I made a hole-in-one!

Couldn’t help it. Had to butt right into the top of my own newsletter to announce I made a hole-in-one on the golf course! Skip to the end of this email if you must read the riveting tale right away. If not, let me get into the guts of today’s blog first. It begins with non-golfer Andy Warhol...

Sometimes the little times you don't think are anything while they're happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life.
-
Andy Warhol

When artist Andy Warhol said this I wonder if he was recalling his childhood. When he was a little boy he was so sick with scarlet fever that his mother kept him home from school frequently. She set up a sickroom for him next to the kitchen so that he'd be nearby. This room became his first art studio. Andy and his mother spent hours in constant art-making, cutting up comic books, forming flowers out of tin cans. Many years later Andy credited his fascination for pop culture from these kitchen-art experiments.

I love this image of a mom turning a quarantine into a cocoon of creativity.

How she turned a sad situation on its head.

Instead of mourning her son's loss of a typical childhood, she created moments of exploration and creativity using everyday things at hand from the cupboards in the kitchen.

Neither she nor Andy knew that their play -- all of those little moments easing the boredom of a bedridden child -- would become the impetus for him to become a leader of pop culture, a whole new visual-arts movement. The culmination of those countless moments of discovery and love made the sum bigger than the whole of its parts.

“The little times that don’t mean anything” - Andy said. Sounds like a description of lots of my days. Especially since the focus of writing my book is revision, not creation.

Revising is not glamorous. This is a period of unromantic, day-in/day-out, slogging along. It starts with me opening up a chapter's Word document, then renaming it by doing "save as" to add a "v3" (version 3) to the file name ("v1" is the first version; "v2" is the version with editing comments from Sheila, my book coach).

My first edit: I very authoritatively type Chapter (and the number) in bold, centered, in 16-point font at the top of the page, and then sit back and admire it. Excellent progress.

Then the trudging begins.

Midway through writing the first draft of the book I changed from third-person to first-person — so I’m updating that — and also from past tense to present tense. So those are fairly rote corrections. But I do have little moments of discovering bigger issues. Here are a few examples:

  • I realized there are three “Camille's" in the book - the artist Camille Pissarro; Claude Monet's first wife, Camille; and a third fictitious Camille who is a snooty, high-society ex-pat Dutch woman living in Paris. Since I made up this last Camille, she's the one who must change her name... do you have any suggestions? (Just googled "Dutch female names" There's Sofie, which means wisdom. Rebecca, which means a young woman whose beauty ensnares men...now there's a contender!)

  • Secondly, I've discovered I'm out of control on the seasons. I just read through a scene when my protagonist Jo goes into the countryside outside Paris: "Grasshoppers jump out of my way and the whirring sound of insects rises and falls in the hot air when I step down onto the train platform." (please don't judge that sentence) Just note that this scene take place in February! Winter! When the temperature is in the 30's and 40's and all those insects are dead. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking about Jo. What was in her head and what she was trying to do and how she was scared and at her wit's end but toughing it all out anyway.

Which leads me to my last revision discovery.

  • My writing got better. As the months of writing my story went by, I got better. Each week when Sheila sent me edits, I read them, but didn't go back to make the corrections. I was scared that if I didn't keep writing forward I would stall out and stop. Besides, I had to turn in new pages every week. So, I saved the documents ("v2") of Sheila's versions knowing I would be making her corrections in the future when revising. Reading them now I see I must have absorbed her coaching instructions because I know I didn't make as many of those early mistakes later on. Here's one of her instructions:

"Always be suspicious of adverbs. Sometimes they are needed, but usually not. If you have a strong verb, you usually don’t need the adverb. In this case, 'race' is strong. It tells us things are moving quickly. Therefore, you don’t need ‘abruptly.’"

As you can clearly see, my writing deeply absorbed her lesson so that my verbs are pungently, eagerly, fragrantly accurate and don’t need superfluously decorative adverbs.

Ha!

What are your “little things”? What are the moments that come to memory that define a period of your life? As Andy says, “The little times that don’t mean anything at the time they’re happening?”

I just had a bunch of those little moments at my nephew Doug’s wedding in Lexington two weeks ago. I had dozens of little conversations — with my Brother who bought a new company, with Sisters I hadn’t met before (my Brother-in-Law’s siblings), with my Navy Nephew contemplating life outside of a submarine, with the Bride Mandy’s lovely mob of delighted family and friends — lots of details and updates and trivia were shared that over time will likely fade from relevance. So what remains? A residue of connection, tendrils of common ground, to be picked up again next time we meet.

