remember there was a time when he wanted to go back to law school so he could do pro bono work for people who needed legal representation and just because he wanted to exercise that terrific brain of his. He was fascinated by so many different topics, I mean, it was amazing how much he knew.

He’d had a lot of success by the time I knew him, but he really didn’t like to talk about all of that. His favorite topic was Crickett and his kids. Just mention them and you’d watch his eyes light up. They’re dealing with loss right now, and I don’t know if it will comfort them to know that they made him so very happy – I really hope it does.

You'd have to go some distance in self absorbed show business to find a family man like Peter. And all of that I think was what made him the actor he was. Because you can fake a lot if you're talented, but you can't fake humanity -- Peter had that, big time.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Goodbye Dixie Carter

Every once in a while you work with someone who really makes an impression on you. Dixie Carter was one of those people. She was already playing a wildly popular character -- Brandy -- on Edge Of Night when I showed up to do my year long stint.

Dixie was the kind of actress who not only welcomed a newcomer, she showed you where the ladies room was -- a serious consideration when you were doing a show that was still being broadcast live. Like most people I was charmed by her, she was earthy, glamorous, incredibly smart and totally feminine -- a combo I still think southern women can pull off better than anyone else.

And now I'm going to admit to something, Dixie had a signature perfume in those days, it was called Bal A Versailles, and it was romantic, lovely, and as she used to say, just a little bit "loud." After she introduced me to it, I wore that stuff for years.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Damn Circle of Life

Okay, there's been something going on in my house that I haven't really wanted to talk about because I needed to kind of accept it myself. And to be honest, there were times when I felt like I had Swiss Cheese Heart because there were a bunch of holes in it. I know I told you all about our cat, Martha, leaving. What I didn't mention was, we've lost several cats since last summer -- five to be exact. It hasn't been unexpected, Roger and I took in a lot of strays when we lived in Georgia. My stepson Colin was working for a vet down there and since the local shelter was not exactly well funded -- or functional -- animal lovers who found strays would bring them to Dr Schwitalla -- Mike- who would do his best to patch them up and find homes for them . But inevitably the day would come when a cat or a dog had been in the back cages at his clinic for too long and Mike would tell Colin that the only humane thing to do was let him or her go, and Colin would put in a call to Roger who would race down to the clinic and we would have another pet. Fortunately for us, Colin only worked there for a little while, but it was long enough for us to acquire many dogs and many, many cats. All of whom hit old age at once. We've been losing them for a couple of years now, and from time to time I've written about it. But our present vet has been warning us that we would probably face a fall, and winter like the one we've just had where many of them would go at once. So, our last old timer died on Monday, his name was Albert and he was the big gorgeous long haired alpha of our crowd who used to cuddle up to the others when they were sick and loved all of his fellow felines -- dogs were okay too -- and managed to be incredibly fond of his humans. It happened really quickly for him and I think it was a deliberate choice on his part. I have a real problem with the whole circle of life concept -- basically, I hate it and I think someone should work out something else, damn it -- and he wasn't going to take any chances on me trying heroic measures on him. Like I said, Albert was an alpha.
Roger and I are okay with all of this -- well, sort of, I still want an explanation for the damn circle of life -- and we will always have pets. We've got two dogs right now who are a constant source of sunshine -- and the occasional perfect storm of disaster, but who's counting -- in the house. I've posted some pictures of them, and I'm hoping maybe if some of you out there have some pictures of your pets and a story or two that you'd like to share, maybe you'll post them. I just feel like celebrating these guys -- you know?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Roxie and Me

When the big black dog with the golden eyes came to us she was at death’s door. Literally. The vet had tried to find someone who would adopt her – in our little rural town in Georgia, people who cared about strays took them to Dr Mike instead of the local shelter which put them down after 48 hours – but the medical costs would have been huge, and he couldn’t keep her any longer. She was nearly bald from an advanced case of mange and her right front leg was loaded with buckshot thanks to some dribble chinned idiot with a gun. And while I’m on that subject, can we all agree that anyone who would shoot at a helpless dog just because she’d homeless should be shot themselves? Thank you. Moving on.

