50-for-50 interview: Brenda Varda, word-jazz conductor

brenda varda

Brenda Varda bends words into mystifying shapes of all kinds: Poems. Stories. Essays. Songs. Plays. Screenplays. Even scholarly papers. But what she does best of all, I think, is to draw words out of others, allowing them a chance to break free of their various human-body prisons and mingle in the air together, creating layered, complex, unexpected symphonies of word-art. She has many tools in her toolbox besides a conductor’s baton to coax these word clouds into formation. Trained as an actor, schooled in various advanced areas of learning, throughout she has been a musician, with a musician’s ear for sound and meaning. And when, somewhere in her travels, she acquired a traveling companion, she raised him in the grand tradition of artist-mothers: to be disciplined with one’s self, so the art may flow freely. She demands much of you, does Brenda, but no less, in the end, than she is willing to give.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I was constantly improvising stories out loud when I was in elementary school, riffing on the geeky sci-fi and euro-standard novels I consumed at a rapid pace:  I started writing stories in high school, twisting the idea of reality in fun ways, but I never even remotely thought of it as something a person does until the last 10 years or so. I had always written songs as a response mechanism and had dabbled in playwriting up till that point, but there was a point that it made sense, when the accumulated experience and ‘dabbling’ found form and function.  I suppose I think of writing now as a necessity or a response, and less about something I definitively am:  there’s many ways to write responses to interactions, events, sensations – songs, blogs, videos, audio pieces, Facebook pages — so I would call myself an inveterate responder.  And a habitual writer.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Yoiks.  I hold several teachers in esteem: favorite is difficult though.  I would go back to undergraduate years to a political economy class where the instructor actually moved ideas in radical ways – that was worth the price of admission and introduced me to the notion that my perceptions of the world weren’t as crazy as I thought.   I suppose there are writers that I’ve read that are more my favorite teachers – I cannot imagine creative life without Tom Waits, Gaston Bachelard, William Gibson, Brian Eno, and the random occurrence of stimulating material…

What do you love to write about?

A mesh between science, cultural movement, and narrative explorations of space and character:  I like taking a piece of history or discovery and finding the human hope and inspiration – or devastation – that is inherent in marker moments, not through the eyes of the central figures but the one or two or five-step removed peripheral participants.

That, and um, bad relationship stories in songs…

What has writing taught you?

Conceptual organization, fearlessness, and compassion:  to really get to the heart of what I’m interested in I need to take in huge schemas and turn them upside down, disregard the prime order, and lose judgment for characters and situations.

How has writing made you stronger?

Well, it’s increased my questions and offered few easy resolutions, making the uncertainty of the world most certain – and I suppose that’s a form of strength!  The more I read and write the more I realize the infinite in almost anything.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Be brave and true – and honor and use the aberrations that you perceive.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Some favs: I mean, this changes with the year (I am not faithful!)

  1. Books on cognitive science and imagination/creativity: I’m a bit addicted to the thinking about thinking and emotion, particularly in relationship to our need to interpret and create.
  2. Scientific American:  I like to know where the action is moving, in terms of the potential futures
  3. All Tomorrow’s Parties by Gibson:  a great scifi/real exploration of character – that breaks rules and leaves so much mental space for the reader…
  4. Lit magazines –  Tin House, McSweeney’s, Bomb  (and online…)
  5. Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino: because they loved language and ideas, while loving the species in difficult realms.

Brenda Varda is an award-winning playwright, multidisciplinary artist, and teacher. She’s had numerous works produced in Los Angeles both as playwright and composer/lyricist, along with being a solo writer & performer both in theatre & cabaret.  Her work has been supported by UCIRA, the Mellon Foundation, Edge Fest, the Los Angeles History Project, and the Werther Foundation.  Currently a lecturer and instructor at Art Center College of Design and University of California Riverside, she is also a Second City veteran and spent several years acting in TV film, theatre & commercials, and has collaborated in productions at Sacred Fools, Unknown Theatre, The Met, The Evidence Room, Bootleg, and 24th St. Theatre.  In addition, she has taught poetry and multimedia arts for the Heart Project and other school programs in Los Angeles. She is an MFA graduate from UCR (in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts A B. A. She also has a M.A. in clinical psych and has worked with clients and students in both creative and critical thinking.  She’s currently working on “A Play in a Restaraunt With a Piano and a Bar” along with several shorter non-fiction works.

Photo by Matt Wyatt.

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