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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Envy as a Tool, The Writer's Life

Some time ago when I was an actor, a dear friend got a dream part, that of a strong, successful creature, a woman with a woman's sexuality, not a man's fantasy versions of it. Plus, she got to age 40 years without the benefit of makeup. 
She was brilliant--vivid, funny, alive. The world responded: reviews, her face splashed everywhere, award nominations, everything we had dreamed of when we started out as teenagers. I was happy for my hard-working friend, and also, torn up with envy, the kind of evil, gut-eating ache that you can't ignore, no matter how you wrestle with it. 
That's when I realized that the envy was a signpost, a gift. It was telling me that I needed to get out and do what I cared about most. I started to show people my writing, got extremely positive responses and began to work on learning to write the long-form challenge that is the novel. 
I have since watched this friend's career (and life) rise and fall, but I'm never torn with envy, not for her, not for a fellow writer who gets published. I may feel twinges of wistfulness, but not that gut-wrenching envy. I have my dream and I am actively working towards it, all the time, with as much energy as I can spare. I may have to go slowly, because of limitations on my writing time--I have a special needs child. But I know that Winston Churchill had it right, at least as far I am concerned: never, never, never, never, never give up. Hurray for dreams, and the hard work it takes to achieve them. 

Please note, the "envy" photo is from Psychology today. I could not find out who took it to give them credit. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Compulsive OverReaders Anonymous, or My Little Free Libraries And Me

I used to love Little Free Libraries, those adorable little book houses on sticks in somebody's front yard. Every dog-walk turned into a treasure hunt, not to mention a place to off-load booky clutter caused by having Book Velcro.

You see, I have long had Book Velcro, a delicious and dangerous disease. I just have to walk past a bookshelf and ten of them stick to me. I remember once biking home from a library used-book sale, the bike trailer filled with three large boxes of books ($5 dollars/box) and our toddler balanced preciously on top of the lot of them. (Clearly, my spouse has Book Velcro as well.)  Every end of school year, we buy another box or two from the children's school library so they'd have some easily accessible summer reading. And nobody wants to get rid of any, because we might want to read them again. Many times. (Mostly, we do.)

Then, came Little Free Libraries. They were so charming and fun. No more were you stuck with nothing good to read on a  national holiday with the libraries and bookstores all closed. We'd map dog walks around them, off-load books into them, getting rid a little of that book clutter, supposedly, though we always wound up carting more home. My littlest one thinks those are actual libraries. "Let's go to the library," she'll say, when what she means is, let's visit the turquoise book house three blocks over, the one with children's hand prints painted all over it.

But now, these book houses are everywhere. Where we live, I'm talking everywhere. One in front of my mom's old house--that's new. One directly across the street from it--never noticed that before. Okay, we can zig-zag to this one and then back again to the next. Only, within a week, another one is installed four houses up the block--isn't that kind of overkill?

And they all contain such interesting books!

Look, we already knew the ones heavy on mysteries, thrillers, romance, children's books, the ones that lean literary or the ones filled with "Advanced reader's copies," making me wonder which of our neighbors work in publishing or do book reviews. If life is rough and we need the equivalent of a sitcom, we know the Little Free Library most likely to sport humor. If we're reading to dig into something deep, we can swing by the second one on Portland Ave to pick up The Kite Runner," or something by Frank Chin--who tends to write both funny and deep. If we're really lucky, we'll get somebody dumping their library on something we're researching--like the five books on race that I found in front of a "modest" house on the fanciest street in a fancy neighborhood.

Which leads me back to Book Velcro. Okay, I should stop complaining. Because those books on race books were insightful and interesting. And after all, I wouldn't know Frank Chin if it weren't for Little Free Libraries. Somebody else's reading choices introduced me to someone I would not likely have found on my own, an author I love. And remember, these expensive books are free free free, if we happen to stumble across them. Our walks and bike rides (and sometimes drives--brakes screech when we see another one) really are a treasure hunt for books.

 But, if you looked around my dining and living room at the piles and piles waiting to be read, or if you realized how hard it is to work up a good sweat bike-riding when you stop three times in one block--

Okay, maybe it's not fair to blame those adorable little houses. Maybe this post should really be about self-control. Maybe I should begin it with, "Hi, I'm Sakki. And I'm a compulsive OverReader. And I'm willing to turn my life over to a power greater than Little Free Libraries. . ."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Circumcising The Foreskin of the Heart--An Adventure and A Blessed Day.

Yesterday, the kids and I had an "adventure," as they cheerily called it. We were on a busy freeway in the left-lane for an upcoming left exit, when I felt the car lose power.

