lena-dunhamI’ve been reading some nasty screeds lately about Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series “Girls.” The show follows the New York-based adventures of four twenty-something girls who somehow lack the fabulousness of their predecessors, the Sex And The City women. Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, a struggling writer and the least glamorous of the girls, is naturally the one I identify with. Her evident inspiration, Carrie Bradshaw of SATC, was a popular columnist, and thus not nearly as relatable. You would think followers of “Girls” who are struggling writers themselves would be just the type to identify with Hannah, yet viewers love to hate her. Her narcissism, immaturity, and poor life choices may resonate, but that doesn’t make her likeable.

Of course, it’s Lena we resent, not Hannah. Like many of us, Dunham writes semi-autobiographical stories. Those of us who dabble in chicklit often feature heroines who screw up a lot; in fact, if they didn’t, there would be no story. Writing instructors tell us it’s essential that our characters grow up and figure things out in the course of a story. Since Dunham’s series is presumably set to run for a few more seasons, Hannah’s growth process is agonizingly slow. She still hits up her folks for money. She’s had numerous near-breakthroughs in her writing career, but something always goes wrong. Her relationships seem promising for a few episodes, but something is always off kilter.

Lena Dunham’s success proves that you can make a living by making hay out of your mistakes. But how did such a screw-up land an HBO series? Not by doing the things her alter ego does, but by working hard, taking risks, getting a little bit lucky, and cultivating helpful connections rather than alienating them.

Lena’s success might give us all hope, except that Hannah’s struggles seem more believable. During the current season she landed a respectably salaried but unfulfilling job shilling for a corporation. She can’t resist telling her boss that there’s no way she’ll be doing this job in ten years, because that would mean she never became a real writer. That day she comes home from the office not quite sure whether she quit the job or not. Either way, she vows that from now on her free time will be devoted to becoming the writer she was intended to be. She tells her actor boyfriend not to talk to her for three hours, as that’s the amount of time she will be allotting each evening to her own creative pursuits. When she’s done, she’ll be ready to listen to him describe his own day. While she’s telling him this, she falls asleep on the sofa and he tucks her in. So much for pursuing fame and fortune in your spare time.

We Still Got Heart

February 25, 2014

1388I’m getting a kick out of Frederic J. Frommer’s “You Gotta Have Heart,” an entertaining history of Washington baseball encompassing four different teams from 1859 to 2012. It describes the special sort of heartbreak that seems to have haunted DC baseball fans for more than a hundred years (including that appalling 34-year gap from 1971 to 2005). The word “heartbreak,” when applied to sports, is hyperbole. Yet when your team loses, especially when it should have won, it feels tragic. The aggrieved fan really ought to acquire some perspective no later than the next day, considering all the immeasurably worse things that are happening in the world and could even strike close to home. Yet what other city has “suffered” so endlessly as to inspire a long-running musical based on the proposition that the only way out of the doldrums is a pact with the devil?

I took personally the loss of two Senators teams, in 1961 to Minnesota and 1971 to Texas. It still feels like betrayal, and it even feels like the Twins and Rangers are at least partly ours. The first time it happened, it took my family a few years to warm up to the lousy expansion team we acquired in their place. The second time it happened, I was away at college when they slipped away behind my back … which in some ways made it worse.

The book describes the dramatic break in the clouds that the 2012 playoffs brought about: the first postseason baseball in DC since 1933. The Nationals played an up-and-down Divisional series, with the ecstasy of a walk-off win in Game Four followed by yet another heartbreak in Game Five. A floating strike zone tightened at the worst possible moment for the young closer, Drew Storen, who twice nearly closed out a divisional series win.

Those of us who take these things to heart are often told to “get a life.” I agreed in principle, until I read what some of the most respected political figures and pundits in town had to say about that loss. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likened it to “a death in the family,” and added that Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election was only slightly more painful to him. Democratic political consultant James Carville called it “one of the great searing moments of my life.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer, preparing for a television appearance and following Game Four at the same time, predicted he’d be the first person ever to have a heart attack on live television. So there you have it: bi-partisan fanaticism in DC.

South_Carolina_flag_mapOne of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy, has written a couple of memoirs that explore the roots of his fiction. The latest one, The Death of Santini, tackles the most painful source of his inspiration, the brutal treatment he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.

Conroy was always destined to be controversial, with such an array of dark and violent subjects to choose from. His first book, The Boo, was originally self-published (something we indies can take to heart). His second, The Water Is Wide, described his experience as an inexperienced teacher in an impoverished African American elementary school. His methods got him fired after a year, and his indictment of the segregated school system provoked a fair amount of outrage in the South. Since then, Conroy has continued to deal with the hot topics that roiled the nation during the 1960s, such as southern racism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. He also tackles the most personally sensitive topic imaginable: his own experiences with mental illness, including the psychosis of a sister, the suicide of a brother, and his own periodic breakdowns.

