Writers

Published Writers in Pain Part II

Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.

After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.

 

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Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Is Jake Gyllenhaal the Reincarnation of Marcel Proust?

The Guardian today featured an article on an upcoming auction of documents related to French literature. One of the notable letters is from Marcel Proust who was taking time away from contemplating lost time to complain about his neighbors:

The most amusing letter in the collection, Bonna said, was from Proust to the son of his landlord…In the letter, Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbours’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: “Beyond the partition, the neighbours make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.”

As they brought up the subject of Proust, there is another historical resemblance in my continuing series I thought I might mention:

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

Michigan Author Monday: D.E. Johnson

D.E. JohnsonD.E. (Dan) Johnson’s literary debut, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin ‘s Minotaur in September 2010. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, was published by Minotaur in September 2011. Dan is a history buff with a special interest in early twentieth century Detroit. As he writes on his web page, “Dan comes by his interest in automotive history honestly. His grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors, beginning work with Checker in 1924 and continuing until 1980. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t come by his interest in murder the same way.”

Tell me about “Detroit Shuffle.”

Detroit Shuffle is a mystery set in 1912 Detroit, in the middle of the era’s biggest (real life) political scandals: in the summer, all but one of the city council members were arrested for accepting bribes, and in the fall, women’s suffrage was on the ballot, and a group of conspirators tried to rig the election. Will Anderson, the protagonist, weaves through these situations while trying to discover who is attempting to kill his girlfriend, who is a militant suffragist. It’s a challenge, especially because no one else believes someone is trying to assassinate her.
Your books all have Detroit themes. What is it about Detroit that piques your imagination?

Detroit was once known as the “Paris of the West.” It was an amazing city of parks and boulevards, culture, and success. During my lifetime, the city has been in decline–until recently. I thought people should see what the city was like in its heyday and what it might be again.
How do you go about researching your novels?

I do a lot of research at the Detroit Public Library. They have the archives of all the major newspapers of the day, which are the best source of information about what people were thinking and talking about during this time. Most of the information on these scandals has never been put in a book, so that “on the ground” researching is necessary. I have a lot of early electric car information in my books, and I’ve gotten most of that from the Henry Ford Museum. They have a great research facility.
Which comes first– Does historical research inspire ideas for your plots or do you start with a plot and then research the period?

That’s a good question. I look at the historical events as the backdrop of the story. In my books I have told the stories of the rise and fall of the early electric car, Detroit’s first mob war, Wayne County’s massive asylum, Eloise Hospital, and early political scandals. Those are really the major subplot in each book. The real plot is the story of trying to catch a killer.
What do you like to read? Are mysteries your favorite genre as a reader?

I read a wide variety of novels: literary, historical, thrillers, but most of my favorite authors write mysteries. When I started writing, my goal was to marry E.L. Doctorow and Elmore Leonard, a Herculean task. I’m not really sure it’s possible for anyone to do that, but we have to have goals, right?
What is your process as a writer?

My process is to sit my butt down in my chair and write. I have a full-time job, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for my muse to come calling. I get up very early in the morning and write, and I spend most of my weekends writing too. Of course, there is a lot of mental work being done in my downtime as well. I need to be able to visualize at least the beginning of a scene to be able to write it. Once I get going, my brain hijacks my consciousness and continues.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?

I wouldn’t say I have any particular pet peeves other than bad writing.
Do you have any new books in the pipeline?

I am just finishing my first book set in Chicago. It’s a mystery that takes place in 1874 in the middle of the country’s first major depression. The dual protagonists are a fifteen-year-old orphan and her uncle, who she didn’t know existed until her father died. He believes that her father was poisoned, which is contrary to the doctor’s opinion–that he died from simple heart failure. The uncle enlists the girl to help him investigate. Oh, and he’s a resurrectionist–one of those guys who digs up bodies to sell to medical schools. He became a resurrectionist to investigate deaths similar to his mother’s, who he is certain was murdered with the same poison that killed his brother.
I’m not certain at this point when this one will be published.

You can learn more about D.E. Johnson and his mysteries on his web page.

Ah, the “Write Great Books and Hope” Retirement Plan…

One non-fiction writer I admire (on the strength of his thought-provoking and chilling Columbine) is Dave Cullen. Columbine took a decade to research and write and the results show in the finished product.  All of the blogs and articles out there on how to make a living as a writer would say that his next move should be to “build a brand” and quickly put out a lot of similarly themed books and products. No doubt, this is smart advice. It is, of course, not what he is doing. Cullen’s follow up to Columbine is another long-term research project called Soldiers First about gays in the military. Cullen followed his subjects for a decade and a half before and after “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

Writers are paid, of course, but often months, years or decades after the labor and often at a rate that would fall criminally short of minimum wage when all the math is done.

On Goodreads you can post questions for many authors and I asked Dave Cullen how he funded his long-term research projects. (Mostly because I was looking for ideas on how to fund mine!)  A certain kind of economist might tell you that people are rational animals who do work in order to earn money and that if they are not paid enough they will not do the work. But Cullen responded that he went into debt to produce both of his works– Colubmbine and his forthcoming book.

For Columbine… The first few years, I was writing a lot for magazines, and just scraping by with freelance gigs. (This is before the web destroyed much of the journalism market, and you could still get by on freelancing. It was always tough, but possible that recently. Now, I don’t think it is.)

Over time, I went into debt, then got some advance money to help, and went back to working part-time outside writing as a consultant. Luckily, I’d worked as a computer consultant and management consultant for Arthur Andersen into my early 30s before quitting it all to go to grad school and write full time. So I was employable that way.

Then I went back more deeply into debt.

The unexpected success of the book got me out of debt, and combined with speaking gigs and other assorted bits, has kept me afloat working on this next book–along with some advance payments starting last year. I’m about to start going back into debt on this book, but hoping it will earn money after publication and I can stay solvent.

I’m now in my 50s without a retirement plan–and weak social security benefits after a decade of very low income–so that scares me. But if I can write some great books, hopefully that will take care of it.

The “write great books and hope” retirement plan would elicit a real scolding from Suze Orman. Yet there is a wisdom to it. Yes, it is hard to be constantly MacGyvering your financial life as an artist. I won’t downplay the stress of it. But every life has its stress and struggles.

Writers do not want to write in order to make a living. Rather they want to make a living in order to write. (While at the same time hoping beyond hope that writing will pay the bills.) It is not only a question of funding an IRA but of focusing and putting all one’s energy into something that gives him a goal and a sense of purpose.

Looking back on a long life would you like to be able to say “I had a well-funded retirement” or “I wrote a book that was worth reading.”

Write great books and hope…