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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Give yourself a green light

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Give yourself a green light

It takes a lot more courage to green light yourself than to wait for someone else's yes.
-Brooke Warner

I like this idea: to go forward, or to "green light" yourself, especially in the face of disillusionment and when you think initially people are set up to help you, but, in fact, they become obstacles to what you want or believe. I'd like to share how there's some of this idea in my book after I give you the backstory on where I heard "green light."

I listened to Brooke (author and founder of She Writes Press) in a TED talk. She spoke about how she became disillusioned with the traditional publishing company she worked for a few years ago. As an executive editor, her job was to select and acquire good books for publication. When the company she worked for was acquired by a parent corporation, standards completely shifted -- she was to look for books from authors that were already famous and/or knew celebrities that vouched for them.

Gone - looking for books with an important message

Gone - looking for books of excellent literary writing quality

Gone - looking for books with big ideas

Instead, new standards that had nothing to do with book quality, became her criteria for selecting books to publish. For example, whether the author is media-ready, physically attractive, or has an existing star-quality brand were the measures she had to follow at this traditional publishing company.

Disillusionment takes time, but eventually, Brooke left.  She founded a company, She Writes Press, in order to provide a publishing avenue for authors of the type of quality books she'd had to reject. Where doors had been shut, she chose to create an opening. 

I saw a parallel in this story to the barriers my protagonist, Johanna, would have faced by the cultural establishment in her time.

Paris in the late 19th century had its gatekeepers of culture and art too. I've written about the Academie des Beaux Artes in an earlier post. Run by the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, an arts academy that trained how to paint in the style of the Old Masters, it was the "establishment." For artists, the Academie's seal of approval meant validation. Their prize? An invitation to hang paintings in their annual Paris Salon exhibition, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors, giving the artists exposure to potential patrons and art buyers. 

The Paris Salon was the standard-bearer. If you didn't fit their mold as an artist, you were not invited in (similar to Brooke's experience with her traditional publisher).

So what did excluded artists do? Just as Brooke eventually founded her own press, artists began to create their own societies and to host their own art shows. For instance, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro formed a loose exhibiting group of 10 artists. For the payment of 60 francs each artist member could hang two works in a self-organized exhibition. To get a jump on the establishment, they scheduled their first show two weeks before the Paris Salon — ha!

Now, this was in 1874, more than a decade before Johanna will have inherited Van Gogh's paintings. The rebels will still be nascent, but the idea of them, the alliances Johanna can make to help her, are seeded in the Paris streets, especially Montmartre. Today, Montmartre is in the center of Paris, but during Johanna's time it was on the outskirts of the city - the perfect inexpensive living, and natural gathering place, for up-and-coming artists.

Johanna has a crack in the culture to help her. Yet, there is no one to give Johanna a green light to promote Vincent's work. He was not validated by the Paris Salon, by the art trade or even by other artists. 

She is on her own in finding validation for Vincent’s work and for herself. How many people, to her face and behind her back, criticized her decision to stand behind Vincent’s work? Countless people over the years, no doubt, including those who loved her.  In the end, she will need to find her own reasons. 

Where does legitimacy come from? I agree with Brooke's quote. In the end, not from external validators. Fame, celebrity and brand are not the highest measures of a person’s worth. The only place legitimacy comes from is within. You must grant it to yourself. You must not wait. You must take it. And here’s the good news: With independence comes flexibility and freedom and permission to allow your own individuality and unique vision to pour out of you. 

You are the green light that counts. 

For Johanna and Brooke the followers came, but they had to make the first move. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Changing Blog Frequency: I've been pondering the purpose of this blog a lot over these past few months. I'm going to keep writing it, but pull back a little from the weekly cadence. I need to start doubling-down on my book's first draft.  Craft needs to be my focus and I'm finding that the blog competes with the book. So, the project manager inside me is rising up and re-figuring out new rules for prioritizing how I'm spending my time. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Since I'm writing a book about a strong female protagonist, I thought I'd take a tip from friend Candy and start sharing some referrals of similar books. One of my favorites, The Lake House, by Kate Morton is a multi-layered mystery with several female protagonists -- elegant Eleanor, novelist Alice and a tenacious detective Sadie -- that circle around the disappearance of a little boy. The book flips back and forward through time dropping hints and sending the reader down mis-turns until finally unraveling the answer. I am in awe of how Morton spun this rich story together. 

All’s quiet on the wedding front. I’ve been looking up NYC museums to scout out the Van Goghs there (Guggenheim has Starry Night!). My friend, Joyce, and I are headed to the Big Apple next week for Three Days in NYC planned around theater, museums and foodie grazing - already I know three days won’t be enough.

