I could not have a more generous, supportive friend than Roberta Gundersen. What kind of petty, insecure person could possibly begrudge the success of a friend who wants nothing but the best for me? This is where I raise my hand. I didn’t begrudge her success, exactly – I just envied it to an unseemly degree. I wish I could say I’ve matured in the 28 years since then, but I haven’t. Every time I read about another writer’s success, I can’t help thinking, “Why isn’t it me?”
In the last few days, I’ve devoured a novel – The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – which deals with some of these issues, and more. I loved it – and, of course, I’m jealous, and I wish that I had written it. I’m familiar with most of her settings and situations (writing workshops, etc.) In fact, the experience I describe in today’s diary entry (circa 93) took place at an Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop I attended with Roberta and my sister, Joyce. (Our teacher, GM, liked Joyce’s work, too.)
I can’t help wondering if the book spoke to me so strongly because it’s about familiar territory. If you’re NOT a writer, aspiring or otherwise, and you read this book, I’d be very interested in your thoughts.
This entry’s self-conscious attempt at being “lyrical” suggests I wrote it for others to read, not to bare my soul. One of my failings as a writer (or strengths, depending on your point of view) is my conspicuous lack of place description. It bores me in other people’s fiction, so why torture my readers?
Elmore Leonard’s ninth and tenth rules of writing are:
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
The parts I tend to skip are description – of place in particular, but pretty much everything else too. Some people love elaborate descriptions of food. I hate them. Unless it affects the plot – for example, if there’s arsenic in the quiche – it just doesn’t matter if the hero selects steak or salmon as his entrée.
One can argue what people eat defines aspects of their character. The guy who loves Popeye’s is rarely mistaken for the dude who dines at Nobu. That said, there’s no excuse for describing more than one meal per person per book. The reader doesn’t need to know and I don’t want to.
I recently read a blog by Dan Sapone that resonated with me – and I think it might have the same effect on some of my fellow Boomers. It’s about where we were and where we are, the need to balance security and risk, and whether parents have the courage to risk allowing their children to choose paths other than those chosen by the parents. Here’s a link if you want to check it out. https://convivio-online.net/unexpected-wisdom/
Proms have become a trope in teen-age movies, which would have one believe that attending (or not attending) the prom defines high school existence (Pretty in Pink springs immediately to mind although there are plenty of others). This wasn’t my experience.
I went to several proms – all in the same lace-encrusted blue dress – and while they were all memorable in their own way, they were not the apex of my teen-age years. I doubt I’m not alone in this. I’ve never met one single person who claims their prom was the defining moment of their high school life.
In real life, I don’t think who got crowned king and queen of the prom was of matter of life and death (Carrie). I was never in the running so I didn’t really care. My parents, however, were the King and Queen of their high school prom
Our Prom Party sent up the movie-fantasy stereotype of a high school prom, it didn’t have much to do with the real thing. One of my Columbia students, Holden Weitz, wrote a hilarious teen movie that parodies this trope. That’s the movie I want to see made!
This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.
Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.) Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.
The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.
And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.
I’d spoken to Griffin and Amy on the phone, but this was our first face-to-face. I was slightly awed by both of them. Long before I fell in love with Griffin’s performance in the sensational film After Hours, I enjoyed his father Dominick’s books starting with The Users. As for Amy, I was a huge fan of Baby, It’s You, an indie film she produced. The fact it was based, in part, on her high school and college life made her that much more fascinating. Not only were they a hot young producing duo, they were classy and smart with superlative taste in literature. They fell in love with the same obscure novel I did. They intended to option the book and produce the movie. I would adapt it for the screen.
The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton’s first and only novel, became an overnight sensation upon publication in 1962. I don’t recall how it wound up in my hands in high school. It didn’t look like the kind of book I gravitated toward. To be blunt, it looked boring – like a plotless description-heavy feel-good tale of a rural family. It looked like hundreds of similar books I failed to finish after a quick perusal of the first and last chapter. (Yes, I read the end of most books as soon as I finish the beginning. I have my reasons.)
The Moonflower Vine wasn’t one of those books. I was so engrossed I read to the last page without peeking. It blew me away. Critics raved about the grace and beauty of her writing. While exquisite language is far from the first thing I seek in a novel, it doesn’t hurt. Equally if not more important than the prose, Carleton’s characters were full-bodied and three-dimensional, bursting with life and the weight of their secrets.
Despite four months on the New York’s Times best-seller list and its selection by major book clubs, the book fell out of print. The lack of a follow-up didn’t help. Aside from two paperback reissues in the 70s and 80s, it was all but forgotten.
A couple factors led to its recent renaissance. It was featured on the “Neglected Books” website which included an endorsement by Jane Smiley. Smiley cited The Moonflower Vine in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Perhaps most important of all, voracious fans like myself read and re-read it, and recommended it to others.
I, for instance, persuaded my sisters they had to read it. They did and they fell in love too. Since the book tells the stories of a Missouri family with three living daughters, it’s not so surprising an Iowa family with three daughters related rather strongly. Jetta’s fictional family bore enough similarities to her real family that her two older sisters felt tainted and infuriated. Was that part of the reason she didn’t write another book? They forgave her before she died in 1999.
Carleton left a draft of another novel – Claire de Lune – behind which was published posthumously. Meanwhile – in part because so many fans consider it unforgettable – The Moonflower Vine was republished to some fanfare in 2009 by HarperCollins.
I know, it looks a little dull, but it’s not. It ranks high on my personal list of “Books that Mattered” and I highly recommend it.
Have you ever noticed how in virtually every fairy tale since the beginning of time, the oldest sister(s) are ugly harpies and the youngest is so clever, kind and beautiful – so gosh darn special – that she always wins Prince Charming’s heart? Sometimes older siblings have no plot function or personality at all – they exist only to make the hero a youngest child.
