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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Be Less Likely to Accept Things the Way They Are

I felt elevated. I felt like I had more value.  I had more agency than I felt like I had before,
and with that feeling you are less likely to accept things the way they are. 
-Barbara Downey Landau

The Vanity Fair article, ""It Was Us Against Those Guys': The Women Who Transformed Rolling Stone in the Mid-70's" grabbed my attention. I jotted down the quote from it. The article is a conversation with five women behind the scenes at Rolling Stone that ultimately made their way to its masthead while shaping it into the pop-culture magnet we know today.  

I've been looking for stories like this one to help put into words how my protagonist, Johanna, might feel in trying to enter the 19th century man's world of art trading so she can promote her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh's artwork. She isn't welcome; she isn't liked. She is learning as she goes. 

Kinda like I feel writing a novel right now.. learning as I go!

In addition to the reading, I am keeping my head down writing. I'm 15 weeks or so into the Manuscript Accelerator program, in which I've been submitting pages every week to my book coach. Although the learning curve has been steep, I have a few takeaways of what I've learned so far:

  • Sh***y first drafts are a part of the process. Instead of avoiding them I've learned that the path to perfection starts with just getting words down. My first drafts are definitely sh***y, but the process leads to ideas under the surface, behind the initial thoughts. If there's time, I can then edit a second draft. I'm finding the critical thing is to just go ahead and spew. For instance, yesterday this was a completely different blog to you!

  • Ask for help and keep looking when you don't get it. In my high school drama class I still remember performing a scene followed by stony silence. Out of the darkness at the back of the theater, Mrs. K., the drama teacher, called out, "Why didn't you ask for help?" I didn't know, I don't know why I hesitate now. Because it's hard. Because you don't know who to ask. So, for example, I need help on beginning to build an author platform right now. I contacted a PR agency. Way too expensive! Now I'm trying out an intern. I'll let you know how it goes.

  • Ask Jo when I don't know. A few chapters back I got some tough love from my book coach. The chapter I'd submitted was too forced and she thought I should do it over. I tried a second version, a third. Still forced. Then I remembered an idea from a writer seminar, "When you're not sure about a scene, ask your protagonist." So, I got quiet, turned to the picture of Johanna I have in my office and asked her, "What do you want to do?" Do you know... an entirely new idea appeared! I had to scrap three-fourths of the chapter, but the new one came together beautifully. I suppose what really happened is as  I let go of the intellectual, plot-driven reasons for the scene, Jo's internal motivation revealed itself. It's the internal that drives the external, right? In life, not just books. 
  • Self-doubt is never far away. I have no remedy yet, because I'm afraid it's true. I may not be any good at this. So, when self-doubt comes knocking, I look at it, mentally set it down on the desk beside me, and write anyway. I know that if I stop writing this book, I will look back and truly regret not trying. The idea of living with that personal disappointment in myself is worse than any threat self-doubt can drum up.

How I'm Writing the Book
Found a Mean Antagonist. The plot didn't start out this way, but a creepy guy crept into my pages and has emerged as an enemy for my heroine to confront. For "inspiration" I read The Sociopath Next Door. Its subtitle is "1 in every 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty." Perfect description of Jo's nemesis!
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. The first line of Everything I Never Told You fascinated me. The novel by Celeste Ng starts out by giving the entire plot away: "Lydia is dead." How can an author construct a story when the reader already knows how the story ends? I found out. Ng brings the reader inside each character's mind -- how he and she views the world, their childhood, their losses and desires -- so that when the characters miss connections, we have the empathy and ache of understanding the disconnect, and longing to see it corrected.  In the end, Ng weaves the story threads together in a seamless, beautiful, satisfying way.

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

On a personal note, September is the month we drive to KC for a "tasting" of the food Cristina and Jay are thinking of for their March wedding. Juan and I are always up for a free meal!

Let me end with a quote from the Vanity Fair article. It captures my hope for my protagonist, Jo:

I was scared a lot in the early days, but once I stopped being so scared, I was happy.
-Marianne Partridge

Change is worth it.

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