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‘Pippin’ Breaks the Magic Spell


photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Other than a vague impression that it was a musical, I knew little about Pippin as I took my seat at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday night. A season ticket holder to the theater, I don’t so much select productions to see as show up at the appointed date and time. That was the case this week as well, although a gentleman near me filled in his companion and everyone else within earshot the details about the 1972 Stephen Schwartz musical.

He probably had never seen a production like this joint venture between the Center Theatre Group and Deaf West Theatre, which integrates a cast of deaf and hearing actors. The approach may seem counterintuitive at first—tasking actors who can’t hear to sing and dance—but ultimately proves a natural fit. Musicals are, after all, largely about movement, and done right, as it is here, signing compliments choreography.

Some characters, like the Leading Man (a fantastic Ty Taylor) both sing and sign. Pippin is actually played by two actors (Michael Arden and Tyrone Giordano), one who speaks and one who signs. This works particularly well when the two selves argue, illustrating visually Pippin’s inner conflict. Other roles, like King Charles, are portrayed by one actor who signs (Troy Kostur) but are voiced by another actor offstage (Dan Callaway). Overall the incorporation of all of these players is seamless.

The play itself, though, I found uneven and kind of strange.

Set in Medieval France during the reign of Charlemagne, the eponymous prince has just completed his education with the ambition to live an extraordinary, completely fulfilled life. He’s not quite sure how to do this, though, so he convinces his father, King Charles, to let him go to the war against the Visigoths. Battle is not as glorious as he imagined, however, and he returns home disillusioned by the experience.

Next, taking the advice of his saucy grandmother, Pippin decides to live it up, and embarks on a series of sexual encounters that culminate in an onstage orgy. When he has enough of that, he vows to fight tyranny, assassinating his father and taking the throne only to realize the challenges of governing a nation and turning into a tyrant himself.

Finally, Pippin finds himself on the rural estate of the widow Catherine and her adolescent son Theo—the details of this journey remain sketchy—and, through hard farm work and a dead duck, falls in love with her. After a year, though, he asks himself whether this, too, is enough and leaves.

Now, there’s a meta level at work here that I’ve yet to discuss, a Leading Player who orchestrates these goings-on against a magic-show theme. Characters go off-script, as when Catherine actually falls in love with Pippin, rather than just playing her part in the play, and inserts her own ballad.

The finale, too, has been written for Pippin—the Leading Player has arranged for him to finally be extraordinary by going out in a blaze of glory. Literally—Pippin is to be burned alive in a glass box. When Catherine and Theo arrive, the star of the show changes his mind, however, and the Leading Player takes offense, stripping him of the lights, costumes, makeup, even his voice, directing the speaking half of the role to be carried kicking and screaming off the stage.

What strikes me as so odd about this ending—even odder than Pippin’s steroidal half-brother Lewis, who appears in a ’70s-era blond mullet and shiny leotard—is that it seems to be advocating for settling. The message I took away isn’t that Pippin finally found the complete fulfillment he sought in domestic bliss with Catherine and Leo—which may, indeed, have been the intended point—but that he gave up his dream for an extraordinary life and settled for less. Indeed, his choice isn’t celebrated by the players but punished.

As an artist, I find it hard to accept that rather than continuing to strive for the extraordinary and for fulfillment, I should scale back my ambition and resign myself to ordinariness.

Fans of the show surely will protest this reading. I’d love to hear your take.

Caught in the ’Net

Booktrust names Patrick Ness its online writer-in-residence. He’ll be blogging and sharing writing tips from cyberspace.

Harness technology to improve your writing with Twitter and these ten other resources.

Boost your productivity with intolerance.


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Wednesday Writing Exercise: Group Highlights

I recently joined a new writing group that’s different from any other in which I’ve participated. Rather than sharing their work for critique, these writers gather once a week to, well, write.

This is how it works: each member—as few as three, as many as twelve—comes prepared with a prompt. After some warm-up meditation/relaxation, someone offers a prompt, and we write for ten minutes or so. Then we go around the table and share what we’ve written. You may pass if you want, and there’s no critique. We write on three or four prompts, one of which might be a list.

I discovered this group at just the right time. I had just finished my thesis and was unsure as to what to do next—dive right into revision, or start something new? In the meantime, this model was perfect for generating material.

