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The Tale of a Country Mouse and City Mouse…Updated a Bit

char miceWe decided to forego our middle child’s usual summer camp this year, opting instead for a City Mouse – Country Mouse adventure with one of her best camp friends. A girl named Isabel who lives several states away in the Big Apple.

For one week, our country girl will spend her time roaming New York City. And when it’s done, her buddy will come here to Virginia, where we’ll show her rural America.

My daughter will see culture with a capital C, the wisdom of crowds, Harlem and Coney Island. High self-esteem and high fashion. Swanky digs and homelessness. What it’s like to view America from the top of the world. Look down on it, some might say. Either way, it’s a view worth contemplating. New York is a place that looks around corners and glimpses the future.

Isabel will experience slowness, colonial history, lush mountain views. Berry bushes and poison ivy. Southern accents and southern hospitality. Live music and home-cooking. Beautiful old houses with ghosts and stories. Ramshackle homes and Confederate flags. All of this surrounded by patches of land where real, live battles were once fought.  Ordinary grassy knolls soaked with the blood of local sons. We live in a place that knows its past.char vaMy husband warned me from the outset not to try to compete with the Great White Way and its surrounding boroughs. “It’s a banana split of glitz and glamor,” he said.

So, I opted more for an outdoorsy kind of experience. The kind that offers a bit of romance in an old-fashioned To Kill a Mockingbird kind of way. But without the courtroom drama and wrenching shadow story.

I took them tubing down the James River, for example. Floating by hay bales and listless cows that had wandered down for a drink in the humid ninety-degree weather. Isabel screamed at the sight of every dragonfly – I’d forgotten what an assault the bugs are around here to someone who’s not used to them.

We ate barbecue at local joints some nights, but mostly wound up eating at home, which is what we do. Outside at a long picnic table that lies under a thick awning of wisteria, surrounded by torchlight. The music blared from our kitchen – a vintage mix of jazz and country, and the fireflies blinked their secret codes.  Later, the girls splashed in the stream behind our house, and we told Isabel stories about how our kids used to love to fish for crawdads when they were little. Clichéd as it is, these simple pleasures are still a childhood hallmark of rural life.

207But we’re not completely out in the sticks. We live a few miles from Charlottesville and I dropped the girls off “downtown” one day to show Isabel around. True, we’ve got zero skyline, but we can offer a glimpse of what towns used to look like, say, two-hundred years ago.

In the stifling heat, the girls walked Courthouse Square, “the mall”, and “the corner,” visiting University of Virginia’s campus. Founded by Thomas Jefferson, it has a distinctly country gentleman vibe that the smart and hip student body try their best to offset. Even shout down, when they’re so moved.

Then to shake things up a bit, we drove down to Williamsburg to the big water park. Our plans for the colonial museum were thwarted by a rainstorm, which neither of the girls viewed as a tragedy.

“For Isabel, just being in an actual house, with family dinners and big family dynamics will be an experience,” her mother had told me. Back in NYC, it’s just Isabel and her mom.

To be sure, staying in a house, especially an old one like ours, is an odd experience for a girl who’s used to living within the sheltering walls of a nice, new apartment complete with a doorman. Add to that the fact that siblings are loud and sometimes really annoying. Brothers push sisters – figuratively and literally. Sister scratch brothers and know how to play the victim. Layers of love, grievances, insults, memories and secret jokes pile-on, present in each and every interaction.

“You are so NOT sick. Mom is supposed to take us to Lexington today!”

“Who ate our ice cream? We bought that with our OWN money you $#*&!!!”

“And oh my God, what happened to my bathing suit?”

The hustle and bustle of our family home can be as intense as any walk down a city street, and sometimes all the girls wanted to do was lock themselves for hours in our daughter’s room. Just to escape the household, or certain members of it.Jo monsterAs for New York City, our daughter’s experience was nothing short of life-changing. Or rather, life-envisioning. Isabel’s mother showed the girls the time of their lives, doing all the touristy things she and Isabel never get a chance to do because they’re too busy living there.

The girls hung out with Isabel’s friends, went to The Met, played at an arcade in Times Square, visited the Statue of Liberty, ate real ethnic food and saw Hamilton! Since we hail from a hotbed of  American revolutionary sedition, our daughter knew most of the characters so well that she could extrapolate on Lin Manuel Miranda’s depiction of our Founding Fathers and the political climate in which they lived and fought. That made her feel smart amongst the New York sophisticates.NYC Broadway“I know this is going to sound weird,” Isabel’s mom ventured. “But has Charlotte seen many African-Americans?”

