Weak Eulogies

A close friend of mine, a warm and lovely girl whom I first knew during our college days in the early 1970s, committed suicide in 2004. She was one of the most level-headed people I knew in college, someone I could count on for sensible advice. She did the act in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. During her spring break from teaching at a small-town college, she drove from her home to a reservoir and set herself on fire. Passing motorists spotted the flames and called the police.

A few days later, two brief newspaper articles about the incident appeared, one in the town where she was teaching, and the other in her original hometown. One of the articles listed her many accomplishments: master’s degree in teaching and doctorate in education; college professor for twelve years; founder and first dean of the graduate program; chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee; Sunday school teacher and ordained deacon at her church; aunt to seven nieces and nephews. The other article was much more terse, sticking to the facts. A police officer explained, “Apparently the victim drove to a remote place, dumped a can of gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.” The woman was described as someone with a history of mental problems who was seeing a caseworker.

Nothing about the girl I knew would have led me to believe that that she was capable of such an act. In college she was a political rebel in a small way, a Young Republican in a sea of Democrats. That put her in the minority, but it hardly made her a freak. As an educator, she expressed opposition to the “no child left behind” system that was in force during much of her career. But again, that hardly made her a unique crusader. If her self-immolation was supposed to make a political point or some other big impression, it failed spectacularly.

Her family set up an online memorial to celebrate her life and call attention to the scourge of suicide. Sadly, her former students barely responded. Probably the consensus was that she let them down. At the point around mid-semester when she left them, many must have felt abandoned as they tried to finish theses or prepare for graduation and subsequent job searches. Not that she intended to hurt them, but the few eulogies I read struck me as weak.

Why, then, did she do it, and why did she choose that method? I’m aware there are often hereditary components to depression. She told me once about a grandfather of hers, a Presbyterian minister, who succumbed to the disease. In view of that, her return to the church relatively late in life seem a little ominous. There had been a previous breakdown three years before, requiring hospitalization. That might have created obstacles to purchasing a firearm.

I can tell from my blog-reading that many people are dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as more clearly diagnosed conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, yet no one has to suffer alone. Many full and productive lives are being lived in spite of, or maybe even because of, these issues. The compassion for others that tough times can produce is in itself a worthy life skill.

Self-destructive behavior among writers is a fairly common phenomenon. For example, the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became acquainted in 1958, while auditing a course in poetry writing at Boston University. Both had attempted suicide in the past, and would succeed in the future. After class, they often went out for martinis with another poet, George Starbuck, who was rumored to be having an affair with Sexton. Their conversations reportedly centered around their flirtations with death, and the restrictions imposed by marriage, especially on women. Plath was married to the British poet Ted Hughes, a more accomplished writer than she was at that time. Plath did not yet have children, but intended to. Sexton, four years older, represented what Plath wanted to be … a successful poet who was also raising a family.

When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton wrote a poem eulogizing her friend. Later, she flippantly called the act “a good career move.” True, Plath’s bitter end eventually stimulated interest in The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel about her first suicide attempt, but she wasn’t around to enjoy it. The novel trashed the very people who had done the most to help her through that crisis. Her children benefited financially from her posthumous success, but they didn’t have their mother. In fact, her act exposed them to a “wicked stepmother” figure, the woman Hughes had been seeing and who sparked the rage that was evident in Plath’s final poems. That woman eventually committed suicide as well, taking her young child with her. Sexton herself followed in 1974, as if determined to duplicate that “good career move.”

Plath didn’t aspire to become a poster child for depressive writers, but that was how it turned out. When she was at her happiest, as when she first met Ted Hughes while studying at Cambridge University, she declared her intention to become a joyous, life-affirming writer. Within weeks, she determined to marry him and transform him into her vision of the best man he could be. In a letter to her mother, she declared, “ … having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long. I shall praise the lord and the crooked creatures he has made. My life shall be a constant finding of new ways and words in which to do this … my whole life will be a saying of poems and a loving of people and giving of my best fiber to them.”

If her desperate act was a good career move, it was a terrible life move. It darkens and stains every eulogy she inspires. The same can be said for Sexton, whose daughters, far from remembering her lovingly, accused her of abusing them. Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, a noted marine biologist, killed himself in 2009. Suicide does not enhance a legacy, or enrich someone’s story. It is as destructive to those left behind as to the perpetrator.

