List Wednesday: Great fiction for readers, writers and other story-curious folk


This blog isn't the only work of...well, something that had an anniversary lately.

Back in 2006, I started writing a column for professional and aspiring-professional actors about the non-acting aspects of the business. Over time, it's morphed into more of a marketing column, but I still try to slip in little bits of helpful info I feel they might not be getting from other sources. Because for some reason, and this is a sad thing that makes me a little bit crazy, most actors will not consume anything unless it specifically states "MADE FOR ACTORS." Such a shame, because not only are there so many other equally, if not more wonderful sections of the bookstore to learn from (and I'm using "bookstore" literally and metaphorically), we often learn more and better lessons about our areas of interest from sources outside of them: less at stake means less noise means more room for the stuff to sneak its way in.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the five non-acting books every actor should read. In it, I tossed off a remark about how smart actors (the ones I really write the columm for) can learn about how characters are drawn and their place in shaping story by reading great fiction. One smart actor wrote to me (see? it works!) and asked for a list, as long as I could muster, but at least 10. How could I not oblige?

Here's what I shared with him:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  2. Diary of a Mad Housewife, by Sue Kaufman (the movie is also good)
  3. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
  4. Easter Parade, by Richard Yates
  5. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
  7. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
  8. The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh
  9. A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh
  10. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
  11. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  12. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
  13. Factotum, by Charles Bukowski

As a bonus-extra, I threw in some collections of short stories I particularly like for this exercise (and also because they kick ass):

This is by no means a list of all-time best fiction, although any of these could live there happily. This is a character-driven list, where characters are there not only as agents to move the story forward (magical realism, I'm looking at you!) but to illuminate certain aspects of the human condition that other tools of fiction might not. They're characters I find especially compelling and well-drawn, even though, or maybe especially because, in some cases, they reveal their clock springs slowly.

I figured that since it's NaNoWriMo, it might be a fun list to float out there. As Merlin says in his own pep talk from the sidelines, the important thing is not to let reading get in the way of your writing time. But to stay inspired? Hell, yeah, you should read!

Any other great characters out there that should be on the list (where the books themselves are also extraordinary)? Add 'em in the comments, and let's all commence to readin'!


Image by Tom@HK via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

For Kevin, on the occasion of his 50th birthday

It seems impossible that my cohort is turning 50, and yet, there it is.

I'm sliding into it myself, just three years and change to go. Truth be told, I can't wait: my 40s were so much better than my 30s, which were so much better than my 20s, which were so much better than my teens, I figure my 50s are going to rock the house.

Or, at the very least, that I'll get another decade or two of yum before I hit the point of diminishing returns.

On the other hand, it's a good thing I've some time. Half a century is a significant achievement, and calls for a marker of equal significance. I received one such tribute about a week ago, from my friend and former art director, Kevin Houlihan. He assembled 50 of the people he'd met along the way, from the godmother who held him at his baptism to a friend he met in a bar about a year ago, and asked us each to write a little something for a book he wanted to assemble about the people he'd met along the way.

Here's the beauty part, though: instead of asking us to write about him, he asked us to write about ourselves. His point? That, as his wise and no-nonsense New Hampshire-bred father used to say, "You can tell a man by the company he keeps." So Kevin sent each participant a series of questions designed to help us unearth what it was about us that had helped him learn about himself.

The result? A breathtaking compendium of musings, stories and yes, a little haranguing, that is universally appealing because of the specificity of approach. I'm forever parroting every English teacher I've ever had about the key to great writing lying in the detail of the personal truth one lays out there; maybe instead of yakking, I could just direct people to this book.

Unfortunately, it's a private publishing of 50, one for each participant. There has been a groundswell of support for a more public release, but until that happens, you'll just have to content yourself with one of my entries and imagine the rest. The question to me was what, if anything, did the various & sundry creative outlets for my expression have in common, and how did I continue to nurture my creativity.

