Looking back, I realize Chris was correct – I handed him a sheaf of shapeless unedited diary entries. Not only did they lack a story, they didn’t have a point. The only reason Joyce and I weren’t bored witless was we were in the cast of characters. This was neither the first nor the only time I resisted negative feedback only to recognize its wisdom later.
When readers fail to rhapsodize over my first draft – which has happened exactly never – my first reaction is, at best, defensive. Sometimes, I’m downright hostile. That’s one of the reasons friends like Chris are so valuable. They’re not afraid to tell me the truth because they know that after my ego settles down, we’ll still be speaking.
No writer enjoys criticism, but I’ve come to realize it’s a gift. Some people can’t accept it. If I recognize them, I tell them their first draft is perfect. Taking the time to analyze the strengths and weaknesses in someone else’s work is a sign of respect – even though it doesn’t feel like that when I’m on the receiving end.
It’s not easy to reach Miles Copeland’s castle in France, where the Rocaberti Writer’s Retreat is held. First, you have to fly to Paris. Upon landing, you race to the train station, and catch the one that stops at the Angouleme Station.
There, you board a private coach that winds up narrow mountain roads to an isolated 14th century castle. On a journey like this, fluent French is a plus. I speak English and pigeon-Swedish. Every mile of the way, I worried. What if the website pictures lied, and all that awaited me was s a cheesy tourist trap? The photos did not lie.
When we rounded the corner and the castle came into view, it took my breath away.
From there, it only got better. Every step I took, every inch of every alcove or hallway, was a feast for the eyes and soul. I could almost inhale history. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that I can’t wait to repeat.
The brilliant Claire Elizabeth Terry and Gillian Pollock combined their talents to bring this dream to life. In addition to managing logistics, Gillian gave a hilarious pitch for her own script. Claire previewed an early cut of her soon-to-be-award winning short film “Thirty Minutes.” Claire’s intuition paired me with Martin Olson (Phineas and Ferb) for a mentor. He was passionate, insightful, inspiring, and hilarious. (Make him tell you his Metallica story).
Rocaberti is an intimate, elegant dinner party as opposed to an extravagant banquet. Only 18 – 20 writers attend a retreat. Everybody who’ s there gets to know all the mentors. Diane Drake and Jen Grisanti wore great clothes (casual/classy) and exuded cool sophistication, They were both of those things, but authentic and warm as well. By the time dessert was served, I felt like we were lifelong friends. How often does that happen? Never – to me, anyway – not until Rocaberti.
It wasn’t perfect. The internet sucked, a relatively small price to pay to forge lifelong friendships and resurrect my love of writing. I returned for another retreat in October, this time with my sisters. It was every bit as wonderful.
I expected to be back at Roberti right now, this time to serve as a floating mentor. Sadly, Covid upended those plans. I look forward to rescheduling; I can’t wait to see it on my calendar again.
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.
A spoiled 13-year-old wrote this. Reading it today, I realize how incredibly lucky I was to be my father’s daughter even though as a PK (Preacher’s Kid), I felt pressured to be an “example” to others. The pressure didn’t come from my father. If anything, he urged me to be exactly who I was. Don’t act religious to please him. Don’t go Satanic to rebel. Listen to your own voice.
I didn’t get any static when I chose UCLA instead of a Lutheran college. He made no effort to direct me toward a more practical major than film writing. He was even fine when I married a Catholic.
I think the idea that PK’s should be held to a higher standard is a commonly held, rarely challenged belief. That’s why a casual observer like Jane’s mother could say, “Somehow, we thought the pastor’s daughter would be different.” It’s why Dusty Springfield sang about being despoiled by “the son of a preacher man,” not “the son of a plumber.” It’s just the way it is.
Growing up PK was a challenge I didn’t choose but in retrospect it was a privilege. I wouldn’t trade a minute of being Pastor Vance’s daughter to be anyone else.
I remember this well – my excitement was so intense it’s still indescribable. All of those times I came so close to my goal and missed taught me to lower my expectations. I didn’t let myself hope for more than another meeting. To learn my spec script had been optioned by a real producer for real money (not a lot, but more than I’d ever made writing before) seemed surreal. Part of me always believed I’d make it as a writer, otherwise I wouldn’t have pursued it – but another part saw a screenwriting career as a dream, out of reach. One of my high school teachers told me I wouldn’t be a real writer until someone paid me to write and I believed her – so, Steve Friedman optioning the script was validation.