A good Samaritan grabbed our girl her and brought her to Dr Mike where she met my husband Roger, AKA, St Francis of Assisi. We were broke and unemployed at the time but Mike and Roger negotiated a payment plan for the expenses Mike did at cost and the girl came home to us. She was named Roxanne by my stepson, and I gather a song by a rock band was involved in the selection. Since my musical knowledge is pretty much limited to old Broadway show tunes and the really popular arias by Puccini I never knew which group it was. Roxanne was a beauty. Roger called her a Disney dog and said she was made up of spare parts – an Irish Setter’s tail, a Lab’s build, a Terrier’s grin. When her coat grew in it was luxurious and thick and black. Her smart, smart eyes were, as I said, golden brown. Her tongue – thanks to a Chow somewhere in her family tree – was partially purple.

“She’s a runner,” Mike had warned when he turned her over to us. “You’ll have to keep her tied up when she’s outside.”

So on her first night home we celebrated her arrival with a cookout and happily attached her to a heavy portable grill by means of a collar and leash guaranteed to restrain a small elephant, if for some reason, you had one in your home. We wanted Roxanne to be outdoors with the rest of the family – we had six other rescue dogs -- so she would feel welcomed and loved. We figured there was no way she could get loose—we had the running thing covered. We were right, actually, she couldn’t get free. But what she could do was drag the collar, the leash, and the grill along with the hot coals, the half-cooked hamburgers and the three zucchini burgers for my stepson the vegan, across three fields and a good portion of the thirteen acres of Kudzu that surrounded our home. In fact, if she hadn’t run afoul of a pole anchoring the electric lines Georgia Power had run across our back forty, we probably would have lost her. The next day we had a fence built. It was the first of many over the years. And FYI, a good, strong link chain fence costs slightly more per foot than laying track for a high speed train.

Now, I’m sure anyone reading this is wondering why I’m bothering to write about Roxanne. I mean, most rescued dogs have a hard luck story in the beginning. And at some point they find a home and are cherished and blah, blah, blah. Hang on, because this one was different – at least for me.

Roxie and I had a special relationship because of a dog Roger and I had also rescued named Jennifer. Jen came from the San Fernando Valley. We lived in California for two years while I tried to become a movie star – don’t ask – before we finally moved to Georgia. Jen had problems—deep psychological problems. And she and Roxie took a hate to each other. It was a parenting issue – differing styles of motherhood to be precise. We had at the time a rescue puppy named Dorothy. Roxie adopted her, and indulged her wildly. There was evidence that Rox had had puppies of her own at some point and while all the professional dog folks swore to me that she’d forgotten about them, I knew better -- okay?

Anyway, at one point little Dorothy decided to steal one of Jen’s toys. Jen growled a reprimand . The puppy squealed, and Roxie ran to the rescue. The fight between Rox and Jen was on. Under the dinner table – it was Christmas Day, did I say that? After we cleaned up the blood, Roger, who had broken up the battle, needed thirteen stitches, Jen was in Dr Mike’s emergency room, and Roxie was off in a corner muttering to herself about how no dumb Valley Girl was going to mess with her baby.

After that there was no making peace. Mike explained that with two male dogs a grudge match would end when one dog was clearly the victor, at which point the other would shrug and say “Whatever, dude.” But when you had two females, someone was going to die. It was, he said, a girl thing. Which is how Roxie wound up living in the studio where I did my writing.

My studio, which was separate from the house, was heated and air conditioned and it had running water and a microwave –everything Roxie could possibly need. Unfortunately it also had me in it. Except for visits with Dorothy, I was Roxie’s main companion. And I was not in good shape. I was in the process of figuring out that I’d been aged out of my old career as an actress, and my new one as a staff writer for daytime drama, as we used to call the soaps, was not working out so well. To be honest, being a staff writer meant being anonymous, and I’d been a leading actor throughout my career, and I’d won an Emmy. My ego was just too big to be a worker bee. I’m not proud of this, I’m just saying.