It's a wonderful question for anyone to ask of themselves, or of their loved ones; it's a glorious question to be asked...

xxx c


I have called my life many things in an attempt to get across the idea of what it's been like to live it, to express the heart of my journey. One of my fave-raves, coined several years ago upon quitting my Hateful Advertising Career, was that I was “Living My Life Backwards”: going from a hyper-responsible, overachieving, 401K-building, condo-and-cat-owning twentysomething to a foolhardy, largely unemployed, dream-chasing thirtysomething. (And then a sex-crazed, metaphorically-old-purple-wearing-lady fortysomething.)

Not a bad quip, you know us copywriters, always with the handy quip, but somehow too…pithy. As Einstein said, Everything as simple as possible and no simpler, please. (As an aside, that's where a lot of advertising and marketing goes off the rails: oversimplification. That, and too many objectives. But let's not go down that bad path, shall we?)

I wish I had a pithy answer for my life's work now, for what motivates me, for what the thread is. But I don't. I have a long and boring story, which I'll summarize here:

Many years ago, when The Groundlings Sunday Company pulled over and dumped my baby-actor soul by the side of the road to fend for itself, I thought I needed a theater company to call home. And so it was that I found myself standing on a stage in a tiny, back-alley theater in Santa Monica in front of an insane French woman (sorry, redundant), “auditioning” to be a paying member of her highly experimental theater company.

She let me perform my wildly inappropriate monologue, but it was clear that what she wanted to do was get to the Q&A.

“What would you do,” she called out from the dark, “eef I asked you to take off your pants, take off your shirt, take off your shoes and stand zere nakeed on ze stage?”

“Uh…ask you why?”

There was a long pause. Then, whether to out me as a poseur or to see if maybe, possibly she could salvage this ten minutes and put an extra $35/month in the theater's coffers I don't know, but she threw out another one:

“Why,” she called out again, “do you want to be an actress?”

No one had asked me this; I had not even asked myself about the why. Why does one throw away everything with no promise of a something down the road? Why does a sane, smart girl with a career and a title and a condo and a cat toss it all out the window for what younger and more talented people will tell you is one of the world's worst career options?

I stood in on that dusty stage, lit from above, threw head back and my arms open wide and let whatever it was inside me that had been responsible for my irrational decision do the talking: “To tell The Truth!!!”

It was right, that Voice. (It always is, you know.) My whole life until then had been a quest to funnel The Truth as it is writ large somewhere in the cosmos into words and pictures that made sense down here. So I did it for awhile in advertising. And then in acting. And then in design. And now, with words, both on the blog and aloud, wherever someone will let me.

If I get off track, it gets me back on. If I need inspiration, I go back to the well.

The Truth.

I mean, come on, can that ever get old?

"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 03: Getting the boot

This is Day 3 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in the comedy classic of my generation, Animal House.

sunday company gals

They say everyone gets fired from some job at some point in her life. Me? Hasn't happened yet from a paying gig, but I feel like I got my at-bat (or "yer OUT!") some 10 years ago, when I got the boot from the Groundlings Sunday Company.

For the uninitiated, those outside of that small, Hollywood/Chi-town/NYC sketch comedy triangle, let me explain: the Groundlings comedy improv troupe is basically a farm team for the majors. Today, with the proliferation of sketch and improv-based shows, there are lots of outlets, but back in my day, the Big Time meant SNL (for writers and actors) and network sitcoms (for writers.)

I didn't know this going in. I was what you might call a rube, or a hayseed, I definitely fell off a turnip truck, and it was definitely five minutes ago. I found myself at the Groundlings by accident, and found myself whooshing my way up the ladder there even more by accident. Really. Yes, I was, am, funny. And a good (and prolific) writer. But the Sunday Company I found myself in was populated by the likes of the fastest and funniest, people who'd been at this acting/sketch/writing thing for 10 years, many with school training, to boot. Fully half of our graduating "class" found itself in the employ of NBC at SNL a mere six months after I got the boot. I remember; I signed over the rights to two of my sketches to my co-writer/performer who had gone on to the Majors from my sad little day job. I cried a lot those couple of lunch hours.

