31 March 2010

'The New York Times' is having a Bake Sale

Yesterday, I finally felt like a writer.

Although I’m the author of three works of scholarly non-fiction – for which I occasionally receive royalty cheques/checks in sums that might possibly allow me to purchase a book of postage stamps. (Well, that it is until Royal Mail puts up stamp prices next week!)

I am always somewhat dim-wittedly surprised when these cheques arrive in the post. I open the letters, and say aloud, almost yawning, “Oh, yeah. I wrote that.” 

My nonplussed attitude stems from the fact that these three tomes, although sources of great pride, have -- due to their status as scholarly works (and their exorbitant price-tags) – remained largely unread and unknown.

In fact, it is quite soul-destroying whenever I walk through the Bookstalls in The Courtyard Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company and NEVER, EVER see a copy of my book, Studio Shakespeare on their shelves.

My book is the definite history of the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place, and biography of its first artist director, Mary Ann “Buzz” Goodbody. I had the honour of being distinguished as the “Buzz Goodbody scholar,” at a memorial event for her in 2006; where I shared the stage on a panel with Patrick Stewart.

I toiled for eight years to produce that work, to commemorate that place and time in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s history. I am told, whenever I pursue the topic with them, that everyone in the Company admires the work, thinks it’s great and invaluable, &etc. – it is their history after all – but regrettably, the book is too expensive for them to keep in stock.

Sad, isn’t it, how things always seem to come down to money at the end of the day?

So, the way I have chosen to cope is to just try and forget about it, and to remain indifferent when it appears that another copy has actually been sold, somewhere in the world.

What a different feeling then, to be a “Columnist” with a regular column in a magazine that people actually read!

And yesterday, said-magazine hosted a fabulous spring luncheon at the Alveston Manor in Stratford-upon-Avon, to celebrate its on-going success, and congratulate its staff and contributors.

When I received my invitation, I danced about the house with glee. I was more excited receiving the invite to the magazine’s posh lunch, than I was about receiving my pay slip!

I jumped into the car, and rushed over to Warwick to see my friend Ella at her fantastic vintage shop, Corina Corina to find something fabulous to wear. Ella kitted me out with a splendid pair of delicious Dolce & Gabana knickerbockers.  (A steal at £55.00)  They made me feel every inch a diva!

I sauntered into yesterday’s lunch feeling fabulous, but also more than a little bit nervous, as I feared I wouldn’t know anyone. I needn’t have worried, as I soon felt right at home, when our wonderful, wonderful Editorix-in-Chief, Jane Sullivan made a beeline to me, to say ‘hello’. (She’s mega.)

Everyone was very enthusiastic about my column; at one point the Publications Director grabbed the forth-coming April issue, and through pales of laughter, started reading out bits of my column to others around the table.

Needless to say, I was flattered beyond belief!

There is a book (on our newly assembled IKEA bookshelves) by George Orwell called “Why I Write”.  I bought that book for the title, and the way it prompted me to contemplate why I write. People write for lots of reasons: for profit, for pleasure, for fame, for fun, and so on.

I will say it was such a great, great pleasure to witness people actively enjoying something that I’d written. Quite a wonderful feeling.

I left that lunch walking on air. As I drove home on the windy road through the tiny hamlet of Loxley, I thought about the funny journey I have had as a writer.  I was giddy, and despite the light splattering of rain, I lowered the windows of the car, and shouted ‘Helllooooo, hellooo!’ to the sheep grazing, not so peacefully, in the lush, green fields beside the road.

I laughed at myself. And recalled an episode from my high school (secondary school) journalism days. I was a staff writer for the school paper, and every year we were given the chance to apply for the various leading, editorial posts on the paper. For years, I’d coveted being Features Editor.

Our newspaper teacher, Mrs. M., was a stickler for precision and organization, she was hard to please to say the least.  The day before she was to make her final decision for editorial posts for the coming year, she scheduled a fundraising “Bake Sale” for the paper. We were all meant to contribute to sale and put in the time selling the edible wares.

