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!

Signature
 

Inside

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.
-
Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the surface it was a good week: 

  • 19 pages submitted, 5,723 words written — 158% of my weekly goal. Awesome, right?
  • Wednesday is my weekly submission deadline -- I’ve already received great feedback from my book coach. On the right track, right? 

Something felt off. 

Has that ever happened to you — on the outside humming along, but on the inside you’re unsettled? Like a buzzing invisible insect close to your ear, the mental insistence feels hard to pin down. It's not clear: Does the mental irritation mean you've missed something important, or is the needling the emergence of a new question?

Last week I ignored these unsettled feelings in order to just write. I had a 12-hour goal I had to meet so I wrote a series of events that take my protagonist, Jo, from Amsterdam to Paris. The journey is important, eventually she needs to meet Vincent van Gogh there. I researched how she would have traveled and found in the late 19th century, today's comfortable 3-hour train ride would have been a much longer, exhausting day: Amsterdam to Rotterdam by train, then to Antwerp by boat, and from there another train into the Gard du Nord station in Paris. 

And just as travel today often means crossing through airports and their chaotic cross-section of people, train stations in the late 19th century were epicenters of bedlam. Here’s a sentence I wrote trying to capture what Jo saw in the Amsterdam station: Everyone seems to be in constant motion as though a great sea had rolled them all in and they were stumbling and turning and spinning where the tide dropped them. 

All fine and good, right? I spent a bunch of time describing this and the rest of her journey. Still felt a little off. 

Last week, too, important characters in Jo's life showed up in the scenes I wrote -  in particular her favorite brother Andries (nickname "Dries") and his friend, Theo van Gogh (who eventually becomes Jo's husband). Hopefully, the scenes are spirited and surprising, and dialogue, too, is coming along. (My favorite 19th century expression is What the deuce!)

All fine and good, right?

But the writing still didn't seem right. Too shallow. So I turned to my journal and paged through previous entries, the musings I make in the morning to rev up my writing. Funny, I noticed that I'd been writing similar questions to myself, over and over:

  • What is Jo's limiting belief?
  • Why does she long for something more than the typical Victorian Age woman?
  • What happened so that she thinks outside these norms?
  • Why would she be feisty? And later, courageous?
  • What is her mis-belief - the thing she believes that's unknowingly holding her back and that she will have to overcome...and this is the why she makes the decision to promote her brother-in-law's work...thereby, giving the world this incredible gift?

This last question relates to why I like some of my favorite books. They are stories based on the protagonist suffering from a mis-belief. In The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), Lily believes she killed her mother. In News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Captain Kidd believes he's meant to be a loner. 

Even though I'm just four chapters in, I realized I need answers to these questions now because I'm putting words in Jo's mouth and having her encounter people that will help and hinder her. All of this needs to be aligned to the actions that ultimately lead up to her role in history. Since saving Van Gogh's paintings will be an outcome of her life - what change in Jo's  thinking precedes this action?

I asked this question on Thursday afternoon on a call with my book coach, Sheila. In my thrashing around with these questions I'd come up with two possible solutions: Should I be focusing on a different genre? (maybe literary fiction -- though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant). Or, should I create a deep character sketch of Johanna?

Sheila had a different answer.

"Read a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron," she said. "It tackles how to think through these questions. Or, better yet, it turns out there’s a deep-dive class based on this book. Guess what: It starts Monday."

"Guess what," I responded. "I already have the book," turned and pulled the red-covered paperback off my "writer craft" bookshelf, an arm's reach away. 

So, perfect timing. Four chapters in have brought these issues to light. I feel like I'm asking new questions that wouldn't have made as much sense until now. Like a real person, Jo keeps nudging me and asking, why did I do that? 

Ok, ok, I need to get the why right. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Words/Week:  I'll suspend the Manuscript Accelerator program while I take the Story Genius class. My goal shifts to 10 pages/week, though not all of it will be actual scenes as I'll be completing assignments too. In 10 weeks, I'll restart MA in order to complete a first draft of the manuscript this year -- still a stretch goal. 

Determine a book genre: Upmarket fiction? Literary fiction? Commercial fiction? This decision needs to come soon. If you're curious on what makes them different here's a good infographic developed by a literary agent.

Watching movies as research: One way I'm mixing up my research is to watch 19th century period movies for their settings, dress and mannerisms. So far I've seen Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh, and Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as a young woman in Paris. I welcome any recommendations of movies to watch!

Books I'm reading: I'm still in the thick of Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Four characters are duking it out; each has secrets they are keeping from each other!

Meanwhile, on the wedding front, Cristina, Jay and I checked out a KC wedding venue Tuesday night --  almost perfect! Just not available on the preferred date. Eric and Angie's wedding is about to hit 100 Days Before the Big Event. I decided to order three mother-of-the-groom dresses from Neiman's Last Call website so I can calculate how much weight I'll need to sweat off before June. Lastly, Juan and I are flying to Maui this upcoming Saturday. Freezing temperatures are forecast in St. Louis for that weekend. Darn it, so sad to leave town. 

