Be Less Likely to Accept Things the Way They Are

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Be Less Likely to Accept Things the Way They Are

I felt elevated. I felt like I had more value.  I had more agency than I felt like I had before,
and with that feeling you are less likely to accept things the way they are. 
-Barbara Downey Landau

The Vanity Fair article, ""It Was Us Against Those Guys': The Women Who Transformed Rolling Stone in the Mid-70's" grabbed my attention. I jotted down the quote from it. The article is a conversation with five women behind the scenes at Rolling Stone that ultimately made their way to its masthead while shaping it into the pop-culture magnet we know today.  

I've been looking for stories like this one to help put into words how my protagonist, Johanna, might feel in trying to enter the 19th century man's world of art trading so she can promote her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh's artwork. She isn't welcome; she isn't liked. She is learning as she goes. 

Kinda like I feel writing a novel right now.. learning as I go!

In addition to the reading, I am keeping my head down writing. I'm 15 weeks or so into the Manuscript Accelerator program, in which I've been submitting pages every week to my book coach. Although the learning curve has been steep, I have a few takeaways of what I've learned so far:

  • Sh***y first drafts are a part of the process. Instead of avoiding them I've learned that the path to perfection starts with just getting words down. My first drafts are definitely sh***y, but the process leads to ideas under the surface, behind the initial thoughts. If there's time, I can then edit a second draft. I'm finding the critical thing is to just go ahead and spew. For instance, yesterday this was a completely different blog to you!

  • Ask for help and keep looking when you don't get it. In my high school drama class I still remember performing a scene followed by stony silence. Out of the darkness at the back of the theater, Mrs. K., the drama teacher, called out, "Why didn't you ask for help?" I didn't know, I don't know why I hesitate now. Because it's hard. Because you don't know who to ask. So, for example, I need help on beginning to build an author platform right now. I contacted a PR agency. Way too expensive! Now I'm trying out an intern. I'll let you know how it goes.

  • Ask Jo when I don't know. A few chapters back I got some tough love from my book coach. The chapter I'd submitted was too forced and she thought I should do it over. I tried a second version, a third. Still forced. Then I remembered an idea from a writer seminar, "When you're not sure about a scene, ask your protagonist." So, I got quiet, turned to the picture of Johanna I have in my office and asked her, "What do you want to do?" Do you know... an entirely new idea appeared! I had to scrap three-fourths of the chapter, but the new one came together beautifully. I suppose what really happened is as  I let go of the intellectual, plot-driven reasons for the scene, Jo's internal motivation revealed itself. It's the internal that drives the external, right? In life, not just books. 
  • Self-doubt is never far away. I have no remedy yet, because I'm afraid it's true. I may not be any good at this. So, when self-doubt comes knocking, I look at it, mentally set it down on the desk beside me, and write anyway. I know that if I stop writing this book, I will look back and truly regret not trying. The idea of living with that personal disappointment in myself is worse than any threat self-doubt can drum up.

How I'm Writing the Book
Found a Mean Antagonist. The plot didn't start out this way, but a creepy guy crept into my pages and has emerged as an enemy for my heroine to confront. For "inspiration" I read The Sociopath Next Door. Its subtitle is "1 in every 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty." Perfect description of Jo's nemesis!
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. The first line of Everything I Never Told You fascinated me. The novel by Celeste Ng starts out by giving the entire plot away: "Lydia is dead." How can an author construct a story when the reader already knows how the story ends? I found out. Ng brings the reader inside each character's mind -- how he and she views the world, their childhood, their losses and desires -- so that when the characters miss connections, we have the empathy and ache of understanding the disconnect, and longing to see it corrected.  In the end, Ng weaves the story threads together in a seamless, beautiful, satisfying way.

 A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

On a personal note, September is the month we drive to KC for a "tasting" of the food Cristina and Jay are thinking of for their March wedding. Juan and I are always up for a free meal!