Conroy’s writing tends to be lush and metaphor-filled, something that many so-called experts frown on. Certainly we indies get slammed if we’re perceived to be too flowery. That’s why I was delighted to read his blast against the naysayers: “I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”

A paramecium-souled critic! Has anyone ever put it better? I’m certainly not knocking constructive criticism, which authors need, but haven’t we all encountered our share of these paramecium souls? Don’t we know what it is to be willfully misunderstood by readers who refuse to suspend disbelief long enough to accept our vision? That kind of automatic dismissal precludes thoughtful judgment and lends itself to nit-picking. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of anonymous trolls who feel qualified to write a “review” based on a two-minute skimming.

Conroy also goes on to explain why he doesn’t write reviews, or at least bad ones: “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.” We could all take a lesson from those words: a thoughtful critique is one thing, a hatchet job quite another.

1231021950More than a decade into the self-publishing revolution, it’s hard to believe we’re still being subjected to dire warnings about “vanity publishing.” Can there possibly be a more tired phrase than that? If it’ll do any good, I’ll admit that I’m vain. Whenever I publish, I chose to pay dearly for the privilege. A complete package includes professional covers, copyrights, thorough editing, and at least rudimentary marketing. Those don’t come cheap, and all are absolutely essential for even moderate success.

Like many other aspiring authors, I have found the traditional path not totally unresponsive to my queries, yet ultimately unsuited to my type of writing. There are simply too many rules. I like to mix genres, which makes it next to impossible to fit into a publishing niche. My novels start out as chicklit, but then I complicate things by adding healthy doses of social and/or political commentary. Not an easy sell.

Traditional publishing is not only too limiting in that way, but takes too long. For someone who’s no longer a spring chicken, years of compromise, rejection, and frustration are not a good option. And yes, it takes “vanity” to believe that stories representing my own vision from start to finish, not someone else’s idea of a commercial product, are worth putting out. My only obligation is to make sure they’re not a half-assed job, but the very best I can do.

Does that make us indies any more vain than traditionally published authors? Not so much these days, I believe. On the contrary, it looks like even the trads are increasingly expected to do their own self-promotion, assuming they aren’t famous already. So can’t we just agree that all writers are vain? We must be, if we persist in thinking we have something to say that the world should hear.

138852512-wilsonloveThe Beach Boys, that goodtime band of my youth that always seemed to personify Fun, Fun, Fun, have devolved into quite a mess. The tragic part of the story began many years ago with the loss of the two younger Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl. The band survived, with the help of talented replacements, but it was wracked by dissention. These days, first cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love are leading separate factions. Love has been suing Wilson regularly since 1989. He’s won most of the legal battles, including the right to call his version of the group The Beach Boys. After pursuing separate paths for many years, the two combatants tantalized their fans with a 50th Anniversary Reunion in 2012, only to break up again.

Is the divorce final this time? Two versions of the band are now touring the country, playing some of the same locations and many of the same songs but also presenting distinctly different visions of what the brand has come to mean. I saw both versions, Parts One and Two, in Atlantic City about two months apart. Despite their differences, they both tapped into that crowd-pleasing sense of fun, reeling off many of their biggest hits. Both bands feature longtime members of the group: Wilson has Al Jardine and David Marks in his lineup, while Love has Bruce Johnston.

Brian is forbidden to call his outfit the Beach Boys. There’s some justification for this, as he’s clearly the one who has strayed from the original model, having sequestered himself in recording studios for long periods to experiment with new sounds. He also works somewhat incongruously with classic rockers such as Jeff Beck, who couldn’t be farther from the surfer mold. Mike, by contrast, has never stopped trying to be a teenager. During his show, which is especially heavy on the old car tunes, he flashes pictures of his first wreck of an automobile (Little Deuce Coup) and then his current flashy one. When he relives high school with songs like “Be True To Your School,” cheerleaders join him onstage.

Both of the shows are heavy on nostalgia and evoke the good old days, but I wonder: can’t these two just get along before it’s too late? They are family, after all, and they’re both in their seventies. More importantly, they represent two distinct but equally important aspects of the band, both of which were essential to their original success: the creative genius represented by shy and reticent Wilson, and the promoter’s instinct personified by outgoing, flamboyant Love. Why not celebrate them both … together?

Nats Park 4-01-13The haters knew it all along: this team was destined to fold. Last year, my Washington Nationals captured the National League East championship and made the playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history, but they went no farther. That was evidently because they offended too many self-proclaimed baseball pundits with their “arrogance,” the worst sin there is in the eyes of the baseball gods.