Every girl knew this was the last chance to shine before Mrs. M. – to show your undying commitment and dedication to the paper and its survival.

Alas, dear Reader, I am sure you have already guessed my predicament: I forgot. I arrived at school blithely, and brownie-less, as if it were any other day. I was devastated.

My best friend, Noël, found me beside myself in tears, in the restroom.  “C’mon Al,” she cajoled. “I can’t believe you’re seriously upset over the fact that you forgot a stupid bake sale.”

“You don’t understand,” I cried. “I want to be a writer, and I’ve just blown my chances with Mrs. M., I’ll never be more than a staff writer now.”

“Look,” Noël said defiantly. “If she doesn’t pick you for Features editor because you didn’t stay up all night making chocolate chip cookies, than she’s crazy. What’s that got to do with writing anyway? Oh, yeah, I can just see it now, ‘The New York Times is having a Bake Sale.’”

That conversation cheered me immensely, and I still laugh heartily when I think on it now. In the end, I wasn’t selected for Features Editor (absence of brownies aside, it was most likely because I’ve never met a comma that I didn’t like).

However, my ever-defiant friend set me to a task that pushed my writing far more than that editorial position ever would have. Daring me to ‘just write,’ Noël set us both to the challenge of writing a daily short story. 

We’d meet at our lockers, blurry eyed, at 7:55 AM and exchange massive, handwritten bundles.  “You’re going love this one, I was up till 3 AM writing it!” Noël said, shouting back at me, over her shoulder, from the midst of a sea of navy-blue uniforms, as the bell for homeroom rang…

Brilliant, wonderful, writer-ly times.





My first installment (I am so proud!)

The Eagle has landed   

(printed in Warwickshire Life, March 2010)

My father was an infinitely sensible man. As a barrister and subsequent high court judge, common sense was more than a philosophy; it was a way of life. By contrast, it seemed my mission - often unwittingly – was to challenge his more staid opinions.

Apart from one very sad “orange hair” incident, and some rather unfortunate fashion and boyfriend choices in my mid to late teens, the one thing the grieved my father most was the fact I have never been a ‘woman of property’.

My father loathed the way my career -- as a roaming Shakespeare scholar -- took me galloping apace about the globe. To him, my chosen occupation was only slightly better than being in the circus, as it always seemed to lead me from one rented house, flat or apartment to the next.

“What will you have to show for yourself at the end of it all, young lady? Nothing. Just a rent receipt. Why can’t you see that that there’s nothing safer than houses?” he would say, firmly ensconced behind his newspaper.

The fact that I had just landed in Manhattan, to teach Shakespeare studies at one of America’s leading universities, was immaterial. Also immaterial was the fact NYC was, and is, one of the most expensive locales in the universe; where few, if any, without the surname Astor, Morgan or Rockefeller, stand a chance of actually owning property. These arguments did nothing to alter my father's opinion of my choices or prospects.

How I wish that he could see me now that I have finally become a ‘woman of property.’  I have no doubt he would be delighted that I am finally settled, and have a place to call my own.

It would no doubt amuse him that my new home is here in Warwickshire, the land of Shakespeare. Warwickshire, “England’s England,” is the Britain we Americans imagine in our most Anglophilic fantasies. Fantasies nourished by a steady diet of  “Miss Marple,” “The Vicar of Dibley,” any Jane Austen film, and countless other British imports presented in heavy rotation on America’s educational network, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). Creating a space for myself here has long been my dream.

“History is now and England.” – T.S. Eliot

Like so many literary-minded and undeniably Anglophilic Americans before me, I felt the pull of English soil early on. My fate was sealed as a graduate student, studying in Stratford-upon-Avon, in my early twenties. The following diary excerpt reveals an irrepressible romanticism and high-blown admiration for this green and pleasant land bordering on the excessively Eliotian:

“Mornings in Warwickshire glisten with color and crystalline light. How many see these days in their glory, and see not the magical glow? How many race through their paces, unaware of the sheer specialness of their world? And we, with our outside eyes drink in all we can, intoxicated with the view. But, could one day, this landscape become our own? Can we consume until we have had our fill? How happy I would be to remain here in this fantastic world!” – 4 November 1991 

It has taken time, tides and tempests to bring this wish to fulfillment. Still, I have got here in the end. I am sure my father, my favourite fellow Anglophile, is happy to see me settled, and that my “zany Shakespeare thing” has finally paid off.