Let me end with a quote from the Vanity Fair article. It captures my hope for my protagonist, Jo:

I was scared a lot in the early days, but once I stopped being so scared, I was happy.
-Marianne Partridge

Change is worth it.

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Stubbornness you need for living

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Stubbornness you need for living

I paint with the stubbornness I need for living.
-Suzanne Valadon

I think there’s a vein of stubbornness in you.

That's a good thing!

Especially if your stubbornness rears its head when you’ve just about given up, when the curve ball has knocked the breath out of your lungs, and you think the worst must finally be over… and it is not.

The person I've quoted, Suzanne Valadon, is stubborn. My protagonist, Johanna, has just met Suzanne in the chapter I wrote last week.  

Suzanne was a French painter who broke into the ranks of her male post-Impressionism peers and was recognized in her lifetime. She lived in Paris at the same time as Vincent van Gogh. She is the first woman painter invited to join the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a society of artists that organized to show exhibits independently of what I think of as the Red-tape Art Establishment of the late 19th century (aka Paris Salon).

At the time Suzanne meets Jo in my novel she has just started to paint. 

At their first meeting, they don’t have a lot in common. Johanna grew up in a sheltered, upper-middle-class household in Holland, a country that sat like a side street between the pulse-pounding cultural competition between Paris and London. Jo was well-educated and her upbringing followed societal rules of respecting the separate spheres men and women inhabited. 

In contrast, Suzanne was raised by an unmarried mother in the poor outskirts of Paris. As a little girl, she worked alongside her mom — among her jobs was as a laundress and in a milliner's shop. She went to school until about age 11. She then quit to make her own way, including joining the circus as an acrobat. At 15, she fell from a trapeze, injuring herself so that she had to quit. However, at the circus she had met some artists, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and decided to move to the Montmartre artist community in Paris where she took up work as a model. 

Over the next decade it was through this modeling work that Suzanne became intrigued with art and began to draw and paint herself. This self-taught education gave her artwork a freedom from following a specific style. The female figures she drew weren't as idealized as the ones male artists painted, preferring to draw and paint the reality she experienced. 

At the time I have the women meet in the book, Jo has been getting pelted by curve balls (I love my book coach saying to me, “Think of the worst thing that could happen to Jo” - so I do!) Jo needs some role models to encourage her to keep forging ahead and to discover the mis-beliefs that are holding her back.  When I came across Suzanne in my research, I was thrilled. Suzanne has the authenticity to really challenge Jo’s view of herself.  

Stubbornness, rebellion, independence, bravery --  Jo will need all of this. 

Once I started to reflect on these qualities, more role models have caught my attention. 

  • One is the comedian Hannah Gadsby in the Netflix special, Nanette, a stand-up routine Hannah does before a live audience in Sydney. This one-minute trailer gives you a hint of it. What starts out as typical funny routine becomes suspenseful and angry and heartbreaking and compelling. Hannah's dialogue has peeled away artifice or acting. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed such a tour de force. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend Cyd alerted me to it, and it is so worth seeing.

  • The second is a friend who at her work is facing down the sabotage of insecure bosses by standing up for herself with truth. The honor she ascribes to herself -- her self-respect -- inspires me. When you beat back the fear and side with truth, you find strength. How many times have I not stood up for myself when I should have?

So, these two women shine in my thought as role models for me to attempt to write into Johanna. She has a lot to overcome. I think Suzanne can help her. 

Stack of books I'm researching on the 19th century, and Suzanne Valadon in her studio in 1925. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Extended the Plot. While plugging away writing a few weeks ago, a sneaky little feeling began to grow larger. For awhile now, I've been ruminating on whether the "ah-ha" moment I'd planned would work, because in this climax Jo has not yet sold a Van Gogh painting - not yet. I wondered whether this omission would be too disappointing to the reader (since we know that ultimately that's her legacy)? This niggly doubt kept popping up on the periphery of my mind. So, to address this, I drew in a deep breath and took a shot at extending the novel, digging into more of Jo's past to identify the tent-post experiences that would lead her to a different, big moment. I think I got it. The book is still targeted to be about the same length of 300 or so pages. This week I'm writing chapter 10. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. As a recommendation from my W4 Book Club, I recently read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It's based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann and how her Memphis Tennessee Children's Home Society was set up to steal and sell children into adoption. The book is chilling as told through the eyes of its 12-year-old heroine. Wingate is a master at storytelling; the suspense and pace kept me up reading late into the night, and, even though it's sad, there is redemption. 

