Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

Ray Bradbury and me

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

It was 22 years ago this summer that I met Ray Bradbury.

I grew up reading Bradbury, as many of us did. But for a couple of years, I saw him regularly at writers’ conferences where we were both booked in to speak and to teach. He was a main draw, of course, and I was listed in much smaller print inside the brochures, among all those other people whose names wind up as also scheduled to appear.

These writers’ conferences were produced by a woman named Joan Jones who was a real raconteur, a middle-aged live wire with a honeyed Southern drawl and a smooth persistence in getting what she wanted. Joan was what all of us want in a producer: a detail-oriented force of nature who paid on time. She also proved to be a formative influence on my life. I’ve been teaching writing for 22 years now—thanks to Joan, bless her soul, getting me started. Without Joan, my circle of friends and scope of accomplishments would be far smaller. And Joan was loyal: If she booked you once, and you didn’t screw it up, she kept booking you.

So it was that I met Ray Bradbury and saw him periodically for a time. He was 70 when I met him and a warm presence – gregarious, thoughtful, generous, and funny. He knew seemingly everyone and told stories about them not to name-drop but to share adventures, as when he talked about working on the film version of Moby Dick with Walter Huston and, well, setting Walter Huston straight about a few things. Bradbury was kind to everyone who wanted to talk to him, even when they were interrupting our lunch. (This sort of kindness – kindness during the interruption of lunch – is not the norm with well-known figures in Los Angeles.) And he was passionate about writing – about the value of it, about what it meant to be a writer, about sticking to your guns, and about plying your craft every day. On the subject of writing, he was evangelical. As a writer, and especially as a well-known, highly regarded, appropriately lauded writer, one who also had his own television show hosted by himself, he also knew he didn’t have to play by the rules. This meant:

  1. That he didn’t have to drive. (Others always drove him. He routinely figured that someone would always give him a ride, no matter what time or to what place – and he was right.)
  2. That he could show up every time wearing short white tennis shorts without the slightest thought that perhaps this was not what people would like to see him wear.
  3. That no, he did not have to get off stage at the appointed time.

This latter point led more than once to a scene where an irresistible force (Joan) would meet up with an immovable object (Bradbury). As someone who has produced conferences himself, I fully understand the importance of sticking to the schedule of events. But Bradbury would have none of it. If he was giving a talk of some sort and wanted to make more points, or field more questions, he was damn well going to do it. Joan tried everything: signaling him from the back of the audience, then signaling him from the side, then signaling him from the front of the audience, then trying to call for the last question, until she was edging her way up onto the stage, and then, standing directly beside him in a proximity that would make almost anyone else flinch, and still he wouldn’t stop until he was ready. In this way, Ray Bradbury was a rock star. I’ve never seen any other writer get away with this. (Although I’ve seen Werner Herzog do nearly the same.) As much as I felt for Joan Jones who, after all, had hired me to do this, had brought me into the circle of teaching writers, who made an enormous impact on my life, I had to admire the way Bradbury wielded power while retaining an aura of gentility.

At some point, Joan stopped producing writers’ conferences—she’d talked of doing them on cruise ships, which I was keenly interested in, but then changed her mind when she figured she could make more money running more private classes, her own and those of others. (And she encouraged me to start my own. So: no Joan Jones, no “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop, now in its 19th year. Thank you, Joan.) And so although I would run into Bradbury around town – at the theatre, mostly, and I have numerous friends who worked with him the past 35 years in the theatre – it was only every few years.
Over the past five or six years, the encounters with Bradbury were far less satisfying. I understand that he was older, and unwell, and I’m going to do my best to be charitable here, but the more I saw of him the less I wanted to hear from him.

The photo above was taken in December of 2008 when my friend and colleague Sid Stebel, who was a close friend of Bradbury’s, hosted a small dinner party in Chinatown. Bradbury was 88 at the time, and in recent years had been making appearances at Comic-Con in defense of the Bush administration, its “war on terror,” the invasion of Iraq, and other viewpoints that were difficult to reconcile with the man—and the writer—I thought I’d known. I have friends of all political persuasions, and I tried to take Bradbury’s support of the war in Iraq in the way that Christopher Hitchens supported it: as a defense of liberty and an attack against militarized theocrats. But there was no way to make anything good of his unfortunate and loudly expressed views about “minorities” both racial and non-Christian. When a mixed-race friend of mine walked out on a Bradbury appearance at Comic-Con, I knew why.