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Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

Our Imaginary Friends

The world would be a dull place if it were populated only by real people. Fortunately, we authors have a propensity to create alternate worlds and fill them with characters as original, outlandish, or ordinary as we please. Assuming you’re one of these hyper-imaginative people, how do you come up with the characters that populate your stories? Do you make them up from scratch, or are they thinly disguised caricatures of people you know? Maybe you use both methods, even creating the occasional character who’s something of a hybrid. The question follows: do characters who spring fairly complete out of your imagination tend to be less believable than those who can be traced to an actual person? Which type does a better job of advancing your story?

Authors live to make things up, but they also have to live in the real world. Our flights of imagination might get us locked up if we didn’t have an outlet for them. As it is, fantasy can intrude more than is safe or advisable. You better not be daydreaming when you’re supposed to be driving, cooking, or using power tools. However, as long as we make reasonable concessions to the real world, we’re pretty much free to dream up any kind of outrage, crime, or cataclysm we please.

Sometimes I get a mild shock, on rereading my novels after a long interval, at what my characters are capable of. I’m a believer in the philosophies of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other prophets of non-violent resistance, yet some of my creations commit violent acts or at least contemplate them. Not that this should be surprising for a writer in the USA, with its insane gun culture and its almost daily headlines heralding yet another massacre. I live in a country where even dead schoolchildren can’t seem to move lawmakers to shake off the poisonous influence of a rich and powerful gun lobby. Yet I was startled when I recently opened the first chapter of The Rock Star’s Homecoming to find an ordinary coed imagining a violent attack against a much more attractive hallmate of hers who was favored to win the crown of Homecoming Queen. The character in question wasn’t violent per se, but her jealousy poisoned her imagination.

Any “normal” person … by that I mean a non-writer … would take us for lunatics if we revealed too much about our creative processes. I tended to be a loner at school, especially during the earliest grades. One time my older brother spied on me when I was by myself on the playground, and reported to my mother than I was behaving strangely. At the time I was probably acting out some kind of story in my mind. My mom was concerned, but thankfully didn’t rush me to a child psychiatrist or otherwise overreact. My folks took the right approach, I think, by continuing to encourage reading and imagination, but warning me against acting too different at school.

At the risk of sounding a little crazy, however, I must admit I’ve had one particular imaginary friend since I was a young kid. Owing to my lifelong love of rock music, I envision her as the sister of a rock star, quite talented herself although overshadowed by her brother. Both siblings suffer from a turbulent family background, yet she’s managed to become a nicer, more approachable person than he is. Besides that, she’s everything I always wished I could be: athletic, articulate, courageous, extraverted. All in all, she’s a composite of the traits I most admire, although not without flaws that get her into trouble. I named her Sara for the purpose of taking a starring role in The Rock Star’s Homecoming. She also appears to be grabbing control of my next projected novel, Sycophants, having evolved from college student in the first novel to professional filmmaker in the sequel, which picks up about eight years later. Being wiser than me, as well as more experienced in the world, she pops up at my side occasionally to give me advice which I follow if it suits me. She keeps prodding me to write about her, yet I can’t connect her to any known real-life counterpart.

By contrast, I used to have a work acquaintance who has appeared in different forms in no less than three novels. She goes by variations on her real name: Cass, Carolyn, Caroline. She was an office colleague and a casual friend, although not a close confidante. Nor was she a memorable person. In fact, she became my model for ordinariness, but that is not really meant as a criticism. She may be the epitome of the average person, but she’s also good-hearted and open-minded, a friend to everybody, and an antidote to the social nastiness I often write about.

Many years after I last spoke to the real-life counterpart of this character, I read her obituary in the newspaper. I knew she had left the quasi-government job where I had known her, and had drifted for a few months, by her own admission searching for something more exciting to do. I learned from the obit that she had found a job as a secretary at an international law firm. I knew her to be very good at such supporting roles, taking her secretarial tasks seriously, and she apparently made the same impression on her bosses at her final job. The obit described her as “a very dedicated and loyal 20-year employee” who “considered each member of the firm as family.”

I’m not sure how I feel about that tribute. It is well-meaning, no doubt, but it strikes me as sad. It’s not something I would want for myself. My work colleagues could never stand in for my family, even if all of my family were gone. But maybe my pity for my old colleague is misplaced. The way she keeps haunting my imagination, she must be more significant than I know.