I switched on the flashers and headed frantically right. One car let me slide by and I kept going. In the rear-view mirror, the vast white weight of a big-rig bore down on us. I didn't even have time to pray, it was more of a breath--"brake, please stop--" and I kept sliding sideways. At least there, we'd get hit by something smaller. I had my head turned right and ahead, to see where we could manage to go before the car died.

To our right ahead, a police car's light flashed, an officer stopped on the shoulder to give a ticket. But the car, though driving more slowly, kept responding, and as I handed my phone over, one kid found a gas-station two blocks away. I hoped to make it all the way there. "Right or left, right or left?" Too late. The light at the top of the incline turned red just as I reached it.

 I stopped the car, my flashers still on. Beside me, on the sidewalk, a beggar, his cardboard sign held out. He was a clean-cut white guy in shorts and a plaid shirt, ordinary mid-Western-looking. I rolled down the window. "Is there a gas-station near here?"

He pointed right. "One that way a few blocks." Left. "One that way about two blocks. You ought of gas?" Now, finally, the light on the dashboard glowed yellow. Since Honda recalled our fuel pump cover and replaced it, the car keeps running out of gas without warning. Clearly, we have to get it back to the dealer. Again.

Cars lined up, irritable. Did I mention a heat-index in the '90's, the kind of humidity that could steam broccoli? Somebody honked. Somebody yelled. "You need money?" asked the homeless guy. "I can give you cash."

"I have a gas can in the car," I said. (Bought the second time this happened, about a week ago.) "We can walk there and bring some back."

"You should steer it to the curb," he said. "When this traffic clears up. Otherwise, you'll get a ticket, and get towed and all that."

I looked at the double line of cars behind us, everybody hot and irritable. "I couldn't do that," I said. "Sure you could," he said. "Coast it." I got the kids out of the car. "Could you do that for me?" He said he could. "I just don't want you to get a ticket." I held out the keys.

A red convertible pulled up behind us, top down. The black woman driving it called, "You need help?" She, too, had a clean, Midwestern vibe to her, her hair long and straightened, her convertible immaculate (unlike my mommy van).

"She ran out of gas," he said.

"Do you have a way to drive to the station? I can take you."

"That's great," said the homeless guy. "I can manage here. Steer the cars around. Last week, one car sat there for twenty minutes. Nobody would let them get around the stall."

"Do we still need to move it?" I asked.

"If she's driving you, it would be fast enough you don't have to worry about getting towed."

Another car pulled up behind her, driven by an older white woman with short, gray hair cut in a straight line above her chin. "You need any help?" she called. I had the gas can in hand by this time. "You need me to drive you to a gas station?"

"Thanks," said the black woman. "I've got this one." My kids hauled the booster seat from my car and loaded it into her convertible's back row. I grabbed the gas can and climbed in front.

"You sure you don't need money?" called the beggar. The woman signaled to move right, around our van. Nobody would let her in.

She edged her car sideways, and snarled at the white guy in the fancy car who blocked her way. "He has to prove he has somewhere important to go," I said, "because he has nowhere important to go." She laughed and put out her hand for a shake. "I'm Fern."

I introduced us back. "Bible names," she said.

"Yes," I said, and left it there. They're also family names, but then, we're Jewish, so it's natural that our family names would also be Biblical. "What do you do when you're not rescuing people?"

"I'm raising eighteen-year-old twins," she said. "Takes a lot of time. I was going to pick up a friend and take her to the doctor, but she'll have to wait." The fancy car passed, and she edged into the right lane, palming her phone and dialing at the same time. I wondered if it was fair to be freaking out when someone was busy rescuing us. She managed the turn one-handed while she told her friend she'd be a titch late, then hung up. "And I'm on disability," she told me. "I just had open-heart surgery three weeks ago."

I eyed her profile. In Sefer D'varim, also known as Deuteronomy, in verse 10, we are commanded to circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff-necked. "They opened your heart and it's still open," I said. She laughed. "Though I'm sure it was that way before," I said, and she nodded. "Oh, yeah."

I thought of my kid in the back, the one who had been begging me to get a convertible. "My son is in heaven," I said.

She looked at me, startled. "Oh, how terrible."

"No," I said, "I mean, my son in the back is thrilled that he's getting to drive in a convertible."

"I still want to get one," he said from the back, "even though my mom burns in the sun, and we could never put the top down."

The gas station was less than two blocks away. I filled the can with two gallons. Gas leaked. "I'd hate to smell up your car." She opened the trunk so I could put the can in. I hurried back inside and shut the door.

