I love Halloween. It is my favorite among all the holidays, and has been since I was a child.
My love for Halloween and all things eerie and uncanny manifested itself in me decorating my mother’s yard to unnerve candy-seeking visitors. These days, I still adorn the garden with spooky items every October, and elements of the supernatural frequently recur in my plays and short stories.
In 2015, the spectral season converged with social media postings and an unforeseen burst of creativity and, out of all that, I produced a “poem.”
Well, poem may be too strong a word, even though the piece has meter and it does rhyme. It is a bit of doggerel, a bastardization of Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” and the idea come to me because my friend Brenda dressed up as a sozzled clown by the name of Boozo, presented herself to her mother, Edna, and received the usual and expected maternal reaction of consternation and dismay.
Oh, and Brenda’s middle name is Kay, and her maiden name begins with the letter “B,” and Brenda Kay B. instantly intertwined in my mind with Annabel Lee, and my odd little ode was born. My sincere apologies to Edgar Allan Poe.
BRENDA KAY B.
It was now, in the present, not long ago past,
In a green house beside a dead tree,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know,
By the name of Brenda Kay B.
And this maiden she lived with a great many thoughts,
Of her Ghoulies and Ghosties set free.
And now, in the present, this right saucy lass,
In her green house beside a dead tree,
There she lives with much vigor and passion and vim,
The lass who is Brenda Kay B.
Much vim and much vigor as herself she surrounds,
With her Ghoulies and Ghosties set free.
And now, in this season, not long ago past,
In a green house beside a dead tree,
The Halloween spectres and spirits are rising,
To the delight of our Brenda Kay B.
Rising to startle and frighten and panic,
Brenda’s Ghoulies and Ghosties set free.
And now, in the present, not long ago past,
Far from the green house and dead tree,
The maiden did journey, clad garish and rainbow,
As clown Boozo, not Brenda Kay B.
A truly bad car wreck. Sad pigs in a fire.
Who needs Ghoulies and Ghosties set free?
Not now, not the present, but the most recent past,
Left behind – the green house and dead tree,
See Boozo confronting the Mother confounded,
She who bore our dear lassie, you see.
With a stare and a sigh, puckered brow and eyes wide,
Quoth THE EDNA, “OH, BRENDA KAY B!”
Way back when, many a long year ago, when I was a pre-teen, I was decking the halls with fear and horror, all in honor of October 31.
I began by fashioning tombstones out of old boards and paint. Every October, for the next several years, the tombstones graced the small garden plot beneath the living room window. I later added some spare parts from mannequins (discards from the store where I worked as a teenager), and bloody hands burst forth from the soil around the tombstones. My mother lent me some ragged old clothes which I stitched together and stuffed with crumpled newspaper to produce a saggy corpse perfect for a hanged man.
It wasn’t going to be enough simply to leave the cadaver slumped over near the front door, though. I wasn’t going to get the reaction I wanted with a scheme so modest. I began eyeing the tree in our front yard.
I found a rope and made a noose. I slipped the noose around the corpse’s neck. I tossed the rope over the tree limb that so conveniently overhung the concrete path to the front door. I hauled the hanged man aloft. Now, anyone seeking candy would have to pass directly beneath a dangling cadaver.
And yet, that wasn’t quite enough for me.
I eyed the tree again. I eyed the front window. There’s the ticket, I told myself.
I ran the rope over the tree limb, across to the house, and through the side window of the living room. The rope was high enough that, as darkness fell, it became difficult for approaching children and their parents to see the line strung overhead. They could, however, clearly see a cadaver dangling above their route to the door and the candy that waited there.
I lurked behind the drapes in the living room window. I couldn’t easily see the trick or treating children or their parents. I had to listen closely for their voices and for their footsteps as they shuffled through the fallen leaves on the driveway and the walk. I lurked and listened and gauged their approach as best I could, then I loosed the rope and let the hanged man fall. More often than not, I got exactly what I wanted. I heard shrieks and screeches, frequently from the parents rather than the children.
These days for Halloween, my front garden sports tombstones, a corpse bursting from the earth, zombie flamingos, spider webs aplenty, a spooky black trellis that glows with garish orange lights, and eight or so Jack-o’-lanterns.
No hanged man plummets from the sky to scatter crowds and cause screams, but...maybe... next year?
And who knows what poem, or play, or story might emerge because of this particular Halloween season?
