SubVerse Aphrodesia

A writer's blog by Alicia Grega

more notes on structure

(first draft, not edited)

I’m grateful to have stumbled upon Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative this year. Experiments with structure have been part of my writing process for a long time. Some of those experiments have been better received than others, but I always feel successful for having conducted the experiment. Is there only one acceptable result? And that would be what? Popularity? Box office success? Critical acclaim? Respect of peers? Right – we have different benchmarks.
Having read a spectrum of feminist theory and literature since the early ‘90s, the masculine rules of script writing began to concern me in grad school. Was it harder for female artists to succeed in the arts because they had been socialized as women – to be receptive, to listen, to cater to, to accommodate, to not be perceived as too aggressive, too ambitious, too intimidating, etc.? Do female characters have to act “like men” in order to be interesting?
This is a yang paradigm given preference to the yin – you can separate it from sex, from gender.
tender softness is not weak
slow down
dark is not bad, is not negative
Balance is a virtue.
No one values the inhale over the exhale – or vice versa – do they?
There is no sigh without first taking in air.
No output without input.
So why is the “masculine” valued over the “feminine,” given more credit, allowed to oppress, suppress, (punish), (doubt), interrupt, deny, judge, restrict, overpower, overrule, override, repress.
It is mostly men who decided what makes a script good or bad and success meant writing according to this collective wisdom. During grad school, I began researching what I would call the “passivity project” for lack of a better word.
It’s not that I wanted to write passive characters – victims who were acted upon instead of taking action. But … shouldn’t the yin weigh as heavily as the yang in all things, including storytellling? Were the nuances of craft being neglected because men are fixated on the form of their own climax?
In Alison’s book, I found confirmation of the questions I had been pondering.
Alison acknowledges the elegance of the wave at the same time she questions the monopoly of the traditional “arc.”

“Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead. There’s power in a wave, its sense of beginning, midpoint, and end; no wonder we fall into it in stories. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life, Why not draw on them, too?

She cites the “Coriolis force” as a pattern of personal preference she’s come to embrace. And I’ve been emboldened to continue my exploration of alternative structures. There remains a risk that as we stray from Aristotelian convention and Freytag’s triangle that our work will be underestimated and misunderstood.
I often refer to my script Pepper Canyon Blues, which I put on the back burner after a certain number of rejections. Spanning two decades in the life of a Scranton tribute band who performs the songs of a legendary ‘60s-’70s (Laurel Canyon-like) band from Manchester that I made up, the play is written in scenes structured like the tracks of a vinyl record album. It was a conscious decision on my part to craft scenes which acted like songs might over the course of an album – an opening number that sets the tone, a love song, a dark or sad song, a comedic number, nostalgia, an abstract, poetic track, a triumphant number, a revealing confession, an encore. Inspired in part, by the time I spent as a journalist who hung out with musicians but wasn’t one of the band, the scenes also question memories, the way we (choose) to remember or talk about key moments.
The feedback I received from a reader at the Austin Film Festival scolded me because he never doubted the band would get back together. Okay… but that wasn’t the point of the play. Who wants to watch the version where the band does not play the reunion concert? It’s not even a spoiler for me to share this. I’m not going to tease you with that shit. Will they or won’t they? Of course they fucking do. There are some moments of doubt, but because they are artists, it’s something they all have to do for whatever their personal reasons are. It is destined.
Was this concept not a worthy experiment? Should I have to explain it? Did I do it wrong? Does a play shaped like an album have to follow the arc, too?
I could go on – believe me, my notes on this are building as I create a workshop lesson on alternative structures.
Writing against the grain on tradition.
There are the alternatives of which Alison writes, and what else …
Russian dolls (written from the inside out?)
fire escape
carousel, Ferris wheel, fun house
bento box – compartments and divided compartments and sauce cups within them, stacked…

And then do we have to place those scenes in chronological order?