Mots Justes is planning a series of posts on writers groups—the benefits, the different types, the rules—but for now I thought I’d share highlights from last week’s meeting:

  • Think about one of your characters. Now, title your piece using his or her name and the word interrupted—i.e., “[Character Name], Interrupted”
  • “My soul routinely leaves my body.”
  • “I would strike the sun if it insulted me.” –Ahab, Moby-Dick
  • Imagine a coat. Imagine the coat’s pocket. Imagine what is inside the coat’s pocket. (We did this one as a list.)

Share your writing prompts here, and MJ will assemble them into a future post.

Caught in the ’Net

You’ve gotten your work critiqued. Now what?

A writer takes an editing gig and then drafts “An Open Letter of Apology to All of My Editors.”

Check out these “Seven Software Programs and Services for Writing.”


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Monday Morning Grammar: Nouns Part II—Plurals

This week, Monday Morning Grammar continues our discussion on that most basic part of speech, the noun. Last week, we established what a noun is, common versus proper nouns, and count versus noncount nouns. Today, let’s look at plural nouns.

In most cases, plural nouns are formed by adding s or es to the end of the word. If a noun ends with a letter that lends itself to the s sound, use s to make it plural:


If a noun ends with a letter that would make it awkward to end with s, such as s, sh, x, z, or a soft ch, then use es.


Nouns That End in o

Some nouns that end with the letter o use s to make it plural; others use es. There is no firm rules on when to use s or es with words that end in o, so your best bet is always to consult a dictionary. However, there are some guidelines that can help:

1) Nouns that are used in plural form as often as they are in singular form often use es to form the plural:


An exception to this rule is the word zero:


2) Nouns that end in o usually use s to for the plural if

a) the word has been borrowed from another language:


b) the word is a proper noun:

Del Toro→Del Toros

c) the word is rarely used as a plural:


d) the o is preceded by a vowel:


e) the word is a shortened version of another:


Nouns That End in y

If a noun ends with the letter y, which is preceded by qu or by a consonant, change the y to i and add es to make it plural:


If a noun ends with the letter y and is proper, or the y is preceded by a vowel, use s to make it plural:


Nouns That End in f or fe

Some nouns that end in f or fe use s to become plural:


Others change the f to v and add es:


When in doubt, consult a dictionary.

Compound Nouns

For nouns made up of separate words, with or without a hyphen, form the plural by adding the appropriate ending to the noun, or, if there is more than one noun, to the main noun:

driver license→driver licenses

Irregular Plurals

Unfortunately, some nouns don’t follow any of these rules:


And some nouns, especially those referring to game, fish, or livestock, are spelled the same in both the singular and the plural:


Again, when in doubt, consult a dictionary.

Plurals with a Singular Sense

Finally, some nouns are plural in form but are used in sentences as if they are singular:

The economic news hasn’t been good lately.
Politics is taking much of the blame.

Next week on Monday Morning Grammar, we’ll talk about the cases and properties of nouns.


Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

Caught in the ’Net

Him or her gets cumbersome. They is grammatically incorrect. Why English still lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

When you need inspiration, dream.

Place your bets now on the Tournament of Books.

Elaine Showalter assembles a survey of American women writers.

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Usage Thursday: Lay Vs. Lie

Lay versus lie remains one of the peskiest usage questions facing writers, so pesky that the SAT doesn’t even test on it! I know the rule, and still I do a double take every time I come across it in my own or others’ writing. I can deal with present and past tense, but if we’re dealing with past participle, I tend to opt for a rewrite.

So here it is, your handy-dandy guide to lay versus lie:

Simply put, you need to lay something.

Now, if that sounds PG-13-rated, what better way to help you remember the difference!

Here’s the official grammatical explanation:

Lay means “to put or set down.” It is a transitive verb, meaning that it requires a direct object:

Time is up. Lay your pencils down.

Lie, on the other hand, means “to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position.” It is an intransitive verb, meaning that it doesn’t require a direct object:

Jim lies down for a nap every afternoon.

The present participle forms of lay and lie are easily extrapolated from the present tense:

Jim is laying his backpack on the counter while he looks for an after-school snack.
Derrick is lying on the couch to relax.