A quick epilogue: What happened to the Paris Salon? It became unwieldy. It couldn't handle the demand. What had started out as a manageable number of submissions, 375 in 1800, grew to 4,000 by mid-century. By the end of the century, when Van Gogh was in Paris, the number had accelerated. The Paris Salon showed more than 7,000 works in 1879. The works hung from floor to ceiling, no white space around the paintings as we are used to in museums today. So, in an effort not to be lost in the clutter, artists began to submit larger and larger works in hopes of standing out.  Increasing visibility and fitting-in becoming the goals over individual inspiration and the Salon ultimately imploded.

Back to Brooke for a last word...

Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to say yes to your dreams.

What do you need to green light? 

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Unlocking a new season

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Unlocking a new season

Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.
-Kurt Vonnegut

Ha!  

I couldn't resist.

Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse FiveThe Sirens of Titan and 14 other books plus articles and stories, is renowned for developing wacky creative worlds. I found this quote while researching him after I heard he'd written that we should have six seasons, not four. (You know, I think it explains a lot, especially this year, weather-wise.) Vonnegut wrote:

"One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn't feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on. Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. That is when nature shuts everything down. November and December aren't winter. They're Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold! What comes next? Not spring. "Unlocking" comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They are Unlocking."  (From "Funnier on Paper Than Most People," collected in Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage.)

Makes sense, right? As my friend Chris said recently, "This spring has been so loooooooong." Wild vacillations between tantalizing warm temperatures and then bone-chilling, snowy-damp wet. It's been cruel and now it makes sense. We haven't been in Spring yet, we're in Unlocking!

So, similarly, has been this book writing. I feel like the seeds of ideas are buried under layers of sediment and it's only with a lot of digging that true passages are beginning to unlock. For instance, I have a scene where Jo will grieve for Theo, her husband. I wrote it -- done. And then in re-reading it, I realized I'd barely skipped across the surface of the emotion. Right around then I was on the treadmill when I came across a podcast episode by author and creative entrepreneur Joanna Penn called, "Writing about Death, Dying and Grief with Dr. Karen Wyatt,"  Dr. Wyatt is a hospice physician and bestselling author about end-of-life issues. 

In the interview on writing, Dr. Wyatt states how death is the most common experience of every human on earth. So, as an author I could consider how every one of my characters may have thoughts or feelings about death. I realized it was worth incorporating into the backstories of each of my characters -- especially the ones with relationships to Theo -- on what I imagined that character's experience with death to have been. As Dr. Wyatt asks, "What are they grieving? How are they accepting and coping with death and how does it affect their behavior?"

The podcast also referred to what Buddhists call the little deaths of life, such as a relationship breakup, a betrayal or even having a loved pet die.  Each of these losses can create experiences of grief when something you loved is now gone.  

This interview got me thinking and later that day I found myself in a chair with my journal, writing down thoughts on how I'd experienced grief and loss - when my dad died, when I was betrayed at work, when my kids left for college. What it's like to feel alone and how grieving can include guilt and anger and depression and self-pity and denial -- all deep, searching stages of trying to unlock and reveal what we need to realize in order to move forward and find acceptance in some way.

So, what had started out as a fairly easy passage in my chapter is now a bit richer and, frankly, will take a lot more work. This book is not autobiographical; but the journaling is helpful in describing Jo's experience and her journey. She needs to move forward; after all, she has paintings to save!

"Unlocking" for Vonnegut meant when nature revs everything back up. To unbolt, unclasp, unlatch, unfasten and to open up to new growth and possibilities -- I love these ideas. 

Are you ready to unlock into a new season?

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Still steadily working through this course and am heading into Week 8 (of 10) when I'll write the "Ah ha!" moment of the book. This follows on the heels of the opening chapter I just wrote, so you can see the Story Genius process is like setting up bookends -- the beginning and the end -- only then is the middle written. 

"FLOW - Where Writing Moves" creative community: On Saturday I checked out an Open Writing Studio Day sponsored by FLOW. It took place in this great collaborative creative space downtown. Before settling in with my earbuds to listen to the white noise of waves crashing on a beach, I stepped into a kitchenette to grab coffee and there met some other writers -- historical romance, memoir, poetry, historical fantasy and nonfiction were all simmering across Macbooks that morning. No wonder I churned out a bunch of pages. The creative vibe was cooking!

In between working on pages of my opening chapter, Juan and I drove to Kansas City for a quick overnight and visit to The Abbott, a new KC downtown event space, where Cristina and Jay will hold their wedding next year. Glorious gigantic chandeliers, plenty of band and dance space, a terrace for cigar smokers and a bar that stretches across a long wall...we sipped and sampled and envisioned a magical evening next March. 

Now, a final word from Vonnegut.

I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can't see from the center. 

Happy unlocking,

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