Pushing through resistance to change

It was involuntary. They sank my ship. 
-John F. Kennedy
(when asked how he became a war hero)

The unexpected happens: you react. 

Not because you want to or choose to or are following a premeditated plan, but, instead, like the ship that scuttled JFK’s PT boat, you act in order to survive. Lose a loved one. Lose a job. Lose a home. Lose health. With your back against the wall and nowhere to go sometimes there’s no choice but to act in the face of fear and the unknown. 

This specific, heart-rending spot of getting shoved out of a comfort zone is what I’ve been trying to zero in on this week for my book. The moment of no return when my protagonist Johanna must act because of events completely outside of her control. It could be when her husband, Theo dies, or perhaps when he’s sick. Or perhaps when Vincent van Gogh commits suicide. What I do know is that it must be when an external event is so forceful she has no choice but to act. 

It’s the point where the book will start. 

She will be her own worst obstacle because she will be so resistant to change.

Her resistance is normal. As human beings we are wired for survival. We resist change because a new idea can mean leaving the familiar — even an uncomfortable, horrible familiar — in order to move into the unknown or unexpected. 

So a comfort zone may not be good or healthy but it can be really tough to face the resistance to leave it.  It can create the urge to take the easy way out. The problem is the easy way out can mean delaying inevitable change and even losing the chance to leave behind the old and, instead, break through to something new. 

I have two examples that make this point:

  • Nora Ephron, writer and filmmaker, relates in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, how she was struggling with writing her first movie script when she heard about a hefty inheritance she would be receiving. What a relief - she could stop grappling with her writing and use the unexpected financial gift to pay the bills. Instead, the actual amount turned out to be much smaller so she had to return to the script and finish it. It was When Harry Met Sally. This hugely successful movie  — plus Nora’s succeeding films Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — are romantic comedy classics. Nora is credited with creating the rom-com movie genre with these films.
  • Will Terry, children’s book illustrator, shared in a podcast interview, of a low point in his career when he'd gotten himself into a financial pickle during 2008’s economic downturn by taking on too much debt. At one point, his father offered to ask a wealthy relative for financial help to save Will's house. Will describes how a voice in his head said, “Yes! Yes!” but out of his mouth came, “No.” And, subsequently, he discovered new ways for his illustrations to generate revenue. Today he credits that single decision to determine his own way as the impetus to discovering new creative ventures. He says, “If I had taken that money, I don’t think I would be doing the things I’m doing today. Today my life feels so much better and happier, almost zero stress."

These are success stories, but, If you’ve ever resisted leaving your own comfort zone, then you have an idea of how this struggle feels. In a way, right now, I feel like I’m doing this every week by choosing to write. So many voices in my head tell me I’m an imposter: "Who are you kidding, Joan?” I saw an estimate that 81% of adults feel they have a book in them. In my writing class I found out the majority of people never get beyond writing three chapters. The numbers add up to more people failing, then succeeding, at writing.

But I do feel sure that if I don’t persist, I will be far more miserable in the long run. It would be so much more comfortable to stop, but the regret will carry a higher cost of feeling disappointed that I didn’t try. 
Perhaps this will be how Johanna feels about her struggle too. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 6 is this week with a scary assignment from my writing class to write the opening scene of the book, pinpointing the moment of no return for Johanna.
Books I'm reading:  Still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez about Silicon Valley. I’ve also just started the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, a murder mystery thriller in a small town for my Villa bookclub. 

I’ve been under breathtakingly pure blue Tucson skies this past week at an exercise/spiritual/no-cell-phone spa with a group of girlfriends. It took me a few days of unsnarling mentally to reach a wonderful sense of mental and physical balance. There’s something about the sound of a gentle babbling stream and blooming cactus and mountain vistas that magically melts away tension.

Then on Saturday I travelled to Flagstaff to hug Eric and Angela and take care of fun wedding stuff (67 days away!) as well as meet their goofball greyhoundish dog, Kota. Several times a day he greeted me with startled barking that sounded like, “You’re still here?!!!” Mother-in-laws-to-be get no respect. 

Here’s a final word from JFK:

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.

Time for a change?


Dig in

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
-Nora Ephron

I've been out on the beach and up in the hills of Maui this past week. 

Like the surf I watched rise, break and thunder toward the beach, when I left the hurried work world of meetings and memos and never-enough-time it felt for awhile like my days had pooled into one of those sandy indentations that captures water from a receding wave - suddenly stilled. 

