Wolfie's Chicken Soup for Writers - Umberto Tosi

Lili Kraus
Right now (taking advantage of the alternative time lines allowed by cyberspace), I'm enraptured by a 1965 recording of the great Lili Kraus performing Mozart's sublime "Jenamy" Piano Concerto No. 9, in E-flat major, K. 271. I should be writing this post, which I have let languish as I dithered over ideas until barely ten hours before post time. Now, I don't mean letting Wolfie's magic soothe me as I go about my work. I have a specific, compelling reason for playing Mozart concertos at the moment, about which I will explain shortly. In any event, however, I can never do Mozart as background. Too much undertow for me; besides, coming from a musical family, lack of attentiveness feels vaguely disrespectful. If the elevator plays so much as Rondo Alla Turca, I may not be able to get off until it's finished. That's why I despise all piped-in music, but that too is another story.

Let's distract from my distractions for a while and reflect on writing detours and some shortcuts for getting back on the road. What's your favorite distraction? We writers all have them. I find Mozart preferable to social media, crossword puzzles, online chess and binge eating while standing at the fridge, all of which I'm also prone to do. (Mozart also doubles as an antidote for despairing of our species when confronted with depravity of the kind currently found among the kleptocrats, racist thugs and child abductors we've allowed to seize power here in the USA - for the time being.)

Lately, I've discovered that distraction can work in both directions. I can use at least certain kinds of distractions as a writing aid as much as they can be diversions. Perhaps what leads us writers away from the keyboard and what leads us away from the hypercritical, analytic mind that blocks creativity co-exist on two sides of the same coins.

Viola Spolin, 1930s
I'm thinking about one of my favourite writing exercises - three-word bingo, I call it. It's a pretty common practice that I adapted it from improv godmother Viola Spolin's Games for the Theater. I get someone - in this case, my inamorata, artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris - to give me three common, random words that I will do my best to incorporate into a short piece of improvised narrative. (I gave her three in turn that she used as a catalyst for - as it turns out - a memorist novella she has been bringing to life on her screen as we speak.)

I had been in funk and a slump up until six weeks ago, chasing my tail trying to make a couple of novels-in-progress go somewhere. I rolled fragments uphill, only to see them tumble back down. I spent hours on the Internet, taking walks, taking naps, texting, Tweeting, never thinking of tomorrow.

In the meantime, not to feel completely useless, I worked on a collection of my short stories - my second - to be published by fall, entitled "Sometimes Ridiculous" The title refers to stories' surreal aspects. It also fit my mood - which I wrote about in my June, AE post about being trapped in a bathroom with a jammed lock.

In the process, I combed through my computer files to select pieces for the anthology. One folder contained improvised stories Eleanor and I had created when we played a series of improv theatre-derived writing games about seven years ago. We enjoyed this immensely at the time, but I never gave much thought to taking my output seriously - only as exercises. Upon re-examination, however, I discovered that I had gone on to develop full-length short stories and novellas from a good many of these "exercises."  I sent the file to Eleanor with a note. (She had a similar experience - having developed her haunting, psychological symbolist love story, "A Rose in Bloom" from one of our a three-word starters.)

"Let's play again," she said. I agreed, and so we have for the past six weeks.

For reasons I won't scrutinise too closely for fear of jinxing it, the process has worked in every way that it should. And not that its purpose should be anything more than loosening up and letting the process take on where it will, it has amped my productivity marvellously and helped me churn out several short stories and the start of a novella that I must say I'm rather happy with - even after letting them simmer.

I'm delighted to announce that one of my resulting stories has been accepted for publication by the prestigious Catamaran Literary Reader,  a 9,000-word, Commedia dell'Arte-meets-California-Disaster opus entitled: "Didn't You Used to Be Daw-Daw?" That story spawned from three words Eleanor provided: "cantaloupe, lilac and announcement." It helped that we discussed the process prior to launching - particularly the Spolin gospel of "yes-and-ing" - along with her admonition to always "trust, cooperate and support" fellow players, and what emerges in an exercise or performance piece. In our case, it would be fun, but not enough simply to work one's three words into a narrative. One should also "yes-and" oneself - something I find more difficult than supporting a fellow player on or off stage.

For example, I started on the above story with the obvious - a character making the only "let's elope, cantaloupe." Normally, I would have deleted that as cliche. But playing the game, I enquired of the character: Who makes that joke? An eccentric, complex, washed-up, Hollywood bit-actor-Pierrot emerged, in the midst of an equally odd, conflicted family, threatened by a raging wildfire. We should call the game, "see where it goes."

