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? 



Only a small crack...but cracks make caves collapse. 
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Love someone of a different faith - crack!

Love someone from a different social class - crack!

The story is as familiar as Romeo and Juliet. The young couple grew up well-taught. They understood the existing social order. Flaunting and testing it was all about being young and reckless and adventurous. Until their flirtation turned to love. And love became dangerous. Then their love was forced to take a gamble.

The protagonist for my book, Johanna, took some gambles. I have started my research on the last half of the 19th century in order to be truthful to those times in my book. The lens we look through to find our “normal” for any time is shaped by so many things. I’ve started to read about the recent history, inventions and social order that defined people's lives in this period. I know that in real life Johanna made decisions against what was expected of her.

I know she was compelled by love.

To write a good historical novel I need to understand the 19th century wall of social convention and expectations that attempted to block her way. 

Meanwhile, this investigation into “cracking” convention brought a little story to mind. It’s part family history, part family lore and it’s about taking a chance. 

“You have the wrong house!”

The woman’s words stung. She stood in the doorway in a wide stance, wiped her hands on her flower-patterned apron and then put them on her hips. The man leaned a little to try to look behind her and she shifted her body blocking his view. He stood below her on the sidewalk. She used the porch’s vantage point to look down at him pointedly. 

Yet, he couldn’t be wrong. He’d memorized the address. Repeated it over and over to himself.

“Is this 1334 Outlook Drive East?” Mac asked. He’d taken his hat off and unconsciously spun it in his hands. 

“Yes, but you could not have met my daughter at a dance. Southern Baptists are not allowed to go to dances.”


The woman held his gaze intently with one eyebrow cocked as a question. Relief washed through him. “No, m’am.” He turned to go and saw her relax in the doorway. "Thank you m’am,” he said and glancing upward thought he saw the motion of a curtain. He did have the right house!

“I apologize for my mistake,” he called back, put his hat cheerfully back onto his head and began retracing his steps. He smiled, shaking his head slightly. The dark-haired beauty he’d danced with on Saturday evening had captivated him. No wonder she’d said not to come by her house, even as he wheedled the address from her. 

The volume of the music and the flash of colorful dresses played in his memory as though he still stood in the dimmed lights of the well-worn dance hall and not outside on a hot Indianapolis sidewalk. On summer Saturday nights the old building transformed from a tired brick facade into a magical magnet of gaiety and sweat and the stickiness of sugary pop. Against the monotony of working on the line assembling Lincolns Mac's imagination would play back the laughter and flirting and drinking and dancing from the weekend before. 

Usually, the girls were fun but fleeting - he rarely asked for a name, just a dance — and would work his way around the dance floor until midnight shut down the fun. Some weekends he was drawn to the hall simply to be in the same room as the laughter. It was enough to feel young and alive after serving in the battlefields of the War to End All Wars in France. 

But, for the first time last weekend, he’d spent the entire evening with just one girl, Dee.

No wonder her eyes had bewitched him. Her adrenalin from doing something forbidden added twirls to her steps, and a lightness to her laughter. He had been swept up in the giddiness of her daring. He had to see her again.

So he hatched a plan.

Faithfully, for the next several weeks every Saturday he waited at the dance hall. Each time the door opened he’d look — the turn of her head vivid in his mind — only to be disappointed. For eight weeks he waited but no Dee came. For eight weeks, girls cajoled him and his buddies nudged him but he didn’t dance. He waited and watched the door in vain. 

No matter. He was working on a plan.

Now, two months later, August’s muggy weight has been replaced by an October crispness. That morning, the right weekend had arrived. Mac had held his own gaze in the bathroom mirror before carefully combing his hair. “Time to go,” he’d said softly

Now he stood on the same sidewalk outside the same porch in the cool sun of an October Saturday. The same mother looked down on him inquiringly.

“M’am, is Dee home?” he said, smoothing his mustache. She peered at him and paused. He heard his heart beating wildly in his ears and hoped she couldn’t see the flush building at his neck. He twisted a different hat in his hands. He straightened, trying to look respectable, solemn even with this new mustache as a disguise.

“Hmmmm,” Dee’s mother said. Another heartless pause.

“Yes, yes she is,” and stepped aside to let him in. 

Love took a gamble! That was my grandfather, Mac, and grandmother, Dee. Thanks Mom for retelling the story to me!

How I’m Writing the Book (I’ve changed this heading from, “Steps I’m exploring to write a book” to "How I’m Writing the Book.” My goal was to increase the intensity of my commitment but mostly I’ve freaked myself out).

Research: I’m starting with some main categories, like what wars were being fought in the 19th century and the relationships between European countries. I’m painting a pretty broad brush just to try to get a sense for the times. For example, Johanna grew up in Amsterdam when the Netherlands were doing their best to carve out a foothold on the world scene. London was gradually casting a shadow over Paris’ center-of-the-world dominance. Perhaps Johanna was caught up in London’s ascent? I know she studied English (so much it would be equivalent to a college degree today) and worked in London at the British Library for several months.  

Books I’m Reading:  I’m reading the amazing The Lake House by Kate Morton right now. The plot is beautifully intricate with parallel themes across two interwoven times. I am blown away. Morton is masterful at leading you to one conclusion only to have a character reveal a new truth that takes reason down another path. I am imagining the author in front of a giant story board tracing each character’s life and then splitting each into pieces so that she can mix and twist their stories.  
Juan and I are on a trip with some wonderful blocks of reading time. Last week we were supposed to travel to Bali for work when a volcano 50 miles from our resort abruptly starting smoking. Imagine! Over the weekend the mountain was evacuated and then after 48 hours of weighing the pros and cons, we were told the trip was cancelled. Then on Friday afternoon I received a call asking if we could leave Sunday to fill-in on a trip to Maui. I called Juan, “Can you go to Maui on Sunday?” “Why not,” he replied.

He’s a gambler too.

Let me leave with another quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a true-life hero of breaking down barriers:

Blow the dust off the clock. Your watches are behind the times. 
Throw open the heavy curtains which are so dear to you - 
you do not even suspect that the day has already dawned outside.


Take a risk!