Writing a novel

October 29, 1968

October 29, 1968Mr. Farrington thought he was doing something nice by calling attention to the fact I was writing a book (long-hand, in a spiral bound notebook, not exactly a professional effort). Ironically, his instincts were correct – I did crave attention,  I still do sometimes – I just didn’t want to work (perform) for it. As discussed in prior blogs (link), work in any capacity isn’t one of my strong suits.

"Kathy, tell us all about your novel."
“Kathy, tell us all about your novel.”

In this case, the problem was deeper and more complicated than sloth. I’m an introvert – a loner. In a group – be it therapy, a classroom or a party – I position myself on the fringes or in corners and feign disinterest in their social games. Secretly, I’m far from indifferent. In fact, I’m obsessed with other people’s opinions – of me. I want to impress them and I want something else I can’t admit. What I can’t ask for, I try to steal.

Pay attention to me! (1968)
Pay attention to me! (1968)

I’m talking about attention. I want people focused on how special I am. I want to fascinate with my quirks, my habits, my trivia. I want the cover of Time and Seventeen magazine. I  want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me. What am I prepared to do to make my dreams come true?

I want the cover of Time
I want the cover of Time
And the cover of Seventeen
And the cover of Seventeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me.
I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me.

Nothing, actually, but let’s call it my “counter-intuitive” strategy. I try to hi-jack attention by falling mysteriously silent. Some concerned soul will ask what’s going on. The more secretive my answers, the more people want to know.

Don't Pay Attention to Me!
Don’t Pay Attention to Me!

To say the least, it’s far from foolproof. As often as not, people ignore the dull girl with nothing to say, in which case I fume in frustration and resent them for being shallow and stupid. For someone who claims to treasure solitude, I blubber like a baby if I’m not invited to the party where everyone else will be. I do not want to go, understand. But life loses all meaning if I’m not invited.

 

 

May 25, 1968

May 25, 1968

 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.

Wilcox Senior Ball with Tal Pomeroy

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.

Same old Prom dress at our Prom Party
Same old Prom dress at our Prom Party

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

My parents as King and Queen in 1943
My parents as King and Queen in 1943

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!

 

 

 

March 25, 1970

March 25, 1970

Janet and I in our Santa Clara neighborhood shortly after we moved there.
Janet and I in our Santa Clara neighborhood shortly after we moved there.

It’s not terribly surprising I was adamant about Santa Clara being my home considering my family left Santa Clara for San Diego a mere six months before I wrote this entry. In contrast, it astonishes me that 47 years later, I still regard Santa Clara as my home – despite the fact I never lived there again. Realistically, hasn’t LA – where I’ve lived the last 47 years – earned the right to be called home?

Yeah, objectively, no doubt about it. Emotionally, not so fast. I grew up in Santa Clara, it will forever be where I spent my childhood, it’s the backdrop for all my highly formative memories and experiences.

My sisters and I in front of our Santa Clara parsonage - the girl on the far right in the bathing suit is Alana (Lennie), a neighbor and early friend.
My sisters and I in front of our Santa Clara parsonage – the girl on the far right in the bathing suit is Alana (Lennie), a neighbor and early friend.
The three Knutsen sisters in August of 1957
The three Knutsen sisters in August of 1957

Unfortunately, the Santa Clara I regard as home ceased to exist shortly after I left. I’ve covered this in other blogs (July 18, 1969, August 26, 1969) and I’m loathe to repeat myself. Still, Santa Clara’s metamorphoses into Silicon Valley fascinates me.

Janet, Joyce and I in front of Santa Clara parsonage a little later.
Janet, Joyce and I in front of Santa Clara parsonage a little later.

Someday I’d love to write a historical novel about Santa Clara. I’d approach it as a multi-generational saga about a family who own an apricot orchard, tracing family members and the city itself as it evolves to Silicon Valley.  I’ve been warned family sagas are out of fashion but by the time I finish, they might be all the rage again.

January 26, 2013

January 26, 2013

"I will win "Best of" before I die."
“I will win “Best of” before I die.”

I’ve attended more than my share of writing workshops, including some of the most torturous to get into (hello Bread Loaf and Sewanee) as well as other high profile names – Tin House, Aspen Summer Words, Napa, Taos.

Writers in Paradise

Eckerd College’s WRITERS IN PARADISE is one of my favorites. As far as I know, it’s the only workshop with a competition for best and second best pieces in the workshop. (The best got published in their literary magazine; the runner up got a nice write-up).  For me, this led to what a friend called “fang extension” – a fierce desire to win no matter what.

