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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How to begin to innovate

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How to begin to innovate

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.  
-Thomas Edison

There is something untidy about a new idea. 

Like a splinter just below the skin's surface, it can persistently irritate and whisper: There must be a better way. 

I was thinking about innovation and my protagonist, Johanna, when the May 2018 issue of Fast Company arrived in the mail. On the cover it announced 2018 winners of world-changing ideas. A couple of examples: 

  • Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) -  small freestanding dwellings on the same grounds as a regular home are an affordable solution to housing shortages. 

  • Patreon - a membership platform enabling creatives (artists, musicians, etc.) to find "patrons," or fans, that make regular financial contributions to fund the artist in exchange for exclusive content.

Two-hundred forty finalists were culled from 1,400 submissions across 12 categories from consumer products to urban design to energy to transportation and more for this competition. Though the article doesn't go in depth into how and why each innovation came about, the ideas break through entrenched assumptions about the way things need to be. For example, the ADU smashes the assumption that a house needs to be on its own plot of land. Patreon shatters the premise that an artist's income is dependent on single buyers. 

So, it's easy, right? Innovate by simply challenging assumptions. The problem is, introducing new ideas can be tough when those assumptions, or the status quo, are backed up by entrenched interests and an organizational structure that profits from it. 

This is the challenge Johanna will face in my book. She will need to think innovatively, against an entrenched status quo. 

During the 19th century, Paris served as a European mecca for artists. The French capital was the largest metropolis in Europe; artists flocked to the art scene established by its famous Ecole dex Beux-Arts, the must-attend academy for all up-and-coming artists. The academy emphasized teaching techniques used by the Old Masters.

The Ecole had an administrative arm, the Academie des Beux-Arts, which held an annual exhibition called the Salon, the most important place for artists to present their work. Showing at the Salon was the only way an artist could make a career: they were eligible to win prizes, to secure government commissions and to qualify as a lecturer at the Ecole dex Beux-Arts or to be a civil servant at the cultural ministry of the Ecole. 

A jury selected the artists for the Salon. Acceptance of an artist meant that their artwork would be hung in plain view. If their work won a prize, it drew the attention of the press where critics wrote in detail about each winning artist in magazine and newspaper articles. Tens of thousands of people attended the public art showing each year giving exhibiting artists wonderful exposure to the public and buyers.

Clearly, competition among artists to get into the Salon was fierce, so winning artists strove to fit into the criteria the jurists were looking for. 

How can Johanna possibly promote her brother-in-law Vincent's work when it didn't fit into the "establishment"? 

Though Vincent's work was not like the mainstream Impressionists, they had been trying. Theo, Vincent's brother, was a partner in an art dealership and tried for years to solicit buyers from his connections, but was ultimately unsuccessful.  And, on his own, Vincent tried to sell his work by getting permission from local cafe owners to hang his paintings on their walls. Only one person bought a painting -- a fellow artist. 

So, by the time it's up to Johanna to decide what to do with Vincent's art -- after both Theo and Vincent are dead and she has inherited all of Vincent's paintings and drawings -- all the usual sales channels have been tried. The assumptions she will need to break through -- the only way to sell is through a Salon connection, women don't belong in business, Vincent was not a legitimate artist but a mentally unbalanced man, Jo is a bad mother for not returning to her parents as a widow, and on and on -- are lining up as I'm thinking through a number of scenes. She is confused; she is a mess. She does not have clear answers yet, but I do know one thing she will have. 

A persistent feeling, an irritation, a discontent, an impatience not to give in to conventional thought. 

The beginning of innovation!

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 7 (of the 10-week class) and we'll still be on the opening scene. I am being challenged to go even deeper in thinking through the action of the scene and its consequences, and, under the surface, why the scene's action matters to Jo and what she is realizing as a result.

Books I'm reading: I finished the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, on my iPad. Whoa! A serial killer emerged and Slaughter masterfully had me second-guessing whether each guy in the story was the secret murderer. Next up is a (gulp) 500-page Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, for my W4 bookclub. Finally, still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I decided to set it aside for awhile since the investment book club meeting has been pushed into May. 

Meanwhile, on the wedding front this upcoming week Juan and I will drive to Kansas City to check out the downtown venue Cristina and Jay have chosen for their ceremony and reception (Cristina calls it "industrial elegant"...hmmm). I asked Cristina if there will be enough room on the dance floor for my interpretive dance and she said, ".....maybe."  

On another topic, this past week Juan and I attended a fundraiser for our friend Tiffanie's non-profit, Fighting H.A.R.D - Fighting Against Hit and Run Drivers. Tiffanie's sister, Jameca, was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Since then, Tiffanie has established her organization to raise awareness, educate and provide resources to families of victims. Please click on the link behind H.A.R.D. for more information. 

On my last note - it was easy to think of Thomas Edison as the individual to quote in this week's blog on innovation. His inventions are ideas that broke the mold in their time -- the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera, and electric power distribution to name a few. He liked to say, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." But the quote I'll close with is even simpler:

There's a way to do it better - find it.

Challenge an assumption!

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