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’m a sucker for self-help books. The hope that a solution to my problems awaits within a book is irresistible. Eternally optimistic, I reach for the latest release even though none of the previous hundred tomes told me anything new. I already know what I “should” do in most situations. The trick is making myself do it. I tend to procrastinate, delay, hoping a third option will appear and allow me have my cake, save it and eat it too.
In 1997, I bought Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, the best self-help book I’ve read. Schnarch posits in every couple there’s a High Desire partner and a Low Desire partner. The Low Desire partner runs the show because he/she controls supply and demand. Over the years, partners may switch places but there will always be a High and a Low. Desire won’t be stable and equal until they’re buried together.
Scharch’s ideas are ground-breaking and challenging, not for the faint of heart. I recommended J read it and we both devoured Scharch’s earlier, more academic book – the Sexual Crucible. I’ve reread portions of both books countless times since then because the content is deep and real. He states out loud things most people are too afraid or uncomfortable to think. Passionate Marriage is aimed at long-term couples in gridlock but anyone who wants to keep excitement and passion alive without sacrificing security can benefit.
That’s how J and I found ourselves in Colorado, participating with seven other couples in an intense marriage workshop led by Schnarch and his wife Ruth. The above entry was written early in a week rich with insights and breakthroughs. If you’re a self-help junkie like me, check it out. I haven’t come across anything better.
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!
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.
Since I’m going to offer reviews and recommendations, I thought I’d clarify my personal value in fiction. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything except my own personal taste. Your value system is equally valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to mine.
• I read for entertainment. Story is more important than beautiful language. . That’s not to say I don’t admire the perfect word choice – but without an entertaining story, I won’t keep turning pages.
• I read to answer questions to learn something – what happens next? Questions create suspense and propel me forward. Answers (information) should be revealed slowly to keep me interested.
• The train must leave the station (story must start) fast (preferably immediately). As in screenwriting, start late and leave early.
• Never use two words when you can use one better word. No wasted words ever.
• The best stories involve hard decisions, true dilemmas.
• Use small, concrete physical details in description but make sure they tell the reader something new about the character or story.
• Ask yourself David Mamet’s three questions.
• Why now?
• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if they don’t get it?
• Remember – everybody has their reasons. Even villains/antagonists.
• Protagonists want something passionately. They are active, as are your verbs.
• While not always necessary in literary fiction, I prefer stories in which protagonists change / arc in a satisfying way. Even a failed epiphany is an epiphany.
• Don’t let characters say “I love you”. Show it in interesting ways.
• In literary short stories, small turning points occur when very minor decisions change everything. For me, this doesn’t work in long fiction.
• Short stories shouldn’t snap shut “like a cheap lock” – allow for ambiguity. It’s good if the reader wonders about the story after reading it.