Clearly, Nicky's the one with fang extension - not me.
Clearly, Nicky’s the one with fang extension – not me.

Victory didn’t come easy. I lost both first and second place for three solid years. I loathe losing and swore I’d win before I died. Luckily, it happened sooner – because, to my chagrin, Eckerd discontinued the competition after 2013. Under the new system, all participants can revise the material they work-shop and submit it to the magazine for consideration. Speaking strictly for myself, I miss the thrill of cut-throat competition but since that resulted in nine miserable writers who lost and one triumphant writer who won, maybe it undermined community spirit and cooperation. Personally, I don’t think so, but who knows?

2013 Sabal

With or without the “Best of” competition, what makes Eckerd such a fantastic workshop?  For me, it’s their faculty. I don’t read literary fiction unless forced to  (I prefer stories /plots).  Consequently, I’ve never heard of the majority of  author/workshop leaders appearing at even top workshops. This isn’t true of Eckerd.  Books by Eckerd authors/workshop leaders are everywhere – many are best-sellers – because they’re entertaining. Where but Eckerd can a student spend time with writers of the calibre of Sterling Watson, Tom Perrotta, Stewart O’Nan, Laura Lippman, Michael Koryta and Andre Dubus? Dennis Lehane no longer leads workshops but he makes himself  accessible and never fails to fascinate.

Celebrity Autograph Show

St. Petersburg weather in January is beautiful, as is the lush green campus. It’s a safe place to stick your toe in the water (figuratively – there are alligators in Florida) and benefit from smart, professional feedback. I liked almost everyone I met there, even my competition – and I returned home a stronger writer. What more could I ask?

This is NOT a paid advertisement. Writer’s in Paradise is that good.

animated-alligator-image-0024

To download a copy of Celebrity Autograph Show, click on the link.

January 10, 1978

january-10-1978

 Actually, I suspected my classmate Dick made all of it up because – upon receiving a compliment – my first impulse is to negate it. “This old thing?” “No, I haven’t lost weight, I’ve gained.”

"I'm nervous and high-strung!"
“I’m nervous and high-strung!”

Of course, not everybody regards the qualities Shelly allegedly attributed to me as compliments. In retrospect, “nervous” and “high-strung” sound unhealthy and problematic. “Intense” was my favorite word. I don’t know how universal the desire to be “intense” is, but to me it seems more interesting than mild or calm. “Conscientious” was flattering but I was too secretly slothful for it to apply to me.

"I'm intense and conscientious!"
“I’m intense and conscientious!”
 All my life, I’ve struggled with owning “ambitious”. My Midwestern Lutheran brain conflates it with greedy and ruthless. Anyone who attended Bible school knows the meek will inherit the earth. Ambitious and meek don’t go together.
"I'm ambitious but that doesn't make me a bad person."
“I’m ambitious but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”

When I was younger, I tried to hide my ambition. It seemed incompatible with feminine or being a good person. However, I’ve changed my mind. Ambition isn’t inherently “bad” – it depends on how far you’re willing to go to realize your ambitions. When ambition functions as a driving force – a means of powering the passion required to realize a dream – I think it’s a gift.

October 10, 2014

october-10-2014

the-trouble-with-trouble My absolute all-time favorite game growing up was dress-up (today, it’s called role-play but it’s the same thing.)  I was up for a part in any fantasy – princess, boarding school, teen-ager, Rapunzel and Bonanza were perennial favorites. The only role I couldn’t relate to was horsy. Then as now, the appeal of prancing around pretending to be a palomino eluded me. For starters, playing horsy pretty much precludes costumes unless you count tucking a fake tail in the rear of your pedal-pushers (I don’t).these-bitches-need-some-class

I have only two requirements for a good game of dress-up.

  1. I play a human (no horsys!)
  2. I wear a costume – and hopefully a wig.

Beyond that, anything goes.

shopping-for-more-useless-stuffIt’s a shame that dress-up tends to be cast aside before adolescence. It’s all but forgotten by the time we’re adults. IMHO, this is a real shame. Luckily, like riding a bike, the requisite skills reside inside you, ready to resume active duty if called. If you can get past your self-consciousness for a  trip into fun and silliness, dress up is even more fun to play as a grown-up.

now-i-take-a-pill-for-that

Technically, each of us gets only one life to live. Dress up role play lets you dabble in as many lives as you can make up. If – like me – sometimes you get sick of being yourself, take a break. Cut loose and be somebody else – someone without a mortgage, congested kids, or pets pooping on the rug. All you’ve got to lose is your dignity. Isn’t it about time?