Things get complicated, however, in the past tense.

The past tense of lay is laid:

Jim laid his books on his desk.

Simple enough. But the past tense of lie is lay:

Derrick finally lay down at eleven last night.

Finally, the past participle of lay is also laid:

Jim has laid his paper that is due tomorrow on his desk so he won’t forget it.

But the past participle of lie is lain:

Derrick has lain in bed for an hour without falling asleep.

This simple chart summarizes the various forms of “lay” and “lie”:

Present Tense    Present Participle    Past Tense    Past Participle
lay                         laying                         laid                 laid
lie                          lying                           lay                   lain

The key here is to figure out what tense is being used, then whether something is being laid.

Tomorrow: Mots Justes joins Twitter!


Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

“lay.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 5 March 2009 <>

“lie.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 5 March 2009 <>

Caught in the ’Net

The argument has been made, convincingly, that fretting about the current economic situation only perpetuates the problem. Yet, the fretting continues:

The Week wonders whether only the rich can actually afford to write.

Reader’s Digest repurposes outsourced freelance work.

Recession depression hits freelance writers especially hard.

But Kindle and digital readers like it could be the salvation for writers and writing.

Meanwhile, authors consider whether writing is “a joy or a chore.”

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AWP Dispatch: NEA Grant Apps

At nine a.m. on the first day of AWP, informational sessions already provided the practical advice sought by conference attendees. Much of what was reviewed during this morning’s panel on “Applying to the National Endowment for the Arts: Helpful Hints for Arts Organizations” is readily available at and, but John Parrish Peede, Director of Literature: Grants Programs for the NEA, did provide these helpful hints:

  • Read the grant guidelines.
  • Flesh out your project.
  • Review grants that have been previously granted by the NEA.
  • Decide the appropriate category and guideline for your project.
  • Contact discipline specialist and director for support.
  • Double-check your math.
  • Enclose an appropriate work sample.
  • Include the earliest start date.
  • Fill out the application checklist.
  • Apply online and apply early. Peede recommends applying ten days before the deadline. The only exceptions to online applications are extreme—for those who are disabled or who aren’t within thirty miles of an Internet connection—so make sure to get a head start in chase you hit any cyber snags.

In addition, during the post-presentation Q&A, Peede addressed some issues not expressly covered in his PowerPoint or online:

  • The grant narrative: “Apply as if you are a panelist,” Peede said. Think about the thousand pages of application materials they have to read. Make a “succinct, cogent argument,” no more than three pages, and break it down into subheads.
  • Prior grants: Previous support is not grounds for receiving or not receiving funding. However, “one of the most important thing is the ability to pull off a project,” Peede said. The NEA doesn’t reward—or punish, for that matter—based on the past. It’s always about the project, but history does matter, so demonstrate the means to complete the project.
  • Panel notes: Ask for notes from the panel’s discussion, even if you receive the grant, as these can be helpful in identifying where your application was strong and weak.
  • Matching funds: The NEA requires that any grants it awards be matched one-to-one by the recipient organization. In order to achieve this, get creative and apply for consortium grants with organizations who already do this well.
  • The fifty-percent question: “Do no harm,” Peede said, so when the grant application asks you what your organization would do if awarded less than fifty percent of the requested funding, say you’ll find the funding somewhere else, or you’ll scale back the project. Don’t say you’ll cut back on marketing costs, and, whatever you do, don’t say you’ll walk away from the project—the money you’d be giving up goes back to the Treasury, not the NEA, effectively cheating fellow applicants of funds.
  • Theme: Although it isn’t necessary for your project to have a theme, it does provide an easy shorthand for panelists. “Theme is a useful organization principle,” Peede said. “You can build a better case” for your project.
  • “Give us your best.” If Peede had one piece of advice to offer, this would be it.

Caught in the ’Net

The 25 Random Things meme on Facebook inspired this “25 Non-Random Things About Writing Short.”

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Writing and Editing News Roundup

Yes, 2009 is off to a rocky start for Mots Justes. Returning to a regular posting schedule post-thesis has proven just as challenging as returning to a regular writing schedule post-thesis. (More on that later.)

This will change, however, this week as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs kicks off in Chicago. MJ will be there, reporting from the conference and Bookfair floor.

