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Jacquelyn Mitchard on Motherhood

I had the pleasure, this past February, of hearing Jacquelyn Mitchard speak at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. I was glad that she was so inspiring because otherwise you could get darn intimidated: nine novels (at last count) and seven children (at last count). These numbers don’t include her books for young readers or her non-fiction.

After Mitchard’s talk a woman asked, “What advice do you have for those of us who have young children and find it so taxing?” Mitchard’s response, “I think you’re trying to be too good a parent.”

First, I know the “too good” parents she’s talking about: They’re the ones who try to make me feel guilty that I’m not chaperoning, baking, setting up, taking down, selling raffle tickets and generally following orders. Too often they succeed.

I think the dangers of being “too good” is a message that many moms-who-write need to hear, and I asked Jacquelyn privately to expand on it.  “…Those of us who write and love our children feel as though writing is something we ‘do for ourselves’ when that is not true. … It’s really not fair to tell our kids that we don’t love our work. How else do we teach them to be free to fight for their own dreams …? I think we mothers are especially prone to this kind of guilt; we almost embrace it. … I cannot count the number of times that writers have said to me, ‘I have two small children’ as if this explains more than why their lives are so busy.  I don’t think we should choose our work over our families. But even Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a devout wife and mother, told her daughter Reeve that she must always keep ‘something’ for herself.”

Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bibliography would fill my hard drive, so recommend that you visit www.jackiemitchard.com. Of particular interest is the imminent release of the paperback edition of No Time to Wave Goodbye, the sequel to her first, famous bestseller, The Deep End of the Ocean.

I already knew a lot about Mitchard’s books, but I did not know about the writer’s colony she founded: One Writer’s Place, a retreat on Cape Cod.  You can learn more about that at www.onewritersplace.com.

A Woman’s Work

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was an icon and martyr of the early feminist movement.  The wife of the Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was the author of the masterpiece The Great Gatsby, in that role Zelda embodies the fate of the talented woman of her day and many thousands of days before:  She was indoctrinated throughout her youth to play the role of wife and mother while remaining a frivolous Southern Belle.  The mighty river of her own talent became a tributary that fed into the ocean of her husband’s genius, where it dissipated, unnoticed.
An earlier, but now politically incorrect view of Zelda’s life, was that she was a mental case (literally) who, though providing Scott with a role model for his deathless heroines (most memorably Daisy from The Great Gatsby), was herself a mediocre would-be artist who envied his success and the attention it brought him, and blamed him for her failure to become a star in her own right.
Ironically it was F. Scott Fitzgerald himself who said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  I think both versions of Zelda’s life are true, and I can still function.  More or less.
Zelda Fitzgerald published one novel, Save Me the Waltz, and it is not a well-written book.  Whether she could have become a good novelist eventually is unknown, but Save Me definitely challenges the belief that her husband plagiarized her work, as she claimed, though he might indeed have quoted from her diary – but show me the novelist who hasn’t reproduced the dialogue of his family and/or friends.
At the height of the Zelda cult, some even maintained that she ghostwrote Scott’s fiction.  Apparently she did publish several short stories under his name.  Why?  Maybe it was because Scott was so threatened by her gift (there’s plenty of testimony that he was jealous and possessive of her, and liked the spotlight for himself) that he would only “permit” her to publish if he got the credit.  But I see at least one other possible reason: that the stories were only publishable under the name of an established author, and that he was letting her use his reputation to help her gain some recognition

Whatever you or I feel about Zelda, we’d probably agree that hers was a tragic life, ending at 48 in a fire in one of the mental institutions in which she spent many of her later years.  And yet, even as I write “hers was a tragic life,” doubt creeps in.  Zelda was a legend in her own time, often enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, moved in the highest literary circles and was adored by a handsome, famous man.  Wouldn’t some of us make a Faustian bargain, trading in our minivans and snack week sign up sheets, for a couple of decades of the life she lived?

I said that Save Me the Waltz is not a well-written novel.  It is, however, an autobiographical one – so much so that today’s publishers might suggest she turn it into a memoir.  And late in the book when Zelda’s alter ego, Alabama (the character is named for the state of her birth), develops an interest in ballet dancing, the book suddenly comes to life.  In the parlance of the high school creative writing class, she begins to “show, not tell.”

Zelda found work.