Don’t laugh, it’s a reasonable question – especially at a time when the urban-rural divide is pretty great in our country. Most young Americans these days haven’t grown up with many family members who have an understanding of small-town life that isn’t based on a weird amalgam of coastal snubs and nostalgic old movies.

Add to that fact that last year, in the sip of a Mint Julep, we went from being known as a lovely college town region with a rich, American history to the place where activists from the far corners of the political spectrum got it in their heads to hold a riot. It cost one young woman her life. Locals refer to it as “the mess” and that’s about the most accurate description I’ve heard.

“Yes, she’s known plenty of African-Americans,” I told her. And I so appreciate that she asked. We can’t be afraid to get to know each other again in this country. Pose questions that might seem awkward.Statue of Liberty black and white“I love New York so much mom,” our daughter told me via text. “I want to live here. No offence”

None taken. I get it.

In big cities, particularly one like New York, the kids are cooler and have real style. They mature faster, too. It’s hard for my city friends to wrap their heads around the fact that my youngest, a rising middle schooler, still believes in Santa. That our children actually like pick-up trucks and are comfortable around guns – even if my husband and I have never owned one. They know how to drain the sweet stem of a honeysuckle flower and have no problem picking up a snake. As long as it’s not venomous. They know how to spot those, though.

City kids on the other hand know how to take public transportation by themselves, aren’t intimidated by strangers, and don’t just have big dreams, but fully expect them to be delivered. They stand up tall, confident they live in the best place on Earth, and that everyone they meet would change places with them in a heartbeat. They’re world-wise, connected. When they look out their window, they don’t see a mountain; they see the whole globe.

But there’s an underlying benefit to being raised in the country that may not reveal itself to our daughter until she’s much older. There’s a sense here of the dominance of nature. In a land of fields, mountains, overgrowth, swarming insects, wild animals, flash floods, and felled trees, it’s hard to see yourself as the center of the universe.Charlotte gazing outWe feel the warm embrace of the local, the importance of community. Not long after we moved here, our youngest was born desperately ill and total strangers whose only connection to us was as “neighbor” brought us food, took our older kids for the day, bought school supplies for our son when we just plain forgot. These folks were black and white, working class, middle class and rich. Everyone pitched in.

I can tell you, if we’d stayed in San Francisco, where we were living before moving to the Charlottesville area, we would’ve had a much harder time. Friends would have certainly come to our aid, but neighbors? Some of our neighbors there couldn’t even be bothered to move our wet clothes into the dryer from our communal washing machine. They just plopped them on the floor. Many of them didn’t say hello when they saw us on the street. Just a nod, if it so happened that our eyes chanced to meet. I’m not saying there aren’t great neighbors in a big city – I’ve had plenty – I’m just saying that there’s a code in less populated places. When you know someone’s hurting, you step up.

All that said, New York was hands down the winner for these girls. I knew it would be. But I’m good with the way things turned out. This experience, right down to its essence was less about activities than about love and families and two girls trying to figure out how to be in the world. For both the country and city mouse, each week provided a stratigraphic layer that will settle with time, and reveal itself as they age, teaching both girls about place and people. About themselves. And that’s what it was all about all along when we adults cooked up this scheme.city mouse 2For a look at fact, fiction and writing WAY outside of your experience, please have a look at Love at First Write. It’s my vlog all about the miraculous, challenging, wonderful and epic process of storybuilding.

And if my work moves you, please visit me on Patreon, which is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artists. For as little as the price of a cup of simple diner coffee, you’ll gain access to original fiction, as well as book excerpts from novels-in-progress, new essays, and so much original art and content that’s been curated just for you! One-third of my Patreon goal will go directly to Camp Holiday Trails, a great summer camp that caters to children with special medical needs. My daughter camped there again this summer and had a ball!

 

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A Glimpse Inside the Creative Mind

Jim Carrey #portrait #art #jimcarrey #abeliyart Artem Beliy | My inside Jim Carrey Paintings

I’ve always thought Jim Carrey a wholly original artist. His comedy – even when I don’t quite like it – rarely takes a safe avenue that ensures him a laugh. Damon Wayans, who along with his brother wrote, performed and starred in their early 1990s comedy show, In Living Color, (in which Carrey got his first big break) has said that Jim Carrey, above all other comedians with whom he’s worked, takes the greatest chances. His jokes, while often utterly brilliant, are just as likely to be cringingly bad, not only falling flat, but sucking him and the audience into a black hole. That’s how, Wayans said, he knew Carrey had a chance to hit the big time. His range, his fearlessness, his drive to create, is relentless. And when one of his jokes comes together, it’s like a mega-millions lottery win – confetti flying, horns blaring, tears rolling down flushed cheeks.