In the first Dyonisia festival with the Jason Miller Playwrights’ Project, we mapped the different rooms of a fictional Scranton boarding house, The Providence Arms, and each participating writer was assigned a room in which their scene would take place.

What else –
solar system: unique planets in orbit around a star.

Send me your ideas! I’d love to hear them and I will credit you, of course. -ag

Seven Wise Women in the Charnel Ground

notes on a structure

Standing in the spot I’ve made sacred in the cemetery,
where I’ve stopped to pray on so many walks,
I take a few breaths,
feel the breeze on my skin,
look up as a funeral procession drives by.

Girls’ weekend retreat we read Seven Wise Women in the Charnel Ground.
I sketched out the idea for a painting
I have not had time to paint.

This day,
I imagine a narrative structure –
seven contributions … about grief?
Seven characters; seven narrators.


the impermanence of sangha –
from gang to team to club to clique to support group to co-workers

(no regrets)

panic attacks



politics (mom)

self / body / ovaries / identity
they removed my organs – am I still a woman?

Then the last thing you expect to happen does.
Enlightenment? -ag

Family circle of Redwoods in Muir Woods, May 2021. Photo by Alicia Grega.

Koan for reference.

Seven wise sisters planned a spring journey. One of them said, “Sisters instead of going to a park to enjoy the spring flowers, let’s go to see the charnel grounds.”
The other said, “That place is full of decaying corpses. What is such a place good for?”
The first women replied, “Let’s just go. Very good things are there.”
When they arrived, one of them pointed to a corpse and said, “There is a person’s body. Where has the person gone?”
“What” another said, “What did you say?” And all seven sisters were immediately enlightened. 
Inda, Lord of the Gods, was moved by their awakening and showered flowers down onto them. He offered them whatever they needed for the rest of their lives. One of the sisters replied, “We have everything we need. But please give us a tree without roots, some land without light or shade, and a mountain valley where a shout does not echo.”“Ask anything else, holy ladies,” replied Indra, “and I will gladly provide it. But I don’t have those things to give you.”
“If you don’t have them,” said the woman, “how can you help others liberate themselves?” At this, Indra took the sisters to visit the Buddha.
When the Buddha learned why they had come, he said, “As far as that’s concerned, Indra, none of the arahants has the slightest clue either. Only great bodhisattvas understand this matter.”

Norman Fischer’s reading:

not trying to eavesdrop

Fixated on crescent moon reflection
in a window across the street,
I can’t tell the difference between crickets and cicadas,
the music that started with a car down the block,
and children crying next door.

“What are you crying for? she screams at a toddler.
That’s not the sound of a whip cracking,
but this is what my mind hears.

“No one wants to be around you because you’re an ass,”
does not sound like something
I would say to a child
let alone scream loud enough for the neighbor to hear.

A thought I had the other day –
astonished at the hatred in her voice –
speaking to the children
with contempt and disgust –
Is this how she feels about herself?

Does she,
like the adored man who abandoned me,
not know what love feels like?

-ag, aug 2021

coincidentally saw this online, source unknown

Revision is the hardest part

As you may have noticed, I enjoy observing and capturing the process …

This morning while working on the syllabus for my Writing Workshop class at Lackawanna this fall, one of the playwriting books I’m drawing on for exercise ideas sparked thoughts of the first draft I finished in April.

I scribbled my thoughts down on the back of a Redner’s receipt while finishing my first (only) cup of coffee.

I don’t expect these notes will make a lick of sense to you. But they will, I assure you, improve upon, if not solve. some of the problems with Pussy Grabs Back that I tried to ignore during that early creative process. Writing are editing are two different tasks. We can’t censor ourselves while we are engaged in the raw, magical act of creative weaving. But that work is loose and sloppy and weak with holes. It’s the going back without fear to take pieces apart, clean them, put them back together again or toss them out and replace them that makes a work something an audience can process.