The heavy cross-traffic suddenly opened up so she easily turned left toward the freeway. "Do you think I could offer him money?" Fern turned to me, irritated, mis-hearing that I was offering money to her for her kindness. "No, that homeless man," I said. "It surprised me a little. He was so helpful. And he kept offering us cash. Do you think he'd be offended if I gave him money to thank him?"

She said she did not think so. I pointed to the bus-stop just beside the freeway off-ramp, right next to our van, angry traffic still lined up behind it. "This is a perfect place to stop."

She pulled over. "You have a blessed day," she said. I felt a rush of love and homesickness. "I used to hear that all the time, when we lived in South Central Los Angeles." I hopped out of her car. "Don't forget the booster seat," I told the kids. They wrestled to get the strap out of the slot on the seat. "We loved it there. And they never held it against us that we were black." Fern looked at me, startled, and realized what I had said. "I meant that we were white. Oh, man." She started to laugh, a deep belly laugh. "I am really knocked sideways by this." We shared another true laugh as I got the gas can from the trunk. "You have a blessed day, too," I said, though as a Jew, it probably had a different meaning for me than for her.  The whole trip took maybe ten minutes. She was so kind.

We ran for our car, still surrounded by angry vehicles, like ants foaming out of a hole. "I wish you'd advance me some money so I could give it to him," said my oldest. "To thank him."

I set the gas can down. The homeless man took it from me. "What's your name?"

"Mark," he said. He couldn't figure out how to open the valve on the red plastic gas can. "You have to turn the red part. Over the white." called the Hmong cabdriver stuck behind us now. "Turn it, turn it and push down." His voice didn't sound angry, but kind. Mark pushed down. "Thank you," we called. The cabdriver edged into the right lane and around the car.

As Mark poured, I asked my standard question, though in a variant for a beggar--"What do you do when you're not standing here by the freeway?"

"I work nights cleaning," he said. "At an office over there. And I take care of my nine-year-old daughter." That stupid white valve meant we couldn't get all of the gas into the car; I know, I had the same problem with it both times. Mark kept trying, spilling it all over. He turned the nozzle, he squeezed the bottom of the can. Those droplets in the bottom were clearly worth saving to him. We're super tight for money, but I would not worry about that last half-gallon, not with the temperature climbing and a line of cars honking behind us. "I am so lucky that her mother decided to move to Utah and leave my daughter with me. I love being with my daughter."

"How long do you usually stand here?" He listed a three-hour window. I was certain we had gotten as much gas in as we could. We couldn't stand there longer, just talking with him. I took out my wallet. "Would you be offended if we gave you something to thank you for your help?"

"Absolutely positively no." I counted out a five and five ones. "This is from my son," I said. "He wanted to use his allowance to thank you.

We all clambered in the car. "What an adventure," said one child. "I rode in a convertible," said the oldest. "If only she'd had her teenagers with her, I could say, "I rode in a convertible with a cute girl," and nobody would know that the rest of you were there, too."

"We rode in a convertible, we rode in a convertible," sang the littlest. I turned my mind from the image of that semi barreling down on us, and to our rescuers: the white beggar, the African-American woman, the gray-haired white woman, the Hmong cabdriver. I know that some of the kindness came because I am white, driving a mommy van, clean, healthy children by the side of the road. Still, it was real kindness from many. It was, indeed, an adventure, and something that would open the heart, without even having to circumcise it, easy.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

SURE, I Can Write A Regular Synopsis For Agency Submission, But For A Literary Novel? Where's My Ruby Slippers?

Im not an idiot. I've read articles, blog posts, books and taken workshops on how to write a novel synopsis. The talk covers Inciting Incidents, Story Goals, and Climaxes, all concepts that came out of Joseph Campbell's analysis of the classic arc of hero's tales, further explored in Chris Vogler's Heroes' Journey, and everything relating back to screenwriting's three-act structure.

They say you have to make sure that each action is tied to an emotion, and that you manage to get the theme in there, too. And then they talk about a famous example, like, say, Star Wars, or The Wizard of Oz. And by this, they mean the film Wizard of Oz, with its streamlined, three act structure (again) rather than the book, where there are two Good Witches and assorted other monsters and helpers, like the Queen of the mice, or the Kalidahs, with the body of a bear and the head of a tiger. And of course, in the book, Dorothy is a capable child, not a wistful adolescent, but that's beside the point.

As much as I'd like to click a pair of ruby slippers (silver in the novel), I think these samples only work for linear novels with a couple of subplots attached to one main thread. The problem is, nobody teaches us how to write a three--page synopsis of The Hours, for instance. Or Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. Nobody ever says, "Let's diagram a one-page synopsis of a complex, literary novel. We'll start with the description of an inside wall on page one of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, and move on to his story, interlacing real historical persona with three intertwined story lines, in a novel that, through the first decades of the 20th century, also informs us about the middle and end of that century, not to mention right now."

