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.
My parents didn’t allow me to date until I turned sixteen and waiting for it probably built my anticipation. It was thrilling at first – I loved going out to restaurants (fast food qualified as restaurant to my untutored taste buds) and feeling so grown up. The rules were clear and easy in the sixties. Boys always paid. Boys placed the phone calls, boys asked for the date. Girls had it easy. All we had to do was say yes or no and follow the advice in magazines such as Seventeen let him do the talking and act interested. Find little things to compliment him about – his driving, for instance.
Six years later, the rules hadn’t changed much but I had. Dating felt more like a torturous death march than a thrill. I was sick of pretending to be interested when I was bored. Somehow, my dates were both dull and stressful, a bad combination. I was sick of exchanging resumes over dinner, worried about that sprig of arugula stuck between my teeth.
It’s no coincidence I didn’t get to know the two guys I could talk to in a genuine way on a date – my college boyfriend Luke lived in my first undergraduate dorm, my future husband John lived in Law House (grad school lodging). Proximity eliminated the artificial structure of a date while we got to know each other. I recently read Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance and learned that until recently the biggest common denominator in romantic pairings was proximity. People married people they met in their neighborhood or at work.
That’s no longer the case, thanks to the internet and various match-up apps. I was married long before any of that happened, so I can’t speak from personal experience. Does it feel more like a date or like getting to know somebody who lives nearby, now that we’re all only a modem away from each other?
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.
My tenure as Roger Corman’s “Assistant” at New World Pictures was one of my better jobs. I also served as his receptionist which consumed the bulk of my time. Aside from answering the phone, everything else I did was interesting. I might be deployed to Max Factor’s to pick up gallons of fake blood for an afternoon shoot. Frequently Roger sent me home with a script for overnight coverage. I didn’t consider it working overtime because it was thrilling. Whether or not Roger agreed with my notes, I felt validated because he paid attention. He was an extraordinarily good listener.
It was Roger’s wife, Julie Corman, who liked my resume and hired me to work for Roger. Since New World was known for its violent exploitation films, I expected Roger to be a bombastic vulgar bully like other studio heads I heard rumors about. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He wielded his considerable power quietly, with dignity. Corman had class and brains (he graduated from Stanford, for starters.) While I was there New World made “Candy Stripe Nurses” and “Caged Heat” but they also released Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-nominated “Cries and Whispers.”
I don’t claim I knew Roger well. In my opinion, he wasn’t an easy guy to know but he was worth the effort. It wouldn’t surprise me if people who worked for him in different capacities saw sides of him I didn’t. To me, he seemed like a classic introvert, an enigmatic sensitive artist as opposed to a tyrannical boss from hell. He built a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman but I remember unexpected generosity and kindness. When I quit – that’s another story for later – I wasn’t entitled to health insurance but I was sick and he extended my coverage. Not forever – he wasn’t stupid – just long enough to make a difference.
When I left, we promised to stay in touch and we did for a while. New World’s offices were on Sunset, not far from the Tower Records, so it was easy to drop in and say hi. Inevitably, contact tapered off, then ceased. Still, although my time at New World was brief, Roger’s quiet integrity and decency remain vivid after all these years. I’m hoping he’ll read this and know I said hello – and thank you.
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.
“I look at all the lonely people – where do they all come from?” Sometimes I feel like Eleanor Rigby should be the soundtrack of my life. Undoubtedly, I noticed lonely people more when I was lonely myself just like I noticed more PT cruisers on the freeway after I drove one. This particular old lady probably affected me more than most because she used reading to fill the emptiness in her life much like I’ve used it in mine.
San Diego was a lonely city for me. We didn’t move there until after I graduated from high school so I had no peer group of friends to welcome me home. My sisters and I had each other at first but since both of them went to high school there, they developed their own social circles and needed me less than I needed them. Apparently – at least based on this entry – I turned to my dog Inga for solace. “I look at all the lonely people” indeed.
The silver lining is in the last line – and once again I’m forced to acknowledge this might have been another lucky break disguised as pain. Who knows how much writing I would have accomplished if I’d had a social life to distract me? Lacking anything close to friends, I had no choice but to invent people to entertain myself – a coping mechanism that came to serve me well.
My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.
The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:
An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.
One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?
In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)
In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.
This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time. He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”
How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?
Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.” I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.) However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.
Since my family and I are touring Scandinavia, it’s a perfect time to revisit my relationship with Henrik Ibsen.