In the end, I hope I can create something that has value for others and is more than a documentation of work, sweat, and ill-wrought ideas -ag 8/11/2021

preparing to write

Most writers I can think of talk about this time … the silence between words, the pause – as necessary to the creative process. Daydreaming is essential. Writers need time to stare off into space, to sit and simmer on low.
I don’t have to tell you how difficult the last year of teaching has been during the pandemic.
I’ve already alluded to the long hours spent staring at the computer screen.
And I’ve tried hard to stay balanced,
to not become a poster child for all to real dangers of burn out.
Other than the relief of having pulled off the jobs, I’m not sure how well I’m doing.
More low-sugar smoothies and tennis dates with family are good signs.

Since hastily finishing the first draft of a play in April, I haven’t written much beyond scribbles on paper and notes to my students.
Somewhere in handwriting there are words I didn’t have the brutality to share – there are losses I understand I am supposed to “be over,” so my mourning has quieted. There’s the beginning of a piece I wrote during a mud pie creativity workshop that may not be worth pursuing. There are notes from California vacation with Mom and Stacy that should become a short story or part of a novel but … this will take time.

I’ve got plenty of unfinished projects to pull up and new ideas in my head. How are there not more adult stories about college theatre students?
And there are fall classes to prepare for, a writing workshop in particular that is pulling me back to my own writing, but right now is the time to sit and breathe and restore balance. The words will wait. They are so patient. I’ll let you know when it’s time.

My reading has not suffered. Tyler Mahan Coe’s second season of Cocaine and Rhinestones came at the perfect time. The books by playwrights teach me things about myself – Quiara Alegria Hudes’ My Broken Language and Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves. Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters is as much about her as it is about Kerouac, obviously. SHE is a writer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place stopped me. I need to spend more time with her and will do so this summer.
A quote I scribbled across post-it notes:
“Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so much from the things we ourselves have invented? …I have wanted to be free my whole life and I haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe.” – Rachel Cusk, Second Place.

Alicia in Santa Cruz, May 2021. Photo by Stacy Grega.

-ag, july 7, 2021

uncle vanya’s angel

Kudos to Aimee Lou Wood (Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education, NETFLIX) for making me cry my eyes out at the end of Uncle Vanya.

SFP and Angelica Films filmed the 2020 West End revival of Chekov’s play after it was interrupted last March due to COVID. Previously aired on the BBC, the film debuted on PBS’s Great Performances last night.

Credit goes to Chekhov, of course, and to Conor McPherson’s adaptation which gave this stunning closing monologue the update it needed to penetrate the tragedy of my cynicism.

Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya in the Sonia Friedman Productions presentation of Uncle Vanya (trans. Conor McPherson) at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Jan. 2020.

It is a piece, perhaps that cannot succeed without context, without the subtext of four acts of drama that come before it. If I had only read Chekhov’s final words, external of production, I would have likely rolled my eyes. McPherson’s translation pays homage to the pure and inspiring sentiments of Chekhov’s indefatigable Sonia while grounds her words in a way that makes them palatable. Not just palatable, but potent. I am reminded of Beckett who famously wrote (years after Chekhov): “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (The link between these two writers is evident although comparisons are more often made between Waiting for Godot and The Three Sisters.)

I had to get McPherson’s text just so I could compare his translation with the traditional one. I post a clipping here with the traditional translation below.

Still, I doubt they are as genuinely moving without Wood’s performance and without the more than two hours of play that build a bridge between the frustration of Chekhov’s characters and our own.

The traditional translation via Project Gutenberg @

VOITSKI. [To SONIA, stroking her hair] Oh, my child, I am miserable; if
you only knew how miserable I am!

SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall
live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days
before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the
trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest,
both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall
meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have
suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on
us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful
life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender
smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate
faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his
hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly
on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see
heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink
away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will
be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have
faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are
crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait,
Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The
WATCHMAN’S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME.
VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits
her stocking] We shall rest.

The curtain slowly falls.

well, that makes one of us

On the latest episode of People Taking Shots at Scranton, we find one of the city’s own golden boys – playwright Stephen Karam – dragging Scranton down while praising Terrence McNally in a The Dramatist tribute issue to the legendary playwright (Jan/Feb 2021).