15 March 2010

Gainfully employed

At last, at last  -- I have a job!

March has been an action-packed month, and I have scarcely been able to keep up.

First, I am finally gainfully employed.  After nearly two years of self-doubt and weeping, I have finally set a foot in the right direction, and regained a sense of self-respect.

This is not to say that I was unhappy or dissatisfied with my lot as a Housewife-Writer-and-Freelance-Shakespeare-Scholar. No, I have enjoyed that life very much, and still do!

But, there is just something in my Puritan DNA that would not, could not rest without a sense of active, lucrative employment.

I have come by my work ethic organically. My father was a tireless professional. He never seemed to stop working. To be honest, I can count the number of bona fide vacations/holidays my parents had (i.e., ones that were purely for relaxation and/or recreational purposes, as opposed to work-related ones) on one hand, and have six fingers left over. That is to say, the number is less than negligible.

To my parents’ generation, Work in a very traditional sense, (i.e., having a job, actively pursued during business hours, that pays you a regular wage) was a matter of pride and respectability. It was a badge of honour, a sign of maturity, proof of ones position as a contributing member of society.

As a result, my allowance was ‘earned,’ and tied to the efforts I had made around the house: cleaning my room; helping my mother with garden; folding clothes; polishing silver, and so on. And, it could be withheld and/or withdrawn based on occupational performance.

I must confess that I resented my friends, many of whom by my estimation, lived the life of Riley, and were given nice allowances for just being themselves, with little or no effort at all on their part.

I was also encouraged to join the workforce before many of my friends did, as well. I began babysitting professionally at the age of nine; and even spent a very lucrative, teenage, summer holiday as a live-in nanny/babysitter for several families in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

Looking back, I have no regrets. I had some wonderful experiences, and had the joy of earning “my own money”. Of course, wages for baby-sitting or working at "The Record Rack" in the mall were ridiculously low, but the amount of money was not the point, the point was earning it.

This ethos is still with me today. As an academic, I have never earned a great deal of money, but even so, I have always been quite proud of having a good job, and one that I enjoyed.

Relocating to England provided me with a real opportunity to re-evaluate my relationship with work. To explore and uncover what it is I really want to do with my life. 

It has been a blessing to get off the academic treadmill, and take some time for myself. The D.E.B. has been quite proud and supportive of my aspirations and desire to write.

As if in response to the sentiments Virginia Woolf, expressed profoundly in her work, A Room of Ones Own, the D.E.B. has given me the space, support and freedom to write. 

At times, this incredible opportunity has felt a little like the sort of gift that prompts the view, ‘be careful what you wish for’.  Over the past year and a half, I have applied a considerable amount of pressure on myself to achieve something, anything, with my writing, and quickly.

But, of course, writing is not a pursuit that one follows with any sort of haste. My impatience in this regard has been coupled with an overwhelming desire to be a “team player,” to be a contributing member of my new and wonderful marriage.

So, this being my life, these two points have converged at the same time. Just when my writing has started to take off – e.g., my newly minted monthly column in Warwickshire Life; and, acquiring an agent for the cookbook, successfully and finally. (!!!)

And now -- the offer of a part-time job with the National Trust! I’ll be working at Charlecote Park, in the area of community engagement and audience development. I am absolutely thrilled! I positively adore Charlecote Park, and am a huge, huge fan of the National Trust.

The job will call upon my skills as an educator, arts administrator, librarian, theatre director, creative thinker, problem solver, and lover of history. Fabulous.

“I do worry for your writing,” my dear friend Julia said softly down the phone. (I miss her terribly, since she and her husband, Robert, moved from Barford.)