In the meantime, let’s catch up on what’s been going on in the realms of writing and editing:

R.I.P. John Updike, whose literary merit remains up for debate.

“The horror!”: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book wins the Newbery following a debate on the Medal’s relevance.

A rural California school board bans Bless Me, Ultima.

San Pedro, Calif.’s Williams Book Store celebrates its centennial while the fate of West Hollywood’s Book Soup remains in doubt.

As the English language approaches one million words, Dr. Goodword names the hundred-plus most beautiful.

The British put the grammar and punctuation police on the defensive.

“Writing in the Age of Distraction”: Cory Doctorow strikes a balance between work and the Internet’s too-easy access to entertainment and information.

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Best Books Read in 2008

For years I’ve been putting together year-end top-ten lists of movies. One can do this as a film critic because one has presumably seen a prodigious number of current titles in order to make a qualified assessment of the cinematic offerings from the past twelve months. (Reading these rankings, however, can become eye-blurringly repetitive, with little variation aside from the occasional left-field acclamation, so I’ve put my own twist on this industry tradition, as you’ll see later in the week.)

I’ve never done a best-of list for books, however, because of the thirty-plus titles I read last year, few of them were published in 2008. Instead, here’s a list of not the best books of 2008, but the best books I read in 2008:

  1. athousandacresallthekingsmenA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren—These are my all-time favorite books and the reason I am a writer. I reread them back-to-back this summer, and I was reminded how A Thousand Acres was a revelation to me: you can write a novel about a farmer? Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book was not only an homage to King Lear but to the reserved, stalwart men and women around whom I grew up in the Midwest. After reading it for the first time, I became determined to bring more of their stories to the page. Meanwhile, Warren’s veiled account of Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s rise and fall is as humid as a Southern swamp with rich language, lyrical detours, and compelling themes about the corruptive influence of power.
  2. longembraceJudith Freeman‘s oeuvre: The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, A Desert of Pure Feeling, Red Water, and The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved—Freeman’s biography (of sorts) of Raymond Chandler, which was released in 2008, is a fascinating meld of geographic history, speculation, and writer’s notebook. In it, she visits each of the Los Angeles-area homes occupied by the Chandlers, an itinerant couple who rarely lived in one place for more than a few months. At each location, Freeman imagines the relationship between Chandler and his wife Cissy, about whom little is known and who was much older than her husband. Meanwhile, Freeman writes about the process of writing the book. The Long Embrace marks a departure from her previous books—all novels that at least originate in the rural West and, often, among Mormons. It was this milieu that we shared as thesis advisor and advisee.
  3. indefenseoffoodThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan—In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food activist Pollan follows four meals from the ground to the plate, from driving through McDonald’s for a burger and fries, to organic shopping at Whole Foods, to eating locally raised meat and vegetables, to hunting and gathering for an entire dinner party. In his follow-up, In Defense of Food, he prescribes a new approach to what and how we eat based on his findings.
  4. considerthelobsterConsider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace—I have to confess I’d never read anything by Wallace before his unfortunate passing, although I have had Infinite Jest on my bookshelf since it first came out in paperback. His forte, however, may have been nonfiction. In this collection of journalism, which includes the oft-mentioned profile of John McCain from his 2000 presidential bid, he takes, say, a straightforward assignment from Gourmet magazine to profile the Maine Lobster Festival and turns it into a manifesto decrying the barbaric way in which the crustacean is prepared for our consumption. Or a simple book review assignment from Harper’s becomes a history of Standard Written English. The man dug and dug and dug until no corner of a story was left unilluminated.
  5. blindnessBlindness by Jose Saramago—Saramago’s portrayal of a community suddenly universally struck blind and the resulting disintegration of society is the most awful thing I have ever read.

Now it’s your turn: what are the best books you read in 2008?

Caught in the ’Net

Entertainment Weekly is already looking ahead to the best books of 2009.

Chicago’s Seminary Co-op gets a presidential endorsement.

Two new CD sets from the BBC feature British and American authors in their own words.

Now that we’ve celebrated the published word, here’s a sobering prediction: “The End of the Book?”

R.I.P. 2008: “Writers and Editors”

Glen Goldman, owner of Los Angeles’s Book Soup, dies.

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