Sylvia Plath’s Self-Invention

I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since my college days in the early 1970s, when I first read her startling poems, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” in a lit class. Shortly thereafter, I read her novel, The Bell Jar, and her posthumous poetry collection, Ariel. I wrote my senior honors thesis about Plath, without knowing much about her except that the poems and the novel were highly autobiographical.

Plath was catching on like a rock star at that time, especially among young students. The novel had been released in 1963 in England, where she was living, shortly before her death by suicide. It had been turned down for publication in the United States, but a few bootlegged copies eventually arrived on these shores, and created a demand for it that the publishing industry couldn’t ignore.

Why did this story appeal to college students in particular? It’s the tale, thinly disguised as fiction, of Plath’s first suicide attempt when she was a scholarship student at Smith College. Many of us remember our college years as a time of self-discovery, but also great uncertainty and self-questioning. Even if we made the grade academically, we had plenty of reason to doubt that the job market would embrace our skills. Stable relationships were tough enough to develop and maintain during those four years, much less to carry into adult life. The Bell Jar captured all of these struggles and more.

Sylvia Plath seemed to have a compulsion to dramatize her life in minute detail, both in journals and in voluminous letters to her mother and many friends, boyfriends, and acquaintances. She supplemented these with scrapbooks and calendars. It’s as if she knew that her every passing thought would be parsed by scholars later. I am now reading The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I, 1940-1956. (The second volume, covering the rest of her life, will be released in late 2018).

It’s a humongous book, almost too heavy to hold. It makes you wonder how she found the time to write so much, although she evidently wrote these letters fast, without stopping to edit. The book even preserves her hasty mistakes. She did all this self-chronicling while carrying heavy academic loads and many extra-curricular activities at college. Her summer jobs were strenuous as well. She felt compelled to get straight As, or close to it, in order to justify the generous scholarship help she received. Her dating life was active, almost frenetic. She had a habit of forming intense attachments to both men and women, which often ended in disillusionment. Of course, she took her revenge by expropriating many of these relationships for fictional and poetic purposes.

Plath’s journals reveal more of her inner life than the letters, which mostly present the face she wanted to show to the world. On the surface, she was a busy, happy young woman, blessed with intelligence, good looks, and plenty of male attention. She suffered many rejections for her writing, but managed to get a fair number of acceptances, enough to build quite an impressive publication record for someone of her tender years. Also artistically gifted, she illustrated many of her letters. She had a talent for color and design, as demonstrated by her exact descriptions of clothes and her knowledge of fashion. She dressed as tastefully as her limited budget would allow.

Once in a while her frustrations and darker moods burst through the narrative, but they seem like the typical young-adult angst we all experienced. You might suspect her of exaggerating some of her obstacles just to prove she could conquer them. For example, in a near-hysterical letter to her mother, she described her struggles with a required science course that grated on her because it was far removed from her interests. “I really am in a state of complete and horrible panic … I have practically considered committing suicide to get out of it.” Predictably, she would end up acing that course. Other letters described the hellishness of a summer waitressing job while she was in the midst of it. When she became ill with a sinus infection and had to quit the job, she looked back on it as an idyllic time during which she met many fascinating people.

In one of her journals, Plath identified her perfectionism as a demon that she was fated to battle all her life. She bounced easily from elation to depression, like many young people facing an uncertain future, but her changes could be extreme. The same woman who threatened to commit suicide over a college course wrote the following passage to her mother from the site of a summer job on Cape Cod: “I walked down to Brewster beach with a towel, feeling very happy and savoring how wonderful it was to be young and alive, noticing every smell and scent and sight with keen delight.”

If we didn’t know otherwise, we probably wouldn’t detect a real self-destructive urge between the lines. Yet her first attempt, during summer vacation after her junior year at Smith, was no bluff. She took a whole bottle of sleeping pills and then hid herself someplace where she thought no one would find her … and for two days, despite frantic searching, no one did. She had had a series of setbacks during and after that academic year, which are described in the novel. She was rejected for a prestigious writing course she had hoped to attend that summer. She was disappointed with her primary boyfriend, a medical student, who had been unfaithful to her but still expected her to marry him, become a conventional doctor’s wife, and put writing on the back burner. And what appeared at first to be the big professional break of her life, a guest editorship at a young women’s fashion magazine, turned out to be a disillusioning experience. The tedium of that job, which sapped her energy and left her no time for creative work, seemed to close off a major career possibility.