For one long terrible summer I went into that studio everyday and tried to write scripts for other actors to say and I cried. And Roxie lay down on my feet and played dutiful dog. Until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Then she’d start nudging and barking and carrying on until I took out the leash and we’d hike through the Kudzu, her theory being if I wasn’t going to write, I might as well work off some of the butt I was acquiring by eating comfort food and spending hours watching old movies on TV.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep I’d get up and stumble across our the breezeway to my studio where Rox would cuddle with me on the sofa even though she hated cuddling. But always at some point her sense of humor – to say nothing of tough love -- would kick in and I’d be nudged with a cold nose and I’d know that she was saying, “You’ve had a lot more luck than many people with as much talent, or more, than yours. Get over this, and get on with it.”
When I finally got up the courage to try to write my first novel we were back in the Northeast where I had an office in the basement level of the house. Rox stayed down there with me while I fought off the fear that I couldn’t write a book and the even bigger fear that no one would want to read it if and when I did write it. And when I needed a break there was the nose nudge, although sometimes we’d just go outside and sniff the sunshine instead of hiking around our cul de sac. By that point she was getting old and more than a little tired. But she stuck it out until I published the Three Miss Margarets.

I don’t remember much about the day when she left. She’d been sick for a while and I do know that Roger and I both had to reassure her that we could manage without her and it was okay for her to go if she had to. I remember doing that. And to be honest, since then it’s been a little hard to think about her. I used her picture on my recipe cards because it was a way to keep her involved – without doing the thinking part.

But this year I found myself writing a novel in which the leading character is a writer who is having problems. And she has this dog. A stray dog with smart, smart eyes. And a thick, luxurious black coat. A dog who doesn’t like to cuddle but does it for her sake. The dog’s name is Annie. And the plot hinges on her. And I don’t know if you’ll believe this or not, but until a good friend pointed it out to me, I didn’t realize that Annie and Roxie had so much in common. So I guess now I’m ready to talk about Roxie. And while I wouldn’t want to get all spooky and say Rox helped me write this book… maybe somewhere out there in the ether… yeah. I think that’s what happened. She did.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Interview with Josh and Charlie

NOTE FROM LOUISE: Since the dog named Annie figures so prominently in Looking for a Love Story , my two canine companions, Josh and Charlie, suggested rather strenuously, that they should be a part of this interview. In fact, they thought they should be the interview. So here they are in their own words, telling everyone what it’s like to live with an author. And, according to Joshua , giving humans a rare opportunity to explore our mutual existence from a canine point of view. I want it known that I take no responsibility for what will be said from this point on. Especially if it’s Charlie saying it.