It's been 100-degrees hot in the midwest this month. My mom, sister and I are speeding out of the heat next week with a 10-hour road trip up to my brother and sister-in-law's house in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Gorgeous towering pines, glass-surface still lakes, sweatshirt-cool mornings...my Macbook and I will be tapping out words to the call of loons. Meanwhile, next up with Cristina's wedding planning is a KC trip to the florist to design flowers. I can't wait! But Juan said he'll sit this trip out. What??

Here's a final quote attributed to Suzanne. Perhaps it will be written as dialogue for her to say to Jo:

I had great masters. I took the best of them of their teachings, of their examples.
I found myself. 
I made myself, and I said what I had to say. 

In Therese Diamond Rosinky's book, Suzanne Valadon

Are you saying what you need to say?

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Well, the wedding happened!

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Well, the wedding happened!

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
-Leo Tolstoy

My next door neighbor Diane watered our patio plants all through the St. Louis 100-degree days we were gone attending our son's wedding in Flagstaff, Arizona. We returned home last Tuesday and when I popped over to say thanks and share tales of the wedding week, I was sitting at their dining room table when her husband Bill asked me a normal question; yet, it caught me off guard. Will I use any memories of the wedding in writing my book?

No, I answered (too quickly). There is no church ceremony or white veil or vows planned in the plot. 

But the question needled me.

So, now I've changed my mind: Yes, I will have ideas from the wedding in the novel. 

Just not what you may think. 

There was so much joy in the wedding, but there also is a loss. If life is a trilogy, now one book has been read. The child whose favorite article of clothing was a safari jacket (lots of pockets for his collections of sticks and rocks) and who pulled dirt to him like a magnet is a man who looked wedding-handsome in a well-cut suit at the ceremony. The goofball who choreographs his karaoke now has a career advising people on investments. Those powerful warriors, time and patience, have done their work. 

Suddenly, I don’t think I paid enough attention.

What role does a mother have?

It's a question that's come up in my book. One of the first things that caught my notice when I was researching the life of my protagonist, Jo, was the story of her son. Since her husband died when the baby was an infant, the child Vincent (named after his artist uncle) of course did not know his father or uncle. He grew up with their ghosts. 

For one thing, he would have seen his mother, night after night, bent over his father's large desk, painstakingly translating letters the brothers wrote to each other from Dutch to English. Secondly, as a young boy, his evenings would have frequently been interrupted by late-night guests gathered to see small Van Gogh painting exhibits set up by Jo. Because she also shipped the paintings to museums and art dealers, more often than not, their front room was clouded with dust and noise from building custom cases and packing the paintings for shipping. And Jo made trips back and forth from the local railway station to send or receive the cases for years — I imagined her son accompanying her to help.

His mom is a single parent, so Vincent Wilhelm’s primary role model is Jo. He would have witnessed her tenacity, determination, and passion for his uncle's paintings. I imagine he also would have felt her devotion for him. Here is just one glimpse of concern found in the diary Jo kept, writing to her husband after he's deceased: “My darling - my dear - dear Theo - at every word, between every two lines, I am thinking of you - how you made me part of yourself in the short time we were together - I am still living with you, by you. May your spirit go on inspiring me, then everything will be all right with our little fellow.”

I wondered  — after such a childhood — wouldn't Vincent Wilhelm have felt compelled to take on his mother's work as his life passion too? 

Wouldn’t it have made Jo happy to work side-by-side with her son? Proud, even?

