Sunday, June 08, 2008

Mara Purl, Sunday's Guest Blogger

I am so pleased to welcome author/actress/producer/artist/musician/playwrite Mara Purl as our guest blogger today. She is living proof that one's entire life can be a work of art. - Donis

Dear Type M 4 Murder Readers,

Kind thanks to Donis Casey for her invitation to visit your blog spot. What a fantastic writer she is! I am enjoying her mystery series and, along with her other loyal fans, eagerly await the next one . . .

How often have we heard the phrase, “Oh, you’re so creative!”? I’ve heard it all my life, and never knew quite what to make of it. Was there another way to be? I couldn’t imagine there could be. So my own “creative talents” were as unnoteworthy as were my own hands: I enjoyed having them, used them daily, but also took them for granted.

While this worked well for the active child who wrote full-length stories, and also sang and performed in plays and on television, eventually well-meaning people began to mention that I should begin to “focus.” I went through a period of time where I’d decide, “Okay, no more writing.” Wouldn’t you know, that would be the week Rolling Stone would ask me to write a story. Quickly flipping to the other side of my universe, I’d then decide, “That’s it, no more playing music.” That would be the day a favorite rock band called to invite me to play on their next album. And, just as I firmly declared acting would no longer be part of my life, I’d get cast in a leading role.

Though working in multi-disciplines felt good from the inner perspective, I began to feel confused when asked, “What do you do?” It was a relief when I landed a long-running gig. Cast as “Darla Cook” in “Days Of Our Lives,” I could at last answer the question without hesitation. Of course, in Los Angeles when one answers the career question with “actress,” many people make the assumption the terms is synonymous with “waitress,” but that’s another story. (I only worked as a wait person in college, and that was quite enough, thank you very much. During my auditioning-and-acting-for-no-money days I temped in offices or wrote corporate ad copy to pay the bills.) Most of the time, though, I endured compliments about my seemingly inexplicable ability to “do it all.” Actually, I was envious of those who were able to ride their train down a single track. They seemed to have access to shiny rails that led directly—and often with velocity—into the sunlight of success.

This was too large a puzzle to solve with mere logic. This required intuition and spiritual guidance both from within and from without. I spoke with mentors like Alan Alda and Louis L’Amour. I read biographies of artists, and looked at paintings of writers. And eventually it occurred to me that all these pieces did in fact fit together. The design was there, but I’d have to have faith and trust my inner sense of things to allow it to become visible. Now, instead of feeling confused when I was hired to perform one week and to write the next, I trusted that in whatever work I accepted one more piece of the jigsaw would fall into place.

Then something really exciting happened. The two-dimensional puzzle I thought I was working, popped into 3-D. Each piece of work that rose over my event horizon arrived in a locked box. But uncannily, I had just received the key from my previous job.

This is all sounding metaphorical and esoteric. So here are some specific examples. While still in college, I was invited to participate in the creation of music for a Jerome Robbins ballet called “Watermill.” The dance, which we six musicians watched being choreographed, was highly symbolic. Further, it required a familiarity with Japanese theatrical and musical conventions. Though the task at hand seemed obscure at first—what kind of sounds and instruments would work for this strange, avant-garde dance—I had just returned to the States from a semester in Tokyo (I grew up there but went to Bennington College, except for one term at Sophia University in Japan.) While there, I studied koto (the Japanese harp) while also studying Japanese literature, notably “The Tale of Genji.” The thesis I’d written in class was about the use of light in this lengthy, complex novel, and in particular I had focused on the author’s use of the moon in its many phases and evocations. One of the first things Mr. Robbins mentioned was that his set would feature a large moon going through its phases. In that moment, the entire piece seemed to open like a door in my understanding. I now knew why I had been studying both that novel and that instrument at that particular time.

These are the events most people explain as “coincidence.” But in the artist’s life, these are signposts. For us, synchronicity begins to function like our own personal MapQuest program.

If the story I just told seems more poetic than practical, jump forward with me to more recent events. At this point I was a working actress, but the writing genie was trying really hard to get out of the bottle. So how did two totally different talents actually work together practically? At first I wasn’t sure how they could. I’d written a radio drama series that became a hit on BBC Radio. Now I wanted to adapt it into novel form. Most writers adapt books into scripts. How would I go the other way and adapt scripts into fiction?

