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Harriet Halliday Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Harriet Halliday Renaud
Creative Ear; Fresh Eye

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

In 1962, the California Writers’ Club invited my mother to deliver one of several talks she gave on the short story. She had been researcher, writer, reviewer and editor for Time, Newsweek, and other major U.S. publications. As a freelance writer, her short stories appeared in many of the top national magazines.

The talk she gave, “Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story,” was in several parts. You can find Part 1, and a more complete introduction, here.


Part 2 follows.


 Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story (Part 2)

Harriet Halliday Renaud


We’ve come rather a long way from those instant ingredients I promised in my title, and this typewriter may get around to them yet, but something else also intervenes in the time between the title comes to you and you get ready to prepare your talk—and that something is Life. What happened in this case was that earlier this week I went to hear Rod Serling, the television writer, speak at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.  And as I listened to him, I became oddly bemused, because although the details of what he had to say were of course totally new, the general format struck me as being extremely familiar. And driving home, I got to thinking about talks, and then I got to wondering further why so many of them fall so naturally into the same pattern.

The more I got to wondering about all that, the more I wanted to talk about it, and here you were going to be, by any count adding up to more than my usual audience of five—so there went the Instant Short Story again.

Now, over the years I had heard a goodly number of short story writers, novelists, playwrights, article writers, all published, all performed—and with a very few exceptions the theoretical burden of their talks has been (1) that the market for short-stories, play, novels, TV scripts, articles, are virtually closed to all but the well-known few, and (2) they account for their own success in terms of “luck,” the fact that they “got in” when the industry was new, or when short stories were “the thing,” which they no longer are supposed to be, or when DDT happened to be in the news. The message that comes across is that in every field of writing or publishing there is a golden moment which, once not seized, leaves you forever after on the outside trying vainly to get into a closed market.

Now, what is the impulse that lies behind this kind of talk? I think there are two. One is that the very nicest people—and writers are among the nicest people in the world—honestly enjoy their success, as well they might, and it is actually a thoroughly painless experience to get before an audience and tell them how very hard it was, and how well you did. Nobody in his right mind would back away from that kind of experience, as I am happily proving right now. Now the other impulse is a gracious one: I think it is the speaker’s wish to get the writers in the audience off the hook. The successful and kindly speaker, as surely Mr. Serling and so many of the others have been, is in effect saying, “It’s not your fault; it’s the system.”

All the writers who stand up on platforms and tell about how very hard it is—every one of them—cracked the system. And for every one it was a different system in a different point in time. And what they cracked it with was not luck, or sunspots, or eating the right breakfast food, or using a certain typeface, or meeting an idiosyncratic editor after a particularly liquid lunch—and they all cracked it with the same secret weapon—they had talent and they worked very, very hard.

Now, there are two books I would like to recommend to those of you who have not already come across them: One is The Seesaw Log, by William Gibson, and the other is Act One, by Moss Hart. Although both books happen to be about the theatre, and each details the history of a play from the initial idea through its development to its final successful form, there are lessons in the books for writers in every field whose goal it is to write for a large public.

The author of the play, Two for the Seesaw, had had five disastrous flops before he set his hand to this play, and he first conceived of it not as a play but as a novel. And once, even after the play had been written and was in production, it seemed so doomed to failure that he decided to scrap the whole thing and try once again to do it as a novel. He did go back to the play again, however, and again, and again, and still again, and even after he had the director and the producer and the cast he wanted and the big star, Henry Fonda, he rewrote and rewrote and rewrote that play—in hotel rooms, on trains, in planes, in rehearsal rooms—and he fought and argued and disagreed—but always he rewrote, until he loathed his play, his director, his producer, and his cast—and then rewrote some more. He said that the pain he suffered in doctoring that play so that it would meet the stringent demands of the popular theatre, was so great, that it nullified his pleasure when Two for the Seesaw became a tremendous hit. Well, he has since gone on to write another hit, and he used the same director, the same producer, and the same woman star—so maybe his wounds were actually more bloody than deep, and therefore healed nicely with only the balm of box office receipts.