Carrey’s jokes have always worked on several different  levels. That’s what makes him a true master. The same schtick can be simultaneously juvenile, low-brow, weird, slapstick, and intellectual, all without showing its seams. I remember watching one of his Ace Ventura movies years ago – gape-mouthed as Ventura, Carrey’s character, pushed, clawed and squiggled naked out of the back-end of a rhinoceros costume. He was at a safari park of some sort that he’d snuck into dressed as this exotic beast. That alone was funny enough, but all of this occurred while a young boy watched this spectacle, horror-struck, convinced he was witnessing a rhinoceros giving birth to a fully grown human male. And we saw this both from Ventura’s (Carrey’s) and the young boy’s perspective, adding yet another layer. It was an insane, grotesque, embarrassing and absolutely hilarious bit. In the end, Carrey’s character did indeed grease out of the rhino like an infant does out of his mother. Plopping in a fetal position onto the ground, Carrey’s Ventura guiltily scrabbled away, while the boy tried in vain to get his parents attention, and tell them of the freakish miracle he’d just seen with his own two eyes.

So, I wasn’t surprised when a friend sent me a vimeo about Carrey and his other passion – painting and sculpting. I admit, I did at first wonder if this wasn’t a trailer from a movie Carrey might be starring in. One where he was merely playing a fine artist. Ultimately, though, after a few seconds of watching, I knew this could only be the real Jim Carrey.

jim-carrey blue skull

In it, he speaks with tremendous heart, authority, and vulnerability about what it feels like to be an artist. Someone who uses expression of imagination as his modus operandi. It is the way he interacts with the world – whether it be to make a living, to communicate or negotiate, to love, to mend, to heal. He talks of how his bedroom was a Land of Oz to him when he was young. Getting ordered to “go to his room,” was heaven for Carrey, where a thick jungle of wonders was awaiting him, and fed his soul better than any game of Red Rover waged by his neighborhood buddies.

Carrey goes on to describe being an artist as a calling, and I think he’s right.  In my own life, it’s a voice that has been living in my head for as long as I can remember, whispering to me even when I was perfectly happy doing other things. More profitable things,  perhaps, more stable things, possibly. A voice I’ve heard only artists, priests and warriors name. “I found I could do nothing else,” we all seem to say. I understand Carrey’s compulsion to make his ideas come to life. How he could quite suddenly go from expressing himself through comedy, to painting, say, a multi-hued, partially abstract head of Christ. How he could see comedy and painting, if not as the same, then on the same continuum.

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And in much the way Carrey described, my mind has been my sanctuary all my life. A place where I was never bored, where no one could hurt me – unless I wanted them to, where my disappointments could turn into triumphs and my triumphs into adventures. Dangerous. Mysterious. Terrifying. Beautiful.

It is a most two-faced gift.

What Carrey doesn’t say outright, but I will, is how isolating an artist’s life can be. When creativity becomes the lens through which a person views and interacts with the world, that person is put at odds with the world. No easy part of a group or tribe, more often watching an experience as much as living it. Questioning, wondering. A mile deep, an inch wide. Blissfully, gloriously, painfully alone.

And loving it with a passion most people only reserve for their children.

Writing What You Don’t Know

creature from the black lagoonWhen I was a kid, I wrote almost exclusively about what I didn’t know. Fantastical stories of superheroes, ghosts, and space aliens – I loved writing about space aliens. On the more down to earth side, I wrote about lonely, disaffected people who lived outside of the mainstream. People with strange deformities or frightening delusions who didn’t quite know where they fit in out there in the world, so they created their own.

In every case, I was writing about myself.

creature from back lagoon mask off

Growing into adulthood, I did start writing a little bit more of what I knew, sourcing from a rich catalogue of family mythology that had mostly been passed down orally – at the dinner table and such. Since I came from a pretty dramatic, war-torn family background filled with spies, lovers and rebels, that seemed like a good place to start my actual writing career.

So, I sat down and started relating what I knew… sort of. At least what I’d heard a lot about and experienced in an in-through-the-out-door-way when I packed up and moved to my parent’s home city of Prague, after the Iron Curtain was finally ripped down.

From there, I certainly was able to paint a picture and portray a culture. I wrote two full length historical novels, a collection of short stories, and a bunch of essays chronicling Eastern Europe during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. a time when my grandparents and parents were clashing with political and historical forces I could only daydream about. To them, the word cold conjured so much more than the winter. It was a state of mind and heart and war that still gives me chills.