Thinking about some of Bradbury’s stories now, I’m reminded that he was a romantic—someone nostalgic for the blessed days of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Science fiction writers are futurists (even when that future is dystopian), but Bradbury, who was mislabeled an SF writer, was fixated on the past, and how we might bring it with us. (One bit of evidence: This quote, from a BBC interview in 2011: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” That’s the voice of someone extremely out of touch.) And what do we call a wounded romantic? A cynic. That’s something I never thought I’d see in Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury I had known thought that even if the government outlawed books, thinking people would memorize them and confound the authorities, that ultimately we could always triumph over oppression and small-mindedness. That doesn’t quite equate with cheering on jingoism years later.

So my feelings about Ray Bradbury are now complicated. Do I regret having been present when he said so many of the things he said in his later years? Yes. Am I glad I met him? Yes, because of those early experiences, and because it was nice to know even a little bit someone who inspired so many writers, and also because, obviously, I can say I met him. It makes for a good story, and I know that’s something he would have appreciated. I just wish I had a photo of myself with him from years before, when I could still recognize him.

New playwright premiere

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Yes, I did go see Waiting for Godot at the Taper on Friday night, and it was marvelous. It was surprising how fresh and entertaining the play was, and how moving in its conclusion, especially given how many times I’ve seen productions of it. Big congrats to the cast, director Michael Arabian, all the designers, and everyone else involved, on a flawless production.

But there’s another production that I’d like to talk about at greater length.

On Tuesday night I was able to see another play, this one the world premiere reading of a new play that marked the literary debut of a promising new playwright: my daughter Emma. Emma is an 8th grader who participated in a program at her school by Center Theatre Group — the folks who put on that Waiting for Godot production you should see — wherein students work for many weeks with a playwright who is a teaching artist to learn how plays work, and how to write one. Over the course of the school year, they do improv games, write scenes and lines of dialogue, and get to work with professional actors, culminating in an evening of readings by those professional actors. (One of whom, it turns out, was Rob Nagle, whom I’ve worked with at Moving Arts.) Eight of these brief plays, each of them co-authored by small groups of the students, were performed on Tuesday night by the actors.

Here’s the plot of the play by my 13-year-old daughter and her co-authors:

A father asks his (13-year-old?) daughter if she’s done her homework. She says she wants to watch TV first. (As I was watching this unfold, I was immediately hooked by the theatricality of this setup. I closely related to it, and its inherently theatrical complications.) He gets angry and loses his cool — so the daughter and her mother leave. They just get on a bus and leave town. For good. And then the father is angry with himself (for enforcing homework, I guess).

Clearly, there’s a lesson here for all of us, and that lesson was not lost on me: Be careful about how you insist on homework getting done, lest your wife and daughter get on a bus and leave town for good.

Over the years, I have made appearances in the writing of other people I’ve known, sometimes in poems, sometimes in plays or stories or essays, sometimes thinly disguised and sometimes not. One time I went to the reading of a play at the Pasadena Playhouse by someone I know and the characters were discussing another character, unseen in the play, who seemed rather much like me, and whose character name was “Mr. Wochner.” That seemed eerily similar to my own name, which is “Mr. Wochner.” So I have had previous experience of seeing a character that might or might not be based upon me shown in another light. But to be the abject villain of a piece — a piece written in part by my daughter, in which our heroine simply wants to watch TV unfettered by the necessities of homework — was new. And to witness the wretched state that the encounter with a demanding father left the mother and daughter in as they rode the bus to a faraway town was to leave me questioning my approach to homework. (Mother: “Do you think we’ll be okay?” Daughter: “I don’t know.”)

I was impressed with all eight of the students’ plays. They were funny, they were dark, they were brave, and they were untrammeled by the proclivities of professional playwriting that insists upon such things as subtext. In these plays, what is said is what is meant, and that made me hunger for such a world, where if we don’t want to go somewhere we say it, where if we want something from each other we just demand it immediately with the expectation that it will be given. The evening was a window into the mind of 13-year-olds, and that made for an experience I’ll long remember. And I offer this as proof: Tonight I took my family out to dinner, and then when we got home, we watched some TV. And when it was over, and only when it was over, did I tell my daughter to go do her homework. I don’t want to find her with a one-way bus ticket to elsewhere.


