Author. Instructor. My memoir, "Teaching Will What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't," comes out in August
The Writers' Blog Tour is a series of four questions answered by a writer, who then invites two more writers to answer the same questions. I've been introduced to the tour by Lauren B. Davis, author of the compelling novel "The Empty Room."
• other authors on the tour (also check #writersblogtour on Twitter):
I'm posting my four answers across four different sites. Enjoy!
• Question 1: Why do I write what I do?
• Question 2: What am I working on?
• Question 3: How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
• Question 4: How does my writing process work?
3. How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I have been told that Teaching Will is different because it tells more than one story. I've entwined the tale of my creating an after-school Shakespeare program with my own story of being a child, discovering the theatre, becoming an actor, then facing the painful end of that career.
The combining of those stories came out of a recognition that I could only be empathetic to these children if I clearly recalled my own childhood. This results in a dual narrative, not a clear-cut beginning-to-end story, not a how-to manual. Then I added a poem, which I'm told never belongs in a memoir unless the author is a poet.
I've also done some literary knitting in my second novel, The Novel Class, which is a contemporary tale of women in Los Angeles struggling during the recent recession. These women meet in a novel class in which they're studying Faulkner's Light in August, a story set in the Great Depression. As my modern characters struggle, they search for modes of survival much like Faulkner's characters did.
For someone who can't knit, I find myself twisting yarns a lot.
From the back of the book:
What happens when an idealist volunteers to introduce Shakespeare to a group of unruly kids? Bedlam. Tears. And hard lessons learned. Convinced that children can relate to Shakespeare's themes—power, revenge, love—Mel Ryane launches The Shakespeare Club at a public school. Teaching Willis a riotous cautionary tale of high hopes and goodwill crashing into the realities of classroom chaos.
Every week Mel encounters unexpected comedy and drama as she and the children struggle toward staging a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Woven through this fish-out-of-water tale is Mel's own story of her childhood aspirations, her acting identity, and the heartbreaking end of her onstage career.
In the schoolyard, Mel finds herself embroiled in jealousy and betrayal worthy of Shakespeare's plots. Fits of laughter alternate with wiping noses as she and the kids discover a surprising truth: they need each other if they want to face an audience and triumph. Teaching Will is an uplifting story of empowerment for dreamers and realists alike.
This is a wonderful book. And far more complex and layered than one might expect from the publisher's blurb. Yes, it's a memoir about an actor at a crossroads, choosing to teach Shakespeare to kids in a public school, but it's also about finding oneself and one's purpose through literature and -- no less importantly -- in other people. Ryane -- who I happen to know and admire immensely, even more after reading this book -- uses the schoolroom to frame the memoir, to guide us, as she guides her lucky students, into the world of Shakespeare, and uses that world as a mirror in which to reflect our own memory (using hers as a prompt) and our preconceived notions of self and our relationships to those around us.
The voice is wonderful, totally free of pretension, but always thick with empathy and compassion. Her willingness to look at her own blind-spots, her own fear and failings as they are revealed through her interaction with the children is impressive. And she's hilarious. I laughed out loud time and again. The reader feels as though s/he's listening to a tale being told by a master teller and it's a great gift. The passages in which Ryane takes us out of the schoolroom, into her own past are poignant and perfectly situated. They add great depth.
The structure is a bit quirky, with straightforward memoir capped off in every chapter by a snippet of "Children's Writes", such as this one (sic throughout):
Queen Elizabeth was a good queen. She was so nice people love her. William Shakespeare went to London because I like his plays. William Shakespeares son died when he was 11 year old. But William was in London his wife wrie a litter to him was that his son died.
These are follows by little bits called "Lesson Plan" as here, which follows the child's writing above:
Ask, ask, ask. Three years later, during a casual conversation with another teacher, I learned that Daniel could barely read and had been failed upward. He hadn't been rolling around, laughing in joy. The boy had been in a state of terror.
It's a bold structure, and one that might have looked too clever in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ryane pulls it off, using each one as an opportunity to poke the reader right in the heart.
Reading this book I learned new things about Shakespeare (which I hadn't really expected), about teaching, about connection, and about meaning. Well done.
Recommended for, well, just about anyone.