The Care and Proper Feeding of a Writer

Or a better title – How to Write a Novel in Twenty Seven Years

I wrote this article for James Jones Literary Society Newsletter and while they keep telling me it will appear in the Newsletter, alas it doesn’t seem to! Although a member of the James Jones Literary Society for years, the Memphis Symposium was my first actual meeting. I loved staying at the Peabody Hotel, the ducks, walking all the way to famed Sun Studio. And of course the day long James Jones Symposium, sharing stories with people and talking with Kaylie Jones. Memories flowed.

The true tragedy of a routinely spent life is that its wastefulness does not become apparent till it is too late.

Amitav Ghosth

I am a writer today because of James Jones. I sat in on all his classes the academic year he taught at Florida International University. I sat in as I already had a PhD and was myself in charge of the Counseling Center up the coast at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Amazingly as if guided I’d followed three or four lines in a Tallahassee newspaper all the way to his Miami classroom. I still get chicken skin (Hawaiian for chill bumps) over all those coincidences.

How marvelously lucky I was to learn from and enjoy the public face of this great American writer. And also to slip intriguingly behind that public face, to become acquainted with the private person. For some reason, he was always simply Jones in my mind. It took awhile but one of  his best lessons was watching and absorbing the generic writer gathering material – ordinarily not knowing what – for the book he was writing, or would write. Interesting, like a cat, how the writer’s mind picks ideas to play with, how it chooses nuggets for later use.

I laugh now saying, “I’ve a terrific title for a talk – How to Write a Novel in Twenty Seven Years.” That novel is Secrets, inspired directly by Jones and recently published on my *web site. Secrets is the first of my coming-to-consciousness woman’s stories which became over time a trilogy. To support my claim of writer I’ll note that in the meantime I’ve published 12 nonfiction titles (most with mainstream publishers), many published poems (some prize-winning), six self-published chapbooks of poetry and a play work-shopped this April by our local Women in Theater.

The true magnitude of the debt of gratitude I owe James Jones has only recently become clearly transparent to me. Although I’d written a novel and actually published a gothic romance when I met Jones (and thought myself a writer), I wasn’t really. I dabbled at something I could take or leave. Over time and from Jones’ example, I’ve learned the real writer can’t leave. At worst they burn in place. Ordinarily they rock along on daily commitments of writing work. At best words fly right and money fuses gloriously into a writing career. We write our dreams and deliver once-a-year-or-so published books.

In class Jones nabbed me with his first assignment, “Tell how someone betrayed you.” I’d never written like that. Personal stuff. Heart’s blood. I almost died when he asked me to read it in class, the first one. That story is now a chapter in Secrets.

Honesty was my key lesson from Jones. Without honesty what you did was nothing. The message was always subtle but repetition made it strong. I absorbed more than I knew. “Never lie to yourself,” I wrote later in a poem, “but always expect yourself to try.” Unblinking honesty. The kind that looked at what you did and named your reality. Iris Murdock tells of two ways the artist presents reality to us. The first is a consoling fantasy that simply reassures the needy ego – our romantic notions of life (my gothic romance).

“The second kind of art, however, presents life as clearly and truthfully as possible. These books and poems and movies may also present stories of great erotic love, but in an honest, realistic way that also follows through to the consequences.” And Paula Huston, in her discussion of Iris Murdock, also goes on to observe that her own obsessive romantic passion was actually “spiritual passion in disguise.” (Paula Huston could be talking here of my obsessiveness – to embrace a manuscript for 27 years you got to be obsessed!)

Secrets first breathed life as my coming-to-consciousness story. Jones died when I was right in the middle of it. I told Secrets any way I could: journal entries, on-going action, dreams, interior thought and feeling. Somewhere I could hear Jones’s voice “the truth of the story you want to tell will compel you to create a form to hold it.” This instruction  hasn’t helped get me published but it sure has helped me write! And also to experience that priority freedom of getting the truth on paper, worrying later about form.

A writer’s great fascination (at least mine) is to be in the middle of living a life, surviving, while simultaneously, making sense of the chaos. And always my question: How does a woman writer (in this society) create herself as reasonably successful? And happy?

Little clues drop like snowflakes over the years. Joyce Maynard and her memoir, At Home in the World stopped me cold. Joyce Maynard is a young girl in love  (obsessed) with a past middle age Jerry Salinger. “One day Jerry Salinger is the only man in my universe. I look to him to tell me what to write, what to think, what to wear, to read, to eat. He tells me who I am, who I should be. The next day he’s gone.” Jerry Salinger does not come off well  and it’s easy to understand Joyce Maynard, some long time later selling his letters, saying some version of, “I didn’t need his letters; I did need the money.”