I'll end with a blessing for Johanna (and you!)  from Mr. Emerson again: 

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. 

Get the why right!

Signature
 

Beautiful

Life is given only once, and one wants to live it boldly, with full conscious and beauty. 
-Anton Chekov

I became a spy Friday night. 

When Juan and I decided to check out a gastropub, Basso, I was not yet so secretive. That evening the light drizzle felt warm, in the 50's, compared to temperatures in the 20's just a week before. The bar is in the basement of a larger urban hotel, but, unexpectedly, its sign is unlighted so we didn't realize we'd passed right by it until Juan's GPS intoned, "You have ARRIVED at your destination." Puzzled, we u-turned and pulled into the full parking lot just as another car was exiting a space. We saw the sign then, and pulled in. Perfect timing. 

Down a circular staircase and into a surprisingly big, dimly-lit space. A wood-burning pizza oven gave the air a wintry feeling. A few sitting areas of overstuffed armchairs broke up the modern metal/wood bar and rows of high-topped tables. Music pumped out a great beat; the cheerful Friday-night vibe of it being the end of a long work week felt contagious.  

Happily, we pulled up barstools.

Then we started yelling. 

Basements are not built with acoustics in mind. So the sounds of loud talk and kitchen clatter and bass beat competed with each other. The noise snuffed out any chances for much more conversation then. "ARE YOU GETTING THE PIZZA?" "NO, THE BURGER!"

So there we were, enjoying the atmosphere and people-watching, when the idea hit:  I'm a spy now. I have permission to be nosy. A thief, a rip-off artist.  I'm in the hunt.

I'm a writer.  

Just this week my book coach, Sheila, had reminded me to show, not tell. Phrases like, "she wonders" or "thinks" or "believes" are to be avoided, she counseled in her feedback. They distance the reader from the story. By contrast, showing what my protagonist Jo is feeling and thinking pulls the reader into the action. For example, when describing when Jo unexpectedly sees her father, I wrote: "Her heart beats wildly. How did he know about this evening? Why is he here?" This is better than "She is startled and nervous when she sees her father." The first is closer to being right inside Jo's head.

To use a familiar phrase - our actions speak louder than words. So, like a squirrel hoarding nuts I tried to watch and store away little gestures from around the bar and what they might mean. Did the girl peeking at her phone under the table mean she was bored with her date, or meeting someone else later, or addicted to a video game? Did the guy stifling a yawn work at a job with long hours, or was he on a blind date, or suffer from sleep apnea? 

As readers we are adept at picking up on cues. We like figuring out the riddle of what's going on before the narrative tells it. A physical description of action can point to what's going on -- even before the protagonist realizes it. It's clunky right now but I'm trying to use description more intentionally, even in this first draft.

Another thing - as I've begun to write in earnest, I've found that writing is kind-of a back-and-forth exercise. Long after a scene is written, I'll think of clues to go back and insert so that the reader has bread crumbs to recall as the story unfolds. Nuance and new ideas keep popping up after I've shut the Macbook down for the day. 

This spying is a new skill for me to practice. I'm usually non-observant most of the time. For instance, Juan can always spot a toupee on a man faster than me. "Wig!" he'll pronounce authoritatively, then absentmindedly slide his hand over his fashionably shaved head.

Now, what does that gesture mean?

Can you tell I am loving being a writer?

How I'm Writing the Book 
Weekly Words: My weekly deadline through the Manuscript Accelerator program is set for Wednesdays by midnight. So, last week for Week One I turned in 15 pages (4630 words), which took me nearly 12 hours. (I'm trying to write 12 pages or 3600 words/week). I need to get ahead, as well as write a little faster, because of upcoming wedding stuff. Stretch goal this week is 18 pages. All geared to complete the manuscript (90,000 words) by August 1. 

Books I'm Reading:   I've just finished Paulette Jiles', News of the World. So beautifully written. I am in awe of how captivating the author created the characters and story. Based on the stories of children captured and adopted by Native Americans on the Texas frontier, the narrative is complex and powerful and brought tears to my eyes. Next up: Teri Case's Tiger Drive. One of her reviewers said, GO BUY SEVERAL BOXES OF KLEENEX.

"Go buy several boxes of Kleenex" - a perfect example of meaningful description! 

In closing, a final word from the masterful observer/author Chekov: 

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Beautiful.

Signature
 

Hey, partner!

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. 
-Duke Ellington

Oh, wow, two days. Only two more days of work! Unbelievable.

I am swinging between anticipation (freedom!) and trepidation (what will retirement be like?)

The workaholic in me is wringing her hands... will I be bored? Waste my time? I know of other retirees that have struggled with finding a new routine and being happy when their jobs ended. 