In my dizzy euphoria, I assumed everything would be different now – my career would come easily. That proved overly optimistic. Steve didn’t make the movie and the option lapsed. The same script would be optioned twice more, by two different producers, and it attracted some top-tier female directors and talent, but as of today it remains unproduced. Doesn’t matter. It’s still one of the top ten days of my life.
What looked like my lucky break was actually a crash course in how quickly “All my dreams are coming true!” can dissolve into no one’s returning my phone calls. Sadly, this was far from my last experience with emotional whiplash, careers version.
Still, Froug was right when he advised me to celebrate. Why not bask in the potential something amazing just might happen? So what if it doesn’t, this time? The near-miss zone is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people never get that close. Nobody gets there by accident. Somebody noticed you and said, “the kid’s got talent.” If they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t waste their time. The least you can do is believe in yourself.
Legend has it, the average overnight success endures twenty to fifty rejections before they’re rewarded with that first life-changing YES. What are you waiting for? The faster you rack up the no’s, the sooner your dreams come true.
The script that earned me this near-miss – “Intimate Changes,” not the greatest title – never got produced, but it won me introductions to agents, producers and network execs, all pivotal in my later career. What felt like loss was only life unfolding more slowly than I preferred.
Should anyone doubt my Nerd credentials, read no further than the above diary entry. In fact, I’d argue knotting grass to make insect beds raises the bar on Dorkiness. Surely, I had a few worthier – at the very least, cooler – hobbies.
What did pre-digital loners like myself do for entertainment in 1965? I pasted green stamps into books for my mother. Played “Kick the Can” and “Monopoly” with the neighborhood kids. I tottered around on the pair of stilts my father built for me. I pored over the Sears catalog – its arrival was a major event in our house. We always placed an order, forgetting that the merchandise never looked as classy in our living room as it did in the catalog.
When the new catalog arrived, I claimed the old one. I named the prettiest models, carefully mulling the perfect moniker for each. I bought my first “A Name for Baby” book around then – the start of a lifelong obsession. And then, I wrote stories about the people I named.
Of course, I became a writer. What other profession gives you god-like powers in your fictional universe plus carte blanche to name a cast of thousands?
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.
While combing my diaries for a suitable blog entry, if I find a snippet about CD, I usually send it to the adult CD just to give him some idea of his life as a two-year-old. Since he has no conscious memories of his infancy, he can’t enlighten me about what actually ran through his mind.
A child psychiatrist might hazard an informed guess about which cognitive skills were in development but no one will ever know for sure. Odds are, my instincts were right and what amused him involved repetition.
As my diaries suggest, by nature I wrote down almost everything that happened, no matter how apparently trivial. I’m glad I did, now, since some of the things that seemed mundane – even then – acquired significance in the ensuing years. I forgot almost everything I failed to record for posterity.
As my firstborn, CD was the beneficiary – or the victim, depending on your point of view – of my meticulous record keeping. Sometimes, in bursts of energy, he’d run races with himself, up and down the family room, shouting “Go!” a few seconds after he started. We could guarantee a smile by throwing a towel over his head, asking “Where’s CD?” and yanking it off. Hilarious! Two-year-old’s – the best audience ever.
These conversations may not sound “deep” today (or was the word “heavy”?) I’m glad I wrote them down – otherwise, I’d have no idea what my sisters and I talked about as kids. Do you remember childhood topics of conversation with your friends? Your siblings? Your parents? Do you ever wish you’d written it down?
I have zero independent recall of the vast majority of days described in my diary. They sound vaguely familiar – like something I might’ve overheard or said – but it’s my diary telling me what happened, not any real recollection.
Oddly, I do remember this conversation with my father – it started with my short story and evolved into a discussion of coming of age. I can see him on the floor, repairing that cupboard in our Del Monte kitchen. He made such an effort to meet me on my own turf. He listened to my Beatles records, listened to the Doors. Being young and selfish, I didn’t respond with reciprocal interest in his world. I wish I had; he had more to teach me than I could ever teach him. That said, his purpose was never to indoctrinate – he wanted to know me.