Klobuky

Because there was so much to draw on, I would sometimes find myself fitting non-fiction events – stories told to me by my grandmother, for instance – into my very fictionalized accounts of World War 2 and Cold War Europe. And paradoxically, those are the very stories that some reader or another would always call out as “not ringing true” or “so obviously fictionalized.”

Other parts of my war stories – most of which are completely made up and never, ever, as far as I know happened to anyone – stay uncontested. I’ve always found that curious, but I think I get it.

One of the shortfalls of writing from our own experience, or our particular group experience (whatever that means), is that we know the story so well (or at least think we do) that we might take a lot for granted.

It’s easy to miss important themes and snap a fragmented picture when a person or event is too close. So familiar that we’ve made up our minds about it, and stopped learning. Without realizing, we get complacent, smug about our knowledge. Repetitive. The new angles, though so tantalizing, simply slip from our fingers.

creature from black lagoon legs

That’s why I’ve set my sights on writing a new series that’s way outside of my sphere.

This is not a goodbye to my other genre as much as it is a well-needed break. I was finding myself getting stale and craving something that would wake up and shake up my imagination a bit. An endeavor that’s on this side of banzai and will not only bring me back to the unfettered joy of writing completely from the land of make-believe, but also bring me home to my beloved Cold War with more to offer. Infuse a desperately needed element of outside perspective into my storytelling.

As a human being, I’ve learned much about myself from outsiders. I can give a short and not even close to finished list of some of those things right off the top of my head:

That I’m at least in part of Jewish ancestry

But love like a Catholic

I look good in red

But awful in yellow

I’m a conservative

I’m a liberal

Kinder in my actions than my thoughts

Better on paper than in person

An American patriot, for sure

One who seems more European than American to Europeans, though

I won’t bore you with any more of these, but you get the picture.

creature from black lagoon swim

Fiction is a radical reframing that helps us grasp such perceptions about ourselves and others. In training our creative impulses on wildly divergent people, cultures and worlds, we gain an opportunity to look at things anew, with the cold eye necessary for a true insight.

The kind of divination that only dawns on a person who steps over the divide, invites an oddball for coffee, buys a ticket to somewhere for something with someone. Who risks the raised eyebrow, the whisper, the Twitter troll.

That leap into a different story, another struggle, doesn’t have to take place across an ocean. Nor does it have to be for writers and artists alone. It can happen in your own backyard, spent among the people next door, who you might think you know. Who you may be wrong about.

creature from the black lagoon happy

Or damned right about.

creature from black lagoon scream

It’s an ethos my husband and I are at pains to instill in our children, so they’ll feel comfortable around peasants and kings, artists and actuaries, Republicans and Democrats. We hope it’ll embolden them to hesitate before they condescend, place on a pedestal, vilify or otherwise distort their own view of a mere fellow human being.

Because we know full-well how easily this intention can fade away as we dig-in to our habits, get busy and distracted. As we grow up. It’s an essence I often find myself feeling drained of when I dip my toe into all the fighting and tribalism that’s going on right now.

But I hope to get a great, big infusion of it while exploring a brave new world – and without hardly stepping out of my home office. The world I’m mixing up from scratch for this brave new story.

One of deserts and ancient civilizations. Love and war. A world I can only understand through fantasy, and is only possible if I throw out all accepted wisdom. A world like this:

Dozing in and out of sleep, I awaken for the last time at least an hour before dawn. The storm is over and it’s so quiet that I can even hear my brother, who still sleeps with the feathered breath of an infant. I cradle him, laying him softly on his side and kissing his ear before getting up to tip-toe to the mouth of the cave.

The moon casts an icy glow over the sand and there isn’t even a breeze left over from the violent winds that lashed us only a few hours ago. The stars twinkle and I feel the sort of peace that comes after a good, hard cry.

On the heel of my own deep breath, I hear a rapping sound, rhythmic, like two sticks striking to a musical beat. I can almost recognize the song.

Out in the distance, a shadow splays across the dune. It’s the form of a man, slender, his arm stretched out in Salan – a gesture that means to be, to endure, always. I bite down on my lip. The man – an archer – steps into the pale of the moon, the skin of his face aglow like a pearl. His beard as black as a raven. Even at a distance, his eyes kindle, lit by some trick of the desert. I step closer to the edge and hold out my hand, and he raises his, though not in Salan this time. He waves his fingers in a gesture of voyaging. The one the god Mazal used when he set his wife, the moon, into orbit around him. Forever. –BREATH, Book 1

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For more chapter excerpts and original content, visit me on Patreon right here!