I read Save Me the Waltz during my high school Hemingway/Fitzgerald phase.  I did not make the connection between what Zelda described and why, in later years, I would be so grateful that I had been born in the second half of the 20th century and not the first.  If I’d been born very much earlier I would have been a casualty like my mother and grandmother: women whose work eluded them.  Yes, many women found recognition in many fields long before Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique.  Edna St. Vincent Millay and Margaret Bourke-White come to mind, since they were more or less contemporaries of Zelda’s.  But they had far more than the average share of courage and self-esteem.  Most of us come closer to what the Wizard of Oz says about himself in Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked, “I knew what I was/One of life’s dime-a-dozen mediocrities.”

“Mediocre” is too harsh a word.  Most of us just aren’t geniuses.  But we deserve work, too.

Work didn’t save Zelda Sayre.  It was too little, too late, and with too many forces already fighting against her from within and without.  But it can save a lot of us.  As they say in the A-1 Sauce commercials, “Yeah, it’s just that important.”

Quit Your Day Job

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner said that the best job for a writer to have was a spouse willing to support him or her.  Lest any of his readers feel guilty about such an arrangement, he went on to say that the husband or wife in question should feel it was a privilege to get that close to the creative process.

I find this proposition unrealistic, irritating and, most of all, arrogant.  I have also discovered it true.  Writing gurus preach that you can always find time to write if you want to.  Even I — mea culpa — have asserted this often, in seminars and in my writing book.  “Start with ten minutes a day.  Get up ten minutes earlier.  Don’t wear make up.”

Right.  Like I would leave the house without it.

Now this is not a public self-flogging.  (I charge people money to watch that.)  My “start with ten minutes” is still good advice, if I do say so myself, for getting unglued from the excuse of having no time to write.  All Americans know that one can get a perfect body, cook a three-course meal or write a novel in just ten minutes a day.  (And the first 100 callers get a copy of my new DVD, Scale Mount Everest in Your Sleep.)

The more time you have to write, the luckier you are.  The higher a priority you can make it.  Yes, one of the first things a writer learns is not to wait for inspiration but to go out and stalk it, while heavily armed and wearing a sturdy pair of hiking boots.  But when you have bagged inspiration and hauled it back to your campsite (leaving a trail of your own blood), then it’s damn frustrating to see that it’s time for work or to remember that it’s your snack week and you forgot the freakin’ flour-free, sugar-free cookies (without nuts; someone might be allergic).

So if you are lucky enough to have that spouse or parent or windfall from an Internet start-up to allow you to quit your day job and hire household help if necessary, be very, very grateful.  If someone is supporting you, it is not his or her privilege; it is his or her gift to you.

Selling Out Is Hard to Do

Some years back I was teaching a short “intro to fiction” workshop at a local independent school when a woman in the group asked me, “How does Danielle Steel do it?”

I responded flippantly, “If I knew that, would I be teaching for twelve dollars an hour?”

But the woman already had her own explanation. “Well, I think she just doesn’t care if she writes a bad book.”

I was flip no longer. “Now, wait. Millions of readers love Danielle Steel. And thousands of writers are trying to imitate her. I don’t know ‘how’ she does it, but she’s touching something in those millions of readers.”

I had not convinced the lady. She sank back in her chair, folding her arms over her chest, looking skeptical, and quite disappointed with me.There is a commonly-held belief that popular fiction is much easier to write than literary fiction. I can even see an argument for it: Popular fiction has more conventions, and conventions can be learned. Still, the criteria for a “good” book of any genre are highly subjective. Does good mean entertaining, enriching, high-quality? And once you’ve established your criteria, who decides whether or not you’ve met them?

Each reader for him or herself, that’s who.

Sure, there are cynical people sitting at laptops caring more about future movie deals than they do about expressing a new and profound truth. But the idea that bestselling authors are laughing their way to the bank is so ludicrous that the memory of that conversation still gets me worked up.

I found it equally irritating when I recently came across an article by a linguistics scholar analyzing Dan Brown’s prose in order to point out its flaws. Apparently, Brown’s worst offenses are redundancy and mixed metaphors. But to me, criticizing Dan Brown’s writing is a little like making fun of Laurence Olivier for not being a great comic actor. The scholar might as well have written, “Life isn’t fair when someone who isn’t as smart as I am can become rich and famous.”