That, now, that would be a class for me.

So, I'm reduced to trying to follow the rules developed for screenplays. Oh, and I'm reading dust-jacket copy.

Here, for RagtimePublished in 1975, Ragtime changed our very concept 
of what a novel could be. An extraordinary tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century and the First World War.

The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.

Or here's the jacket copy for Let the Great World SpinIn the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he 

lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life 
careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” 

A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.

Of course, I can't very well write, "The Color of Safety, a dazzlingly rich vision of--" well, anything. Hopefully, somebody, someday will write that for me.

Oh, and I can't find the original dust copy for The Hours. If anybody has it, would they type it in for me? And if you have any other synopsis-examples for complex literary novels, send them my way.

Monday, August 10, 2015

From Bigotry to Self-Hatred: Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover

One of the saddest things I have ever read was Martin Luther King making love with a mistress, as recorded by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, according to Taylor Branch, in volume Two of his King, like JFK, used womanizing as an anxiety reducer. One night in January 1964, in a Washington Hotel, Hoover recorded King shouting: "I'm f***ing for God. I'm not a negro tonight."

This is sad on so many levels, and I'm not talking about King's infidelity. First, of course, that King--a great man, a great soul, even if ever there was a great soul-- had so internalized our society's contempt for people of color, that self-hatred slipped out in a moment of intense intimacy.

Second, that J. Edgar Hoover so despised Martin Luther King that Hoover gleefully recorded King's private business.

The third point goes to J. Edgar Hoover's self-loathing.

We all know by now that Hoover was, if not an active homosexual, he was certainly one in his heart. His most intense relationship after his mother's death when he was 43. (he lived with her until then) was Clyde Tolsen, shown here on the left. Clyde was the FBI's number two man. For forty years, Tolsen and Hoover worked together, vacationed together, ate lunch together--often dressed in identical suits. Tolsen inherited Hoover's estate, and at their deaths, they were buried side by side.

According to Millie McGhee, though Hoover had another secret. McGhee, author of Secrets Uncovered, has worked with genealogists to under evidence that Hoover's family was "passing" for white.  "Not all slave masters abused their slaves-- Some actually treated them like family and bore children by them, like the Mississippi plantation owner, William Hoover. He had eight children by my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Allen. One of those children was my Grandfather William Allen, and one was his brother, Ivery Hoover, who later had one son, J. Edgar."

McGhee's book, subtitled, "J. Edgar Hoover, Passing For White?" represents deep research into the strong oral tradition that J. Edgar Hoover's family were of mixed race, and had crossed the color line.

Apparently there were rumors within the city going pretty far back. In the 1930's, when Gore Vidal, was growing up in D.C., "Hoover was becoming famous, and it was always said of him--in my family and around the city--that he was mulatto. People said he came from a family that had "passed." It was the word they used for people of black origin, who, after generations of interbreeding, have enough white blood to pass themselves off as white.  That's what was always said about Hoover." (Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential, The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, 1993.)

Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI Special Agent, from 1951 to 1977) said that Hoover's lack of a documented heritage was a mystery among FBI agents. Swearingen, who was the author of FBI Secrets: An Agent's Expose, said, "Because for all the FBI agents, they'd go back and check everything about your family, your relatives, and everything else, to make sure that they're squeaky clean. And here, the Director, and nobody knows really where he came from." Swearingen goes on:
Agents would get into topics like that where they were on surveillance or something, when they finished the crossword puzzle and had nothing else to do, and they'd start talking about Hoover. . .all the agents would get onto the subject of his real tight hair, his tight, wiry hair, and speculation that maybe there was a little hanky-panky in his family. . . and then his facial characteristics were really unusual."

There is even indication that Hoover's Dickerson and  Naylor ancestors, through his paternal grandfather, were involved in a post-Civil War unground railroad of their own, used to help light-skinned blacks make the transition into white society. (Not that unusual, as some academic studies show that at least 23% of white Americans have an African-American element in their background.)

Hoover had a tough childhood, it seems. His father, (or unknowingly cuckolded stand-in for a father, according to McGhee) suffered from a mental illness that, in 1913, (when Hoover was 18) was described symptomatically as: withdrawal, long silences, erratic fears. From then until his death. Dickerson Naylor Hoover was in and out of a sanitarium, never recovering enough to hold down a job. And J. Edgar himself is described in earlier childhood as suffering from what sounds like severe separation anxiety.