Patreon is a wonderful platform that allows you to support and connect with an artist whose work brings something meaningful to your life. For as little as $1, you’ll have access to original fiction and essays, photography, vlogs and art that I’ve created or curated just for you. One-third of my Patreon goal goes to Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with special medical needs. I love this organization and my daughter is campers there, so I’m well-familiar with how worthy it is.

camp holiday trails

And please have a look at the newest Love at First Write vlog entry! It’s about uncovering the secrets of world-building and fits right in with this Cold post today!

 

 

The Fogged-Up Windows of My Town and Country Minivan

Marilyn free sexyI was nineteen the first time a friend of mine – a very alluring and highly sexualized teen – admitted to me how much she hated sex and men. That she did not, in fact, have ten screaming orgasms every time she was with a guy – the way she told everyone, the way she made him believe.

I was genuinely shocked.

She just seemed much better at it all than I was. Fun, flirty, uninhibited. Men of all stripes were in her thrall and she soaked herself in their attention like they were a piping-hot bubble bath. Approaching sex with a voracious appetite and a democratic eye, there wasn’t a party, a bar, an event, where she couldn’t find an eager partner.

Yet all along she had nothing but contempt for the guys, the acts, herself. You would have never known.

As a young woman, I often found myself getting taken aside and told things to. Secrets. Heart of hearts confessions. Maybe this happens to everyone. Or maybe it’s because as a writer type, I take a cold eye to human foibles. I find them fascinating and find myself in almost every scenario.

So, unless someone is overtly cruel, dangerously manipulative, or catastrophically dishonest, I try not to judge.

Marilyn wiki

As an adult, an author, people still tell me things, although I’m not sure if they’re secrets per se. I get a lot of love stories from readers – I do. Some of them so beautiful I can hardly stand it. But not every tale told is a candy and flowers routine, a scented envelope filled with blushingly awkward poetry. Many women and men have written to me about their wasted love, the mistakes they’ve made, how they never learned – often until it was too late – how to care for and be cared for by a lover.

I always try to imagine these people when they were young, and track the course of how they got to such a place of loneliness and despair all these years later.

I remember very well the many roads I could have gone down when I was a budding woman – ones that could have taken me far away from a place where I could intersect with love. As I listen in on my children’s conversations with their peers, I have some idea of how today’s teens could one day find themselves typing up a confessional missive of wistfulness and melancholy for a writer just like me.

Marilyn wiki misfits

As my older kids have entered Middle and High School, I’ve watched some of their friends – girls I’ve known since they were feisty, adorable kindergarteners – defiantly embrace a cheap and communal sexuality. I’ve seen the come-hither photos on their “parent-access” social media platforms, and can only imagine what their “friends-only” accounts have to offer. Those are the ones they don’t share with mom and dad, and are under pseudonyms like “girlfly” and “JuSoLit.”

I don’t look down my nose at them for it; I do understand the seduction of exhibitionism. Young women are especially prone to its charms. It promises instant celebrity and seems downright glamorous, sophisticated. It’s a bam-pow shot of power during a time when a girl is desperate for it and boy is desperate for a girl. And since most of the stigma – perhaps rightly – has been removed from sexuality in our culture, there seems to be no downside. What’s wrong with a girl having a little fun? Dipping her toe into the kind of flagrant sexuality that until recently had only been the domain of boys and really, really bad girls.

Marilyn bed free

But I’m sceptical.

It’s not about the overt reputational hit a girl might experience. That kind of finger-wagging doesn’t really go on much anymore. And when it does, it feels weirdly outdated. Like a visit from the ghost of 19th century schoolmarm. Nobody today wants to be called a slut-shamer, after all. It’s simply not woke.

What it is about are the secrets, the whispers; the deep currents of traditional mores – ones that are perhaps even biologically driven, I don’t know – that run beneath the shimmering surface of cultural trends.

If you’ve never driven around a group of kids for a good length of time, I highly recommend it. They forget you’re there, that you’re even human – and say things that are way out of school. Stories that under normal circumstances they would never want an adult – especially a parent – to hear. My long carpools to this or that game or practice over the years have been a real time-suck, and I love to complain about them. But they’ve also made me privy to a treasure trove of information. And from what I’m hearing, there’s plenty of frustration, disappointment and distaste for the current state of sexual affairs among our young people.

I’ve overheard boys lamenting the fact that they’ve seen the breasts of so many girls in their grade – I’m not kidding here. It takes the mystery away, they say.

Another common topic is the mainstreaming of porn. They observe how their most porn-obsessed friends have all but given up on “real” girls. With a smorgasbord of fetishes and base depictions of sexuality available to them at the touch of a keyboard, sex has taken on a cold and abstract quality that they’re trying to resist. Some of the boys have even sworn off porn altogether, although they do fall off the wagon from time to time.