CHARLI E: Josh and me, we call her Mommie.
JOSHUA : Actually my correct name is Joshua. And technically speaking, Charlie’s mother is a Loose Coated Wheaten Terrier and mine is an English Springer Spaniel -- of impeccable pedigree.
CHARLIE: I knew he was going to bring up the pedigree thing.
JOSHUA: My breed has been around for centuries. We were the companions of kings. You can find us in portraits painted –
CHARLIE: (BREAKING IN) During the time of Elizabeth the First – whoever she was…
JOSHUA : Only one of the greatest monarchs England has ever known.
CHARLIE : Like anyone cares.
JOSHUA: You are such a peasant.
CHARLIE : Who are you calling a pheasant? Do these feet look like wings to you?
JOSHUA: I said peasant, dummy.
CHARLIE: You want to take this outside, Hotstuff?
JOSHUA: Any time, Carpet Boy.
CHARLIE: You have no right to bring that up. The carpet thing was a mistake.
JOSHUA: Who eats the ornaments off a Christmas tree and then follows it up by chowing down on the carpet?
CHARLIE : I told you, my stomach was upset and the carpet looked like grass. I was just a puppy.
JOSHUA: You were an idiot. Our humans are still paying off your surgeries.
INTERVIEWER: Uh… guys. Could we get back to the subject?
CHARLIE: Right. You want us to talk about Mommie.
JOSHUA: We call her that because it makes her happy.
CHARLIE: Go figure.
INTERVIEWER: What’s it like living with an author?
JOSHUA: Most of the time, she’s thoroughly presentable.
CHARLIE: Except for the week before a deadline.
JOSHUA: Yes, that’s not pretty.
CHARLIE: Humans really should brush their hair every once in a while.
JOSHUA: And they shouldn’t wear the same nightgown all day for a week.
CHARLIE: Also, it’s better if they don’t walk around the house talking to themselves.
JOSHUA: She usually does that when she’s stuck on a plot point.
CHARLIE: Or when she can’t make her characters do what she needs them to do to make the plot work. That can get scary.
JOSHUA: She’ll walk into the middle of a room with this weird look in her eyes…
CHARLIE: Like that duck in the Aflak commercials…
JOSHUA: And she’ll talk to herself for a while, then she’ll start answering herself. Sometimes she uses different voices.
CHARLIE: That’s when you know it’s bad.
JOSHUA: That’s when Roger – he’s her husband, but he doesn’t make us call him Daddy, thank God – hides the car keys.
CHARLIE: Sometimes she even forgets our dinner time.
JOSHUA: And she does things like leave the refrigerator door open so certain people can inhale the smoked salmon she was going to serve at brunch before she cancelled it because she was stuck on a plot point. .
CHARLIE : I’ve always been partial to lox and bagels.
JOSHUA: A whole pound of lox? The vet was afraid they were going to have to pump your stomach.
CHARLIE: So I suppose you’ve never done anything wrong…
JOSHUA: Now that you mention it -- no. I can’t think of a thing.
CHARLIE: Sometimes I really want to bite you.
JOSHUA: You’re welcome to try.
INTERVIEWER: Guys? We were talking about Louise?
CHARLIE: Sometimes she can be really funny. Like when she tried to train us. Remember Josh?
JOSHUA: Oh Lord, yes!
CHARLIE: She bought books.
JOSHUA: Hired a trainer.
CHARLIE: She spent a whole summer walking us around our cul de sac, going “Sit!, Stay! Heel!”
JOSHUA: As if.
CHARLIE: (MIMICKING LOUISE) “Sit, boys!” C’mon fellahs, stay…”
JOSHUA: Stop! Really. Or I’m going to have to go outside for a potty break.
INTERVIEWER: So I’m guessing the attempt at training wasn’t a success.
JOSHUA: That depends on who you’re talking to.
CHARLIE: We were happy with it.
JOSHUA: It was all a part of the learning process.
CHARLIE: For Mommie.
INTERVIEWER: That brings me to an interesting point. The whole dog/mankind relationship. Would you guys care to speak on that a little?
JOSHUA: Okay, here’s the thing people need to know about any dog’s relationship to his humans. These creatures – these humans -- who have no sense of smell…
CHARLIE: … lousy hearing …
JOSHUA : … and absolutely no understanding of how the universe works, come into our lives.
CHARLIE: The poor things don’t know enough to drop whatever they’re doing on a beautiful day, and go outside to sniff the sunshine.
JOSH: They don’t know when it’s time to stop worrying about the bills or their work, and roll in the autumn leaves, or throw a ball for us to catch, or just sit quietly and pet us.
CHARLIE: They’re always worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.
JOSHUA: Or what happened yesterday.
CHARLIE: So it’s up to us, their dogs, to make them pay attention to today.
JOSHUA: Particularly if it’s a good day. They don’t seem to notice when things are going well.
CHARLIE: But they sure do complain when they aren’t.
JOSHUA: Teaching them to say “thank you” can be a challenge.
CHARLIE: They’re awfully stubborn.
JOSHUA: We just have to keep reminding ourselves that they aren’t the brightest species on the planet.
CHARLIE: When you think about it, about all they’ve really got going for them is the opposable thumb. Which is great for opening food cans --
JOSHUA: But on a metaphysical level – not so much.
CHARLIE: Whatever that means.
JOSHUA: It means no matter how limited or flawed they are, we still love them.
CHARLIE: Well, duh, that that’s in the Dog’s Credo. (RECITES) ‘Rule Number One: I swear to love my humans unconditionally.”
JOSHUA: Yeah. Somebody’s got to do it. (TURNS TO INTERVIEWER) You need more?
INTERVIEWER: No, I think that does it. I’m going home to pet my dog.
CHARLIE: A suggestion? Give him some steak.
JOSHUA: He’ll really appreciate that.

Looking For A Love Story is in bookstores everywhere April 27th, 2010.