And speaking of honesty, Joyce Maynard lets drop in her book that she and her mother, while living dysfunctional lives, are busy writing magazine articles telling other women how to live! I know why, suddenly, I can’t always make work the authoritative advice I’ve studied for years to inform my life and writing. The advice can be a lie. It’s the same old, “do as I say.” I feel betrayed. I’d thought nonfiction was true fiction. I’d felt I was learning from honest example.

A positive effect of this violation of trust is I’m more determined to continue writing from my truthful experience. I also become a keen student and judge of “experts.” Incidentally, dismissing my books as self help makes me angry. My carefully complied work containing life-long study, experience, observation, experimentation, contemplation and peer review is lumped with the thrown together and one idea trick books and the aforementioned dishonest! And when you get right down to it, for the aware reader all good writing is self help! “Truth is an icy mountain,” as John Fowles says, “that must be climbed anew every day,” I vow anew to find and tell my best truth. “What someone else does is their problem,” as my mother used to say and Jones lived, “what you do is yours.”

Snowflakes continue dropping. The next one is Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth. “He [Dainin Katagiri Roshi] encouraged me to open up. I was vulnerable. He held the position of teacher but breached it.” [had an affair with a student and came on to Natalie] “I had a need for him only to be great, to hold my projections. In freezing him on a pedestal I had only contributed to his isolation.” As Natalie Goldberg excuses her guru’s falling off his pedestal, I remember a conversation. Jones spoke of loneliness. “I went to Mexico,” I said,  “alone on a research trip to see what loneliness felt like.” Jones was quite clear. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Loneliness isn’t a day or a week.” One look at his face and I knew he was right. Private devils lived there; thank-you-very-much but he dealt with them himself. Wisely, or unwisely, I backed off.

But whether I knew it then or not I received another lesson. There are unspoken, unwritten contracts between people and the honest person does not betray them. “Oh,Roshi,” writes Natalie Goldberg, “what turmoil, but it spread further than your own private heart. You passed suffering down beyond your death. One long black slash onyour enormous life.” I know what being betrayed feels like; this is not a lesson I learned from Jones.

Jones reinforced my discipline of work. A writer wrote. If unable to write, a writer sat with a blank sheet of paper or computer screen and sat and sat until something happened. (Or as I’ve learned when all else fails: get out and do research, visit a library). Discipline. Work. Getting the words down was always first. For example, you put in parentheses an alternative word if the right one didn’t come immediately. And a writer read about other writer’s lives (oh, how this habit has enriched my own).

And supplied another snowflake. Naomi Wolf in The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See says, “My dad believes that in order to be a fully realized person, you need to have your heart’s desire.” The first time I’d ever been asked or even heard the idea, Jones questioned. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had a successful, mostly fulfilled life with work I loved, a child and relationships. Yet at that time I was knocked back to bedrock. Ideas flashed; I considered. “A wise women.” I think he was surprised. “Not bad. Not bad at all,” and it wasn’t long before the rare compliment came that my writing reminded him of Isak Denison’s.

Secrets is fiction. Secrets was my teething ring, my unpolished diamond; I must have completed 50 plus drafts. James Jones was my catalyst; he was and is my writing guru. I’ll close with a quote from Secrets written recently for the very last draft that finally – after twenty seven years­­ – got published:

Yesterday seven white egrets perched quietly on tall rocks not moving as I ambled the deserted beach. Why the white birds? Why love? Why do they wait?

I love Catlin [Jones] because he never taught me not to. I had the best of him for he’d already completed his growing, made his mistakes, regrets. I was a joyous puzzle, a gift who asked for nothing.

I am a white bird who waits quietly, beautifully, usefully.

I think Jones would be proud of his student. Not to mention surprised!

References

Amitav Ghosth, The Hungry Tide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Rosemary Sullivan, Labyrinth of Desire, Passion, and Romantic Obsession (Washington

D. C. : Counterpoint, 2001).

Iris Murdock, “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts,” in Existentialists and

Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature p 384

Paula Huston, The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003).

Joyce Maynard, At Home in the World: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 1998).

John Fowles, Daniel Martin (Boston: Little Brown, 1977).

Naomi Wolf, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love,

See (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

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