One young man expressed sympathy for a girl whose compromising photos made the rounds at school. He noted how it didn’t seem to bother her, but wondered how she was going to find a guy who really cared about her. What’s more, all the other boys in the car agreed with his assessment. As far as genuine girlfriend material goes, this young woman was now kryptonite.

Marilyn clash

The girls are equally confused about their role in all of this, and quite aware that there’s a disconnect between the “You go, girl!” sexuality that’s part of the greater culture and the way they actually feel about sex. There seems to be no middle ground for them anymore, where a girl can take things slowly, get to know herself and her potential boyfriends. According to the talk I hear, our young women often feel stuck between stamping a big, fat NO! on their bodies, or giving away intimacy like it’s a free raffle ticket. That’s a really tough place to be for a teen girl with raging hormones, and I have no idea how I would’ve handled what they have to contend with today.

Now, I’ll tell you what I don’t hear.

I have never, not once, heard a girl frame public and/or casual sexuality as being a source of liberation or real empowerment. Or a boy speak admiringly of a girl who has eroticized herself, earning her the latest teen moniker of THOT (That Ho Over There). And I’ve had every kind of kid in my car – liberal and conservative, church-going and atheist. Gay and straight. From the most “popular” to the downright nerdy.

Marilyn in glasses

I hate to see our girls giving their hearts away to the lowest common denominator. And at a time when their self-image is taking shape and their dreams are so tender and ripe. I hate to see boys thinking that’s all a girl has to offer. Yet wanting so much more.

A teenage heart is malleable, fragile. Like an infant’s skull.

I sit behind the wheel of my minivan imagining myself in their place, swimming with a cultural tide that could’ve hardened me as a young woman. Made me less resilient.

I say all of this not out of prudery. I’ve written hot and raunchy poetry, watched really dirty movies with glee, and have rarely found myself cringing when it comes to sexual content on page, screen or in real life.

It’s not about “the act itself,” as my sweet and southern mother-in-law calls it. What it is about is understanding – on a deeply cultural, biological and emotional level – what sex means in the context of love, living and growing up. That it’s exciting, sublime, funny, and critical to a successful relationship. That it can eat away at your soul if you treat it with recklessness too often.

Marilyn wiki diamonds

It’s not that a girl, or boy, for that matter, has to be an angel. Or that making mistakes will taint and haunt a young person forever and ever. Leave them unredeemable in the eyes of a person who’s looking for someone to truly care about.

There’s a lot to be said about screwing up, and learning from it. But there’s also a lot of crap out there.

From the boring, spirit-crushing nature of partisan politics and media culture, to most feature films, to our one-man PR machines on social media, to Tinder hook-ups. All of these can push us further away from any real examination of who we are and what we are doing. Most of these things will be fleeting, and we’ll look back on them years from now and see them as a phase, a growing pain from a time when the ground felt like it was shifting beneath our feet.

What isn’t a phase, and hasn’t changed since the dawn of man is the vital, burning and relentless role that love plays in our very survival as a species. It is how and why we care for each other. The vehicle through which we populate our lives, our regions, the whole damned earth. The reason we would give our lives for our child, our spouse, even a total stranger. We underestimate its power at our peril. We risk everything in taking it for granted.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just listen to the teens who ride in my minivan.

MARILYN MONROE

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  –Rumi

New Love At First Write! How To Sprinkle Magic Dust Onto Your Story.

Let’s Just Smash All The Windows!

Jane Facebook Profile

I want to introduce you to a fellow writer this week. Her name is Jane Davis and she’s thoughtful and nuanced. Right up a Cold reader’s alley.

Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. That’s when she turned to writing.

Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.

See…told you she’s worth a shout out.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. That’s where I tracked her down to answer THREE BIG QUESTIONS.

Number 1: Why do you write?

John Green says that writing is a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it. I was always the quiet middle child in a family of seven. It’s not that I don’t want to make eye contact, it was that I could never get a word in edgeways. I think that explains why I always have more going on inside my head than comes out of my mouth. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in writing dialogue for characters who are braver and more outspoken than I am. I’m the kind of introvert who can be very sociable, but also needs to balance that with time alone. I’ve always been very comfortable with my own company.

Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it forces both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration that’s important. The idea of a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who’s less than a year older than me, but our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.

As my collection of books grows, I’m also beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So another reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about in my mid-thirties when I started to write – is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.

jane davis

Number 2: What are the themes that most inspire your work?