Articles such as this are usually intended to bemoan the impoverished state of Western culture. But since when is this news in a world that stops turning to follow the adventures of Jon and Kate Gosselin?

In fairness, almost any writer who pursues his or her craft for more than a short time will learn that a noble soul is not a short cut to good writing. And it will always pain many of us – a little – to see writers receive what we believe is undeserving praise.

But we live in a country where we are free to read whatever books we like and thank God we don’t need permission from a linguistic scholar to buy a “bad” book. No matter how laughable the prose.

I don’t know what it was about The DaVinci Code that captured the public’s imagination. The fast-paced plot? The recognition of the feminine principle in theology?

But if I knew what it was that would capture the public’s imagination next, I would be writing it. As fast as my fingers can type.

Baby You Can Kindle My Fire

I just got a Kindle from Amazon and I love it so much that yes, I want to marry it.  It’s far easier to hold while lying down or eating than a three-dimensional book.  As Jeff Bezos is now famous for saying on The Daily Show, “you can read it with one hand.”

It fits in my purse.  And now I don’t have to stop to think which book I want to take – I’m building a library on this one device.  If by some chance I get stuck somewhere and find I don’t have what I want – click, click! – I can order something new.

I’ve been thinking about the Kindle for a while.  I don’t like to rush out and buy the latest gadgets.  I call it “chasing your techno-tail,” because of the whirlwind of devices and apps surrounding us. I prefer to let others do my beta testing for me.  When the manufacturer gets feedback and produces the second generation of phones, DVDs, or earpieces (usually lowering the price in the process), then I make my move – if it’s something I want.  I am living a full life without Guitar Hero.  Or, if I’m not living a full life, I’m not looking to Guitar Hero to fill the void.

Not only do I now have a portable library, I have achieved the American Dream: closing the gap between wanting and having.  Used to be, when you wanted a book, you had to make a trip to store or library.  In neither location was there adequate parking, nor are stores and libraries open 24/7.  Then came the online bookstore and you got to save gas.  If you were in a panic you could pay for expedited shipping, and I’ve done that more than once.

Now there is no shipping, because something called Whispernet delivers it to your device in a matter of seconds.  Whispernet is a lovely name, even if it’s really a euphemism for another way that someone who already has a private jet makes even more money.

After I started this post I googled “Kindle” to sample what other users have written about it.  I wasn’t surprised to find resistance, even hostility – downright snarky comments about the limitations of my baby.  Shoot, I’ve heard it from a couple of friends.  “I like the feel of a book.”  (Me, I like the feel of the handle of a butter churn.)  What surprised me was my reaction to the resistance.

One complaint is that you can’t access everything ever written.  Since when could you access everything you wanted in one place?   Not my local library.  I don’t think they ever had most of the books their computers list.  Someone just inputs ISBN numbers into the computer for fun.

Another complaint is that the screen isn’t readable.  Well, I find it readable, and I’m the one reading, and no one is taking away the “dead tree” book (the new nomenclature is a not-so-subtle reminder that e-books don’t use paper) from us… at least not until we turn our backs.

Feeling my hostility to the hostility, I recognized in myself true missionary zeal.  “You are wrong, I am right, and I’m not leaving this room until I convince you even if I have to hurt you.”

I don’t approve of missionary zeal, and I asked myself where it came from.  I’m passionate about Broadway musicals, but I’ve never begged anyone to listen to Sondheim with me.  And I remembered that the last time I felt the hey-you-have-to-try-this fanaticism was after I discovered audio books.  There’s a pattern here.

For me the Kindle is about 90% perfect.  That’s enough for me to propose.  We’re going to register at Amazon.com.

Mark Coggins and the Sexy Outsider

Mark Coggins has already taken the gold in this year’s Independent Publisher awards for his fifth August Riordan mystery, The Big-Wake-Up ( http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1362), and he’s now a finalist for ForeWord’s  Book of the Year award in the mystery category http://www.bookoftheyearawards.com/finalists/2009/category/fiction-mystery/.

If you don’t know August Riordan personally (yet), you know his progenitors.  Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are the most widely-known of these tough-on-the-outside, soft-as-nonfat-yogurt-underneath, kick-ass-and-take-names-later dicks, I mean PI’s.

