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 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.
Of all my diary entries so far this is the one I most longed to rewrite. In my defense, it’s entry #7 of what now totals over 15,000 entries. When I wrote it, I was a 12-year-old amateur but that’s just an excuse, not the problem. The problem, obviously, is the stilted, cloying, artificial prose. “Anticipating lovely things of the future?” Please, who talks like that, outside of terrible Victorian novels?
The one redeeming quality in these early journals is my penmanship. My writing was larger, rounder, loopier with robust capital letters. This made it significantly more legible, which was darn lucky because for the first two years I wrote with a dull smudgy pencil – sheer torture to decipher fifty years later.
Reading the Diary of Anne Frank was my inspiration. I aspired to be as talented and profound as Anne, oblivious to the distance that separated my pedestrian prose from hers. Her diary inspired empathy as well as suspense due to her horrible (but historically significant) circumstances. Given my diary details the plight of a preacher’s daughter in suburban Santa Clara in 1964, the only thing our two diaries really have in common is they were both written by teen-agers.
My little town made history after I left, when Santa Clara became Silicon Valley. Even though most of my friends’ parents worked in electronics, I remained blithely oblivious to what that meant.
My world wasn’t much larger than my friends and family. As much as I loved Anne Frank’s diary, I couldn’t be her. I lacked her talent and the sweep and scope of her canvas. That said, what matters more in life than your relationship with your friends and family?
So even with my limitations, maybe I’ve got something to say – if that prissy judgmental twit who wrote today’s entry gets out of my way.
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.
My obsession with nostalgia, my love for all that’s past and lost to me forever, started the day I turned ten and realized, with aching heart, that my age would never again be a single digit.
Since then, I’ve mourned the passing of many more ages I will never be again. Still, my brain refuses to acknowledge that I’m a day over 39. Consequently, it was more than a little traumatic when my oldest son turned 39 yesterday. Isn’t that a medical impossibility?
In my dreams, my adult children are always little kids. I long to be with them at five and six again. If I could live my life over, I’d appreciate all the small moments more. Or would I?
I recently read The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky. Ivan suffers agonizing regret about letting alcohol and laziness ruin his life. He’s certain he’d make wiser choices if given a second chance. He meets a magician who enables him to do exactly that. However, despite Ivan’s full knowledge of the catastrophic results of his prior self-indulgence, he makes the same disastrous decisions.
I’d like to believe I’m more self-aware than Ivan but maybe I wouldn’t do it better even if I could do it over. Still, I’d do anything to find out. If Time Travel was an option, I’d be first in line. Unfortunately, despite myriad books and movies suggesting time travel might be real and imminent in my lifetime, my husband informs me due to, uh, reality, it will in fact never be possible in anybody’s lifetime. This is a major disappointment.
In order to preserve as much of the past as possible, I’ve filled hundreds of journals with diary entries dating back to 1963. I’ll share some less humiliating entries on my domain next year. I’m traveling over Christmas, so this is probably my last blog in 2015 (say goodbye to another opportunity, forever lost) – but I wish anyone who’s read this far a happy holiday and spectacular New Year.
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!