ANY GIRL CAN BE GLAMOUROUS. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS STAND STILL AND LOOK STUPID.
ANY GIRL CAN BE GLAMOUROUS. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS STAND STILL AND LOOK STUPID.

If you’re over 18 or past the age of consent: Dress-up role-play is unlikely to be hazardous to your sex life, if you get my drift. Enough said.

 

September 16, 1975

 

September 16, 1975 John and I had been married exactly one month when I wrote this entry. We’d met for the first time 7 months ago, so even though we were legally man and wife I was still in the analyzing the “dynamics of our relationship” stage. We lived in a one bedroom apartment on Hoover, within easy walking distance of USC where he was in his second year of law school and I was working on my MFA in Professional Writing. I was working full-time as a secretary for Len Hill and Richard Marx, two program managers at NBC.

NBC ID Card_edited-1

The state of my moods depended on my reactions to people around me. On this particular day, I bounced from John making me feel lazy and uncreative to Shelly buoying me up with some positive feedback. I wish I could claim that in the intervening years I stopped letting the opinions of others determine my sense of self-worth.

Mood 1

That would be a lie. At best, I’ve become incrementally better at self-validation. I’m still inclined to dismiss positive feedback as false flattery and accept criticism as the absolute truth.  On the bright side, being thin-skinned means I’m not blind to flaws – in myself or my writing – when other people point them out. More often than not, what I initially perceive as criticism can be re-construed as good advice.

Open to criticism

Mood 2

Aristotle

In retrospect, John was right that pushing me harder wouldn’t have solved my writer’s block.  Creative energy does have to come from within. At the same time, I’m immensely grateful for Shelly’s encouragement.  Without it, I might have quit. I’m not one of those writers who have to write even if no one ever reads it. I write to be read and hopefully understood – to communicate.

Mood 3

That goes for this diary blog, too. This is as good a time as any to thank anyone who’s liked one of these or commented. Your feedback and validation keep me going.

 

May 28, 1971



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.
May 28, 1971

Sad Kathy

Sobbing

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.

Movie Clapboard

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.

Jim Morrison Award_edited-1

What am I doing with a 1963 Playboy?

It’s research. Really. A vintage magazine – particularly those aimed at men or women looking for love – is an invaluable resource if you’re writing about another time period. Wikipedia or your basic Time-Life retrospective is fine for a sound bite, but for a glimpse into how the sexes perceived each other and interacted, check out the magazines they read – and don’t skim over the ads! By studying what – and how – advertisers sold their wares, you’ll find clues to what people of that time period wanted.What am I doing with a ’63 Playboy?

VargasFramed

To illustrate, I’ll use the August ’63 Playboy which I referenced in my last blog.  On page 30, an ad blares, “Snap! It’s open! Beer cans will never be the same.”  The pull tab is referred to as a “new opening convenience” brought to you by Alcoa. It puts into perspective just how long ago and far away 1963 actually was. Another time warp ad on page 34 asks, “Do $5.95 slacks go with a $15 sport shirt?”  For the researcher, the question is a window into the fashion and economy of 1963.

BeerSlacks

My favorite ad, page 64, asks “What sort of man reads Playboy?” The answer in August is, “a young man about town and country who draws freely from the good things in life, the Playboy reader leads the pack when it comes to lighting up – a smoke or a girl’s eyes. Facts: Copy for copy, Playboy has more male smokers than any other magazine. What’s more, their taste for tobacco is as selective in form and shape as their choice of a playful playmate. 64.5% smoke cigarettes. 25.8% prefer the satisfaction of a fine cigar. 23.4% take pleasure in a pipe. This is the audience with buying power – enough to spark a new trend, or add a new glow to established brands.”  The bottom of the ad lists Playboy’s advertising offices.

Smoking

Just to be clear – this pitch is not targeted at cigarette manufactures. Smoking was merely something hip cool playboys did. The December 1963 “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy” reads: “A discerning young city dweller with an elegant eye for luxurious living, the Playboy reader is as selective with his appointments as he is with his dates. And he settles on only the best when it comes to making an impression in the right quarters. Facts: With a median household income of over $10,000 he has the money and manner to live life well-upholstered, can easily afford the fine furnishings compatible with his social and business status. To move your product with success, use the magazine he lives by – Playboy.”

And on page 141, “Fun at hand – the Playboy Puppet. Add a bright touch to any gathering with this captivating puppet modeled after the famous Playboy rabbit. As a gift, or for yourself. It’s the perfect thing for off-the-cuff amusement.”

Puppet

These are the ads in one issue. In my next blog, I’ll summarize the Playboy Philosophy column, in which Hef himself dispenses incredibly politically incorrect advice about dating and mating.

Balloon

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