One thing is certain, though. Hoover detested people of color, particularly successful ones.
Starting in 1919, he used lies and slander to arrest, attack and destroy Marcus Garvey. He was ruthless in his persecution of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Under his rule, the FBI refused to have "niggers," as he called them. When King was murdered, the Atlanta FBI office rang with cries of, "They got the SOB." 38 of those who were targeted by Hoover died under suspicious circumstances, including Black Panthers Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and  John Huggins, who were murdered by a member of a rival Black group in a fight that recently released Cointel Pro papers indicate was intentionally sparked by Hoover's minions.

So, here, thanks to one self-hating man, Hoover, we have a record of internalized hatred within another man, one I just hate to think of as self-hating. Yes, King gets to be human. I do not need him to be a plaster saint.

And for that matter, Hoover also winds up as human as they come, the gay man who could not think of himself as gay and the black man terrified of, and therefore furious about, anything to do with blackness.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Editor Wistfulness: If Leona Nevler Hadn't Died. . .

I stumbled across the name Leona Nevler today. I'm reading Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale. In her acknowledgements, she thanks Leona for doing a wonderful job.

Leona Nevler, at the time of her death, was a senior editor at Berkley Books, then part of the Penguin Group. She'd been an editor since, well, just before Harper Lee turned in the manuscript for Go Set A Watchman to a small literary house called Lippincott.

Lippincott was Nevlor's first publishing job. She was a reader there when she dove into a juicy manuscript called The Tree and the Blossom, by a New England housewife, a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Grace Metalious. In this, her first novel, Metalious opened the walls of a serene New England town to reveal the dark, steamy sexuality hidden behind the white clapboard.

Lippencott turned down the book, but Nevlor showed the manuscript to the recent widow of publisher Julian Messner. Nevler was bucking for a job under Kathryn Messner, even though the only job available was in marketing, not editing.

Still, Kitty Messner wanted the book, but only if Leona would edit it. Bam, Nevler had her foot in the door. Soon, the book had a new name--Peyton Place.

Metalious was only the first of many first novelists Nevler mothered to success. She worked with: John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, P.D. James, Dick Francis, James A Michener, Jeffrey Archer, Amy Tan and Fannie Flagg. She was Dorothy Gilman's editor for the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries, and discovered Lorna Landvik. And she almost discovered me.

In 2006, I handed my first novel over to a fine agent, who began submitting it all over. We soon collected a stream of warm rejection letters: "I wanted it, but could not get collegial support." "I wanted it but could not get my exec editor to approve." "Alas, we have decided to pass on THE ONE AND HOLY SKILLET. I'm disappointed as I found it entertaining, smart, and well written . . . {But the Publisher says no.} I'm sure you will find just the right home for this refreshing book - the author handles the large cast of characters with finesse and nicely balances the more serious issues with humor and irony.” 

Leona Nevler, however, wanted it. She needed some minor changes; she was certain we could zip through them. She just had to find her notes. They were here somewhere. . .

On December 6th,  2006, she dropped in the street--a pulmonary embolism-- and a few days later, died in the hospital during surgery. My agent contacted me. I was terribly disappointed, but, well, Nevler was dead. Her family were grieving her loss. I was just grieving the loss of a published novel. 

After a few more regretful nos, and one non-reply, my agent turned the book back to me. I had swollen feet, pregnancy fatigue, a turbo-toddler. I knew I should submit to small presses, but I had only so much energy. I chose to focus what I had on my passionate vision for a novel about race, class and bigotry via one hundred years in a house in L.A., a vision that is almost finished: The Color of Safety.

Some of the publishing houses that turned me down have since gone bankrupt. Several have been folded yet again into others as the world of publishers accordion-fans to fit ever slimmer space. Last year, I found the editor who wrote one lovely regretful note. She had just completed a low-residency masters in poetry. The editor of the note quoted above is currently writing copy for the medical education department of a large university. Friends have self-published their cozy mysteries, their erotic romances, but my work, while (hopefully) accessible, is still too far into the world of literary writing to make self-publishing an intelligent option. This means I'm still, in a way, a hitchhiker in the book world, although that metaphor doesn't really work, since I'm the one who has, in a sense, built the car. A better metaphor would be that the publishing world still owns the roadway system, and I can't drive on it unless they let me in.