I had at that point two skill-sets that might work either for or against me. One, as a member of the third generation of a theatre family, I had the equivalent of a Masters in dialogue. I acted in plays from Kindergarten on, and absorbed the family culture which was to perform in, discuss, read, and attend plays on a constant basis. Two, I had the practical equivalent of a PhD in journalism. My first newspaper job was writing columns at age fourteen for the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, where I grew up. Two weeks after graduating from Bennington, I landed a position at the Financial Times of London and worked in their New York bureau for four years. What followed were several enriching years of writing for the Associated Press, Rolling Stone, Working Woman Magazine, to name a few. Here I’d learned the rigors of research, as well as a smooth interviewing technique that always began with my true-confession to ignorance of the field in which I was about to interview the avowed expert.

But did any of this prepare me for the Narrative Voice? No. For this voice is born in the quiet distillations of the soul. And for this to happen, I seemed to need two things: a body of experience; and a sense of where I was. I remembered having this quiet center as a child. At age five, poetry and story burbled out of me like a clear little brook. But in the gushing waters of adolescence—where the Voice of the Peer calls forth an almost irresistible urge to match everything from clothing to vocal tonalities, from music to slang expressions—my own inner voice seemed to have grown quiet. So when I tried to call it forth, all I got was an echo.

I stayed in the cave and looked around. My work as an actress had trained me to leap from character to character—a tremendously useful tool in both performing and writing dialogue, but an apparent liability when it came to narrative. So on the one hand I had mastery of the “no voice” necessary for journalism, where it is expected one’s writing will be the perfect transparency that will best allow the facts to shine through without the smudges of opinion. And on the other hand, I had the multi-voiced cacophony of a world peopled with characters.

And then, as though a stained glass window suddenly replaced one of the cave walls, the distinctly different shades of my capabilities began to align into a color wheel. The unbiased willingness to occupy another perspective that is necessary for an actor, became a heightened ability to capture and write each character arc; the journalist’s clear eye became the basis for my own narrative voice, which I now understood as truth-telling of the deepest kind: the kind that is far beyond mere facts, and takes an ultrasound of the soul.

So the long-ago-suggested “focus” has finally arrived, and I’m a dedicated writer these days. The first three novels have won awards, and book four of my series appears in September. So I don’t have to bother with those pesky phone calls inviting me to theatre or music any more, right?

Well . . . actually the Jerome Robbins piece was back on the schedule at Lincoln Center in early May. It was a bit of a juggling act, keeping my prior commitments at the LA Times Festival of Books and Book Expo, and keeping up with the schedule to which my editor and I had committed. But, yes, I did once again play the koto, thrilled and grateful to let that other world seep into this one. As I tuned my koto strings, I felt them resonate through me, and notice glimmers in the words I write as the music weaves through the tapestry of my work like golden threads. Yesterday’s music has unlocked today’s metaphors. And today’s chapters will be the key to unlock tomorrow’s mysteries.
Please visit Mara's website at


Janet Grace Riehl said...

I love this story of how multi-talents found a home. I am so glad you are telling it here so more folks can understand how the art interact and enrich each one activity teaches another.

To learn more about Mara' koto appearance at Lincoln Center and her award for her new book, check out Mara's guestpost on Riehlife here:

And a round of high fives!

Janet Riehl

Susan J Tweit said...

What a lovely evocation of how to handle the "problem" of so many seemingly divergent avenues of talent and creativity! You've done a beautiful job of weaving your "selves" together in life and in this essay.

Thanks for the inspiration and insight, Mara!


Unknown said...

Wrightwood Records recording artist MARILYN HARRIS saved her allowance for 5 years to buy her first piano at the age of 10. Since then she's worked with Bette Midler, Jim Brickman, countless jazz luminaries, Vegas acts, new age and cabaret artists, among others. Friends since their early twenties, Mara and Marilyn have created a musical world of tranquility in this improvised hour+ of soothing, beautifully lyrical work. Tastefully adding special touches - bass, alto flute, shakuhachi, sound effects - producer Mark Wolfram completes the picture to transport the listener to another dimension of consciousness.