Maybe my next play needs to be a hot and steamy romance? Set in Scranton, of course.

Garden = Eye Rest

For as much of a trial as it was, working at Staples during grad school gave me time away from the computer screen. Now I have three part-time jobs that all require me to use my computer. There is no work I can do for those jobs that doesn’t require the computer.

I’ve learned that for as much as I should be working 12 hours a day seven days a week to stay on top of all my current obligations, I can’t do it. Even if I wanted to … my eyes will just stop focusing. I need to take breaks away from the screen. I graded papers from 9 am to 9 pm yesterday with only minor breaks to eat etc.

I have not turned my computer on yet today. I worked in the garden. At least what I hope I will be able to call a garden. I’ll be working (mostly) remotely this summer at only one of the part-time jobs while school is out. I wasted last summer. I got outside everyday but couldn’t function beyond trying to walk off depression brought on by heartache and the insane uncertainty of 2020.

I made a video today for my sister so she could see what I did and tell me what to fix before it’s too late. She’s the gardener. I have no idea what I’m doing. Just trying to stay sane, I guess.

Scranton is a real & complex place

I had no idea Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies contained a whole multi-chapter section titled “Scranton Memoirs” when I downloaded the audio book for only $3.95 as Audible’s Daily Deal one day back in February. I vaguely remembered seeing press coverage when the novel was released in September 2020, and I was aware of Akhtar as the playwright who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Displaced (which I have yet to read and had little hopes of seeing on stage in Scranton, PA). For a long time now, Akhtar has been one of many names on a mental list of writers whose work I should get to know better.

In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s parallel play does not win the Pulitzer until after the Scranton-seeded epiphany that leads to his success as a writer. A note on the genre of this book for those who have not yet encountered it: Homeland Elegies is an intentionally confusing, fictional memoir. That is, while it is written as the memoir of a protagonist named after the book’s author, Ayad Akhtar, much of the book has been imagined to suit the author’s storytelling devices. Elements of Akhtar’s own experience have been extracted for the writing of this prose, but the book is not a “true story.”

What is obvious to a Scrantonian like myself upon reading Chapter Four, “God’s Country,” is that Akhtar must have driven through Scranton and probably in the back of a cab driven by a local, just as he describes in the book. His detailed account of the drive from North Scranton to a downtown hotel (we’ll guess The Hilton, because he did not bother to describe the historic beauty of the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel) is too sharp to be gleaned from internet searches and map views.

Ayad Akhtar

I was hoping for some kind of twist, that unlike so many other depictions of Scranton we’ve seen over the years, would reveal how there is more to this place than meets the drive-by eye. Unfortunately, the impoverished, decaying sections of town left a greater impression on the writer than the beauty of our historic architecture. Maybe it was easier to leave the beauty out, easier to describe only the facets of the city which served the purpose of making us a sad metaphor. Of what use would it be to Akhtar to acknowledge Scranton’s complexity.

We’ve gotten used to visitors making a fuss about our shabby bits. On some level, Scranton has become loved for our willingness to serve as a scapegoat and punching bag by creators who imagine themselves (and their desired readers) as more sophisticated, cultured, and enlightened than this notoriously “hardscrabble” city will ever be. We are their low bar. An easy target. They can safely imagine that they are better than us. We are the battered woman who continues to love her abusive husband for the flowers he brings her after he bloodies her eye. You can count on Scranton. We aren’t going anywhere.

Akhtar’s car did, in real life fact, break down in Scranton. He spent 24 hours here, he told Reza Aslan in in a conversation about the book produced by The L.A. Times. for the virtual 25th Annual Festival of Books. He later explains that his protagonist’s relationship with the city, as depicted in the novel, was the product of three to four years of experience and reflection.