Growing up in California the smart second language was Spanish, but in high school I opted for Latin. When I reached UCLA I registered for German but in less than an hour I realized what most people probably already knew – Germans don’t employ the same sentence structure as English.
Luckily, UCLA offered a plethora of languages, one of which was Swedish. As a second language its usefulness is debatable since most Swedes speak English, but it utilizes the exact same sentence structure as English. Sign me up!
Today, the only Swedish I remember is “Ja kan tala da svenska mycket bra.” Unfortunately, this translates to “I can speak Swedish very well” and since I kannot tala da svenska mycket bra, I dare not utter it to anybody who actually speaks Swedish.
Since a year of Swedish familiarized me with the Scandinavian languages building, I figured why not take Scandinavian Literature? The first book we read was “The Axe.” (That’s all I remember, but I’m willing to bet no one lived happily ever after.) Next we read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (logline – Norwegian writer starves himself to death for art) and then Barabbas
(not the feel-good movie version. In the Lagerkvist book, Barabbas escapes death on the cross, thinks about things but reaches no conclusions, and dies on another cross.) If you’re hooked on nihilistic hopelessness and can’t get enough tragic suicides or avalanches, Scandinavian lit is for you.
This brings me to Henrik Ibsen. What better way to follow up my immersion in Scandinavian lit than a ten-week four-unit course all about Ibsen, all the time? I might not know much about Strindberg but by God, I can pontificate about Ibsen as long as you can stay conscious. How important is Ibsen? He’s behind Shakespeare but ahead of Chekhov when it comes to fathering modern theater.
Here are some things you might not know about Ibsen. He left Norway before he found fame as a playwright and lived most of his adult life in Italy and Germany. He had a yen for young girls (but not Polanski thirteen-year olds; Ibsen’s crushes were old enough to legally consent, although it wasn’t necessary as nothing physical was involved.) Oddly enough, although I find the old man/ young girl thing a little repugnant, my favorite Ibsen plays are his later ones dealing – not obliquely – with old geniuses and young girls. Ibsen might be famous for A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gable, Peer Gynt and Enemy of the People but I’ll take Rosmersholm, Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken all day long.
Part two of Ibsen and I to follow tomorrow.
But, before I leave you, today, here is a collage of some of our experiences on our cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen.
Two weeks later, although I have visited many wondrous places and have seen some incredible things, it is time to stop climbing the endless castle stairs.
I have yet to realize the above scenario. It turns out Tolstoy rarely surfaces in California small talk. Luckily, the blog format allows me to start my own conversation but it might be too late. I haven’t given Leo much thought for decades. To test my knowledge retention, I’m writing this post without using references.
My favorite Tolstoy novel was the lesser known Resurrection, written relatively late in his life. I don’t recall the hero’s name but basically the plot was as follows. An aristocrat serving as a juror recognizes the woman on trial as the same girl he and his friends gang-raped years earlier. Overcome with guilt, he accompanies her to prison in Siberia. She is not enthusiastic and, as I recall, it doesn’t turn into a love story. It’s more about the guy’s spiritual journey. It’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
My second favorite was Anna Karenina but I confess skimming the parts about Levin. Tolstoy used Levin to pontificate on rural Russian agriculture, not exactly a page-turner. Given this, it’s ironic the section of the book I remember and admired most involved the deadly dull Levin.
Here is how I remember it. Levin has been set up with an eligible woman (after suffering rejection from Kitty, the woman he wants and – spoiler alert – later gets.) They’re picnicking near a river. Tolstoy describes a moment in their conversation where they both realize – or decide – this relationship is dead in the water. The energy level drops but nothing is said. No doubt some of my admiration for this passage is due to having experienced similar moments myself although I couldn’t articulate them as well. In a future post, I’ll paste the passage in question into my blog and attempt to analyze why it works – or I’ll admit my memory failed and what I recall reading doesn’t exist. (It appears this may, in fact, be the case. I’m mortified.)
My favorite Tolstoy short story is the Kreutzer Sonata in which the aging Leo rails against the evils of lust, sex and women. In reality, Tolstoy’s wife Sonya got pregnant shortly after its publication and referred to the baby as “the postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata.” It’s a passionate story, raging against passion.
Ask me what I know about Dostoevsky or Chekhov and the answer is “not much.” But just wait until someone brings up Leo Tolstoy at a cocktail party!
Here are a couple of shots of our visits to Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.