Waiting again for Godot

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I’m seeing Waiting for Godot tonight at the Mark Taper Forum.

Just recently, I was telling the playwrights in my workshop that I would not being seeing this, given how many productions I’ve seen of this play. Just off the top of my head, here are some of them:

  • a college production in 198x starring my friend Joe Stafford. (Still probably the best Pozzo I’ve seen. Joe had a commanding and imperious presence, leavened by an impish humor.)
  • the filmed version with Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel
  • as much of the staged version with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as I was able to stand
  • a production in… was it 1989? At the Taper, Too. (Now known as [Inside] the Ford.)
  • a production at the Matrix starring Robin Gammell and David Dukes. They were superb. Dukes may have been the best Vladimir I’ve seen — you really felt his pain when Godot didn’t show up, and his desperate desire for the man to make an appearance, for God’s sake
  • a production by the Dublin Gate Theatre in 2006 at UCLA Live that, despite its acclaim, I didn’t like at all because it was so meaningful.  “Godot” is much better when played as vaudeville; Robin Gammell (above) was an excellent clown. The play is intended to be played that way — one stage direction has a character “scratching his head like Stan Laurel.” When it’s filled with portent, it’s a drag. And that’s what this production was like.

I’m sure I’m leaving out four other productions. Minimum.

And yet, I’m going again. Why? Top-notch cast, including Alan Mandell (who is now 84 and unlikely to be doing this sort of thing much longer; sorry, Alan), and featuring two actors who knew and worked with Beckett himself (Alan, and Barry McGovern); a video clip (above) from the production that, just in this excerpt, shows that the approach is right; it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century and one I find deeply effecting; and, well, my friend Dorinne had an extra ticket and invited me.

Wish me luck.

Bukowski unbound

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Last night, my friend Jonathan Josephson’s theatre troupe descended unannounced on Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood to perform several poems by Charles Bukowski. You can watch the performance below — and be sure to note the reactions of diners seated in and around the playing area. I understand their constrained response:  I’m not sure I’d want to be eating Barney’s signature chili dog while being accosted by an actor reciting “My Underwear Has Shit Stains Too.”

Fun fact find of the day

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

When Andre the Giant was a boy, Samuel Beckett used to drive him to school — in the back of his truck because that’s the only place he’d fit. All they would discuss was cricket. The absurdity of this situation — the future professional wrestler and adored star of “The Princess Bride” growing up carted by a future Nobel playwright of the existential — cries out for a play. Maybe I should write it. (I know Ionesco would have, had it occurred to him.)

Celebrity instant playwriting

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Here’s a fun stunt:  Neil LaBute and Theresa Rebeck will write plays next week in a webcast event, based on prompts provided by the LA Times. Vote here for your pick of prompts. For the record, I’m drumming up support for this one: “Kristin enrolls in a figure studies class, then realizes that she knows the nude model, Ron, from church.” I’m eager to see what former Mormon LaBute and feminist Rebeck come up with on that one.

Imaginary languages and secret meanings

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

There are two phrases that mean nothing to almost anyone else, but which have stuck with me most of my life: “Glx sptzl glaah!” and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

The former is the baby-speak cry of Sugar and Spike in the comics of the same name by Sheldon Mayer. When the babies talk, all the parents hear is gibberish. But we lucky readers are privy to the rather sophisticated notions and outlandish schemes of these toddlers. If you’re wondering if this was unacknowledged source material for “Rugrats,” I suspect so. The first season of “Rugrats,” before rampant commercial needs overwhelmed creative impulses, was often wonderful. “Sugar and Spike” was consistently wonderful; even as an adolescent reader of mainstream superhero comics who groaned when some relative would mistakenly give him a “Richie Rich” or, God forbid, “Archie” comic, I was devoted to “Sugar and Spike.” And soon, very soon, you too will be able to share the joy:  an archive edition will finally be released by DC Comics next month.


(By the way, I bought the issue above right off the stands in 1970. I was 8.)