The author’s vision of Scranton is only a metaphor, a name likely to trigger recognition in his reader’s mind, but the result is another blow to the city’s reputation. I did not read all the reviews of Akhtar’s book, but at least one critic summed up the city for the protagonist’s “racist encounter” here.

I’m not going to talk about all my anti-racist friends or pretend there aren’t racists in Scranton. Of course there are. Is there a racist-free place on this planet? Is America more racist than other countries or did the U.S.A. just sell itself as “the land of the free” for so long that people actually believed in American exceptionalism.

“Have we really been a different country than we thought we were all along?” Akhtar asked Reza Aslan.

Even a good number of Scrantonians understand that the American Dream was a marketing ploy. A great manipulation of social structure. As the grossly ballooning economic inequality in America has exposed itself as the inevitable collapse of the Capitalist lie – it has become clear that the Dream was really a Delusion.

Could this be why Scranton has been repeatedly exploited as a a setting? Here is where people can feel the real. We provide a handle to hold on the slippery truth. Our streets may be a little gritty, but they convey some like-it-or-not authenticity. Scranton wears reality on its sleeve. In most of the depictions penned by visitors, the city is dimwittedly honest. It’s nothing we are given credit or praised for. It is assumed to be an accident.

The same mechanic who doesn’t know enough to make himself more presentable, is smart enough to operate – in the protagonist Akhtar’s mind – an elaborate and ongoing scam involving police buy-in and a suggestively-dressed, suspiciously flirtatious Latina secretary who unconvincingly plays along with her boss’s schemes.

By presentable, I mean the posters on the wall of his office, and mainly the pre- #metoo exposed-vagina pornography Akhtar describes in uncomfortable detail.

Do I need to tell you there is more to Scranton than dumb ugly naivety for which we are depicted?

We are more than a sitcom punchline, a laughing stock of a back drop where no one would choose to live on purpose.

We are not only a post-industrial rust belt remnant crumbling in the shadow of wealthier times.

We are more than an exit off I-81.

We are more than the handful of racists that famous people who do not live here insist on ridiculing and punishing in their art.

We, too, make art, in hopes of showing the world the city’s softer and more cultured side, but we are not famous enough for you to bother with it.

In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s Scranton-seeded epiphany to “stop pretending he is American” (he was born in Staten Island and raised in Wisconsin) leads to the writing successes that allow him to pay of his debt and meet monthly expenses. (Akhtar is a year older than me. Despite decades of hard work, I have not been able to pay off my debts and I continue to struggle to meet monthly expenses. But duh … if I wanted to succeed, I shouldn’t have chosen to live in Biden’s hardscrabble hometown. This is a place you have to leave to become someone important. It is not a place you move to unless you want to waste away in obscurity.)

Akhtar elaborates that his Scranton epiphany was “to accept a certain failure” that he’s not going to be able to be the person he wanted to be. The fact that the narrator cannot make the world see him as he wants to be seen is what leads him to create the work that makes him a successful American writer.

The failure, he says in interview with Reza Aslan, is a failure to feel like he belongs. Akhtar attributes this to his foreign-sounding name, his immigrant parents, and brown skin. This is why he feels like an outsider.

Note also that Akhtar has described his own growing in the suburbs of Milwaukee as “wonderful.”

“The kids were great; the parents were welcoming. We played baseball and had crushes on girls. There were some cultural issues navigating that, but I never felt myself to be coming from the outside,” he told The New Yorker in Sept. 2020. The sense of conflict, he said, came from the other Pakistanis he knew. His earlier novel American Dervish does not shy away from showing the darkness of that immigrant culture.

All this leaves me to wonder what’s my excuse? I, too, have wondered what it means to be an American. And I’m surely not the only pale-skinned American of European descent to feel like she doesn’t belong. The only place I ever felt I belonged was in the imaginary realms of books and the theater, until four years ago when I started teaching college courses. I had always loved school, where as an awkward bookworm I flourished, except for the politics of popularity at which failed miserably. As a college professor, I finally felt like I was allowed to be all of myself, at work, without censure.