You’d think so, but here’s what happened: Instead of art, Vincent Wilhelm studied mechanical engineering at Delft University. He went on to work as an engineer in France, Japan and the United States. Upon returning to the Netherlands in 1920, he set up a management consultancy with a former university friend — the first in the country. 

He took on the nickname, “The Engineer,” to differentiate himself from his artist uncle.

It wasn’t until his retirement that Vincent Wilhelm approached the Netherlands government with a proposal to form a Van Gogh Foundation in order to transfer his inheritance of Van Gogh drawings, paintings and letters to the government. In return, the state built the Van Gogh Museum to ensure the collection would stay intact and accessible to the public. Until the end of his life, Vincent Wilhelm spent most days in the museum, devoting himself to it. 

I like to think his life reflects the values of his mother. Not a smidgen of guilt or expectation that he should join her in work she’s devoted her life to, rather, he was given the gift of finding his own path, despite growing up in a home permeated with his mother’s purpose. 

So, what will I share in the book about this past weekend?

The depth of a mother’s love, for sure. The fierceness of the instinct to tirelessly protect. The comfort of knowing when a son is okay and deeply loved. The joy of knowing he has found a life partner. The celebration of allowing the next book to open in life's trilogy.  The confidence that a son is walking his own path toward his own purpose. 

I can write about that. 

 Delighted mama!

Delighted mama!

 Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Developed a Timeline: With the pace of pre-wedding events, catching up with family, making new friends -- I found it challenging to try to write many pages in Flagstaff; however, one morning opened up so I created a timeline for the major events in Johanna and other characters' lives, major artists and paintings being created, as well as a smattering of current events. The timeline revealed some mistakes I've made -  all fixable when I edit. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: In the last blog I wrote about reading author Kristin Hannah's The Great Alone for a book club. Evocative landscapes, an intricate narrative stitching together the story of a family's dysfunction and eventual resolution. I loved the backdrop of the 1970's (my high school days), but I read the wrong book for Tuesday's book club! The correct one is Hannah's Winter Garden. Gripping, beautiful, the last several chapters caused tears to run down my cheeks. The story laces together a mother's chilling, secretive experience living through Stalin's revolution and how it gradually spills into open through a family tragedy. Plus, I am dog-earring pages of this book to study Hannah's writing technique for bringing back origin scenes when the mother's character was set. 

Love in the air still lingers... in addition to my daughter Cristina's wedding next March, my niece Sabrina will be married to boyfriend Zack in November! 

I’ll close with another quote from Tolstoy - he doesn’t call this quality out as a "warrior," but you know it’s powerful:

All, everything that I understand, I only understand because I love. 
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Small things together can become great

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Small things together can become great

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. 
-Vincent van Gogh

I'm in the middle of a big sort. 

In Vincent’s words, a bunch of small things like puzzle pieces I’m hoping will eventually fit into a complete picture. 

The sorting is between fact vs. fiction. Squish a timeline or reflect it accurately? Write only about real people or add imaginary ones? 

The final arrangement will need to be a mix of real and unreal. Even though my novel is a story based on actual people, historical research gives only a scant record of external events. My heroine’s internal motives, the influences on her decision-making, in short, the “why” behind her actions can only be guessed at. So I’m making those up. I’m figuring out why each conversation or meet-up (for we come into each others' lives at just the right time, don’t we?) is intentional and how it will push protagonist Jo’s journey forward. 

There’s more. 

It would be simpler if all the story needed was what Jo thought. Instead, it gets complicated fast because Jo doesn’t live inside the safe bubble of her own point-of-view. For example, when I write about Jo searching out artists that knew her brother-in-law, Vincent van Gogh, it isn’t just her thought process that’s in the scene but also the unspoken thoughts from the other individuals — how they interpret her conversation, approve or judge her, and then respond based on their own self-interest. It’s a cause-and-effect matrix in which Jo is in the middle.