I’m never sure where a plot point or a character or a line of dialogue will spring from. Like every other person on the planet, I’m bombarded with stimuli ever moment of every day. I overhear conversations (sometimes purely by accident). I meet “peculiar” characters on the street (and, yes, other people can see them, too). I watch a person think through an interesting choice or take a curious action (at least, I find it interesting and curious).
There is a LOT going on. It can be a real challenge to take it all in. But if I don’t pay attention, I won’t have the raw material to create characters and plots and dialogue.
Now that I’ve paid attention, I have to bank the goods. I have to record the remarkable person I’ve seen or the noteworthy incident I’ve observed. I can either write things down or commit them to memory. My memory is somewhat less trustworthy than it once was. A written record usually serves me best.
I’ve paid attention. I’ve recorded my observations. Now I have decisions to make to help me use the goods I’ve banked. I don’t try to preserve everything I witness, but I do save an awful lot.
I have to sort and parse. I need to discard the dross and keep only what is worthwhile. It’s hard to know how to go about doing that and how to make wise choices.
I have my written record - the resource that I draw upon when I write. It’s the seed bank in my own little plot of soil. But it’s a seed bank that offers up as much rubbish as it does treasure.
Horticulturists, crop scientists, and plain old gardeners reckon with seed banks when they work to coax plants from the earth. The soil those growers contend with is lousy with so much that they simply do not want, things like weeds, invasives, and toxic plants. All of those plants have to be rooted out in order to create the garden envisioned or the crop desired.
A first go-around is never enough. The gardener attacks with trowel, hoe, and garden knife. The writer attacks with red ink and the delete key. Eventually the plot looks clean and perfect. That lasts a moment. The weeds are still in the bank. The seeds will germinate. Weeds soon poke from the soil, mocking efforts to bring order and to make the plot tidy. The gardener and the writer attack again, and again, and again. And will attack until the end of time. There will always be more of what is not desirable and what is not wanted.
When I write, it’s reassuring to have so much to ponder and appraise. In theory, I can profit from having paid attention and banked the goods. But, more often than not, what at first pokes up in the plot is not of lasting value. I have to cast a cold eye on what I see germinating. I may say an immediate “yes,” to a few things. I will say an instant “no,” to many more. And a fair amount I will leave be for now in order to study and to calculate potential.
Most of what I see and store I will eventually root out. More will go by the wayside than will ever be used. It’s a luxury, though, to have so many options safely tucked away in that seed bank.
I’m very happy to announce that two of my plays are being produced by Evolution Theatre Company during the 2016 season. Evolution announced the 2016 season from the stage during the run of “Sordid Lives,” in September. The official announcement, via press release, should come soon.
My plays, “Sticks & Stones,” and “A Point of Diminishing Returns,” will be presented during the two weeks of the Local Playwrights’ Festival in May 2016.
“A Point of Diminishing Returns” will be offered the first week, one of four short plays, all written to feature a gay character involved in some way in the political arena.
The play revolves around Ulysses McKinley Rutherford Harding Garfield Hayes III, a venerable but clueless Ohio politician, who is hot on the campaign trail - busily shaking hands, kissing babies, and seeking votes. Unfortunately, Ulysses has chosen the wrong venue and the wrong audience for the stump speech he is about to deliver. And, when Ulysses decides to abandon his prepared remarks and speak from his heart, there’s nowhere to go but down for him and for the event.
“Sticks & Stones” will run the second week of the Festival. This is the play for which I received the 2014 CATCO and Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwrights Fellowship.
CATCO produced a staged reading of the play on June 28, 2015. One hundred twenty-one people attended! Audience response was positive and encouraging! And after the reading Evolution Theatre inquired about producing the play during their 2016 season!
“Sticks & Stones” tells the story of Janice Sanders, an older art critic, who uses her review to savage the works created by Kyle Jones, a young, transgender artist. Kyle uses a blog to out Janice as a closeted, hypocritical lesbian, and Janice threatens to sue for defamation. In conversations with their attorneys, with ghosts from their pasts, and with each other, Janice and Kyle struggle to understand each other and their very different lives.
I’m very excited about these two plays.
I’m very grateful to CATCO, GCAC, and Evolution Theatre for their interest in, and their support of my work.
Looking forward to 2016!
This past Friday I finished the first complete draft of the screenplay I’ve been working on for the last few months. I’m feeling pretty good about the screenplay for two reasons: 1) I think it is well-written, and 2) I am FINALLY done with the first draft.