Hell, I cried a lot, period. No one, my husband, our friends, even fellow Sunday Co. members, could believe how upset I was over being fired from something that wasn't a job, that didn't pay a dime. But you see, this was more than a shot for me: this is where I was when I decided I really did want to be an actor, and my being there, a part of this august group of almost-professionals, was the proof that I'd have a chance at it. The person who made that fateful call telling me I didn't make the cut might as well have told me I had pancreatic cancer: I spent the next six months alternating between crying and stoically awaiting my imminent death.

I'm still here, of course. And the reason I'm still here, that I ended up flourishing, that I learned how to really act and not just flail around on a stage for cheap laughs like the clueless wonder I was, is because I got the boot. I don't give up, you see; I hang in there and hang in there and hang in there even after Them What Knows have fled for higher ground. If they hadn't have booted me, I'd have stayed. Hell, I'd still be in grammar school if they'd have let it go on indefinitely. Not a fan of change, am I.

Being forced out also forced me to take a look at a few things: what was missing, what I wanted. What I felt. Funny, how long you can go without really asking yourself what you're feeling.

Forced to consider that perhaps wig-and-glasses monkeyshines was not the be-all, end-all, I began to explore other aspects of performance. Slowly, painfully, I learned how to act. And then, ultimately, I learned that acting wasn't particularly what I wanted. No matter, I needed to learn the acting part first, in order to grok it. No skipping steps.

I wish I could say I felt nothing but gratitude both for the opportunity and the result, but that would be a lie. It hurt. I hurt. I'm stubborn and pig-headed, qualities that trip me up as much as they get me through. So bad feelings die hard with me. I've been back to the theater to see lots of friends in other shows; I feel strange and ill at ease every time I cross the threshold.

It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just a true thing.

And after all these years, the thing I know for sure above all is that if it is not the truth, it will not do for me.

So I thank you, anonymous Groundlings, for kicking me to the curb. That I have ultimately found so much happiness as a result makes me question who was responsible for the original feelings of unhappiness.

Well, not really. But you get the idea...


the communicatrix elsewhere:

communicatrix bizI'm bad! I'm nationwide! Well, not really, but thanks to my good friend, Matt North, I'm the newest columnist at (a division of Casting Networks, Inc., and the main actor submission service used for commercial auditioners), where the first installment of my monthly column on All Things Acting is up for anyone who wants to see it.

September's topic? "Client-Proof Tape" (or, "How not to be a complete jackass at your audition").


xxx c

Behold! the fugliosity that was me in advertising!

Today I auditioned for a spot I'd really like to book. The part is funny, the casting director is smart (meaning, the spots he casts are low in cheese factor) and, imagine, I could use the money. Casting directors often give a group explanation prior to a string of individual auditions to save time and so we don't stink up their tapes with super-creative, actor-y input. Today, after reiterating his usual acting directive, "Very small, very real, very 'film'", a directive which I now hear in some form from nearly every casting director on nearly every call, leaving me to wonder why there is still so much bad, over-the-top acting in commercials, this casting director drove the point home by letting drop that the director of this particular spot also directed Junebug. The implication being, if you know Junebug, you know what we're looking for and if you don't, you're going to give a bad, over-the-top performance which we will waste no time in erasing from our tape.

Now, I have not, in fact, seen Junebug, but I am familiar with the vernacular the CD was tossing out. You see, I like to keep up with my worlds colliding, so I happen to know that Junebug was directed by one Phil Morrison, with whom I worked on a series of Wheaties commercials which I wrote in my previous incarnation as an advertising copywriter.

Normally, this ain't no big thang. That life was long, long ago, and most people's memories don't extend that far, especially when it comes to remembering the copywriter, who is slightly less important than an apple box on a commercial set. In fact, we're seen as so inconsequential, we're frequently not invited to the shoot at all: I wrote a Gatorade commercial shot by the notorious Joe Pytka, but was subsequently hired as an actor on a couple of his commercials. Of course, I was not in attendance at the former and saw no reason to bring up the connection at either of the latter, so it really didn't take much to fly under the radar.

