Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June Reads: Short, but not Sweet

Here I am halfway through the year, and I've already nearly met my yearly reading challenge. I always plan to read 52 books: one per week. Generally, I read a bit more. This year I'm already at 41 books. 

I read nine books this month, though to be fair, they were mostly quite short. I found my attention scattered, what with end of school year burnout and a suddenly very crowded social calendar with family obligations and writer-life opportunities now that vaccination has re-opened some possibilities. I was out of pocket for 11 of June's 30 days which is quite a lot, especially after my homebody habits of pandemic life. 

I started with Colson Whitehead's Nickel Boys, a choice by my neighborhood book club. I had previously read his Underground Railroad, and liked it overall, but was a bit put off by the intermixing of fact and fantasy. This story was much more succinct and tight and I think that's part of what kept me engaged a bit more. Now that I've had a little time to think it over, I think I prefer Nickel Boys which stuck closer to actual historical events and realistically likely events. But it was a heartbreaker. 

So after having my heart broken, I picked up Un-Girls by Lauren Beukes. At some point Audible had offered me this book and others in the Disorder series for free or at low cost (I don't remember), and since I already admired Beukes's Broken Monsters, I accepted the offer. I found both these works horrifying and creative, taking angles I'd not seen before. Her body horror is shudder inducing. 

Having peeked into the series, I became curious about the other five books in the Disorder series and quickly read the rest of them: the twisty and ever-changing The Beckoning Fair One by Dan Chaon, the fascinating but inconclusive Loam by Scott Heim, an Edgar Allen Poe retelling in Will Williams by Namwali Serpell, the all too realistic Anonymous by Uzodinma Iweala, and the deeply sad Best Girls by Min Jin Lee with its echoes of Thomas Hardy. I recommend the entire series. Each is 1-2 hours long and each takes on horror from an unusual angle. 

After that horror, I was ready for something lighter so I chose The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by RA Dick (the pseudonym of Irish author Josephine Leslie). I already knew and loved this story from the 1947 movie edition.

I was happy to find that much of what I loved about the movie was also present in the novel and was especially touched by the plight of "poor Lucy" who had to learn to stand against that most difficult of obstacles to an independent life: people who love you.  

Quite a charming and romantic story which also has a lot to say about the importance of taking charge of one's own life. 

I finished with Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, a story I knew from the 1983 movie, but had never read. It, too, was a relatively short work I had purchased some time earlier and found waiting in my Audible library when I sought short books to read. 

I have really enjoyed a lot of Bradbury's short stories over the years, though some of them can feel "quaint" these days in that they are less cynical and less concerned with startling and unpredictable plot twists. His mild paternalistic misogyny can be annoying, but like Asimov, he mostly avoids the problem by having very few female characters and never focusing on them if he does have female characters. 

In trying to describe this one, I said: 

"This book is a celebration of that cusp moment of childhood into adolescence (particularly for young boys--one of Bradbury's consistent failings is creation of meaningful female characters). It's a meditation on aging and regret. It's nostalgia brewed into a fine tea that, while faintly bitter, still pleases the senses."
I finished the month with Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, which I have not yet finished, so I'll have to tell you about it next month. So far, I'll say that it holds up quite well and that much of what you know and love about these characters from all the movie and television adaptations came directly from Dumas's pen. 

How about you? What did you read this month? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Flirting with Feminism, 1940s Style

Coincidentally, I picked two movies that premiered in 1942 for my watching this week: Now, Voyager with Bette Davis and Woman of the Year with Katherine Hepburn. Both are striking for their exploration of roles of women, and both left me frustrated by not quite being willing to go all the way. 

In Now, Voyager, Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a woman from a wealthy and respectable Boston family ("Oh, one of the *Boston* Vales"). When we meet her, she is thoroughly cowed by her overbearing mother and deeply unhappy, though her very frustration with her role points to a stronger spirit beneath than sometimes makes itself known. Her story is one of coming into herself. 

In contrast, Katherine Hepburn's Tess Harding in Woman of the Year is a woman very much in charge of her own life, sure of herself and cutting a wide swath in the world as an activist, columnist, and speaker on a variety of social and political issues. Her story is one of coming out of herself a bit. 

Both roles were well suited to these iconic actresses. Who better than Bette Davis to drown us in big, emotional eyes and delivery fiery lines with passion? Who better than Katherine Hepburn to hold tears in a tightly controlled face, resisting the revelations of self laying themselves before her? 