What the experts howled about most was the untimely shutdown of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, which took place before the playoffs began. The Nationals chose to follow the widely recognized medical protocol for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery. They did this with the approval of Strasburg’s surgeon, one of the world’s leading experts on the treatment of pitchers’ elbow injuries. The decision was based not only on medical theory, but empirical evidence that Strasburg’s effectiveness was declining late in the season.

You would think from listening to the baseball pundits that the Nationals had deliberately torpedoed the kid’s career by considering his long-term health. They accuse the Nats of figuring they’d easily return to the playoffs the following year, and all subsequent years when they’d have Strasburg’s services for the entire season. Now the geniuses can gloat, because the upstart team failed to make the playoffs in 2013. According to the common pundit wisdom, the Nats probably blew their one and only chance to make it to the World Series!

Clearly, the team was felled by high expectations. The players were accused of complacency, or maybe they lacked confidence in crucial situations. These reasons seem contradictory, so which was it? The experts can’t quite decide, but either way, they know they were right all along. The Nats were arrogant, and that brings about deadly baseball curses. Why don’t we fans just accept the mystical explanation, and never mind extraneous nonsense like scientific data and medical protocols?

Obsession And Art

September 10, 2013

obsessionA few weeks ago I read a letter to a popular advice columnist from a married woman who confessed to harboring an obsession for an unidentified public figure with a less than sterling image. The comments section went wild with speculation about who the object of her obsession might be. Some commenters were sure they had identified the man, and berated the woman accordingly. Others belittled her for endangering her marriage over a fantasy.

What brought out the sharpest knives, however, was her confession that she was a writer who had been in an artistic drought for a while. It seemed she had gotten a spark from these illicit feelings, and was writing a novel with this person as a central character. Most of the commenters tore apart her project without knowing any more than that. They insisted that there could be nothing worthwhile about a story conceived in such a manner. Without a doubt, it would be a self-indulgent piece of crap. She was assured that “it will never be published” by some literary expert who apparently never heard of self-publishing. Others were sure if it ever saw the light of day, it would merit one star from every reviewer who came across it.

This barrage made me wonder how many of these premature critics ever felt a creative impulse themselves. If they had ever attempted something as complicated as a novel, I would think they’d realize there are many possible sources of inspiration. At least the advice columnist, who teaches creative writing on the side, showed some sympathy, offering advice on techniques the aspiring novelist could use to disguise and fictionalize her subject. My guess is that most writers of fiction, famous or not, get at least an occasional boost from obsessive thoughts that they would never reveal in polite company. The trick is to acknowledge these dark feelings and use them creatively instead of destructively.

On the other hand, obsession is never healthy if it leads someone to confront the real-life object of her passion. A while ago I blogged about the near-fatal shooting of baseball player Eddie Waitkus in 1949 by a deranged fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who lured him to a hotel room. What if Steinhagen had been a writer?  It’s possible that her murderous impulse would have remained safely in the realm of fiction. It took Bernard Malamud to transform the real-life tragedy to art in his 1952 novel The Natural.

suffragette-marchers-carrying-portable-speaker-rostrums-new-york-city-1912I’m a feminist who believes with all her heart that women can be anything they choose to be. I grew up in an era when most mothers, including mine, gave up their careers to be full-time housewives. Were those the good old days, and if so, for whom? I can’t deny it was reassuring to have my mom at home all the time. Whether or not she was happy with her life is another question. She never said she wasn’t, in so many words. But I suspect  she and many other full-time moms of that era suffered a fair amount of frustration and resentment.

That said, I’m not sure the present-day determination of women to do and be everything is totally wonderful. Is it really possible to “have it all”? I would have loved the freedom and wherewithal to write novels to my heart’s content while also nurturing a family. But it didn’t happen, and not because of any conscious decision I made. A long series of separate choices led me to where I am today. I know if I were trying to do everything, I’d be doing a half-assed job at everything. I spend half my time earning a living, and the other half in a fictional cloud, manipulating imaginary friends. Where would a real child fit in?

Women who manage this balancing act may be paying a heavier price than they’re willing to admit. Many years ago I knew a local politician and housewife who wrote poems on the back of a shopping list while waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket. Kudos to her. In college I became fascinated with Sylvia Plath, who literally went crazy trying to find this balance. She described childbirth as an incomparably wonderful experience. Yet in her final, poetically creative days, close friends of hers had to intervene when they realized she had lost the ability or desire to care for her two small children.