It took me some time to identify that the common thread that runs through my novels is the impact of missing persons on our lives, how the hole they leave behind can be so great that it dwarfs the people we’re left with. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl, with teenage runaways. And in These Fragile Things, a mother is obsessed by the child she lost to a miscarriage, almost to the exclusion of the child she has. In Smash all the Windows, given that we have fifty-nine victims, the presence of the theme is again obvious. It almost certainly comes from both my personal history – and that of my parents.

When I was aged seventeen, I had my first experience of a young person – someone I knew – dying. A school friend was murdered, someone I felt a particular connection with because he shared my birthday. The ripples from that single death are still felt today. In my parents’ generation, death was far more common but was seldom spoken about.

My father’s mother died when he was just eighteen months old. Because men didn’t bring up children on their own in those days, Dad and his two sisters were taken into care. As was the norm, he was separated from his sisters, Marian (aged 6) and Lois (aged 4). Six months later, Marian woke to find Lois dead in the bed beside her. Can you imagine that? Lois’s death certificate says that she died of a broken heart. My father has no memories of his mother or his sister Lois, but he feels their absence keenly.

My mother was the first child of her father’s second marriage. His first wife had died in 1937 at the age of 37. We only came into possession of a family tree last week, which shows that there was another half-brother, Patrick, who died in 1938, just six months after his mother. So having lost their mother and a brother, Mum’s older siblings (two half-brothers and a half-sister) were evacuated at the beginning of the Second World War. They returned five years later to find that their father had remarried and that they had two new sisters, my mother and Alma. Alma was killed in a car crash aged 23 shortly before she was due to be married.

All families have hidden histories. Loss is a universal theme.

I’m also very interested in how people behave under pressure. I meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation. And then I throw them to the lions.

grave

Number 3: What would you never write about?

While much of my fiction has its basis in fact, I’m wary of writing about recent history. You have to tread so carefully, especially with cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. This was the case with Smash all the Windows. I make no secret of the fact that I took my inspiration from the result of second inquest to the Hillsborough Disaster (The Hillsborough disaster was a human crush at Hillsborough footbal stadium in Sheffield, England on 15 April 1989, during the 1988-89 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.). Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on the families of the victims was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. If I’d wanted to explore the idea, I would have had to ask myself some hard questions. Firstly, I would have considered what I could add to the material that’s already been produced. A number of documentaries were made by Dr Phil Scraton and the families. Plus there was Jimmy McGovern’s powerful TV dramatisation, which I saw as a call to action, part of the protest. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and used eye witness reports. Added to which he had the blessings of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story? My only connection with Liverpool is that it’s my partner home city. That didn’t seem to me to be a close enough link.

books and time

And now some words on Smash all the Windows


‘A dazzling high wire walk through interwoven strands balanced so carefully you know you’ll never fall.’ Dan Holloway, novelist, poet and spoken word artist

‘Just fricking perfect. An all-round triumph.’ John Hudspith

‘This is an astounding read. I was completely captivated.’ Liz Carr

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.

It will take courage to learn how to live again.

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.

If only it were that simple.

Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.

Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Get Smash All The Windows Right Here!

And if her want to know more about Jane…

Jane’s Website

Jane’s Facebook Page

And yes, there’s a brand-spanking new vlog episode of Love at First Write. It’s on, appropriately enough, The Art of Redemption in a Story – particularly when a pair of lovers are involved. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Getting Damned Serious About Humor

Raymond Chandler smiling

The great Raymond Chandler, smirking

Some months ago, I was talking to my friend, Karen, about this epic romance I’m writing. You know, the one I can’t shut up about because it’s been consuming me for about three years. Karen is a writer, too. A huge talent, in fact, and one of the best readers I’ve ever come across. She also knows me pretty well.

She knows how much I love Raymond Chandler, for instance. The way I’m in awe of his skill at weaving humor into the lives of some gritty characters with pretty depressing outcomes.

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

“Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.” –all by Raymond Chandler

But we were talking about romance, as I said. Not thrillers. And the kind of romance with a lot of history in it. Maybe some fantasy and sci-fi mixed in to make the story more like an Indian chutney than a fancy ketchup. And I was just squeaking towards the finish line of my first draft, complaining that it was about as rough as Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.

“You’ve got to read Diana Gabaldon,” she said. “Not only because your series has a historical component,” she told me. “But you have a strong point of view on humor, and I think you’ll find a like mind and some inspiration in her books.”