But neither story satisfied me. 

I am wary of stories that romanticize infidelity, due to my personal feelings about marital infidelity, so Now, Voyager had a hard row to hoe winning me over, since a central tenant of the story is the love between a married man and a woman who is not his wife. We're meant to sympathize with the man who made a bad match and is now "trapped" in a loveless marriage (though we never see that wife or marriage for ourselves). To his credit, he was never dishonest about the fact that he was married and had no intentions of abandoning his family and starting anew with our heroine. 

So, one could argue that our heroine knew what she was walking into. I found I had complex emotions, watching the way that they influenced each other while still maintaining separate lives: he returning to the work he loves with her encouragement, she finding confidence to stand up against her bullying mother with his support. Was he an obstacle to her finding happiness with someone else? Or was her own heart the true obstacle?

The story gives Charlotte the opportunity to marry someone else and she turns it down admitting to herself and her potential husband that she doesn't love him. 

What the story doesn't quite make clear is the line between self-sacrifice and self-determination. I could read her eventual care for her would-be-lover's daughter in either light. I've ordered the novel, hoping that I'll get a bit more of the interior life of the main character and understand better why she made the decisions she did. 

In the end, Charlotte made a life for herself that was truly independent, without a mother, husband, or even would-be-lover to tell her what to do, but she still seemed apologetic about it, and I guess I wanted her to embrace it fully. 

That ending line is a honey though, full of ambiguity and poetry.  

(And oh my, how sexy they make cigarettes. I wonder how much the tobacco industry paid for that placement). 

In Woman of the Year, I found myself wondering why two intelligent people like Tess Harding and Sam Craig could ever have believed a marriage partnership between them would work. Maybe it's intended as a lesson about how a sexual charge isn't enough to base a marriage on? (They do really sell that sexual charge, though): 

It's not as bad as Bringing Up Baby where I find myself screaming "Run!" at Cary Grant's Dr. Huxley, hoping he does not get eaten alive by Hepburn's manic pixie dream girl. 

But all the same, Spencer Tracy's Sam Craig seems to be a man who knows what he wants and all signs point clearly to danger! I don't buy that he didn't see it. 

Tess doesn't see him as an equal and shows him again and again that he is not first in her heart, or even second or third, but quite low down the list with things nice to have, but not truly necessary, like a pretty lamp or a pet poodle you pay someone else to walk for you because you don't have time. 

But he marries her anyway. And Hepburn gets her trademark self-realization moment, which she sells beautifully, but at the end I still don't really believe they're going to work as a couple. Honestly, the only thing that holds the romance together is the on-screen chemistry of Hepburn and Tracy, because it's not there in the story. 

While Tess is arguably a feminist character, having built an impressive brand as "Tess Harding," the story falls back on the old saw that ambitious women must feel the lack of love partnership in their lives. Certainly some women (me, for one) want both a husband and a career and manage to have both, but there's nothing in this movie to convince me that Tess ever felt the lack of a husband in her life or wanted to make significant changes to how she lives her life to make room for one. Other than possibly sexual spark, I never saw anything in the story to explain why she wanted him at all. 

One of the keys to traditional romance stories is that the reader/viewer should be cheering for the couple to get together, and I wasn't actually doing that in either of these films. Yet, I liked both main characters and hoped for their happiness. I guess they work for me as sort-of anti-romances. 

If you've seen these films, I'd love to hear what you think in the comments. Same if you have suggestions for other films of the 30-60s with strong female leads for me to check out!

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Uninvited, Revisited

I haven't written about it much here, but I am a bit of an old movie buff, particularly films of the later 1930s to 1950s. Black and white. Classics. I inherited this interest from my mother and throughout my childhood, we watched lots of such films together, whenever they were on TV. 

Off and on for the past couple of years (interestingly: about the same amount of time I've been trying to write my own Gothic romance novel), I'd been thinking about the film The Uninvited, from 1944, with Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell.  

At first, I couldn't even figure out what movie I was remembering, or if I'd made some kind of amalgamation of several old films in my brain. I have watched and read more than a few things in this genre. 

I remembered that it was Gothic and scary, set in a stunning clifftop home, and some particular images and plot points. It took a bit of doing before I came up with the right search terms and learned the name of it. 