The Wheaties commercials, however, were a slightly bigger deal. There were lots of verbal shenanigans in my tricky little scripts, so I was actually consulted on this or that more than once. Plus the spots starred Michael Jordan! Michael Effin'* Jordan!!! This was a huge break for the then-very-young Phil, whom we found via some groovy interstitials he'd done for MTV. Plus...Michael Effin' Jordan! Surely Phil would remember every minute detail of that week we spent together on a Chicago soundstage, I thought.

That is, I thought until I uncovered this commemorative photo of me**, MJ, and an assortment of client-side and agency dorks:


Now not only am I certain Phil Morrison will not know me from Adam, I am also sorely tempted to submit myself to that Oprah show where they're looking for people who look better today than they did 10 years ago.

Because (a) I am pretty sure I'm fugly enough in my high-waisted, reverse-fit jeans to win a free trip back to Chicago and (b) if they give me two round-trip tickets, maybe I can convince The BF not to break up with me for revealing my shame...

xxx c

*And if his middle name isn't "effin'", I'd like suggest right now that he change it; my god, could he have a more appropriate middle name?

**If you can't find me in the group, I would be the one on second from the left, doing my impersonation of a really unattractive lesbian. Good at it, aren't I?

UPDATE: Link to larger sizes of my fugliosity at Flickr, here.

What not to tell an actress

I've taken 2 hours out of my very busy day surfing the interweb to audition for you. I've driven 10 miles in the rain at $2.75/gallon with a cityful of rude assholes in luxury assault vehicles to get there.

I've suffered the indignity of holding up a magic-markered sign with my name on it as I smiled and slated my name for the camera like a talking fucking cow.

For the love of all that is holy, do not greet me with, "It is such a pleasure to see an actress brave enough to come in and audition in no makeup!"


Photo by Marc Alan Davis used under a Creative Commons license

The face of today's fruit

From a breakdown (character description) for an audition I have tomorrow:

Caucasian woman, 35-45. Real with character. Not attractive. They probably have some cute or quirky characteristics, but again, they're not beautiful. We would love a brunette or dark hair but open to all hair colors.

Oh, this is to play a tomato.

Yes, really.

xxx c

Karmic payback's a bitch...and so am I!

Note to anyone* who ever knew me in my previous incarnation as a copywriter: Dear Former Co-Worker of Mine Who Is Still in Advertising,

Boy! Long time, no time, huh? Where are you guys staying now, Shutters? The Viceroy? Or do you eschew the beach and stay in town? Or maybe you go super-downscale and fly under the radar at the Farmer's Daughter or that place attached to Swingers? ("You go"? That's a defunct car from the 70s! AD JOKE! HAHAHA!)

I guess it was a big surprise to see me on the audition tape the nice casting people here in L.A. sent to you, huh? I'll bet you even stopped eating or took the tape out of fast-forward search, like we used to do when we saw something weird or funny. Are those tapes still as looooong as they used to be? Boy oh boy-ar-dee, this town is lousy with actors, huh?

Of course, even I don't see many actors nowadays since it's been reeeeeeally slow lately. Like, for the last two or three years and stuff. You could shoot a cannon through most of those casting places on a lot of days and not hit anyone. Makes me wonder how much longer we'll both be able to make a living at this, huh? Yikes!

At least we can still run into each other now, like at my audition. Sorry, your audition! Although really technically, it was a callback. Oops, callbacks! One in the morning and then one just enough later in the afternoon for me to drive home, eat lunch and come back! Anyway, I thought something funny was going on when I showed up at the first one and all the other Casual Moms had blonde hair and were pretty. Then I thought maybe the director had called me in as a special choice, but I'd never met him before, plus he seemed to be laughing at everything the guy I was auditioning with did, not me. And then when he didn't remember meeting me four hours later, I was pretty sure something was up. Et voila! You burst out of the room with your big surprise like a naked lady jumping out of a cake, only you weren't naked or a lady and there was no cake.