It's silly to wonder, and I refuse to live my life facing backwards, but there it was, today, in the acknowledgements of Hannah's book. What if, like Sally Koslow, with her novel "Little Pink Slips," Leola Nevlor had lived long enough to acquire and edit my first novel? Where would I be?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

When The Muse Is On Vacation: How To Break Through Writer's Block

I I love writing when the muse is in me, and the story just pours on the page. There I sit, playing Miniature God, my palate of colors shimmering, a whole world coming alive through my words. 
Then there are the times when the muse is on vacation. Of course, beginnings can always bite me--anybody working on their 67th version of chapter one? The one that can intrigue the reader in an instant, prefigure the entire thematic heart of the novel, and start at the exact right instant in the plot? 
But usually, Musie heads out of town when I'm trying to tackle something in the middle, a chunk of plot, how to get the character from here to there. 
At those times, I sit down and spew my frustration on the page, sometimes several days in a row. (See earlier post, Prune Juice For Writer's Block.) Here's an example: "I just can't figure out this idiotic character. My readers keep telling me she's depressing and not spunky enough, and they just want her to leave already, but what I'm exploring is why abused people stay, and what makes them leave. How do you make such a victim "spunky? Grrrrr. Obscenities. A verbally abused karate master. A verbally abused sky-diver? A verbally abused verbal abuse expert? No,no no no. The only possible answer would be to figure where this person used to have spunk before they were broken down. If she did, what did it look like? And where does that spunk still rear up in her life?" 

Often, that kind of free-flowing mind-play will break me through a small blockage.Sometimes, though, when the muse is really out of town, even day's long spews won't won't set the story free. For those days, I have to break out another tool, I have to write it badly. 
I know, I know, I"m not fond of it either. I dislike the stick figure characters that show up. I feel clunky about manipulating characters via sticks up their puppet behinds. It's not sweet and it's not fun. It's certainly not the "flow" feeling that can make writing almost an escape, another world, the long-missed equivalent of playing pretend with my very best childhood pretend friend. 
And yet, this clumsiness, this awkward ditch-digging, will soon enough set me free. If I keep on hacking at that rock-hard dirt, something I write will lure the muse back to me. 
Soon, she'll be peering over my shoulder, breathing further life into my tale. And then, once she's interested again, I can rewrite stuff, turn those sticks into sketches, the sketches into full-blown life. I can insert dialogue-only people into bodies that sweat and pulse and creak. I can tweak that stock character, shading him with parts of somebody I know,  in real life. I can change everything, move the whole scene elsewhere in the novel or short story, even cut it entirely. 

And once I've made that pass, I can go through again, (and sometimes again, and again, and again) but each time, that muse will be a little more interested in what I'm doing. Until, at the end, I will edit out every extraneous word, make sure each "he said," and "she said" is absolutely necessary, and lay in those last little bits of light and shadow, and hopefully, wind up with, well, don't we all dream of a masterpiece?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Talking To Ingrained Bigotry: Is Ursula Le Guin right about Go Set A Watchman?

Three days ago, Ursula LeGuin posted an interesting essay about Go Set A Watchman. (
I read it this morning and thought about it all day. She speaks of the conundrum presented by Go Set A Watchman, speaks very personally, via her own relationship with her Southern in-laws, with whom she lived during the mid-fifties while her husband finished his PhD at Emory.  
"If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.
"You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.

"Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists."
Love that final irony. And I highly recommend reading the entire essay. 
I find, though, that I did not agree with her rationalization, and I say this with the utmost respect, because LeGuin's writings have had a profound effect on the way that I think about language and story and frankly, living life. I speak from a less intense, but similar situation, when we were staying with my future husband's Holocaust survivor family, having met them for the very first time. They were then in their early seventies, and one morning, at breakfast, they both spoke disparagingly of African-Americans.
Like LeGuin, these were people I loved and respected, although they were not people on whom i was financially dependent, as it sounds like LeGuin was with her inlays.  They had also experienced incredible, unbelievable, inconceivable hardship during their teens. Both had lost multiple family members, in one case 400 extended relatives from a close-knit clan. Both had been in mulitple labor camps, one in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz with a death march in between, the other in Auschwitz. Both had lost multiple close family members to the Nazis, Stalin, and local brutality and had gone on to live lives of great accomplishment and were wise and kind. 
Yet, now, they spoke with bitterness about “those blacks,” blaming a daughter’s drug addition on dealers who were people of color. 
At that breakfast table, eating eggs cooked by one of them, I chose to speak up. While my future husband's foot lowered over mine--the silent "shut-up signal," I said that they, of all people, who had lost so much, could not prejudge others as evil because of skin color or religion or anything else tribal. They began to speak of "other" black people who were good people, but still, said that most black were "lazy, dirty, bad.” 
I knew that a family member had been the one to introduce their daughter to illicit drugs. This family member had suffered no ill effects, but the daughter was still, at that time, struggling to break her addiction after years. I repeated my point. I feared I had offended and hurt these first members of the family of the man I hoped to marry. No resolution came. My now-husband said privately, "you're not going to change their minds," but as I told them, I had an obligation to always speak out. 
I am still glad did so. I think we are obligated to speak up, speak out, though I try to do so in the way that will be most likely to be heard. That means speaking gently, and listening to the other person’s perspective. I still have a strong connection with this family, and am so grateful to have them in my life. 
LeGuin posits that Lee never wrote again because "because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In taking the easy way, in letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write." 