Lately we’ve been hearing from female CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer who declare to the world that they’ve conquered this conundrum. “Having it all” for them is defined as being a hot-shot executive on call 24 hours a day while fitting in some parenting. How useful is their advice to the rest of us, when we all know it’s their tremendous wealth and connections that make this perfect lifestyle possible? Sandberg blithely tells women to “lean in” at the conference table as she did, but she runs no real risk to her job security in doing so. For my money, it’s Mayer who hits true heights of arrogance by building a nursery at the worksite just for her own baby and nanny, while refusing to provide daycare and telework options for her employees. There’s also her presumption that she would have a perfectly normal child with no particular needs that the onsite nanny couldn’t fulfill. I certainly don’t wish her any ill luck, but birth defects and developmental problems are no respecters of class and wealth.

I’ll go even farther out on a limb and suggest that the heavily maligned Paul Tudor Jones had a point when he questioned the suitability of mothers for top Wall Street jobs. He didn’t state it very delicately, and it isn’t for him or for me the declare that a woman shouldn’t try to do both. But if a baby suckling at the breast isn’t a major distraction, I can’t help thinking something is wrong.

Humphrey BogartI’ve never been a fan of crime mysteries in books or movies. All the shootings, blown up buildings, and car chases are plenty exciting but don’t lend themselves to the kind of character development I like. However, since I’m always looking for ways to expand the scope of both my reading and writing, I recently downloaded two classic examples of film noir on Kindle HD, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” I’m trying to see how much I can sympathize with detectives Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, both portrayed memorably by Humphrey Bogart.

How good are these stories at character development? It seems to me that the detective game forces the crime-solvers to be as diabolically clever and immoral as the crooks they chase, until the two are barely distinguishable. Spade and Marlowe fool around with attractive women clients and are at various times being investigated by the conventional police for the very crimes they’re trying to solve. For my money, neither cops nor crooks are particularly believable. Still, they can be intriguing in their mysteriousness. It’s the acting that brings the characters to life.

What’s astounding to me is that these two classics have many of the same flaws that we self-published novelists are constantly criticized for. The plots are complicated and full of exposition-spouting characters who act foolishly and whose motivations aren’t always clear. “The Big Sleep” in particular seems intent on driving its viewers crazy, dropping red herrings and murdered bodies all over the place. The main plot line involves a chauffeur to a rich family who is in love with the younger of two wild and beautiful daughters. He has apparently (although we can’t be sure of anything) murdered the blackmailer who holds her gambling debts, and then apparently ends up getting murdered himself. Then his murderer is murdered, and so on, except that in a few of these incidents it’s possible the wrong guy got murdered.

So if classic mysteries aren’t all that perfect, why can’t we self-published authors catch a break from reviewers when we try something similar? I made somewhat of an attempt at a crime story in my novel Let’s Play Ball, published in 2010. It has a kidnapping at the heart of it, but the real story is about the relationship between fraternal twin sisters who are buffeted by this event. The “whodunit,” if you can call it that, ultimately involves nefarious doings in high government places. It evolves into a political scandal that takes a long time getting resolved, and imperfectly at that. The main point is that the sisters, after enduring a rough patch, rebuild their relationship and incidentally, their marriages. Thus the book turns into the same old chicklit, which is what I like. I believe in the book, but it gets mostly scorned by reviewers. I can hear them asking: where’s the mystery?

SorceressFantasy and science fiction are riding high these days in both books and movies. These genres seem to be outselling most others by a fair amount, and leaving mainstream works totally in the dust. Even though escapism is all the rage, I’ve never really gone for it much since outgrowing Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney cartoons. I get how tempting it is to take a break from real-world problems, but if I’m going to immerse myself in an alternate world, I prefer it to be recognizable. I guess my daily habit of perusing The Washington Post keeps me too grounded in reality. Most of the inspiration for my own writing comes from the news and my own experiences in workplaces and social settings.

So how can I embrace the unrealism that seems to give others so much pleasure … and incidentally, sells a lot of books and movies? Unfortunately, vampires and werewolves leave me cold, despite being proven gold mines and the quickest way for self-published authors to get through the traditional gates. I’d like my magic to be light and fun, not ghoulish.

Witness Pictures, the independent film company that has produced three book trailers for me, is currently churning out a fantasy web series called “Freelancers.” It claims to have a little bit of everything in the fantasy line: “a timeless realm full of magic and monsters, wizards, warriors, dungeons and dragons.” Yet it maintains some of the real-world familiarity I prefer by presenting its characters as flawed personalities who may have extraordinary talents but still need to pay their bills and get along in the workaday world.

The heroines that populate my novels don’t have much in common with the character played by young actress Caitlin Geier: “a fiery, rapier-wielding cat burglar, on the run from … well, just about everyone after stealing a mysterious artifact from a powerful sorcerer.” Compare that to my cast of office workers, aspiring journalists, sports groupies, and college students. But who knows: maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to throw a few wizards, sorceresses, and assorted monsters into my mixes. Expanding my horizons could be fun.