Born on an air force base in California, my younger sister and I moved often after Mom and Dad divorced when I was only 3. I was always the new kid. The trauma of that displacement is why I tell people I moved my children to Scranton when they were still toddlers. I thought growing up in one place, knowing without question where they are from, would give my daughters something I must have longed for more than the financial and critical success Akhtar has achieved and I have not. Scranton is where my ancestors from rural Eastern Europe settled when they moved here in hopes of a better life in the early 20th century. This is as far back as our roots in America reach.

Even if my daughters go on to shun Scranton like so many of its natives have done (no one likes to dump on this place more than the people who have left it for greener grass) being from here won’t hurt them. It’s the sticking around they need to worry about.

Later in Homeland Elegies, we hear how wealthy Pakistani-American hedge fund founder Riaz Rind, who takes Akhtar under his wing, coincidentally grew up near Scranton. In Chapter 6, Rind describes his father’s failed attempt to start a mosque in Wilkes-Barre in 1979. Neighboring businesses tried to shut it down, but failed. The mosque opened to hate crimes and vandalism. The police failed to act on those threats and the sheriff harassed the Muslim worshippers. Later in Scranton, in 1983, they couldn’t even get a permit to open a mosque.

In the book’s present, Riaz Rind spends a small fortune every week to have a city florist deliver thistle plants like those that grew rampantly for free in his NEPA back yard.


Rind convinces Akhtar to invest the $300K left to him by his mother into 125,000 shares of stock in a rental properties company that is about to go public.

Akhtar’s stock doubles in value overnight but encouraged by Rind to hold out, he waits until the price reaches close to nine times his investment. He is a millionaire when the Securities and Exchange Commission knocks on the door of his one-bedroom Harlem apartment to investigate. Law suits had been filed, Akhtar learns. The municipalities that blocked Muslims from building mosques in their communities were targeted and intentionally scammed by Rind company. This is some fancy using-capitalism-against-America kind of vengeance. The corrupt council members of those towns didn’t understand the securities they were purchasing with city money, yet didn’t hesitate to indulge in the perks and bribes extended to them.

Other municipalities are mentioned but Scranton is the only one you are likely to remember.

It will be easier to forget that Riaz Rind is a fictional character. That the story of his family is not real. That there never was a Lackawanna Glassworks. That, according to the ACLU, the anti-Mosque activity reported in Pennsylvania since 9/11 did not, in fact, take place in Scranton but elsewhere in the state.

But Scranton is easier to pick on. You’ve watched The Office. You’ve heard of it. Someday, when I meet you, you’ll laugh when I tell you this is where I am from.

-ag, April 11, 2021

Blog at

Up ↑

McLuhan Galaxy

A repository of McLuhan-related news, conferences, events, books, articles, links & general information.

Black Scranton

The Overlooked Community of Scranton, Pennsylvania

Drama Lit Blog 2.0: BU School of Theatre

Curated by upper level Dramaturgy & Literature students of the BU School of Theatre

Seven Kitchens Press

Pie for everyone.

Girls on Fire: Constructions of Girlhood in YA Dystopian Fiction

Women's Studies & Feminist Research and English Studies, Western University

Gagging on Sexism

The good, the bad, and the stupid in manga/anime, movies, books, and more from the view of a feminist

Engage Yourself with

Girls Biking to Work

Practical bicycle fashion for the working Jane

Word Fountain

The Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library

Read On. Write On.

because words have power

Laurie Mac Reads

meandering on & off the page

800 Recovery Hub Blog

Written by people in recovery for people in recovery

Clever Girl Magazine

Journal seeking women's literary submissions...

But I Digress...

Do you walk to school, or do you carry your lunch?

Kindness Blog

Kindness Changes Everything

Kal Spelletich's Art

This is the blog of Kal Spelletich. CONTACT: Spellkal (at) + Art, technology, humans and robots, and, well, the journey

50 Ordinary Women

doing extraordinary things


independent theatre festival