I requested it at my local Retro film series, but so far, they haven't shown it. And it's never on any of the streaming services, so I finally just bought a disk of it, the Criterion edition (a distinction other old movie fans will appreciate). 

I got Sweetman to watch it with me last night. 

I'm happy to report that it held up well. I fell in love with Windward House again, and so wish it were real and that I could go stay in it for a while, scary crashing waves at the foot of the rocks cliff and all. If you're a sucker for Gothic mansion settings like I am, this film is worth watching just for the house. 

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Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful use of shadows and reflections amped up the atmosphere, and the trick photography used to more fully materialize a ghost still looks classy and "real" if that's an adjective one can apply to a spirit created by camera trickery. 

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As one expects in Gothic tales of this sort, there's a terrible secret in the past and it threatens our young ingenue in the present. It's quite convoluted, and I found myself pausing to untangle the threads for my husband more than once (he's less steeped in this kind of fiction than I am). I won't spoil the story here, in case you want to seek this out, but it had all the right elements of betrayal and questionable motivations for this kind of story. 

If you speak Spanish, the fuller story breaks more quickly when our ingenue is briefly possessed by a Spanish-speaking ghost who tells us very directly what happened, but I'm quite sure the film-makers did not anticipate the audience understanding what the ghost actually said in that scene because it all comes out again more slowly. 

A secondary plot took me by surprise. It had probably gone over my head when I watched the film as a child, but really added a level of threat and upped the ante with a side character (Miss Holloway) determined to keep certain secrets buried, regardless of the cost to others because of her obsessive love for one of the deceased characters.  

Shades of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, with room in the story that the feelings were mutual this time. Cornelia Otis Skinner's Miss Holloway was a different kind of threatening than Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers, but they might be sisters under the skin. 

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Implications of lesbian love were strong in that thread, and not portrayed as healthy and romantic. Holy subtext, Batman! More dangerous obsession, and dark secret sorts of themes.  

I'd love to write something playing in the backstory of this world, with the thwarted love, later love triangle and jealousies, and who exactly that missing father was, or what the grandfather did and didn't really know. The story did a lot with what it didn't tell us, even though it told us a lot. 

I'm also curious as heck about our outside interlopers, the brother and sister (Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald) who pooled their funds to buy the mansion together, only to become embroiled in a local tragedy and haunting. Neither of them married, neither of them seeming to have any particular ties in this world, and unusually close for adult siblings. What past tragedy had they survived together? 

Lastly, I was impressed by the mix of humor and horror. It's always a tricky balance to strike, and bringing in the wrong note at the wrong time can ruin a story, but The Uninvited beautifully blended lighthearted touches with a dark and troubling storyline.  Ray Milland was at his most Cary Grant-like, conveying a lot with a sideways glance or body language, revealing an inner little boy who wanted to run away from the scary things but was held in place by his sense of proper duty as a grown man. 

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The final minutes of the film wrapped everything up in a neat bow, delivering two impending marriages, happy pets (a dog and a cat), and every sign that the future will now be rosy for all involved now that the ghosts have been laid to rest. Practically Shakespearean in the rush to matrimony for all involved. It was charming how quickly everyone's future was settled now that we got that pesky troubled past dealt with. If only it were nearly that simple in real life. 

So, if you haven't watched it yet, go check out The Uninvited. It's well worth the watching. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021


As glamorous as I've ever been
(and I'm wearing Converse under there)
Glamour is a lot of work, so I only consider it "worth it" for truly special occasions: weddings, graduations, ceremonies, theater dates. 

Even on those days, my routine pales compared to many of the women of my acquaintance. 

I fuss over my hair a bit, curling and arranging it or if we're going hardcore, hiring someone with a stronger skill set to do that for me. 

I select and wear jewelry. 

I don't own any makeup--I think it's itchy. 

But, I might wear shoes that aren't Converse sneakers, if there isn't going to be too much standing and walking at the event. 

In contrast, on an average summer morning when I arrive at the coffee shop wearing stretchy pants, looking as though my hair might be a wig that I put on sideways, I catch a fair amount of fish-eye from the the poshier women around me. 

I'll never be that lady described as "well-coifed", "elegant", or even "well put-together." Most of the

How I look on a day that ends in Y

time, I look like a six-year-old whose mother just called them inside from a morning's romp in the creek. 

Maybe it's a breed of impatience. 

