Shakespeare’s Wife

By chance this summer, I saw the Broadway musical &Juliet at the same time I was reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet. In both stories, Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, plays a major role.
Hamnet alternates between two time frames: 1) the courtship and early days of marriage between Will and Anne, and 2) Anne coping with the illness and eventual death of their 11-year old son, Hamnet, from the plague while Will is off in London doing his theatre thing.
&Juliet is a jukebox musical, using pop songs to tell a radical new version of Romeo and Juliet. Anne doesn’t like that Juliet kills herself after finding the dead Romeo, so she convinces Will to let Juliet live and run off to a life of adventure in Paris.
In both stories, Anne is as fascinating (if not more) than her famous husband, and they are seen to be a dynamic couple with all the push-pull that you’ll find in most marriages. With scant historical record about these folks, it’s mostly speculation—but you walk away feeling closer to this page of literary history.
If you’re ever looking for a story idea—and we writers usually are—history presents a vast tapestry of colorful characters and events from which you can pluck something to use. Chances are there’s already a place or personage that’s captured your attention.
Taking a peripheral character from history, like Shakespeare’s wife, is an intriguing way to go. Peter Shaffer’s play and film Amadeus tell the story of Salieri, a composer who’s a contemporary of Mozart who believes God has placed Mozart in Vienna to taunt him about his own mediocrity. Salieri will have his revenge.
Or take someone pulled unwittingly into history. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten unmercifully by four police officers, an event caught on a video; when the policemen were acquitted in court, a massive riot exploded on the streets of LA. Tracey Rose Peyton’s short story “The Last Days of Rodney” depicts the final day in Rodney’s life, 21 years later.
Sure, you can take a well-known figure. Stories about Abraham Lincoln are as wildly diverse as the Spielberg film Lincoln, George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the action film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Gotham teacher Rita Chang-Eppig certainly heard the call to raid history. Her novel Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea tells the story of Shek Yeung, a woman who led thousands of pirates in the South China Sea in the early 19th century while also managing the role of wife and mother. (You can read an excerpt in this very newsletter.)
I’ll leave you now to ponder our past.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Digging Deeper (Clichés Part 2)

My grandmother Eleanor (who you might remember from my letter awhile back about her broccoli-cheese casserole) was the person who taught me the expression, “It takes all kinds.”

It’s an abbreviation of the longer saying, “It takes all kinds to make up the world.” And Grandma loved it, because to her the world was a vibrant place full of interesting people she couldn’t wait to chat up at Jewel. When I was a bratty 13-year-old saying, “Look at that hair!” or “What is that weirdo doing?”, Grandma would tell me to be less judge-y and more open by saying, “It takes all kinds.”

“Just imagine how boring this world would be,” she’d say, “if everyone were exactly like you, or me!”

This is really good advice for judge-y 13-year-olds, and writers, too. It reminds us to be open to the strangeness of the world, and the people who make it interesting.

But also, it doesn’t go far enough. Because “it takes all kinds” is what psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliché.”

A thought-terminating cliché is one that immediately wraps things up, a little too neatly, so that no one probes any deeper. Think of phrases like “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “It is what it is.”

They can be dangerous, Lifton wrote, because they “compress the most far-reaching and complex of human problems into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Already you can imagine all kinds of scenarios where this would be disastrous for a writer. A character says, “All things must pass,” and brings a funeral scene to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. An essayist takes 2,000 words to explore their family’s experiences with immigration, starting fresh, and loneliness, but ends with, “A stranger in strange land.”

Last month, I wrote that it’s OK to let clichés flow into our early drafts, as long as we go back and weed them out. We need to keep an especially watchful eye out for thought-terminating clichés. Because when they show up, we should ask ourselves, “What are you avoiding?”

Probably something uncomfortable. But important.

Once, Grandma and I together watched a story on the evening news about men who observed Good Friday by re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion, complete with having themselves actually nailed to crosses. I must’ve said something like, “That’s nuts,” because Grandma put her hand on mine and said with such tenderness, “It takes all kinds, honey. Remember that.”

She died five years ago, so I cannot ask her what she really thought of the penitents and their devotion. Did Gram, a lifelong Catholic, imagine those men getting closer to their faith? Or did she think perhaps they only brought themselves closer to the cruelty of the world?

Clichés happen. Next time you see one, though, don’t let it shut you down. Do what I wish I’d done with Grandma—ask for more.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty


Camaraderie is a wonderful thing (albeit tricky to spell).

I was touched by the camaraderie I saw on display at the Tony Awards ceremony a few weeks ago. When the cast of a Broadway show finished their musical performance, the camera showed them coming offstage, being cheered by the cast of another Broadway show about to go on for their performance. You could feel the brassy love and support between each group.

Back in the day, I did some acting in the theatre, and I can tell you one of the many highs from those days was the feeling of camaraderie among the cast and crew. You see this in all kinds of groups where everyone is aiming for a collective goal amid pressure, nerves, and charged emotions. Playing in a band, competing as part of a team, working on a construction crew, fighting on a battlefield.

Writing is mostly done solo. And there’s a beauty to cocooning yourself in the world of your words and story, whether you’re alone in a room or surrounded by people in a public space.

Still, writers need camaraderie, for the sake of their work, not to mention their mental health.

You can always try brainstorming with one or more people. Ask them to help you brainstorm ideas for your story with an offer to return the favor.

Recently we needed a fun idea for our summer writing contest, so I brainstormed with Emma (from our staff) and Maya (our current intern). Someone would toss out an idea, we’d bat it around, make it better, then we’d keep tossing and batting and improving.

We came up with the Not-So-Great Outdoors Contest, which I hope you’ll enter.

Writing classes are also a great place to find camaraderie. I can feel it from the NYC classes adjoining our offices: when I hear a wave of laughter or peek in to see everyone diving into a classmate’s story, offering praise and advice. But there’s also plenty of communing in our Zoom and Online classes, where you get the bonus of students from all over the place.

Hey, we have lots of summer classes starting soon.

Also, please consider coming to one of our free writing classes in Bryant Park this summer, starting Thursday July 6. We always get a great turnout of writers at all levels. And we have a super lineup of teachers and topics. These nights are kind of magical—writing in this gorgeous jewel of a park smack dab in the middle of the most vibrant city in the world. It’s a welcoming vibe, an easy place to make a friend or just feel the excitement of people coming together for a writing adventure.

Alex Steele,