For now, I’ll focus on, and be content with, reason number two. This is because I’ll soon start sharing the draft with folks, and THEY will let me know whether they think it is well written. After I recover from that experience, it will be time to move forward with the second draft. And there is always a second draft.
Over the weekend I took myself away from writing and I worked in the garden. September in Central Ohio means pushing back against overgrown plants, rescuing plants that have been overwhelmed, dividing and transplanting perennials, and pruning and shaping trees and shrubs. It also means me standing back and looking with a cold hard eye at my garden as it is, acknowledging how far it has fallen from the garden that was in my mind, calculating ways to bring it closer to that original concept, and hatching ideas about how both the original and the reality can be made better.
On Saturday I decided to remove a low hanging branch from the persimmon tree. The branch was healthy and not offensive to the eye, but I had thought for some time that it failed to add to the beauty of the tree, and I knew that it cast too much shade on the asters that I’d planted beneath it.
Once I removed the branch I walked some distance away and looked the tree up and down. It was as though the branch had never been there. The cut was hidden by the asters and the upright and spreading nature of the tree was enhanced.
I accomplished two things with a single cut. I improved the look of the tree. I enriched the cultural conditions for the asters. Too much shade had made the asters lanky and sprawling. They had grown over and through the false cypress in their quest for sunlight. Next summer, the persimmon will be taller and broader and more symmetrical. Next fall the asters will be broader and wider and packed with bright lavender blossoms.
I’d looked and looked at that low hanging branch for more than a year. I knew that it wasn’t quite right, but I’d told myself that it wasn’t that bad, either. And the branch was there already so it was easy to leave it be, even though its presence rankled me.
Finally making the decision to remove the branch put me in mind of all of the edits and revisions I’d considered and put off over the years while working on drafts of plays and shorts stories. In every case I had become so wedded to certain paragraphs and to particular characters and plots that I couldn’t see how little they added to the whole or how much they inhibited progress elsewhere. Sure, that paragraph was plodding, certainly, this character was dull, clearly that plot line was going nowhere, but they were ALREADY THERE! The thought and the effort that it was going to take to make things better! Good lord. It made me weary.
But just because something is already there – character, plot, or errant tree limb – is not enough to justify its presence. Writer or gardener, you have to stand back. You need to cast that cold hard eye. You must acknowledge how far the reality is from the original concept. Because that’s when you start to hatch the fresh ideas. And that’s when you begin to make the garden and the writing better.
This past Saturday, I was fortunate to attend a play writing workshop led by Del Shores, the author of, among many other things, the hit play/movie/television series, “Sordid Lives.”
The workshop was sponsored by Evolution Theatre Company (ETC). ETC is the Columbus-based LGBT theater company that has produced several of my plays.
Del Shores is a fabulous raconteur, a seasoned writer, and a terrific instructor. The three writing exercises he led the class through made all of us think about characters, motivations, conflicts, and writing dialogue that sounds like it’s issuing from actual flesh and blood human beings.
We started with each student briefly introducing himself or herself to the class. Then Del presented the first exercise: choose one of your fellow students and write a prose description of a character that is based upon: that person’s words; his or her appearance; how that person presented himself or herself to the class.
But the person’s words, appearance, and presentation were simply the starting point. From there, we were to flesh out a character of our own creation. And we were to do this in just a few minutes.
I wrote: “Alice is pretty, but she doesn’t believe it. She is neediness made flesh; a tall and lovely creature who is never still, is ever in motion: pacing, talking, hands flitting in the air as she despairs over her latest failed relationship, or the calamity that is her house, or the state of the world which should always, but never seems to, focus on or revolve around her.”
Writing this way – fast and forced – was strange, difficult, and exciting.
The next exercise was to take that character and description and, in five minutes, write a monologue for him or her that involves some kind of conflict or issue.
"What does she know about it? She can’t understand. There’s no way. Not her standing up there in her powder blue suit with her hand on her heart. Her! That hatchet-faced bitch! SHE knows what it’s like? Maybe she should try living with the idea day by day. How are you going to stay fed? How are you going to work? Where’s the money going to come from? And then you think and think and think. And there’s no real choice. No real option. So you make the appointment. And you get yourself there. And those people are screaming and pushing and blocking your way and calling you a killer. And you shove your way through. And you make the decision. And you follow through. And it’s done. Done. But not really. Not ever. But what does she know? Or understand. Nothing. Ever. It’s all too far from where she lives."
More fast writing. More forced writing. Just as strange and difficult. And just as exciting.
Brand new. Bright and shiny.