Will I procrastinate on my self-promises like cleaning out the storage room, tossing all the mate-less socks, or starting a new workout routine? All are waiting in the wings for "as soon as I retire." 

I've started to think fondly about the revolving-door entrance to my company's building: "Just a few more days of entering here." 

Ha!

This past week I had lunch with a friend I met 22 years ago when I began my first job in the company's equity research area. Chris and I bonded quickly. Behind our titles of supervisory analyst (Chris) and editor of the client newsletter (me) we were both moms, about 10 years older than the majority of the either single or childless research analysts. We could laugh at how our younger colleagues would marvel at our calm in the office. "An emergency is not the fax machine breaking, " we'd agree. "A real emergency is taking the kids to the ER!" 

Over the years our career trajectories took us in different directions. Exchanging stories over lunch Chris reminded me about past conversations when she'd pull up a chair in my cubicle, I'd swing my chair around to face her and we'd talk about our passions. Chris loved volleyball. She went on to coach each of her three kids who all continued with the sport in college, especially her daughter who played internationally as a professional. 

Chris reminded me that I used to talk about writing a book. "I did?" "All the time."

What happened? Somehow, over the years, the dream kept getting pushed to the back of the line. The intellectual and emotional pull of work with its unending gauntlet of planning and projects and politics kept up a constant pressure. Family life roller-coastered. I marveled at my sister's career as a teacher with its miraculous summer breaks. There never seemed to be the mental room to push back against others' expectations in order to find the space to imagine something else. 

And I enjoyed my work. It was engrossing and challenging until a few years ago, when, imperceptibly at first, my interest began to ebb. I started to think about experimenting outside of my job. 

It was 11-1/2 months ago when I took a small step. Earlier in the year self-doubt had brought my writing to a skidding halt. But, in December, I remember thinking, "I can't expect anything to change unless I do something different." So I signed up for a 3-month virtual class dedicated to how to be a creative professional -- whether in writing, music or art.  Each day we'd connect via the virtual meeting platform, Slack, on a daily topic and learn from each other -- how people approached their days, removed obstacles and took practical steps. From January to March I was mostly a listener.

In April - I re-upped for another three months and during this period swallowed my doubts and re-started my blog, telling myself I need to do (write) what I say I want to be (a writer). I decided to do a public 100-day Challenge to write for 30 minutes/day and post proof on Instagram. I bought a selfie stick. 

In our Slack group when I shared the story of Johanna van Gogh and how it was her persistence that brought Van Gogh's art to worldwide recognition and how I wanted to find a story "like that" to write, one of the members cheerfully wrote, "Or you could write that one!" 

I could write that one. 

In July I re-upped for another three months of the virtual class, finished the 100-day Challenge (here's the video) and traveled to Amsterdam and Paris, two of the settings for the book. I started reading and researching about the period of time when Vincent van Gogh lived and the significant people that crossed his path. Images and context for the late 19th century period began to play in my mind - the book started to become more real.

Corporate executive by day; writer by night. With each step my identity felt like it was ever-so-gradually shifting. 

In September I held a "Plot Party," a focus group with historical fiction readers to learn more about what draws them to a good story. In late October, I signed up for a writing "sprint" -- could I sustain writing over a longer period than my usual 30 minutes? At the end of the 2-1/2 days, the intense class left me exhausted and clearer than ever on how hard writing a good book will be. 

Yet, the challenging feedback I received for each of my submissions also felt strangely encouraging. It is a new world of intellectual and creative challenge. 

Two things kept me going: 1) small steps and 2) accountability to others. Day-to-day living is a headwind; self-doubt can feel like a gale force. Against such pressure, big moves were impossible. But a small step - that I could take. This led to another step and another.

Then, it was not enough to have the dream and take the steps without letting others know what I was doing. It helped to be accountable to people outside of myself.

So here we are.

Twenty-two years. It's taken 22 years to come full circle.

Time to write this book. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Books I'm Reading:  I've started The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. It's a reference guide on writing techniques for connecting with readers emotionally. In late January I'll attend a writer's workshop with Maass so thought I'd begin to prepare. In addition, I've also started author Peter Wohlleben's book, The Inner Life of Animals. Based on research the book demonstrates that animals think, feel and know much more than we tend to give them credit for.(Finally! A book to unlock the mystery of Natasha, our cat!)

Resources: Dan Blank is the professional coach who offers the 3-month classes via Slack. He has three new programs beginning January 1. The writing sprint I took at the end of October will be repeated in January by Jennie Nash and her team of book coaches. Lovely author Teri Case gave me the cheerful push to adopt Johanna as my protagonist. Check out Teri's book, Tiger Drive, coming out in February. 

That's it for this week. Other than journaling every day for 30 minutes my book has slid into low gear while I'm winding up work and taking care of holiday stuff. 

Let me end with Duke Ellington again:

A goal is a dream with a finish line.

Thank you, Jamie -- accountability partner! --  I'm standing by to be one for you.

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