How do we grow so far apart in so little time?

They all started out very much like me, but now I hardly recognize any of these characters.

Or, for that matter, lovers.

 

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It helps when a writer finally comprehends more behind the story

Because of What’s Left, I had a clearer sense of Kenzie’s youth when it came to the revisions that led to Daffodil Uprising than I did back when I published the earlier version.

It’s surprising what a few more years of perspective can add, especially when you now have someone like Cassia sitting beside you.

Is there a personal event you’ve come to understand quite differently now?

 

When it comes to viewing the world, real photography will always stand out

To call me visually oriented would be an understatement.

For most of my life, I’ve viewed the world through imaginary frames and lenses.

I had four years of art training in high school and when recently reviewing many of those pieces was impressed by their high quality. I seriously considered continuing on into college and a career beyond but realized the struggles of making a living that would follow. And so I veered into journalism, where I applied many of those skills in designing newspaper pages, photo essays, and cropping pictures. Thousands and thousands of them.

It also led to a love of typefaces and calligraphy and book design.

Maybe I haven’t strayed that far.

I’ve also worked with some of the best photojournalists in the field and known a number of outstanding artists. I even married one.

On a more mundane level, I sometimes shift into cartoon mode and begin seeing people as whimsical drawings. Or I ponder how they would photograph. (No, I’m not staring at you the way you think I am, sorry if it’s making you uncomfortable.)

Well, for that matter, I did meet some famous cartoonists when I was working for the newspaper syndicate and selling their work to our clients.

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Past loves in the mirror of fiction

Reworking the novels that now stand as Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks also had me elbows-deep in some unfinished emotional detritus left in my personal past.

I feel I’ve pretty well examined and released the baggage from my larger intimate relationships – the failed marriage and a subsequent broken engagement, especially.

The novels, though, started churning up unanticipated buried feelings elsewhere.

Anger at my first lover, for one. I had long suffered disappointment, guilt, and depression after we shattered apart, and then let her fade into what I thought was oblivion. But, as I’m told, feelings are what they are – you can’t control them. As I relived my college years, I realized how much of my own leftward change came about because of her. Moreover, in the ensuing decades, I’ve never had another partner who could so sensitively respond to what I was writing at the time and suggest changes. Still, I can now see how she never could have been the wife I’ve needed, no matter how intense our passion or, like Kenzie with his Liz, how shallow my understanding of her or even her self-centeredness or my own.

The anger, though, still hit as a shock. It just wasn’t something I had ever felt permitted to admit. You’re not allowed to feel that toward the one you love, not according to my upbringing or code of conduct. Now, however, I could come up with a list of offenses, as well as moments when I should have confronted her actions or even broken off, if I had only possessed enough backbone.

Another set of emotions swirled up around the character now known as Shoshanna. While Kenzie is quite smitten by her, he’s never able to make much sense of her romantic history, at least as she presents it. Like him, I’ve always tried to put a positive spin on events, and like him, I’ve always been a sucker for the promise of talent. Over the years, though, I’ve also learned about the long-lasting impact of abuse – physical, verbal, or sexual – as well as similar harm from an alcoholic parent. As I revised, I found myself – intuitively, it seems – connecting that dynamic to her past. I started weeping. It didn’t have to be true in regards to the original inspiration for the story, but it certainly advanced the character and her motivations. No, I wept for what such buried damage had done to women I’ve loved, to myself, and to my relationships. Too often, the bruises remained out of sight, out of the possibility of awareness, taboo. But no longer.

Judith, meanwhile, took the reality of violence much further, into kink. I was once dropped by a lover after her ex-boyfriend showed up in town and they went out. She simply vanished for the night, from my perspective. As she said afterward, when she told him about us, he hit her – beat her, actually, in her words – and she felt better. She insisted the manhandling absolved her guilt, as if she had anything to be guilty about. I was appalled and confused. I really knew very little about her, by her own choice. A decade later, another lover had a similar connection to physical aggression, and my non-violent nature doomed any future to our initial attraction. It had been presented as a fault on my end, by the way, a matter of shame or weakness. And she had been so exciting. Shall we say I was left feeling quite conflicted?

Revising my fictional character, though, allowed me to scrutinize this forbidden zone, no matter how troubling. I was also seeing how much further my first lover had wanted to explore than I was ready to venture. She really had no sense of her own vulnerability – or ours. In the end, she had me seeing how not everyone in the hippie world was really Peace & Love oriented or even satisfied with Flower Power romance.