The little times — making up a whole period of life — are everything.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

How I'm Writing the Book

Incorporating Art History Research into the Manuscript. I pulled together 12 pages of art-history questions into a Word doc, attached them to an email to my PhD friend Sara, held my breath and hit Send. Would she freak out by the quantity? A week later we met at a coffee shop, and I thought it was to review my questions. Instead, she'd answered them! Neatly typed with links to references, of course. Now I have to incorporate her insights into my story. I'm thinking of pulling out the 3-inch binder that holds a hard-copy of my manuscript and write the art-history notes into the margins. It's old-school, but in the long run, I believe faster than trying to incorporate the ideas straight from a keyboard. Some of her insights rattle the plot, but don’t derail it. Need to think it through a bit.

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. My neighborhood bookclub just read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows). The book’s title hints at its charming style. You guess it will be a playful; you find out it's inventive. The story is told through a series of letters, which makes it all the more impressive how the authors paint background and context and character cleverly all through the voices of the letters. The story takes place just after WWII in which a London writer, Juliet, begins a correspondence with members of the society, people who lived through the German occupation of their Channel island. Eccentric and kind, the characters radiate wit even as they depict the hardship and sadness they lived through. This is one of those small classics. Wonderful book, especially if you’re looking for witty summer reading.

Personal: THE STORY OF THE HOLE-IN-ONE
It was partly-sunny and in the low 90s when Husband and I decided to take advantage of a low-humidity day and tuck 18 holes into the afternoon. I am still so new at the game I don’t have a handicap so have been trying to get playing time in to gather enough scores (you need to play ten 18-hole games to get a handicap calculated).

That afternoon we were both concentrating on each stroke, trying to make every shot count, when we came to Hole 5 — a simple par 3 — but ominously set on a little peninsula, its three sides surrounded by water. For me, its about 105 yards to the flag, so I chose my 7 hybrid club, ran through my mental checklist (club-head aim, grip, weight to the left foot, body still), I swung back and let the club glide - thwack! — that sweet sound of centered connection! The ball sailed over the water and bounced near the flag. “Good shot!” said Hubby. We jumped in the cart and buzzed over. But after we grabbed our putters and were walking up onto the green, Hubby’s ball was there, but not mine. Oh no! I hit it too hard and it rolled into the water! I ran over to the green’s edge to peer into the watery muck, looking for the ball’s white shadow. “Hey, Joan,” behind me came Hubby’s voice. “You’re not going to believe this...” I turned and he was standing over the hole, grinning and pointing down, “You made a hole-in-one!” Couldn’t believe it! Dashed over to the hole and sure enough, there sat the ball, coyly cradled inside the pin. Woot! Woot!

We high-fived a few times then continued playing and were set to celebrate at the clubhouse when we were done except the temperature plummeted 20 degrees on the 17th hole, and a thunderstorm broke out over the course sending us all scurrying.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll be celebrating for awhile!

Now would be the time for me to make the analogy of practicing golf swings and concentrating on each stroke as similar to the “little things” this blog is about. I’m not going to. That game is not a whole period of life. Just an awesome afternoon!

Better is the parting advice of Andy Warhol who says,

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Little by little,

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Kick in the a**...pants!

Some crazy stuff has been happening, 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Ha! 

I couldn't resist this quote. That's me right now. 

Here's the trouble I created: I knew while I was writing my book that I was forging forward with only quick dips into researched facts. Writing it felt like my pen was a battering ram. So I was scared to relax the drive of getting the story on the page by looking up too much stuff. Now I'm thick in the muck of digging to find answers to research questions I pulled out of the first draft once the story was finished. 

It's not the most fun I've ever had. 

For example, by trying to get unknown Vincent van Gogh's art noticed, my protagonist Johanna runs up against the Official Art Establishment. First up, she's a woman who has no business in the business of art dealing. Secondly, she's in Paris, the glittering 19th-century center of all-things-art, so that Parisian authority figures have a heightened self-righteous huffiness about what "true" art is, and a self-proclaimed haughty duty to keep Art's sanctity from being tainted by new artists. 

Imagine their disdain of Jo. 

Like bestowing a Good Housekeeping stamp-of-approval, one way Authorities kept artists in line was to control entry into the Paris Salon art exhibition, a major biennial event giving artists exposure to patrons and reviews in the local press. Critical for artists trying to make a living.  