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that I first read almost 30 years ago. It concerns a massive conspiracy by intellectuals to plant the false idea that there is a secret world called Tlon, with a nation called Uqbar. Inserting this false information into encyclopedias and referencing it elsewhere helps to, in essence, create the actuality — just as the creation of fiction implants ideas in readers that sometimes become reality. (Who invented the satellite? Well, the notion came from Arthur C. Clarke.) The fact that this phrase has stuck with me for 30 years proves the point.

In other words, both phrases are about imaginary languages and secret meanings.


Which takes me to today’s Google Logo (shown above). I was thrilled beyond measure to see that it was an homage to Borges, born 112 years ago today. More about that Google doodle, and how  Borges’ thinking led to the creation of hypertext links, can be found via this hypertext link.

To some degree, we are all of us privy to secret languages all around us every day, even when spoken in languages we purport to speak:  the thrum of jargon and subtext and obscure reference. It’s amazing we can understand anything. To some degree, this is what all of Harold Pinter’s plays are about:  that we understand nothing, while understanding everything all too well.

Something for your little pisser

Monday, July 11th, 2011


What would better suit your little cutie than this adorable Charles Bukowski onesie? Available in 6 colors, including “Asphalt,” and just right for that upcoming baby shower, this snap-shut one-piece for your little bundle includes a lovingly rendered image of the great man, as well this memorable quote:  “Sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” All yours, for just 21 Buks.

Writing: good, bad, variable, and influential

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

“Learning not to dislike Hemingway.”

That was the title an editor gave to a piece in today’s LA Times by book critic David Ulin. (Here it is; points go to the print edition’s copy editor — online it’s tagged “Under the influence of Hemingway,” a headline so weak that it seems a subtle jab at Hemingway’s manly writing style.) I read this piece with great interest because I’ve always read all of Hemingway with great interest since first coming across his short stories in high school, when one of those stories taught me the word “milt,” as Nick Adams strips clean a fish he’s caught. Almost 35 years later, this word has stayed with me. Indeed, I used it in my play “He Said She Said,” written two years ago and produced in LA and, recently, Omaha at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. The play concerns a vacationing PTA mom reading bad erotic poetry she’s written, and that setup flashed me back to the oddly sensual description of Nick Adams cleaning that fish. Here’s the comically bad poem from my play:



This is called Deep Sea Diving. Except the “Sea” is spelled “s-e-e.”


Deep see diving.

I can see you down here with me.

The shellfish scuttle out of the way

Forming a cloud of ocean dust around you.

There you are.


Don’t hide.

I can see you.

Peering at me from beneath your coral

Thinking that you’re safe and protected

I reach for you and pull you out

And take you above and slit you open

And run my tongue down the length

Of your milty flesh

Careful not to get your bones

Stuck in my throat.



Hemingway finds the right sensual word — “milt,” the sperm-containing secretion of the testes of fishes — and then in my play Amanda adulterates it into “milty.” Even as a teenage writer, I could see that Hemingway had the knack of finding the right word, something I struggled then and now with.

I picked up other tricks from Hemingway, purposely or accidentally. Here Ulin quotes Hemingway in “Death in the Afternoon”: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Note the circular reductionism, as Hemingway returns again and again to the baseline words:  writer/writing; about; enough. There’s a rhythm to this that just pulls you into it; it’s practically Biblical. This element of style infected my writing early on, and that’s fine; I got it from Hemingway, and Hemingway got it from Gertrude Stein, just as Shakespeare got Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer, and Chaucer got it from Boccaccio. All of which means that whether or not I admire Hemingway’s work (and I do), I certainly have been influenced by it.

(Who else was I influenced by? My friend Joe Stafford likes to point out that many of my plays contain what Joe calls “a laundry list” monologue in which someone complains about a host of items or events. In retrospect, the inspiration for this is obvious:  Harold Pinter,  and The Caretaker specifically.)

So here I am, filled with admiration for Hemingway, and somewhat put out by the Times’ book critic writing a piece bearing the headline “Learning not to dislike Hemingway.” To add insult to injury, Ulin goes on to say:

“The one who most spoke to me was Faulkner, with his flowing sea of language, his sense of of the past, of history, as a living thing. Next to him, Hemingway seemed flat, two-dimensional.”