Anyway, it's great to hear everything is going so well for you. And it's really amazing that all of you guys that I used to work with at the agency are still working there all those years after I quit. And boy howdy, it is QUITE a coincidence that I turned up on your audition tape. After all, I have only been doing this for 10 years and, wait...10 years? That's as long as I worked as a copywriter! Hahaha, oops! Better be careful...I'm dating myself! That's the kiss of death for an actor, right?**

Well, usually, that is. In this case, it doesn't matter much since (a) you already know how old I am and (b) you're not going to hire me, anyway. Come on...admit it. Come oooooooon! Because, seriously, I've auditioned for tons of you guys now (and mostly I've been able to remember your names, which I think is pretty amazing!) and the only one who ever hired me to act on their commercial is an art director who left the business to become a director. I mean, let's call a spade a spade, right?

But, hey, I'm all for catching up with old pals. Old business acquaintances, too!(And we are OLD now, right? Right? HAHAHA!) So next time you're coming in to town, send me an email or give me a call. Let me know which fancy hotel you're staying at and I'll meet you there for a cocktail, on you, after working hours. You know, all those hours during the DAY that I drive from Assmunch to Albuquerque, auditioning, like I did for you, only for real, to get actual jobs and stuff.

That's about it. Enjoy your stay in sunny Los Angeles! And good luck with that commercial you didn't cast me in! I probably won't see it since I don't watch much TV anymore, but I'm sure it'll be really hilarious and great and keep the fires of broadcast advertising going strong for another fifty years. And even if it isn't, you'll have a great time in Vancouver or New Zealand or wherever it is you get to go shoot it!

Ciao, bellas!

xxx c

*And, while this letter was inspired by a recent incident, I do mean "anyone". You know who you are, you devils, you!

**Actually, this might be the kiss of death. Can you get dooced if you're self-employed? Or would this be more of a blacklist-type thing?

Photo of the communicatrix by Thomas Lascher

Hi, diddle-e-dee...

I had one of those colossally bad auditions yesterday. The kind where from the moment you walk into the room, not only can you feel it's not going your way, it would throw up on your shoes and slam the door in your face if it could. And where by the time you slate your name for the guy taping the proceedings, you can no longer tell what you hate more: advertising, America, or yourself, for thinking this might actually be a reasonable way for a grown person to make a living. To be honest, I was pretty sure it was a lost cause when I went to sign in. Because in addition to there being pages and pages of ladies there before me, (a) no one else had checked the 40+ box (I still pass, but usually I'm with a few other old hags who also pass) and (b) many, many ladies (sorry, girls) had checked the "first audition" box.*

But I digress. Because the fugly nugget I really wanted to talk about was my WRONG CHOICE.

Sometimes, you see, in a commercial audition (and that's pretty much my gig, these days) there isn't much call for you to do your classical comedic monologue or even to interact with the other "talent". Sometimes, they just want to see the real you...or rather, the real you in a close room full of tired ad people and bowls of cheap snacks. On these occasions, your auditors often fall back on the commercial "howdy-do", a "what's your favorite color?" or "tell me about your favorite holiday" type of question. Today it was our dream rockstar/actorboy love crush.

Girl One talked about her boyfriend...for five minutes. Girl Two talked about something we all promised wouldn't leave the room...for four minutes.

I was dead. I like unusual guys. I can no longer lie. I told them it was a tossup between (fetishistic choice) Frank Langella in The 12 Chairs or...Ric Ocasek. (What can I say? I'm a geek. A trip to SIGGRAPH gets me hot, fer criminy.) A (long) heartbeat of stunned silence, followed by 15 seconds of repulsed probing,'re out!

I'm sorry, but Ric Ocasek is hot, I'm almost 44 and I have lost the will to fabricate.

This was not my commercial. This was not my commercial. This was not,

Dammit. It was just me they didn't like...

xxx c

*This would be a good opportunity to outline the Twin Truths of the Commercial Callback:

1. If you are called back for a spot and when you show up, there are any actors in your category there on a first call, you will not book the job, you have the Taint.*

2. If you are called back for a spot and when you show up, every actor from the first call is there, you do not want to book the job, they are clueless.