I would guess that's a possibility, but I would also suggest that Ms. Lee suffered deeply from her mentally ill mother who was, by all accounts, much like the hated Aunt Alexandra–“like Everest, she was cold and she was there." Mrs. Lee ignored her fierce, funny, tomboy daughter except to find her lacking. Her mother had died shortly before both books were written, but Ms. Lee’s adored older brother, the novel’s Jem, had also recently dropped dead with a cerebral hemorrhage. 
Nelle "Harper". Lee showed extraordinary verve when she catapulted out of a strong, southern orbit at a time when the youngest daughter was pre-determined to care for parents in their old age. By the time To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Harper's older sister, Alice, had been parent and parent-care-taker for nearly twenty-years. Alice was ready to turn those responsibilities over to another daughter, and Nelle was the only choice, given their third sister’s husband and children in another town.
Also, I'm not sure how thrilled the family was at their baby daughter's success.  Father, AC Lee’s reported response strikes me as sparse and a little chilly. “I never dreamd of what was going to happen. It was somewhat of a surprise and it’s very rare indeed when a thing like this happens to a country girl going to New York. She will have to do a good job next time if she goes on up. I feel what I think is a justifiable measure of pride in her accomplishment, and I must say she has dsiplayed much determination, confidence and ambition to give up a good job in New York and take a change at writing a book.” 
And  of course, Sister Louise told her son’s teacher that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was just “ridiculous.” 
When you think about it, though, this coolness or ridicule was for a fairly benign book that showed AC Lee as a veritable saint.  Had “Go Set A Watchman” been published, one can only imagine the response of both family and hometown. Think about the reaction of Pat Conroy’s family after “The Great Santini” and “Prince of Tides.” 
So, think of the raw bravery of and insight of "Go Set A Watchman." Imagine an author, still young, but bold as a falcon, getting her pin feathers clipped by Lippencott’s editors,  her family waiting to hood her to prevent further flight. It's amazing that she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I'm sure we all wish that she had managed to write much more. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Prune Juice For Writing? What To Do When You're Stuck

I have a cluttered life, with many responsibilities and children begging me for keyboard time. Writer's Block is something I just can't afford. Usually, I wrote at my keyboard, on scraps of paper during minutes caught here and there, and after a big splurge and a gift from a friend, typing on my IPad.

If I get stuck on something, I begin my writing time by spewing my frustration and lack of motivation on the page, all my excuses, all my struggles with the writing. Usually two or three pages of that clears up the blockage. If not, I do it the next day, and on and on until I'm all cleaned out, just like eating dried figs keeps me clear with all that constipation matzo at Passover.

But trust me, I'm not perfect. As I posted to a new member of She Writes, a poet and professor named Brande McCleese, I've been stuck on something I started writing eight years ago, then stopped abruptly, perhaps when a baby was born. The writing shows a very clear vision, the characters pop, it's funny and different, and it's also an exploration of ethical approaches to life. You know how you can reread your work after a long time and it's startlingly fresh? You sort of remember writing it, but all the insecurities of yesterday's page--is it good, does it work, did I solve the problems--they're all gone and instead, you just read and enjoy, like it's somebody else's book?

And then, I stopped. About eighty pages in. Though I do remember the overarching plot I had, I have no idea what I wanted to do with two subplots. I've been researching ideas for one, but I've hesitated with moving in and doing the work. The vision was so clear, the characters seemed alive. Like real people. I don't want to "get them wrong," a mind-set that is the kiss of death when you're doing anything creative, because in creativity, there is no "right" way. Picking up Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper and having them talk to one another, using that four-year-old pretending voice, "how bout if you are the baby and I am the big sister," playing in the mud and coming up dirty really are the only answer to a creative struggle--making mistakes, trying this, trying that, saying the magic words--"what if?"

Instead, I've been thinking I had to buy an old keyboard for my old computer to see if I had any notes,
or spend more funds to get somebody to pull drafts off two old computers, a used laptop that's from that time or the desktop. Honestly, that's why I've been blogging almost every day. I have submitted my massive, complex manuscript to my dream publisher as well as a delightful and hard-working agent with vision, sending my great hulking baby off into the deep, echoing tunnel of not knowing their response. I have been working to research and query at least one other agent a day. (Though that's not always possible, I love research and learning about people, so it's actually interesting and fun--and nerve-wracking, of course.)