So, I've written how Jo runs up against all that.  

Except that my book opens in 1891. And in my research I found out the last Paris Salon was in the fall of 1890! 

Arghhh! 

See what I mean?! And I have no one to blame but me. 

This is what revision is for, I guess. Because, of course, all those bureaucratic, protect-my-turf characters are still roaming the streets of Paris. It's not as though suspending the Salon got rid of them. I just need to rejigger some of Jo's opposition. The core of the ages-old conflict is still there: The old way versus the new way. 

When she leans into the new way, other avenues and solutions reveal themselves. Which, interestingly, crazily, is what's happened with this research.  

The "old way" has me hunched in front of the computer screen. When I met with a local research librarian a few months ago, she turned me on to HathiTrust digital library and Google Books and an archive site for newspapers. I've been doggedly searching for answers to my spreadsheet of questions, trying not to go down too many rabbit holes, getting a little bleary-eyed, when a couple of cool things happened: Two people showed up. 

  • Sara - an art history professor who has a deep specialty of the artists and period of my book. I'd been unsuccessfully contacting local universities to find an art-history graduate student to help me when through a friend-of-a-friend I was able to track down Sara. We met a week ago; she is thrilled to help me!

  • Kathy - a friend in my neighborhood who pulled me aside at a happy hour to say, hey, she enjoys fact-finding, and can she help? Yay!

After such a long solo journey writing the book it's a nice little nudge to know there's collaboration in my future. 

The universe works that way sometimes, doesn't it? As the old saying goes, just as one door closes -- keep a look out -- another is opening. And when that solution involves another person, well, the potential for fun exponentially explodes.

Have you ever had an experience when the right person showed up in your life at just the right time?  Tell me about it. 

I'm grateful they do.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

How I'm Writing the Book
Did a "Jumpstart Your Art" Workshop:  I got the chance to conduct a workshop on how to get started with pursuing art at my former employer. Eighteen brave souls -- people daring to take the first step of leaning into their artistic curiosity--  came together. Using lessons learned from the last 17 months in writing my book, we charged through tactics and ideas and how to overcome the worst critic -- ourselves -- as an hour flew by. Yay, to these folks for exploring next steps for their art!

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Author Marie Benedict has been churning out novels based on real people.  Her latest is The Only Woman in the Room, a behind-the-movie-star story of Hedy Lamarr. This absorbing novel centers on the complex life of Austrian-born Hedy Keisler – wife of a high-level Nazi sympathizer, anxious Jewish daughter, Hollywood superstar, scientific inventor. Benedict captures a voice for Lamarr that’s distinct, desperate, intelligent. Told against the backdrop of WWII’s mounting tension, the book shows Lamarr caught between Hollywood’s indifferent glamour and her nagging need to take action. Her scientific mind saw the opportunity to solve a persistent problem with torpedoes. She did it, only to face frustrating opposition. Benedict captures the frustration Lamarr felt of her keen mind being trapped behind her beautiful face.

Personal Stuff
Husband and I are on a quick Washington DC getaway when you read this. On the agenda: Checking out the new International Spy Museum, seeing if we can get a same-day pass to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and saying hello to the Van Gogh's in the National Gallery of Art. Plus, for me, just spending time with my best friend away from laundry and errands and, oh yeah, book research. 

Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his thoughts on moving forward from mistakes:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly...who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...

I dare you!

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Fight your way through...(the first draft is finished!)

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
-Ira Glass

It’s done.

Those are the last words Jo says in the novel.

Coincidentally, the same words I’d hoped to utter weeks and months earlier when I kept charging forward to punch through the finish-line tape of completing my first draft...but the tape kept getting moved. Every time I lunged for that final sprint, a new hurdle would appear out of nowhere. ARRRRGGGHH.

  • I had to write more when Jo (my main character) still had stuff to say — I’d been too stingy letting her speak her mind but withholding what was in her heart.

  • I had to write more when I (satisfyingly) made the bad guy, Georges, GET HIS DUE — yet I hadn’t explained why he was such a mean old bully to begin with.

  • I had to write more when I cockily thought all I had left was a cakewalk-of-an-epilogue to write — then my book coach enthusiastically commented that she couldn’t wait to see how the loose ends come together like how Jo reconciles with her family and why she will end up marrying that guy and how she paid for her son’s tuition….

“Shoot,” I  thought, “No cake walk. Another real chapter to write!”