I have been filling the stillness -- fun with breakfasts and lunches with friends, and leaning into writing my book -- but in Maui the calm became really helpful. (If you read my blogpost from a few weeks ago, then you'll know that I've suspended high-octane writing in favor of making sure I have a stronger story foundation.) So, I've been deep-diving into the possible motives behind protagonist Johanna's actions. Her decision to promote Van Gogh's artwork feels so out-of-sync with the expectations that society would have set for her. 

For instance, since my story takes place in the late 19th century, Johanna lives during a time of strict societal rules. Victorians had four rigid social classes: the nobility, middle class, upper working class and lower working class. The nobility was especially obsessed with slotting people into specific, permanent social classes; yet, this also was a time when a rising middle class began to disrupt this social order. Commerce created new ways to get rich, so industrialization drew people away from rural lifestyles. 

These societal cracks mostly helped men. Money opened influential doors that had previously been locked. But even as urbanization provided men new freedom, it narrowed women's spheres, until eventually gender roles became more sharply defined than at any other time in history. As the 19th century progressed and men increasingly commuted to work -- whether to a factory, shop or office -- women were left at home to oversee servants carrying out domestic duties. They became moral guardians. At an earlier time it would have been normal for women and men to work side-by-side whether on a farm or in a shop. The Victorian Age's rapid economic growth changed that partnership. 

I wondered how these societal influences could have shaped Jo. She was born in Holland, some distance from the intensity of London's rigid social-class atmosphere. It's likely she would have been born with the expectation to be highly educated (she was - in music and languages), to obsessively attend teas and balls; to knit and horseback ride; and to learn to run a household by instructing servants in all aspects, from housekeeping to child-rearing. Lots of detailed etiquette rules had to be learned - such as how to eat a piece of fruit (Cut and slice into small bite-size pieces with a knife and fork. Never, ever hold fruit in one's hand!). Her central goal would have been to marry well.

Let's say her husband Theo van Gogh was a good catch. When he died, Jo would have been able to keep his property but there was a lot she couldn't do -- buy or sell it, for example, without her father's permission. However, Theo wasn't wealthy upon his death. For one thing, he'd been financially supporting his artist brother, Vincent, for years and the strain of supporting both the artist and his own family (Jo and their baby also named Vincent) placed a lot of pressure on Theo. 

So, as a young widow, Jo had few choices. The socially acceptable action would have been to move back home with her parents, as they asked her to do. She chose not to despite these liabilities:

  • Inability to afford servants: She'd been trained to oversee the running of a household, which included having servants take care of her infant son. By choosing to go her own way, she would have faced the criticism of placing her son at a disadvantage and not being a good mother. 
  • Inexperience in business:  The only acceptable work for women were professions such as nursing, Men and women were expected to occupy separate spheres and business was definitely a man's world, including art dealers. 
  • Useless knowledge of the classics and language: Jo was smart; she earned the equivalent of a college degree in music and languages; yet, on the surface, it would appear that this education was useless against the practical need to earn a living. 

Each of these liabilities can be assets. The fun thing about this research is that I have to try to suspend my 21st-century judgment in order to try and see the world through a 19th-century lens. Jo made decisions that were out-of-step with her time. The question I'm noodling on is why?

Do you have any ideas?

I'll keep you posted as I dig in.  

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius course: We're into Week 2 of the class. Among the exercises to figuring out the "why" is to dig into what has happened before the novel begins. Johanna has a worldview that's been shaped by her life so far, including what she desires and  fears. These are building blocks to who she is and the decisions she will make. 

Books I'm reading: Long plane rides make for great reading. I finished Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Long after I finished reading it, the characters have stayed with me. Each of the four -- gritty and distinct on the outisde -- had in common an internal longing and desperate hope for a new start. Next, I switched it up with Nora Ephron's book of essays, I Feel Bad about My Neck. Really funny and New Yorky and moving. She writes with such candor I wondered what she would have said about today's #metoo Hollywood stories. Finally, I'm getting close to finishing The Whispering Season by Ivan Doig - a captivating story about a widower and three boys in 1910 in homesteading Montana whose lives are upended by a sister-brother duo. Wonderful.

On another front of wonderful - Cristina & Jay have moved their wedding from October 2018 to March 2019 and, as a result, found the perfect Kansas City venue. I have a DRESS for Eric & Angie's June wedding (Next up: shoes - must be able to wear for hours, walk on grass and have heels not too-totteringly high. I'm on it!)  

Let me end this blog with another note from Nora Ephron. The quote comes from a commencement address she gave at Wellesley College in 1996. When I read it, it seemed like the wish I have for Johanna. 

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady.
I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. 

On it!