Maybe, though,  I just need to hit my existing keyboard several days in a row and write out my frustration. What if the two almost sisters are really. . .

What do you do to when you're stuck? Anybody have any suggestions?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Harper Lee's Invisible Mother In To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman

Look how much Harper looks like her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. 
One character who is missing from both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman is Scout's mother. This is likely because Harper Lee's mother suffered from mental illness that today sounds like bi-polarity. Though Truman Capote's statement is probably not true (he claimed that Mrs. Lee tried to drown her youngest in the bathtub--twice), most accounts state that never showed much interest in her youngest daughter, and actively disliked the ferocious tomboy that was Nelle Lee as a child.

At age ten, Truman Capote wrote a piece about Frances Finch Lee and a visit from a large family from "Slumtown." The story is called,"Mrs. Busybody." I finally tracked down the short story in a book from 1999,

Radical Shadows: Previously Untranslated and Unpublished Works by Nineteenth and Twentieth Century masters. 

 edited by Bradford Morrow, Peter Constantine.

Though not the character study I expected from the hype, we can learn from it a bit more about Frances Finch Lee from this story, written when Mrs. Lee was thirty-seven. Capote presents an officious creature, "a fat old widow whose only amusement was crocheting and sewing. She was also fond of knitting. She didn’t like the movies and took an immediate dislike to anyone who did enjoy them. She also took great delight in reporting children to their mothers over the slightest thing that annoyed her. In other words, no one liked her and she was considered a public nuisance and a regular old Busybody.” 

Mrs. Busybody wanders to the train station complaining about newfangled this and that. Unfortuately for young Truman's purpose, his young heroes in the story seem a heck of a lot worse. From the opening sentences when Mrs. Busybody objects to a group of boys and girls coolly smoking cigarettes outside her window, we meet jerky kids; one boy offers Mrs. Busybody a drag, while a "little girl" blows smoke in the older woman's face

Then, a second group of boys not only splashes mud on Mrs. Busybody's dress. Yes, she finds a police officer, and yes, the splashing becomes a complaint that they almost drowned her in the mud and ruined her dress. On the other hand, the officer learns that these boys subsequently "bought ice cream without paying for it, and broke several store windows, and sneaked up behind a lady and put a lighted firecracker down her dress." 

I, too, would complain. 

The rest of the story shifts to the sudden, unexpected visit from horrendous relatives, who remain the stories focus. These, Frankly, Mrs. Busybody seems the most pleasant of the bunch, with the possible exception of the police officer, who doesn't do much except arrest and deliver exposition.

Charles Shields, in his unauthorized but well-researched biography, Mockingbird, details Francis Finch Lee's life and reaction to her youngest child, Harper. Clearly, she suffered from something that left her irritable and sleepy, and perhaps later "hardening of the arteries" that had family members setting guard on her to keep her from wandering out of the house.

It's also clear that Harper Lee's father possessed a near-preternatural sense of humor towards his youngest daughter's unusual rough-and-tumble ways, her mother not only did not, but was nearly nonexistent in her life.

This profound lack of connection with her mother along with a vivid intelligence, powerful imagination and love of story-telling, was part of the powerful bond between Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, her deeply troubled childhood companion, who was abandoned by both mother and father, basically from birth, and always disappointed his mother, who hated his "sissy" ways. It's also is the kind of deep, deep loss that resonates within one for ever.

In both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee solved the problem of her mother--ambivalence? Anger? Shame?-- by killing her off early, too early for Scout to remember her.

She does, however, in both novels, have an Aunt Alexandra, who, says Charles Shields, is based on Lee's mother. In To Kill A Mockingbird, we meet Aunt Alexandra as being "analogous to Mount Everestt: throughout my early life, she was cold and there."

But, says Jean Louise, "her cooking made up for everything: three kinds of meat, summer vegetables from her pantry shelves, peach pickles, two kinds of cake and ambrosia," for a "modest Christmas dinner."

"Aunt Alexandra," says Jean Louise, "was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing things that required pants."

Aunt Alexandra also says that Jean Louise "should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life," and that, "I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year."

We meet her her corsets, her narrow-minded bigotry against negroes, and white trash and anybody who is not "our kind," in more detail in Go Set A Watchman.

Given what little we know about Mrs. Lee, I think her daughter showed great restraint in simply killing off early a woman who was already dead by the time she wrote both novels.

More to come.