The letters paint a picture of a close, loving relationship with her mother. The reality of the relationship was more problematic, as can be seen in the poems and novel. Those are quite unforgiving, even cruel, to the central person in her life. Aurelia Schober Plath was a single mother, widowed while still young and left financially insecure. Nevertheless, she strove to give her two children the best of everything. Plath was not ungrateful. Certainly she was sincere when she wrote to her mother, “You are the most wonderful mummy that a girl ever had, and I only hope I can continue to lay more laurels at your feet.” Yet the novel’s depiction of her also rings true … well-meaning but clueless, unable to understand what her daughter was going through in her darkest moments, and helpless to prevent her breakdown.

For that matter, the medical profession served Plath poorly. By today’s standards, the failure to properly diagnose her condition, and the initial, badly administered shock treatments that made things worse, bordered on malpractice. It took her a long time to find a sympathetic psychiatrist, a young woman whom she kept in touch with for the rest of her life. She recovered from her early  breakdown, and went on to many impressive accomplishments, but the experience lingered. At the conclusion of the novel, she foresees that the stifling bell jar, a metaphor for her distorted view of the world, might descend on her again at any time.

Not surprisingly, given her perfectionist nature, Plath looked for a mate who would combine all the traits she valued in her previous relationships. Her ideal, she told her mother, was to combine the athletic body of one suitor with the incisive mind of another. While studying on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University in England, she met the man who seemed to embody all that she was looking for, the poet Ted Hughes. She had already read his poetry, and he had read hers, which must have made their love seem predestined. She fell madly in love, proposing to him after only three months’ acquaintance. She was aware of his reputation as a ladies’ man, but that quality no doubt excited her, at least at first. She was certain she could provide the stability he needed to make him the man she envisioned. Her letters to him were full of endearments, variations on “Dear, darling Teddy.” In an early one, she wrote: “You are my own self for which I exist, somehow being father, brother, husband, son, in all one, the whole male principle of the world, in you, and without you how barren that world is, and sterile.” Maybe a little too much for any man to live up to?

Plath was intensely ambitious before that quality was in vogue for women. This was the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when most women led conventional lives. Very few were “leaning in,” or shouting “Me too!” in a man’s world. Plath was always insistent about wanting children, and lots of them. She believed her writing would enhance her life, but her family would be her life. At first her marriage to Ted Hughes seemed to work. He enjoyed more professional success than she did, which seemed right to her, as long as she could find her own niche. She sold her first poetry collection to a British publisher when she was eight months pregnant. The birth of their first baby did not seem to impede their progress. It was not until the second child was born that Hughes evidently felt crowded by domesticity, and his former lothario persona began to reemerge.

Sylvia Plath’s story leaves us guessing whether it is possible for a woman to have it all. She recovered from the suicidal depression she suffered at age 20, and held off the demon for ten highly productive years afterward, but she never learned to reckon with her perfectionism. I’m familiar enough with the rest of her story to know that she continued to write letters full of plans and bravado almost until the end. But that narrative of a perfect life, always elusive, finally rang hollow.

Can I Invent My Own Genre?

It’s been twenty years or so since self-publishing first became a viable thing. Two decades of growth in the indie fiction field have made it increasingly clear which writing styles and marketing tactics tend to be most lucrative. The “secret” to writing bestsellers is to define your genre and audience and satisfy them for all you’re worth. If you can manage to grind out several books in a series, you have the best chance of creating a steady revenue stream. That means developing a theme or formula that can sustain more than one book, exercising as much creativity as you can within those boundaries, and repeating the basics as long as your readers keep snapping it up. Writers who can do this also seem able to turn out books at supersonic speed.

Employing this “secret” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Personally, I don’t seem to have the skill that it requires, but that doesn’t make me bitter. On the contrary, I rejoice for those who can do this, since it makes all of self-publishing more legitimate. I remember all too well the days when gatekeepers stood in the way of aspiring authors, letting in a privileged few and making a point of mocking the rest of us and worse, wasting our time. I used to read or listen to advice given by “professionals” in the field who pretended to “encourage” those of us on the outside. Their real purpose was to keep us prostrating ourselves before the gates, so that they could pretend to stand in some beatified light from above that had blessed their own efforts. Now we can tell them what to do with their “advice.” It’s been exposed, if not as fraudulent, then at least as archaic.