I won't say this any other game is a panacea - nothing is when it comes to writing. The concept, however, is that focusing on playing "the game," gets one out of the calculating mind and into the creative spirit. Whereupon, if you yes-and what that spontaneous consciousness serves up, it will lead into more and more imagination and invention.

I used to do Artist's Way author Julia Cameron's "morning pages" faithfully back in the 1980s, and that primed the pump back then when I was writing a lot of nonfiction for magazines. Perhaps members of this esteemed group of writers would find merit in creating an annotated compendium of favourite writing-starter, writing-supercharger and writer's-block breakers online or in book form. I'm one who collects such remedies. They often work, until they don't. Same as writer's block, it lingers - until it's gone.

Back to Mozart. About a week ago, I had one of those dreams of many rooms and many characters, most of which remain a blur, but just before I woke up, I was on a balcony overlooking a garden, and heard a chamber orchestra playing a most exquisite passage coming from somewhere out there. The music was absolutely vivid, I could hear and feel the timbre of every instrument, and followed every note, through an entire movement, it seemed, bathed in - I swear - golden light. The music stayed with me for days. I knew this passage, and was sure it was from Mozart, and probably the slow movement of a concerto. I even sounded it out on my Casio keyboard.  I determined to track it down. (There are phone apps for identifying melodies, but I don't have one and doubted it would work in this case.)

Wolfgang at 14
My first guess was Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A-major, K. 622, or the clarinet quintet in A, K. 581, both gorgeous, but wrong. Then I went to the Lili Kraus complete collection of piano concertos, available on YouTube. I owned that set in vinyl back in the 1960s. Lili Kraus was known as a brilliant of Mozart. She was also a hero. Born of Jewish parents in Hungary, she and her philosopher husband converted to Catholicism, but had to flee Nazi Germany and then Fascist Italy in the 1930s. They took refuge in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), only to be stranded when the islands were overrun by the Japanese. They were arrested and sent to separate concentration camps by Japanese Imperial occupation authorities. She escaped death only due to a Japanese general who had collected her recordings. It took her ten years to recover enough to concertize again after liberation in 1945.

So I listened, searching over the next several days. Unfortunately - or fortunately if you like a lot of Mozart - I started with the high numbers and worked backwards. Which brings me, da capo, to the concerto I was playing just as I started to write this post. It turned out that, eureka, I found it - the very next piece in that Lili Kraus recording: the "andante," second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto N. 15 in B-flat major, K. 450. The andante lasts barely five minutes, a lilting theme and variations, but truly heaven.

I can't say what this all means, except it suggests the magic we all seek as writers cannot be grasped. It must be discovered and accepted, and it comes from the land of dreams, a gift only to those who manage to keep their eyes and ears open.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)   


Indeed, this writing process and fountain of inspiration remains a mystery to those of us who write...but I love the idea of playing a three-word game that you and Eleanor have worked to much advantage. Congratulations on your forthcoming short-story collection and placing a story in the Catamaran Review!
Bill Kirton said…
Inspiring as ever, Umberto. I've played variations of the 3 word game - with workshop students and alone. In fact, recently, my 2 brothers and I spawned a variation which counteracts the boredom of car journeys. Take the final 3 letters of oncoming cars as the initials of a gutter press headline, create the headline, then the story it introduces. The best example I can remember was from brother Bob. The letters were an unpromising ZDC and he came up with 'Zebedee Dead - Choked' along with a hilarious news item about the fate of Zebedee - a central character in The Magic Roundabout, which used to be on childrens' TV here. Hardly Mozart, I admit, but lots of fun.
Sandra Horn said…
Great post, Umberto! I've never really tried word games to get going when I'm 'dry', but that does sound good - maybe it will break the current block.
Griselda Heppel said…
I know nothing about improvisation and have huge admiration for people who can do it - what a creative way to break through into new stories and characters. I’ve never heard of Spolin and will look her up to find out more about it. Wonderful that your 3 word game with impro has had such rich results. Congratulations on the story in the Catamaran!

And I’m in awe of your knowledge of Mozart. I love the piano concertos but am only really familiar with 20 - 23 (particularly adore 23).
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks to Dipika, Bill, Sandra, Griselda for your warm and interesting comments. We'll have to play that license plate game next time we travel the highways, Bill. Hilarious!
Jay Sennett said…
Congratulations on your publication and for writing through the doldrums. A more elaborate I use: make two columns. On the left list nouns associated with a profession. On the right list verbs associated with a different profession. Write sentences using all ten verbs and nouns. Thank you again for your inspiration.

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