I'm too anxious to DO things to wade through the processes of beauty before I go. Hence, I've never developed the requisite skills or collected the tools and equipment. 

I'm sure many people think I've "let myself go" but the truth is, that by this definition, I never "held myself" to begin with. 

The work of beauty does not interest me as much as learning new recipes, exploring new paths, writing another book, fighting with my garden, and reading. No matter how lovely the results might be. 

I live in the South, though, where I definitely seem grubby next to many of my neighbors with perfect highlights, manicured nails, and artfully applied makeup, especially women my own age or older. 

On the occasions when I do glam up, it's a revelation--a shining spotlight moment like the ugly duckling reveal in a 1980s "but she wears glasses" makeover moment. Lots of "oooooh." It's gratifying. But if you're glamorous every day, where do you go from there? How do you up the ante for something special? Tiaras? 

I don't judge women who focus more energy on beauty. Sometimes I envy them. It's a choice, like any, and as valid as any. I know many intelligent, vibrant, hardworking, and accomplished women who are also glamorous. 

It's not an either/or. 

Some friends treat it like armor. For others it's self-care, self-love, a way of boosting themselves. For some it's a game--a kind of play. I've only known a few that I worried might have raised it to a pathology. 

I'm being photographed this weekend. As a 50th birthday present to myself, I have hired a photographer to get some new author shots, a documentation of what I look like now. I thought about going fancy, but in the end, I decided I want photographs that look like me. 

No matter how much I sometimes wish I looked like Audrey Hepburn, that's just not who I am. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Teacher Who Writes, or a Writer Who Teaches?

I began my dual career path as a teacher-who-writes twenty-six years ago, give or take.  Honestly, trying to do both meant I didn't write all that often or all that much. Teaching, especially when you're new at it, will swallow all of you, if you let it--demanding your time, your energy, and your love and leaving you depleted. Not the best recipe for a creative life. 

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Like most teachers who survive in the field long enough to be called veterans, I did eventually learn to set some boundaries and work on that ephemeral dream we call a "work-life-balance." 

That required being strict with myself, some compartmentalizing, and fighting off the guilt goblins barnacled to my soul. Not easy for a someone with an empathetic soul with a strong drive to help--you know, the kind of people who becomes teachers. 

But, creative life aside, it's essential to avoid burnout and make teaching a sustainable career choice. 

Failure to do so is how you win teacher of the year, but it's also how you end up quitting the career after only a few years. 

Even after I'd established some boundaries and limited how many hours a day my teaching life got, my writing life still came in fourth most of the time, after teaching, family, and community. 

Writing, after all, is solitary, just for me, and that seemed selfish. There are healthy forms of selfishness, but I was raised a lower middle class American woman in a blue collar family AND became a teacher, so finding a healthy level of selfishness and accepting the idea that self-care is not immoral . . .well, that took some time. 

Until I was in my mid-thirties or so, writing was something reserved for moments of passion or crisis--a way of processing and coping, or expressing feelings so strong they could not simply be sublimated into other kinds of work. 

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Then, after my second marriage when my second child was born, I had a bout of post-partum depression. I'd never dealt with the more clinical, longer-lasting side of depression, and honestly, I wasn't doing very well. I didn't understand why I wasn't happy when I "ought to be." 

Sweetman, ever observant and kind, had noticed in our courtship and marriage what a solace writing was for me. He pushed me to make regular space for it in my life, even helping me find a local critique group so I'd have a schedule. (It's like he *knows* me :P).  

It worked, at least in terms of the post-partum. As it had always been, writing was a solace and I felt so much more balanced when I gave time to my voice and my heart's truths in this way. 

And I started writing more regularly--still in fits and starts in the corners of my life, but SO much more often than I had ever done before. And my new writing community made my writing better than it had ever been before. 

I might have stayed there--a happy hobbyist--the rest of my life if not for the next moment of crisis. 

I turned 42. 

Now, as all readers of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy know, 42 is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Even though turning 30 and 40 had not phased me, turning 42 did. 

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So far as midlife crises go, mine was mild. A haircut, some new clothes, lots of fantasizing about exotic travels. I didn't run off and join the circus, adopt up any new addictions, or take up with a younger man. 

I did, however, wallow in a feeling of dissatisfaction and low-key restless anger (mostly directed at myself) for a bit. 