Truth be told, I worry for my writing, too. This post with the National Trust is just the sort of job I relish, and one in which I could ever so easily lose myself…

However, my hope is that instead of hindering my creative spirit, this new role will inspire me, and provide the discipline and structure to my craft that I so desperately need.

05 March 2010

Hostess with the most-est

I missed a great opportunity last night. 

I had the chance to be Grace Kelly, and I blew it.

I was offered a regal, romantic moment to display elegance, grace, maturity and charm; and what did I do? I responded like a Fraggle.

Allow me to explain.

Last night at W.I., we were treated to a music performance by “Lazymanz Flute” – an acoustic, folk duo consisting of my darling D.E.B. and his whistle playing chum, Ewan. The boys gave a stellar performance!

I was very proud, of course. I enjoy their music immensely, and without a doubt, I am very familiar with their repertoire. Still, nothing could have prepared me for their closing number.

I had advised/requested the boys end the evening with a rousing ditty, and offer the ladies a little sing-along, but to my surprise, the D.E.B. instead introduces a beautiful love song, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and dedicates it to me.

“I love playing this song to my wife,” he said. And there, before the assembled gathering, he thundered unashamedly and unreservedly, and declared his pride and joy at being “lucky enough” to be my husband; and he waxed lyrical on the wonder of finding true love.

I was stunned, but returned his loving smile. 

But then, all at once, I found myself surrounded by a sea of dewy-eyed women – all looking at me.

I became uncomfortable.

Suspecting that there may be some in our group, who, cut from the same cloth as the character “Miss Deborah” from Cranford, might find such a public, out-pouring of emotion abhorrent, “not the done thing”. Very un-British.

And, so, dear Reader, I failed.

In a moment wherein I could have been extraordinary, I chose to be ordinary. I pulled a face, and uttered a noise not unlike the sound of someone quietly choking a fraggle.

(I feel the urge to cry, and resist big, salty tears, as I think now on how I had responded.)

“Don’t you worry, Alycia,” my friend, Frances, called out to me, sensing my blushing awkwardness. “We all love the romance of this, we’re with you!”

Thankfully, I regained my composure and sense of ‘the moment’, and blew the D.E.B. a kiss at the end of the song.

I have wrestled with myself over and over this morning, trying to tweeze and uncover the source of my Fraggle-esque response.

For one thing, I find that I am always so staggered by the D.E.B., and his incredible love for me; in some ways, I feel so completely unprepared for his frank and bold passionate-ness (Is that a word? It should be.)

In my defense, I have never known anyone like him before; nor have I ever been loved as I am by him before.

Public displays of emotion, like public displays of affection, were always discouraged quite soundly by my staunchly Southern Baptist-quasi-Catholic family. Take for example, those infamous and dreaded “Goodbye” moments at the airport. On those occasions, lengthy or dramatic scenes of dewy affection were avoided at all costs.

A solid pat on the back, a firm handshake, or a swift, terse half-embrace were always considered more than sufficient. “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” my father would admonish, routinely employing Shakespeare to add lofty credibility to his own discomfiture with public displays of affection.

Whenever he quoted that line, I would think to myself – but of course never say to him – that it was also Shakespeare who depicted, ever so romantically, the parting of loved ones as “such sweet sorrow.” In these terms, it seems the choice is one of restraint or indulgence.

I, for one, am determined now more than ever before, to allow myself to be more ‘indulgent’ in future.

Last night, I also fulfilled my first W.I. duty as “Flower Hostess”. The Flower Hostess is responsible for creating and providing a floral arrangement to be displayed on the top table during the meeting. 

What joy!

I treated myself to an afternoon at the Charlecote Park Nursery, and bought two dozen orange parrot tulips. Lovely! 

I spent the early evening cutting and arranging them in a sweet, emerald green vase that the D.E.B. inherited from his mum and dad – thought that was a nice touch sense he was going to be performing at the meeting that night.

Everyone said the flowers looked lovely. So, at least I got one thing right!