Moss Hart, the author of the more recent book, Act One, grew up in a lower middle class ghetto in New York, never got beyond the 8th grade in school, and early conceived the ambition to become in some way connected with the theatre. Once in a Lifetime, the great hit play whose history he relates in the book, was his first play to find production, except for an earlier attempt which did not survive its first act in a Chicago tryout. In between he had written five plays which had never gotten past a first reading. For Once in a Lifetime, he was given, as collaborator, the fabulously successful playwright, play doctor and director George S. Kaufman, a man for whom he held and almost speechless reverence.

And despite the many many months those two put into the play—the long hot days and the long cold days—despite the tryouts and the recastings and the re-writings—the play which had started out as a good first act, a weak second act, and a terrible third act, continued to be just that. And then one day, when Kaufman finally said he had given everything he had to the play and was going to Europe, the very young Mr. Hart caught him at breakfast the next morning, recited a new third act—a totally new third act, which he had had to think up in one night, in order to keep his collaborator from leaving the country. And Mr. Kaufman canceled his trip, and the two men worked through another unbearable New York summer, on the new third act which needed a new set which cost $20,000. And when they opened another tryout with this new third act, the audience howled, they beat their feet on the floor—the laughter roared and billowed—and in the end they all knew that the new third act had some wonderful, irresistibly comic moments—but that for some reason, these did not save the play as a whole. There was something wrong, and everyone could see that there was, and no one could put a finger on it.

And then three days before they were to open on Broadway, running scared all the way, the producer of the play, a kind man trying to comfort the dejected young author, made a chance remark which sent Mr. Hart off to sketch out yet another new third act which called, among other things, for throwing away the hilarious $20,000 piece of scenery. And when the veteran but weary Mr. Kaufman said it was too risky to try out another third act so close to the opening, Mr. Hart went away and wrote out more of it, and this time got Mr. Kaufman to concede, and when Once in a Lifetime opened at the Music Box in New York, it was one of the great smash theatre hits of all time.

Well, how many instant ingredients are there to detect in all that? Not many leap to the eye, anyhow. But I would like to point out something about those two authors, two writers worlds apart in temperament, background, point of view, experience and perception—yet who share a common trait—a working ingredient so vital—that by itself it can account for the difference between the work that’s a clever miss and the one that becomes a brilliant success.

What I’m talking about is the god-given ability, or the learned ability, or the manufactured ability, (some have this by temperament, and others have to forge it) to start fresh on what had seemed over and done with, to face failure and snatch from it whatever is good enough to start with—all over again. And this ability is partially composed of being able to listen and to hear with an open, receptive, and creative ear. The clues to the solution of our problems—in life and in our manuscripts, are all about us. The people who live creatively and write creatively are the ones who are open to receive the signals, and who then can act on them.

Moss Hart had written six serious dramas, all of them failures, when he decided that continued and heedless writing, a dogged ploughing ahead in spite of failure, represents industry and not much else if there is not also the willingness to explore the anatomy of that failure. And it was then that he re-read his letters of rejection, and came upon the comment from a reader that changed his life. The reader had noted that the best parts of the rejected plays were the infrequent comedy lines, and wondered if Mr. Hart had considered writing comedy. Mr. Hart had not, but he did then, with the remarkable results that we all know about.

It was the receptivity of Mr. Hart’s creative ear which was also responsible for the cracking of the problem third act of Once in a Lifetime. He was able to hear—really hear—the chance, somewhat cryptic remark of the loquacious and sometimes boring producer, and he was able to build on that and see, yet once again, with that indispensable fresh eye, the third act which had already been re-written times beyond count.


To be continued…



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Harriet Halliday Renaud was a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor from 1935 to 2016, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar.
For more of her writings, check the Archives 

Lissa Tyler Renaud - Scene4 Magazine

Lissa Tyler Renaud, Ph.D. is director of InterArts Training (1985- ). She was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge), and Editor of Critical Stages webjournal 2007-14. She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist in the U.S., Asia, Europe, Russia, Mexico. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2018 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine





June 2018

Volume 19 Issue 1

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