Some of us have problems with genre. I’m not particularly a fan of romance, science fiction, mystery, or dystopian themes (although I’m most tempted to try my hand at the last one, in light of the disastrous presidential election of 2016 and its increasingly scary aftermath). I define my stuff as chicklit, generally speaking. Does it follow that just because I don’t write to suit a more exact genre, that few readers will get my stuff? I can’t be the only person in the world who likes to read long, complex, character-driven, woman-dominated stories, and tends to write in the same vein. Stories like this take a while to read and absorb, and accordingly take forever to write. One of the reasons this process is so arduous is that I go where my characters take me, not necessarily where the market dictates they should go. My stories usually feature a relatively weak heroine who is trying to get stronger. All I can say for her is that she’s not quite as big an idiot at the end of the story as she was at the beginning. Her life isn’t totally straightened out, although it’s getting there. Can a story like that represent a category in itself? Maybe we could call it the Incompetent Chick Genre.

If I depended on confused and indecisive heroines to move plots along, they’d spin their wheels for 300 pages. So I surround them with stronger characters, often female, who aren’t afraid to yell at them to get off their asses, and then show them how it’s done. In Secretarial Wars (2003), an ambitious but easily frustrated secretary, Miriam, needs such a push. She works for a Federally funded grants program that she suspects is subject to corruption, but doesn’t know how to prove it. She encounters Pamela Whittle, a college professor who has been rejected for one of these grants, and has determined not only to figure out why, but to reverse the decision. Whittle carries on with this plan until she becomes part of the corruption, at least in Miriam’s opinion.

When my critique group read Secretarial Wars, they took to Whittle much more than they did to Miriam. Like most writers, my colleagues enjoy playing the game of choosing which famous actors should ideally play the lead roles in any prospective movies based on their stories. The role of Whittle, according to the group, would be perfect for Kathy Bates, who is well known for her portrayal of dynamic, sometimes crazy women. In fact, it seems that every strong female role I come up with is a perfect fit for Kathy Bates. How about a new trend based on this phenomenon? We could call it the Strong Female Rescuer Genre.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I imagined a close but uneasy relationship between fraternal twin sisters who have taken radically different paths in life. Miranda is a government bureaucrat with a lawyer husband and a house in the suburbs, while Jessica is a sportswriter who sacrifices normal career prospects, relationships, and financial security for many years in order to establish a magazine. Jessica’s publication finally catches on, and her personal life seems equally settled when she becomes engaged to a Major League ballplayer. Her less conventional path seems to end up making her both happier and more successful than her twin. Then the balance of power is knocked off kilter again when Jessica’s fiancé is kidnapped, and circumstances plunge both sisters into the investigation … with Jessica harboring suspicions against Miranda even as she requires her twin’s help.

My two music-inspired novels, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) and Handmaidens of Rock (2014), both unfold partially on college campuses. I made use of my own experiences as an academically conscientious but socially awkward coed in the early 1970s. In those days, the friends I made tended to be stronger personalities than I was. More often than not, I let them set the tone of the relationship. The heroine of “Homecoming,” Imogene, feels herself getting crushed between two powerhouse roommates. One is a hopeless snob, and the other is the sister of a rock star whom Imogene worships from afar, and eventually gets to meet. In “Handmaidens,” aspiring journalist Candy struggles with a bad freshman roommate, who hypocritically criticizes her timidity with the girls in the hall while systematically badmouthing her behind her back. Although that situation mirrors my own unhappy freshman experience, I did not leave my small-town school, as Candy did, for the more congenial and diverse surroundings of a big university. I stuck it out, and eventually found my niches.

All in all, the “incompetent chick” in my stories resembles me, while the “strong female rescuer” is the more dynamic friend who swoops in and takes over. If I were casting a movie based on this dynamic, any number of ingénues could play the innocent girl.  But I couldn’t do without Kathy Bates, or a Kathy Bates type, to move in and threaten to blow her off the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Boyfriend Analogy

Somewhere in the blogging universe several months back, I read a rave review of actress-writer Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. It was described as a good read for anyone trying to succeed in the arts and encountering mostly frustration. I wondered how this could possibly be true, considering the amazing successes Poehler has enjoyed, including being a full cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008, and then starring in and co-writing her own series, Parks and Recreation, from 2009 to 2015. What could she possibly have to say to the struggling artist?