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From the mouths of a**holes

About ten years ago, shortly after I'd decided to give up the uncertain and (for me) unsatisfying waters of advertising for a sensible career in acting, I thought it might be a good idea to take a class or two, since I had no idea of what I was doing. Of course, being hopelessly goal-oriented and a perennial skipper-of-steps (a whole nuther post), instead of taking, say, a good scene study course or a class in text analysis, I elected to take a seminar in cold reading, which, for the uninitiated, is the dubious-but-necessary practice of to picking up "sides" (a chunk of a full script) and giving a decent audition at the drop of a casting director's hat. (Because as a 33-year-old actress who was not particularly good-looking and had zero training and experience, I was for sure going to be highly sought after for many parts in film and television. Uh-huh.)

There are various teachers of cold reading technique in Los Angeles, hotbed of auditioning activity, but I had the great good fortune of landing at Margie Haber's studio, and, after being vetted and prepped by her excellent associate, I got to study with Margie herself. Who hated me. Hated me. Wait, did I mention she hated me? Because she did.

Okay, she didn't hate me, personally. How could she? She didn't know me from Adam. She hated my acting. Excuse me, my hackting (hack + acting = hackting®). All the other boys and girls seemed to be able to I was acting up a storm, and it was almost unbearable to watch. But we had to watch, since the classes were all taped. That was part of the deal: see your shame; get motivated to fix it.

Many, many years (and classes and rehearsals and bad performances in worse plays) later, I finally "get" a lot of what Margie was trying to teach. Like any other kind of knowledge, good acting technique, and by extension, good acting, is born of many, many days/weeks/months/years of effort. And, frankly, just logging the miles. Getting the lessons off the page and into your bones. And as the lessons worked their way into my acting, they also affected my life. Understanding character made me a much better theatrical writer. Learning to really listen created a heretofore unrealized depth and richness in all my relationships.

And Margie's technique for successfully playing characters different from oneself, as in, with nuance and depth rather than broad strokes and caricature, got me through this last election.

It's gorgeously simple, really, although not at all easy. Let's say a quick skimming of the sides reveals that the character you're being asked to play is a Murdering Vampire Prostitute. You have neither spilt blood (on purpose), sucked blood (with malice aforethought) nor traded sex for goods or services (not going to get into the traditional marriage paradigm here, you know what I mean). How do you relate? By scanning your mental Rolodex® for previous stage-'n'-screen examples (read: stereotypes) of undead bloodthirsty whores? Or, perhaps, by finding the similarities between you and these ladies you were so quick to judge?

A caveat: any examples should either be lifted straight from the script or ever-so-c a r e f u l l y extrapolated. In other words, if the character is yelling in the scene...well, you ask yourself, have I ever yelled? Do I live in a city/smoke/swear/use contractions/scratch where it itches?

Does this person maybe feel passionately about a cause...just like I do? Does this person perhaps feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the situation at hand and scared for the future...just like little old liberal/conservative, pro-choice/pro-life, anti-war, pro-sports, antidisestablishmentarian me?

My own personal bias for years was, you guessed it, against actors. Years of exposure to the Stupid Flaky Self-Absorbed Artist myth was probably mostly to blame, although ten years of screening commercial audition tapes didn't help. I was incapable of putting myself in these poor schlubs' shoes. I was an overworked, underappreciated, universally loathed copywriter and so I ate my sandwich and took calls and all the rest of the careless, insensitive, self-absorbed agency behavior I now hear commercial actors complaining about at auditions. I was wrong (and I'm sorry).

It's funny: if I'd had a little Margie Haber Technique back when I was a copywriter, maybe I wouldn't have had to become an actor. And if actors could see the hideous process by which excellent copy gets beaten into shapeless wads of marketing goo, maybe they'd be kinder. Maybe they'd try harder to make that hack copy sound good.

Maybe if we could all see each other, the world would be a little bit nicer place to play in.

At the very least, the ads would be better.

xxx c