This blatant favoritism for the youngest sibling didn’t die with old-fashioned fairy-tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. It’s alive and well in contemporary fiction – Ron Weasley is the youngest Weasley brother and Ginny (the youngest) becomes Harry’s wife in Harry Potter. Ender is the youngest of three in Ender’s game. Alyosha, the youngest, is the most morally pure of the Brothers Karamazov.
The purpose of fairytales and myths is to teach children about life. What lesson is an oldest child supposed to take from this bias? No wonder I look so ticked off in childhood photos of the three of us. The subliminal message in myth and lit was I didn’t count in this story. I was a stage prop, meant to do something venal and stupid and exit to make way for the chosen one, the good one – my youngest sister Joyce.
If you’re interested, there’s a list and explanation of this trope at
And if you’re in the mood for some sisterly snark, follow these links to either or both of these photo galleries – My Two Years and Two Days of Bliss (link) and Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby. Pictures don’t lie!
This was one of the worst days of my life. To set it up a little, I was at UC Santa Barbara for one quarter of intercampus visitation and this was the day I showed the film I made for one of the classes I took there.
First, I take full responsibility for this debacle. For some bizarre reason, I believed that if I made a complicated incomprehensible film that nobody could understand, the audience would be awed by my superior intellect and love me. If you doubt how pretentious and wrong-headed my film was, allow me to dazzle you with its full title – JOURNEY: A RITUAL IN FIVE PARTS.
So why do I consider this disaster one of the luckiest breaks of my life? First, I made the film in Santa Barbara, where no one from the UCLA Film Department would stumble upon it and it could die in peace. If I hadn’t launched this colossal misfire in Santa Barbara, I almost certainly would have made a similar film for my Project 1 at UCLA – which, at the time, was basically a thesis film worth 8 units of credit on which your entire career in the film department depended. The humiliation in Santa Barbara saved me a far greater humiliation.
Second, and more important, I learned in a visceral punch-to-the-gut way that obscure pretentious films are not the way to an audience’s heart. (Why didn’t I know this already? I must’ve been absent that day.) My value system changed, as is reflected in my subsequent writing career. I finally understood the most important aspects of any film, story or book are to be entertaining, clear and accessible.
And, when I made my Project 1 three months later at UCLA, it was one of four films that was awarded the Jim Morrison Memorial Grant.
I love to read short story collections and admire the craft involved. When I tried to write a few myself, I discovered it’s a lot harder than it looks. (I’ll get into some of the reasons why in a later post.) Here are a few of my favorite collections, in no particular order.
Anything by Alice Munro – she’s simply the best and she makes it look so easy!
Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Nine inches both made me laugh out loud. I like his novels too but I like the short stories better.
Dan Chaon’s Fitting Ends and Among the Missing captured something Midwestern and hard to define. They stayed in my mind for a long time.
Ron Rash, both Burning Bright and Nothing Gold Can Stay – I like his novels and other collections too but these are favorites.
Ron Carlson’s The Hotel Eden – and I highly recommend his book about writing short stories, fittingly titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story.
Laura Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her – great twist-and-turn nourish stories from a female point of view.
Marly Swick Monogamy and The Summer Before the Summer of Love. Monogamy sat on my bookshelf for years before I picked it up and read it. I loved it so much I immediately ordered The Summer Before the Summer of Love and I wasn’t disappointed. Great stories!
Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories. I wasn’t expecting much on the erroneous assumption a talented actress couldn’t possibly write too but I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories.
Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders. A relatively new writer and another great find.
Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City and A Visit from the Goon Squad (linked short stories in service of a novel.)
I thought I’d compile a list of the books that really mattered to me throughout my life. Perhaps not surprisingly, I read many of them when I was very young, in my “formative” years as a reader. I don’t know if I’d rate them all so highly today based on literary criteria but that’s not my goal here – these are books I cared passionately about, books that influenced me, made a difference. Literary masterpieces and classics are conspicuous by their absence – I’ll cover my favorites there in another list. These are my top ten for sheer entertainment and emotional impact.
KNIGHT’S CASTLE by Edward Eager – as an adult, I’m not a huge fan of magic fantasy novels, but I loved all of Edward Eager’s magic-based book. This one, an alternative take on Ivanhoe, was my favorite.
DAVID AND THE PHOENIX by Edward Ormondroyd – a wonderful children’s book. I cried again when I reread it as an adult.
THE MOONFLOWER VINE by Jetta Carleton. Maybe because I’m one of three sister, this tale of three sisters really got to me.
TEMPLE OF GOLD by William Goldman. Goldman is more famous for his screenplays, but I’m a huge fan of his novels – especially this impressive debut.
THE MAGUS by John Fowles – I read this in college and have re-read it several times since. It starts slow but then it’s a speeding bullet to the finale.
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier – possibly my first exposure to a huge twist ending – which caught my adolescent self by surprise. I read a lot of du Maurier as a result and also liked a couple more obscure ones – MY COUSIN RACHEL and THE PARASITES.
GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell – I’m pretty sure this is an unfashionable, politically incorrect choice, but I loved it – and like most teenage girls of my era, I identified strongly with the Ashley-Rhett dilemma.
GREEN MILE by Stephen King – I’m not a big fan of horror either, but this was like a textbook on how to write a page-turner – it was almost impossible to put down and the ending really paid off (for me).
A SIMPLE PLAN by Scott Smith – the movie is good, but the book is better. It’s so tight, so compelling, and it really stayed with me.
ENDLESS LOVE by Scott Spencer – the novel, not the movie. Spencer captured the crazy urgency of adolescent love (for me) and the last paragraph is a thing of beauty.
I’d love to read some of your lists if anyone feels like sharing!