Oh, William Faulkner. You  mean the famous writer I cannot read. The irony here is that, much as Ulin doesn’t care for Hemingway, I can’t abide Faulkner at all. Ever since I posted Doug’s Reading List six years ago, I’ve received many emails and personal comments that the entire list should be held suspect because Faulkner isn’t on it. But I can’t imagine a reason to put him on; I remain unclear what his impact is (on writers in general, or certainly on me). And oh, I have tried reading him, most notably Absalom, Absalom! (three attempts) and, just recently, Light in August again, this time getting to page 152 before bailing out. Here’s an excerpt prototypical paragraph:

He was standing still now, breathing quite hard, glaring this way and that. About him the cabins were shaped blackly out of blackness by the faint, sultry glow of kerosene lamps. On all sides, even within him, the bodiless fecundmellow voices of Negro women murmured. It was as though he and all other manshaped life about him had been returned to the lightless hot wet primogenitive Female….

What are “fecundmellow” voices? Like “milt,” the word aims to be erotic, but Faulkner’s neologism subtracts more than it adds, as do “manshaped” and “primogenitive.” To Ulin, Hemingway may seem “flat” by comparison, but I would respond that he doesn’t yank you out of the milieu with awkward showiness.

While I disagree with the Times’ book critic, I respect him for coming out with his opinion about Hemingway. I’ve been out about my dislike for Faulkner for six years, and I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of lit-snob derision — and I’m not the book critic of a major newspaper. I’m sure Ulin is in for a pasting from readers (and I’m betting he’ll be delighted to get a reminder that people are reading him). Ulin notes Hemingway’s influence — on Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Russell Banks, Tobias Wolff, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson (I would add Charles Bukowski) — but he doesn’t care for what Faulkner would call the primogenitive Writer.

All of this reminds me of something that happened last night, after the latest round of readings from my “Words That Speak” playwriting workshop. A couple of weeks ago, some of us in the workshop had plays performed in Moving Arts’ “The Car Plays,” and another playwright and I spent a few minutes last night discussing some of the plays we’d seen (of 26 different car plays, I’d seen 10). We came to the subject of one that neither of us particularly liked;  “It just doesn’t go anywhere,” I said, and my friend agreed. Then he said, “But I saw some people come out of that car wiping tears away.” We think it’s a bad play; others were emotionally swept away; and neither one of us could figure it out.  Just as I still can’t figure out the appeal of William Faulkner.

Sitting in judgment theatrically

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Two or three times a year, I get called upon to judge theatre competitions of varying sorts. This year, I’m one of the readers for the PEN USA literary awards, which is always an honor. And this Saturday evening, I’m a judge of this playwriting and performance event at the Secret Rose Theatre. It sounds like a lot of fun. If you’re around, stop by.

I have mixed feelings about contests, awards, and prizes. In grad school, one of my playwriting professors, Jerome Lawrence,  told me he was against writing contests because it pitted writers against writers. I understood his point of view (and that’s an indication of just what sort of a guy Jerry was:  generous beyond measure), especially as someone who at that time had already been on both sides of prize-winning — winning one when I wasn’t sure my play was the best, and losing the same contest the next year when I was sure mine was. Especially when there’s a performance element in judging  a playwriting contest, a lot rides on elements outside the playwright’s control:  How responsive was the audience on the judging night, how “on” were the performers, was it too cold or too hot in the theatre, how was traffic on the way there, was the box office friendly or surly, and so forth.

At the same time, believe me when I say I understand the marketing value of winning any contest or award (and, sometimes, the prize value). I don’t care which movies have won which awards, believe me (especially when  it’s a system that awards “Best Picture” to “Avatar”). But do awards build careers, and would I put the full thrust of marketing and PR behind any awards won? You bet.

There is a story — and I don’t know how reliable it is — that, 40 years ago, the Nobel committee was deadlocked between giving the award for literature to either Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. Finally, after much deliberation, one of the Ionesco champions who felt that Ionesco’s work had a broader scope than Beckett’s (and there may be something to that), switched sides to end the deadlock. And so:  Samuel Beckett won the Nobel, and Eugene Ionesco never did. Is the work of Beckett, the Nobel-prize-winning writer, better than that of Ionesco? Beckett has become far more deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness — referenced in “The Simpsons,” name-checked on “Quantum Leap,” parodied on Sesame Street — and a lot of that came from winning the Nobel.