This realization is changing my writing. Previously, when drafting a scene, I’d find the first pass to be a little flat and one-dimensional if it only considered Jo. Thinking of each individual she’s encountering as a full-bodied person with his or her own agenda adds depth. The dialogue and the behavior they exhibit adjust from simply reacting to Jo to a fuller expression of what they’re thinking.

It gets more fun. 

Each scene includes a third invisible actor: the times they live in.

The late 19th century and its prevailing sense of the world is undergoing enormous change — worldwide exploration, inventions like the steam engine and photography, the Industrial Revolution’s exchange of an agrarian life for an urban one — all mashed together is giving Paris the heady feeling that it’s ascended to a new pinnacle of civilization. Its institutions are safeguarding this advanced view of itself but also trying to cling to values from the past. Law, custom, culture — each is doing its best to support social order by toughening up with all of this change going on. 

  • Question: How can a young widow like Jo buck up against rigid laws of acceptable behavior for women without getting pushback? Answer: She can’t. 
  • Question: But what if she AGREES with the laws, even thinks they are protecting her, but nevertheless is forced to act contrary to them and then suffers the consequences? Answer: She has a mean author (ha!)

The real answer is that she has a moral dilemma. So that takes me to the final actor in each scene, also hidden from view, but the most powerful influence on the page: what Jo thinks of herself. What she thinks about who she is, and who she is not, undergirds everything. She may have worked for 15 years to promote Vincent’s work before his talent was finally recognized, but I don’t think she did this because she's a selfless superhero. Assuming so, to me, doesn’t do the real Jo van Gogh justice. 

Instead, Jo confronts herself in every scene. Self-doubt dogs each step she takes to try to move forward. Why the contempt for herself? Because institutionalized bias — by gender, race, you name it — entraps one into feeling somehow you’re not okay, you don’t fit in, you’re not normal. 

  • Here is how Hispanic author Carmen Giviencz Smith described it in a recent interview, “[Growing up looking for Hispanic role models] We didn’t feel we could do anything about institutional racism and the self-loathing it elicited...this daily encounter with structures and apparatuses that diminish or limit or erase my sense of identity.”
  • Or from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the excellent documentary RBG: “People knew that race discrimination was an odious thing, but there were many who thought that gender-based differentials in the law operated benignly in women’s favor....the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned into a cage.”
  • Or, finally, from Barak Obama’s memoir when he was a young boy: “I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation... When I got home from the embassy library, I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me."

Systemic, powerful attacks on an individual’s identity takes awareness and resilience to overcome. If Jo can defeat the bias, her victory will spur the beautiful outcome of her not giving up on Van Gogh’s art. To be able to honor another by honoring herself. 

This is quite a list of small things coming together.

One scene, one chapter at a time. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Working with a Book Coach: A few weeks ago I completed a 10-week class on crafting a story and so have restarted the book. I had to toss out the previous chapters, including changing the scene where the novel opens. Each week (for the next 22 weeks) I’ll be trying to submit up to 20 pages to a book coach. My days are a mix of dipping time into three buckets: research and story development, editing old pages and writing new ones. So far, so good.
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: New York Times bestseller author Kristin Hannah wrote a beautiful story of love and suspense called The NightingaleIt’s a WWII drama about two sisters in German-occupied France. and how their lives and ideals collided against this backdrop - the novel is unusual as a story focusing solely on the women’s experience in the war. I’m reading Hannah’s most recent book, The Great Alone, for a bookclub meeting at the end of June. 

On the wedding front, we’re on COUNTDOWN for Angie and Eric’s wedding on June 16! Juan and I leave Friday for the 16-hour drive to Flagstaff and the Airbnb we’ll use as our wedding central. The dress is hemmed; the shoes are purchased. A pile of items to pack in the car is growing on the dining room table. I never did sign Juan and I up for dance lessons so our dance-floor moves will be unrehearsed! 

In this wedding spirit, let me end with a final word from Vincent:

I feel there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. 


It’s June already!

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