Some of her opening remarks in the memoir struck me as encouraging, although perhaps disingenuous. For example: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” Is she telling us satisfaction remains elusive for her, even after having acquired fame and fortune through constant effort? And also: “I am struggling every day, just like you.” I doubt that her struggles are equal to the average creative striver, although maybe she’s simply asserting that she knows what it is to struggle. This is her explanation for the anger she let loose at an aspiring writer who had the nerve to approach her on an Amtrak train and dump his screenplay in her lap. That person, in her view, was trying to take a short cut to success, something she didn’t have the luxury of doing. She spent years honing her craft in humble improv and comedy clubs. Some lucky breaks did come her way, she acknowledges, but nothing was easy. By a combination of good fortune, a natural zest for performing, and most of all perseverance, she was able to impress the kind of people who could help her.

Poehler discusses some of her enduring insecurities, including major doubts about her looks. She has the face of a comedienne rather than a beauty queen, but she found a way around this early in her career. Improvisation provided a way of becoming somebody else, anybody else, at will. Ironically, she devotes part of her book to complaints about the difficulty of writing a book. She just comes straight out with it: “Writing a book is hard!” Don’t we all know that? She offers the only possible solution: “Just do it!”

Poehler’s best piece of advice, in my opinion, can be summed up by one of her chapter headings: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Passion, she explains, is not the same as career. Loving what you do may be a prerequisite for accomplishment, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. You may feel yourself falling in love, but who knows if the object of your passion will reciprocate the way you want him to, for as long as you need him to? Poehler herself was going through a painful divorce while writing the book, and was still figuring out how to co-parent two young sons, so her choice of a metaphor might have been influenced by real life.

That phrase struck an immediate chord with me, as I realized that the unreliable suitor could be a metaphor for any hobby, any relationship, any sports team, or anything else you are irresistibly attracted to that continually lets you down. Since the pain is still relatively fresh, I chose to apply that advice immediately to a certain baseball team that takes me for a ride every season and then drops me off in the wilderness, lost and abandoned. Baseball has always been known to imitate life in many ways, and I admittedly take it too seriously, so why shouldn’t I treat my favorite team like the worst boyfriend ever? My Washington Nationals have won four divisional championships in the past six years, and failed every time to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Talk about a guy who takes you to the prom, buys you a lovely corsage, and then dances with someone else, or worse, leaves with someone else. Or a guy who proposes, and then never sets the date.

Bad boyfriends always have their ingenious excuses, just as the Nationals have a plethora of reasons why they’ve never gotten over that hump. This year, in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series, Matt Wieters, the stalwart although light-hitting Nats catcher, got hit on the head by the follow-through of a batter’s swing. Because of the violent contact, the pitch should have resulted in a strikeout, and the inning should have been over. As it turned out, nobody in authority knew the rule that pertains to a catcher getting beaned. Everyone, including the committee of six umpires and Nats manager Dusty Baker, was caught up in that cluelessness. No one but the catcher himself seemed to know enough even to argue, and it’s doubtful how articulate he was after getting his brain rocked. Maybe that also accounts for the flaky things Wieters did in the immediate aftermath, including a passed ball and a wild throw that cost the Nats two runs in a game they eventually lost 9-8. Some fans continue to malign him, saying he should have reacted like a professional even under duress. Maybe the life lesson to be derived from this is that the worst boyfriends always have the most creative reason for not showing up. “I was in an accident” is a classic.

Since baseball isn’t as heart-rending for most people as it is for me, and there really isn’t anything even an ardent fan can do about it, I’d advise you to apply the bad boyfriend rule to things you can actually control. We all need a little validation to wash away the inevitable bouts of self-pity we suffer when it seems nobody understands us. If your novel simply doesn’t grab the reader, the fact that you spent years writing it will not alleviate that problem. Even the blog articles that we labor over might go days or weeks without being “liked” or commented on. Fans sweat along with their favorite teams at the crucial moments as if they were on the field themselves. Then, as likely as not, they face a long winter, unrewarded.

Amy Poehler would advise us not to bother at all with these endeavors unless we can find a way to enjoy the process. In other words, don’t expect too much. Don’t sweat it. Maybe that good review will come out of the blue. Or it might be a review that’s not so good, but at least shows that the reader took our book seriously and sort of got it. That bad boyfriend might forget your birthday, and then show up unexpectedly one day and bring you flowers for no particular reason at all. So be joyous, Poehler says, but don’t expect to be satisfied. And be careful what you wish for, because the small successes will only make you hungry for more.