So when the final words revealed themselves —  “It’s done” — (I kid you not) tears came to my eyes. It felt right that Jo and I should say them together. We have been through this journey side-by-side for 15 months and I have to say I admire her. I slung a lot of mud at her. Somehow she always found a way to wipe her face and keep going.

Twenty six chapters. One hundred eleven thousand four hundred eighty words. 

Writing is an intense, messed up, horrible thing. I would write until my mojo bled out. I know that is a disgusting image but hey writing is a nasty business. It got down to power-writing. I would sit down and write, write, write just getting the words down on the page even when I knew they weren't good, until I was disgusted and had to stop. Then I'd make a bunch of notes on where I had to insert feeling or detail or something-missing-but-I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, and power off. The next day I'd open up the Word doc with fresh thoughts and nimble fingers to fill in and pat down those gaps, then power on. These last few weeks I've felt the end coming and I couldn't help it, I was getting a little bit happy, feeling a tail-wind begin to whip up at my back.  The head-rush came when my book coach wrote back, "Woot!" then I got giddy, Juan popped champagne and the cat danced a jig.

(Oops. Got carried away. Natasha, the cat, is way too dignified for jigging. Only does River Dancing.)

You and I would go to lunch with Jo. She’s cool. She got over all the BS about doubting herself and the bad guy gets it in the end plus she finds a new honey who loves her. She had to stand up in front of all these people and prove she wasn’t crazy. (Now could you do that? Or me? Spoiler alert: She pulls it off.)

When I started the book I felt a little desperate. In my heart I knew it was time for me to say goodbye to my Corporate America career, but…Still. It was a big step to walk away from identity and salary and certainty. I am most certainly not “done” yet, but I know that retirement can carry a stigma of stepping back and taking it easy. I don’t want to be identified that way. 

Whoa. I had NO IDEA I was entering this world of Survival-of the-Fittest, Take-No-Prisoners, Naked-Til-You-Make-It tough world of WRITERS. They can spot hogwash a mile away and aren't afraid to call it out.

So, what's next?

This next week I'm headed to Madison for a writers’ conference put on by the Univ. of WI’s Writer Institute. Dear heavens, I opened up my email on Friday and saw that I have HOMEWORK from one of the master classes I signed up for. Three hours, just six of us. With a heavy heart I realize I will not be able to hide. We have to submit our first 5 pages to be critiqued… which means I need to REWRITE those pages since it was months and months ago when I was a wee young tyke and wrote them. I'm also taking classes on revision and publishing. The conference is Thurs – Sun and it comes at the perfect time since (drumroll….can't say it enough!) my first draft is FINISHED.

My final thought:  We are not meant to do stuff alone. Our lives are about connection. The law of reciprocation means that sometimes our role is to accept, and other times to give. I was not alone. My wonderful book coach each week gave me tough love and encouragement. I have found some awesome writer communities online (WFWA and Author Accelerator's Mighty Network and Reader Connection on Facebook and more). And there's YOU. When friends and family asked, “How’s the book going?” it felt like a vote of confidence, like they believed I could actually do it. And I can’t even get started on my husband’s support. I’m not sure if he popped champagne for me or him.

There’s more to write about this, but I will stop here.  It just feels so good to hit a milestone and I wanted to tell you about it.

By the way, 111,480 words is too many… so I’ll be revising and cutting soon, but, for now: Every.Word.Is.Golden.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

I can’t sign off without sharing this fuller quote from Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio/internet show This American Life.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners...is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.     For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential but it’s not... but your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work...    It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

It’s done? No, it's begun!

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Learn by going where you have to go

First off, the most important thing I have to write is thank you. Thank you for reading this blog. Though I cut back on the frequency mid-year, I think about you and this hardy band of subscribers often. What I know for sure: I would not be writing my book, if not for this support. Thank you. And now...

Happy Christmas Eve!

I learn by going where I have to go. 
-Theodore Roetchke from "The Waking”

If you read this on Monday morning, think  of Juan and me on interstate 70 headed west towards Kansas City, our Christmas destination. Gifts are shipped, cards are sent. A few stocking-stuffer parcels are tucked in the trunk. We’ve left behind our cat, Tasha, who has an automatic round-robin food dispenser set up to rotate and pour out pre-measured kibbles twice a day. (I imagine her cat-crouched before it when we’re out of town…staring it down and daring it to turn.)

In some ways, this scenario is a microcosm of this first year of writing in this first year of retirement. Speeding forward towards the destination of writing a novel, and yet spinning a bit (a lot) in the process. Roethke's quote, "I learn by going where I have to go" is a good description of this year of writing and learning, doubling back and moving forward. .