That's when I decided to make a commitment to my writing life. To give it a *real* go. So, what did that mean? 

1. I stopped teaching English and become solely a Spanish teacher. Most of my jobs up to that point had been some combination of the two. The feedback load and external scrutiny for English teachers is crushing AND the literature and writing work pulls from the same energy as my writing life, so doing both was more than I could handle. 

Spanish is an elective, and at the beginning levels, where I teach, feedback on writing amounts to reading a few sentences and assessing whether the kid said what they meant to say. MUCH simpler. 

2. I laid claim to more time. We had a family meeting. By this time, my kids were older: 14 and 7, so they didn't need me at the same levels they had when they were younger. They were able to take on a little more independence, and it turned out they were willing to do so, because a happy mommy who is sometimes unavailable was preferable to a grumpy mommy, even if she was there all the time. 

Since it was hard for me to get enough separation and focus at home, I went elsewhere to write. Coffee shops, the library, the park, even just sitting in my car. When my own discipline got better, I started being able to work at home, even without an office. I shot for 250 words a day at first. 

It worked! I began to finish things, polish them, submit me, and see them accepted and published! I collected external validations like books contracts and royalties . . .even an award!  Over the next few years, I noticed the shift. 

I was now a writer-who-teaches, instead of a teacher-who-writes. 

My core identity centered around writing instead of teaching. When I met new people, I mentioned writing first. I've now written every single day for more than seven years. 

I still love teaching, and I still invest in my students and their success, but I no longer base my own feelings of success and worth on it. Too much of it is beyond my control, and making it the center of my identity was eating me. Teaching has always been both a calling and a job, but I've decided it should not also be my identity. 

Writing, on the other hand, is mine. And whether anyone ever accepts another piece of work for publication or not, I will still be a writer and I will still have all my creations, and what they have meant to me.

So, as I move into summer and shift gears into my yearly couple of months of being *just* a writer while I'm on summer hiatus from teaching, I feel a joy akin to coming home after a long journey. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

IWSG: Jumping into Revision When You're Not Quite Ready

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

June 2 question - For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

The awesome co-hosts for the June 2 posting of the IWSG are J Lenni Dorner, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, Lee Lowery, and Rachna Chhabria! Be sure to check out what they have to say, and visit other writers in the blog hop!

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Taking time to step away from your work can be a valuable part of the writing process--giving you a little distance and space from the work you just completed and letting you come to it with fresh eyes and a little more objectivity. 

Given my druthers, I would always step away for at least a month, maybe longer if the writing the piece took a lot out of me emotionally. 

But, that's not always possible. 

If you work with publishers, editors, or even with a critique group, your schedule might not always be completely your own. I know I've had some tight turnarounds in my writing life, where I finished the first draft only to find that  the submission deadline was looming large, forcing me to jump back into editing and revision sooner than I prefer.

So, if I can't take a big break, I still try to get a little space, even just a day or two. I take a day to work on something else. Then, if I'm time-crunched and HAVE to jump right back in I have a few tricks to make it feel fresh to me. 

1. Change format:  if you've been working on screen up till now, consider printing out a paper copy to work with, or at least changing the font choice and size. 

2. Go somewhere else: work on it somewhere different than you usually do. Go to a park, a coffeeshop, the library, a different room in your home or even just a different chair. 

3. Outline what's there:  I'm a pantser, so I don't generally work from an outline for my novels, but sometimes I find it helps to do a post-production outline, creating a list of scenes as if I'm going to have to write a report or pass a test over the book. I LOVE the scene cards technique from the DIY-MFA book by Gabriela Pereira which asks you to list for each scene:
  • a title for the scene
  • the major players
  • the action
  • the purpose (structurally)
This has saved my bacon more than once, helping me spot continuity errors (like the same character is in two places at the same time!) and identify scenes that aren't moving the story forward as much as they could be. 

So, if I can't have the breathing space I'd like between drafts, that's what I do to try and freshen my perspective. 

I also find the feedback of valued writing friends useful at this stage and will ask other writers to brainstorm with me, or just give me a reaction to a section I'm stuck on.  A lot of times, it isn't that the other writer solves my problem for me, but that they say something that sparks my own realization. I feel like I get there faster in discussion with writer-friends than I would on my own. 

How about you, writing and creative friends? How do you find fresh eyes when it's time to revise or revisit your work?