As Kenzie was reminded, not everyone wanted marriage or even a soul mate.

It’s an insight that still jars me, looking back on my zig-zag journey to here and all that I missed out on along the way.

So here we are, all the same.

 

Retired six years now

Through much of my working career, the question lingered: What do I want to be when I grow up?

The answer finally shaped up: Retired!

So it’s hard to think I’ve been retired six years now – make it seven if you include the early buyout that allowed me to work more flexibly in the newsroom for a year.

Frankly, I don’t feel retired – whatever that is. I don’t play golf or spend all day at the beach or play evenings of card games like bridge.

For me, what I wanted was more time to read and write and attend to Quaker matters and be out in the wilderness – that sort of thing. Do what Gary Snyder would call the Real Work.

My wife scoffed when she saw some of my early plans for retirement. Would I devote regular blocks of time to each pursuit? Would I rise at five to meditate and do yoga before moving on poetry or fiction?

Scoff? She was more infuriated that I wasn’t including time for household chores or gardening or togetherness along other kinds. Saw it as being self-centered.

~*~

Suffice it to say those early scheduling ideas are far from what emerged. They didn’t include swimming laps every weekday, thanks to the brilliant Christmas present of an annual indoor pool pass from my elder daughter, who wisely decided I needed more exercise, seconding a motion from my physician.

Nor did they include being performing in incredible choir in Boston, which takes up the better part of a day. Or, more accurately, an afternoon and evening. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate making music on such a high level.

Nor was blogging on those blueprints. It’s wound up occupying more time than I expected, but it’s also freed me from the submissions process in getting work published – so timewise, I think it’s a bargain. And that includes having my own small-press imprint on my Thistle Finch line here at WordPress.

~*~

I have been able to devote more blocks of time to the fiction, which has been satisfying, but I still feel myself pressed for time when it comes to doing all I want or should.

I’m still trying to make adjustments for the domestic needs, especially now that my wife’s back in the workforce.

The joke is I’m not really retired – I’m just not receiving a paycheck.

In retrospect, I’m surprised by how much writing I actually accomplished in my own time all those years I was employed. It gives me a deep well to draw on.

Sometimes the story goes its own way

Considering his love of mountains, I am surprised that I didn’t have Kenzie heading off on mountainous trails on more of his days off work. He was certainly living close enough, if he wanted to drive a few hours each way.

Instead, it’s swimming at the secluded lake those two summers as well as riding the underground rails of Gotham one weekend of each month.

Sometimes, then, what happens all depends on the people you’re with or are meeting.

That’s how it worked for me, in a situation similar to Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.

Maybe Kenzie just thought he’d get the mountaintop opportunities later? Or maybe just not quite where he planned?

Allowing for a fairy-tale dimension

Admittedly, in my new novel, What’s Left, her family has a lot of good luck – accompanied by enough bad things for balance.

In the early drafts, I liked the fairy-tale, larger-than-life tone – as befits the “best movie ever” or “best novel ever” lists of upwards of ten thousands of listings that I hear from younger voices around me. Still, I’m a bit too Aristotelian to allow more than one as the best of anything, and I’m not referring to Cassia’s great-grandfather Ari here, either.

No, I’m thinking of the fact she’s in a close-knit extended family that’s prospered. In this case we have three brothers who’ve worked tightly together. A more common example in today’s society would be the three brothers who will never again speak to each other after their mother’s estate is settled. And that’s before we get to their children, the cousins who barely know each other, unlike Cassia’s.

There’s her aunt Nita, who’s negotiated a contract to assure she owns her daily newspaper column.

The adults who’ve joined in the family get along well together, something that’s never a given.

And Cassia herself lays claim to a rare happy childhood, up to the point when tragedy strikes when she’s 11.

I never intended this optimism when starting out on this work – it’s just where the narrative wanted to go. If the novel originated, as I think it did, in revisiting the aspirations of the hippie experience, what follows fits well as a foil to directions American society has since taken.

By the way, I do love fairy tales, especially in their more ominous, early, unrefined versions. The kind where Rapunzel’s pregnant or Cinderella’s stepsisters lose their feet.

There are a few of those touches in Cassia’s tale, too, just in case you wonder.

~*~

Put yourself in the story. Or have Cassia stop in your neighborhood for a visit. Where would you want to dine with her? Create something imaginary, if you want, or simply take her (and us) to one of your favorites. (For some of our neighbor girls, it would definitely be the Creperie.)

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Dover, New Hampshire.)