Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Express trains and locals

When I was in Maine in August, Rich and my brother and I drove north to Aroostook County to see my mother. We stopped for coffee before heading into the north woods--and ended up buying books. I was excited to find, at half-price, Stephen Sondheim’s memoir Finishing the Hat. For this month I’ve been bopping along with Sondheim as he tells the stories of his own writing. And this week I’ve also been thinking about Claire’s recent post on writing about 9/11, and by extension, any tragic or complicated moment.

We know that when writers are dealing with hard, heavy stuff they often break it up with humor—the classic example is the Porter’s long speech in Macbeth, right after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have murdered the king. Humor is part of the pacing of tragedy.

Where I am in the songwriter’s career is not at a tragic moment but farcical. Sondheim is recounting the difficulties of writing music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “I grumbled that Forum would be better off as a play than a musical…Burt [Shevelove, co-writer of the book] replied that if it were just a play, it would be relentlessly and unrelievedly funny and the audience, unable to recover between gasps of laughter, would soon become restless for a breathing space.”

Sondheim goes on to say, “The tighter the plotting the better the farce, but the better the farce the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains; musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going. That’s why the songs in Forum are bunched together in the first half of the first act, where there is more exposition than action, and then become scarcer and scarcer until the last twenty minutes before the Finale there are no songs at all.”

I’m still thinking about how this applies to writing novels or non-fiction, but I’m glad for the increased awareness of the momentum of a piece of writing. And I’m glad for the metaphors. Maybe it’s true for all of us--sometimes our writing is an express train, sometimes it’s a local. And the question then is what material is best suited for the local train, what for the express?


  1. Jackie, for me this is often something to look at in revision. In first draft writing, the speed of the prose is elusive and not until I have a full manuscript can I see the rhythm of the piece. Thanks for stimulating post.

  2. I think you're right, Claire. We often don't think about the rhythm of a piece--express or local--until we've written it wrong at least once.