Real nice. Wish we could afford this.
Gouged the wall coming down the stairs, of course.
You can patch that so easy.
Yeah. I can patch it. You know who’ll notice. Notice and say something. Mother. And Johnny.
Oh, stop. Just focus on what’s good and new. Wish we had a new one.
Talk to that husband of yours. When he comes home.
What’s that supposed to mean?
She’ll notice and she’ll say something. Mother. She always does.
What do you mean – when my husband comes home?
Right after that she’ll tell Johnny what a great thing he’s done. How he’s such a good provider. Giving me a new washing machine. Too bad that someone was careless and gouged the wall. Now he’ll have to fix that, too.
Johnny is a good provider. You’ve got a new washer. You’ve got a new house. You’ve got that new blouse and skirt. What do you want? What’s it take to make you happy?
He’s not going to patch that wall. He didn’t buy the washer. My money bought that thing. And I’ll be the one sitting on the steps with the spackle.
What do you mean - WHEN my husband comes home?
And how many days has it been?
Creating characters and dialogue and conflict on the fly was demanding and nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It also gave me confidence and encouraged me, because I did it. I created characters. I gave them problems and desires and happiness and discontent. I created a setting. I placed my characters in that setting. I set them in motion and they began to interact.
I didn’t manage in the dialogue to address many of the issues and conflicts that I’d sketched out in the character descriptions, but this was a first wash, and just the start of the process. From here is where you really start to shape and form and build.
The workshop was equal parts fun, fright, and delight. I learned a great deal. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate.
I was not as disciplined this past week as I’d planned to be. I was not at all consistent at sitting down, maintaining focus, and actually producing coherent words and phrases in the latest and newest draft.
But, boy, oh boy, was I able to manufacture plenty of excuses for not getting down to work.
"The laundry is piling up. The cat box needs to be cleaned. That wall needs to be painted. The garden looks like hell. We need groceries. I want to go for a bike ride. I need to get to the gym."
You name the excuse. This past week I used it.
From the other end of the room, I eyed my chair. After a moment, I picked up the laptop. I crossed the room. I sat down. I powered up the computer. I opened the document on which I've been working. I stared at the characters splashed across the screen.
I winced. I looked away. I took a breath. I looked back.
I began to read. I began to think. I began to attend.
And, invariably, what occurred is exactly what always does happen, but what I tell myself time and again simply cannot happen, not this time and certainly not today.
The words and phrases start to come.
First, I begin to read and to assess. I notice a particular sentence that can certainly be edited and improved. I observe a paragraph that comes across as a bit clumsy where it's now placed, but that it might just work better and make a little more sense if it were to move elsewhere in the draft. And, good heavens! Why did I ever think that this character would ever say something like that.?
And I'm slowly drawn in. The mechanics come first: a word changes here and another changes there. The questionable paragraph is cut from its current spot and pasted into the new position. The character makes a more fitting statement, or is rendered silent so that a different character cans speak.
And from the mechanics, I move on to the creative - fresh dialogue, new plot lines, a more nuanced character. And I keep writing.
And all I needed to do to get myself started was to sit down.
I’m Cory Skurdal, a writer in Columbus, Ohio. This past summer I decided to create a website, a Facebook page, and a Linkedin page to discuss and to promote the writing that I do. I’ve been focused on playwriting for the last few years, but I’ve also written a number of short stories, and I have that draft of that novel I’ve been tinkering with for some time.
Blogging is new to me. Blogging is alien to me. I’ve decided to blog for a couple reasons. First, because I’ve never tried it before and, second, because blogging makes me nervous. For a good portion of my life I was afraid to try the things that made me nervous and the things I’d never tried before. But where does that get you?
I’ll blog about what I’m writing now and what I’ve completed. I’ll blog about the slog that writing can be, and the slog involved in promoting and marketing writing. I’ll blog about where I’ve submitted my work and the reactions and feedback I get about it. And, finally, I’ll blog about whatever happens to come to hand or to mind, and who knows what that might be?
Readers of this blog are free to provide comments and feedback. In addition, my professional e-mail address is included on the website, if you prefer that method of communication.
I will set a few ground rules for commenting and e-mailing because my mother raised me right:
1) We will all use our best manners;
2) I will not be rude and neither will you.
3) I will not engage in flame wars and neither will you.
4) We will practice courtesy and civility in all communications.
So, there we are, and here we go. The website and facebook page go live today. I am quite excited and, yes, I am also a little nervous.