Greg Fallis has written, “Dashiell Hammett, it’s said, took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it back in the street, where it belongs. With the publication of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett forever changed detective fiction. Hammett’s protagonists weren’t effete intellectuals; they were street-wise common men who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty. In fact, at times they actively enjoyed getting their hands dirty. Their morals were questionable. Their ethics might not be for sale, but they could be rented.”

( http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=370).

The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930, and the mystery subgenre it launched, often called “hard-boiled,” is as popular now as it was 80 years ago.  What is its enduring appeal?  Thank you for asking.  The hard-boiled-P.I.s are successors to guns-for-hire like Paladin (the name means “knight”), Sheriff Matt Dillon and other champions of the wild west.  This is a uniquely American genre, even though recent authors have taken its heroes international.  They are aloof, sexy, and ultimately outsiders.

In The Big Wake-Up, Mark first pay homage to one of his mentors with the title, a spin on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  The opening chapters (after a high-speed chase through San Francisco) continue to respect tradition with the client with a problem whose problem is not at all what he claims.  Soon Riordan has unwittingly fallen into a “plot” (somebody stop me) to recover the remains of Eva Peron.  The real-life journey of Evita’s body is still redolent of mystery even now that the “truth” is supposedly known.   Coggins’ story imagines that Evita is not where she should be, and Riordan had better find her before the aptly-named Isis does – Isis being a woman who wields a mean enucleation spoon (the device used to remove eyeballs).

Mark would be far too modest to want to me to list all the other awards and recognitions granted this latest novel, not to mention his earlier fiction, so check out http://www.MarkCoggins.com.  The trailer for Wake-Up is worth the price of admission.

You Can Take It with You

I have already written in praise of the Kindle.  My love grows ever deeper, and along with that, my missionary zeal.  Therefore I would like you to check out this piece.  It’s a more even-handed and far more thorough look at these new devices, which are sold by several companies and will likely be sold by more in the future.  I call them all Kindle the way I call all cotton swabs Q-tips and all bandages Band-Aids.
The piece by Peter Suderman focuses on the technology rather than on the economic or legal issues: primarily how the price is set, how publishers and authors will divide profits and most of all, preventing piracy.  I have no idea how these issues should or can be resolved, but it’s hard to believe that they will halt the evolution of literature any more than similar problems have halted the availability of music, movies or episodes of Family Guy online.  I do hope that my virtual copy of Little Dorrit will never have an ad for an internet dating site.

(Elizabeth) Stark Realities

“Writing is the only art where people want not to have to practice,” says Elizabeth Stark.  I have a theory for why this is so: Writing fiction does not require any special equipment. What do you need besides a pencil and your own imagination?

In spite of the urban legends about self-taught geniuses (a few of which are true), most of us mortals need someone like Elizabeth Stark who is not only a writer herself (Shy Girl, Seal Press), but a teacher, editor and coach. Her website is ElizabethStark.com and I recommend you go there immediately – heck, even if you aren’t a writer – for the simple joy of getting blown away without breaking any laws.

Elizabeth’s blog is like having an MFA program come to your house.  She covers a wide range of craft issues, but just as importantly, for anyone who’s been daydreaming about fiction but has yet to start, she provides enough inspiration (often filtered through personal experience), to light a fire under an asbestos-coated rear end.

This is truly a multi-media site, enhanced with gorgeous photography and links to podcasts. There’s also a wealth of links to other writers’ blogs.  Remember what I just said about an about an MFA program? It was just a paragraph ago.

Let’s get back to that bit about practicing. In a post from March 4 of this year Elizabeth writes, “I’m constantly reminding myself that part of the purpose of early drafting is to write too much. … A runner doesn’t go a block or two here or there, saving up the real push for the Big Event Marathon.  A pianist doesn’t insist that her seven-year-old lessons be included in her Carnegie Hall debut. Why then do we writers feel that we are being ‘inefficient’ if we write scenes several times before we nail it, or if we throw out two-thirds of a draft?”

It’s a rhetorical question, because unless you are willing to go the long way around, it’s unlikely you’ll get there.

Now that I’ve been lecturing, how about some of that inspiration I was also talking about? One of Elizabeth’s many free offerings is her new video at www.bookwritingsecrets.com. In a store you might pay $29.99, but if you click now…

Obviously I’ve been watching too much TV at 3:00 a.m. But enough about me. Check out the video.

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