As the weeks have gone by, again and again, pre-conceived ideas about the story have been forced aside. I've had to strike a balancing act between researching facts about Jo's life while also allowing the story to unfold. The genre I'm writing is fictionalized biography -- based on a real person, yet fictionalizing events -- and in some cases, people.

When I first looked into writing my book, i came across an interview with a biographer who described Johanna van Gogh this way:

"She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo...it was important to marry a wife who was...well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband."

Though the biographer does go on to give Jo her due, the description didn't sit well with me. Through my 21st-century sensibility, the phrase "perfect wife" rankled. It also didn't square with how Jo herself described her marriage. Here's an excerpt from a letter Jo wrote to her sister Mien four months after she'd married Theo:

"He [Theo] is so good and kind and I love him..But in saying this I am pronouncing a eulogy on my husband but not on marriage -- you say 'is it not pleasant to be your own boss?' -- well you are infinitely less when married than when you are unmarried...You have infinitely less freedom -- nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to you anymore, and I can assure you that it has been difficult for me to get used to that, me who was as free as a bird! You gain a great deal of love, but only at the expense of a great number of sacrifices." 

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger (p. 33)

I love that passage. 

These are not the words of a passive "perfect wife." Jo's voice calls out from the page, doesn't it?

So, as I write forward I've been cautiously supplementing my research bit-by-bit with passages such as the one cited. The new information can help. For example, there are times when my writing stalls out and I struggle to find words. I've come to recognize that when that happens I need more "inputs" to get going again -- a bit of research, a podcast, a book, a marketing blog. Notice that the inputs are all over the place: I've found that when a chapter is stuck and I set it aside, the back-burners of my mind still work on the problem, and an idea inevitably connects and solves the issue. My last chapter was like that; I had to rewrite it three times until it finally came together. 

Next time you're stuck on a problem, try increasing the "inputs" and see what happens...

In the case of my last chapter, struggling with it felt like I was spinning, going around and around in the same section -- it certainly didn't feel like progress -- and, as a result, I became increasingly frustrated and scared (What if I can't finish??). In hindsight, though, I can see that the repetition helped. Gradually, the writing became deeper, adding Jo's internal thoughts behind the external action. In the scene Jo is learning news about the plight of some children in a nearby town, which takes her into thoughts about her own son, in turn giving the reader insight into some decisions she's made. Will I revise this scene in the future? Maybe. But for now, it's good enough to move on. 

Again and again, I'm learning that if I'm persistent, keep the inputs coming), allow myself to "go where I have to go" an answer will reveal itself. Suddenly, new connections between ideas emerge. 

But I'm cautious about research, too, because I don't want facts to get too far ahead of the narrative drive of the story. If I start to relay only what happened in her life, and not why it happened and how she's thinking, then I'm afraid that I'll have squandered the chance to write a story worth connecting to. 

Progress = two steps forward, spin. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Resetting Goals for 2019: I had hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year; it didn’t happen (see above!). I’m developing the project plan for 2019 now. In addition to finishing the manuscript, it will include a schedule to read all 902 letters between Vincent and Theo for insight into the brothers' relationship. Juan gave me a complete official six-volume set of letters a year ago for Christmas.  

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: The close-calls-with-death memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O'Farrell, has an intriguing structure. The table of contents is not chronological but instead is listed by endangered body part and year in which she nearly died. Skipping back and forth through her life, O'Farrell stitches together scenes and people and experiences that are both comic and revealing. Once I got over getting scared by her descriptions of near-misses (she does make it, after all!), I couldn't put the book down. 

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

The clock is ticking toward my daughter's March 2 wedding. The groomsmen's suits have been fitted; Cristina's dress is being tailored; the venue, the food, the band are all finalized. However, I do not have a mother-of-the-bride dress. So, when Cristina mentioned the "special occasion dress" website JJ's House, I was ecstatic! Easy shopping. I found four dresses I liked and ordered them, planning to return three, of course. A few days later, in my inbox, a little note from their customer service: Was I sure about my order? All dresses are custom-made and non-returnable. Yikes! Just what I need: four pearl-grey ballgowns. I cancelled the order. I'll circle back after New Year's for possible sales. Meanwhile, kudos to their customer service!

A final word about progress with another quote from poet Roethke:

Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.

Moving forward! I hope you're having a beautiful holiday.

Warmly, 

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