She was right, of course. My friend Karen is right about a lot of things: feminism, our Founding Fathers, Emily Dickinson and any kind of editorial advice, just to name a few.

outlander series

There’s a lot to be in awe of when reading the Outlander novels. Their length and subsequent ability to hold our interest, the fact that men and women can both enjoy them (swear!), that she doesn’t shy away from sex or violence, yet doesn’t make either gratuitous. That she writes character-driven books with great atmospherics. And yes, that she writes with a heavy dose of humor.

Humor isn’t just something meant to make us feel good. It is defiant, subversive and smarter than we are. Through humor we can say things we’re too afraid to say. It allows us to speak truths that polite society won’t tolerate and reminds us that no word or circumstance can hold power over us. Humor is such an essential element to getting us through the hard times, to making us more resilient, more compelling.  It brings us together, makes us closer, foments friendships. A sense of humor will make a potential lover want to introduce you to his friends, take you in a twirling, spinning hug, kiss you with joy.

Such is its power. More than beauty, because it outlasts our youth. More than sorrow, because it gives us a reason to keep going.

As a reader, I can’t imagine sticking with a series if it didn’t employ a sense of humor that bonded me to characters and their worlds. As a writer, I find humorless prose exhausting and depleting. Often sanctimonious, or uninspired. It drains me to read such passages, let alone have to conjure them.

The best authors weave humor through the fabric of even the most heart wrenching, serious stories. They may do it subtly, through irony perhaps, but they do it. I think of Orwell’s 1984, anything by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, Twain, whose humor is often wrongly mistaken for racism, and even Herodotus.

herodotus

Herodotus

That’s why, as I was reading the Outlander series, I was especially struck by one part that illustrated to me why it’s crucial to maintain a sense of humor, even when you’re writing about a topic or event that’s downright horrifying.

In this particular segment of the story, one of Gabaldon’s characters is being raped. And potentially by more than one man.

Not. Funny.

However, Gabaldon uses humor in such a graceful way, that she not only keeps from degrading or making light of the severity of the situation, but actually gives it greater meaning. As her heroine is being abused by this group of very bad men, one of these desperados fails miserably in his quest to rape her. The heroine actually quips to herself about his complete sexual incompetence, then remarks upon her own good fortune of this having happened to her in middle age. “Twenty years ago, there would’ve been a much longer line,” she says to herself.

That bit of humor brings humanity and hope to a soul-crushing set of circumstances. As a reader, it lends me a hand in getting through a terrible incident with a character I’ve grown to love. I want to believe that our heroine will prevail, or at least emerge from her ordeal intact somehow; it’s her sense of humor that helps me look what is happening right in the eye.

Because that’s what humor does for us in our own lives.

dark humor 4

By Gary Larson

“Oh, please,” you might say. “No one can have a sense of humor while when they’re about to be raped.”

Allow me to step out of the realm of fiction and back into real life in order to answer that.

“While one of his men held me down, this Russian officer took out a mirror and leaned it against a rock. Removing a brush and cake of soap from his canvas bag, he began to lather, spreading this luxurious foam all over his chin and jaw. He took his time. Then he pulled a razor from his belt and began to shave. Ah, a sophisticated rapist, I thought to myself. Isn’t that the height of cosmic sarcasm?” –Dina Babbit, holocaust survivor, on the prospect of being raped by a Russian officer, only days after her liberation from Auschwitz.

This is why, as I embark on editing my romance – the one filled with war and passion and heartbreak and history and pitiless violence perpetrated by corrupt individuals – my writer’s eye is trained on giving my characters a balls-out sense of the absurd. Bringing a dark bit of crackpot levity into a situation – even when there doesn’t seem to be room for anything but tears and screams.

 

Please have a look at my vlog, Love at First Write. It’s an ongoing series that chronicles my efforts to write an epic romance. I’d love to hear your comments.

Men in Love and War

war photographer 2

Years ago, when I was living in Central Europe, I got to know a group of men who were the kind a girl would notice. Young and charismatic, they came complete with the fascinating and swoon-worthy job of war photographer.

These men were fun, courageous, and wild. They lived hard – drinking, drugging and bird-dogging every pretty female who would have them. On any given night, you could find them “shrooming” in the great outdoors, or at an underground club watching a live sex show. Maybe just hanging out and telling stories. About war zones, scars and executions.

One of these men – let’s call him Eddie – told me about getting shrapnel imbedded in his scrotum when he was photographing an intense battle in the former Yugoslavia. This was during the civil war there, and it was an ugly, bloody time full of weaponized rape and genocide.

After getting hit, Eddie was taken to a field hospital, where they removed one of his testicles without the benefit of anesthesia. Being smack in the middle of a hot war zone, there simply wasn’t any left. Wounded and dying soldiers lay all around Eddie as the doctor leaned over him, brandishing something that looked like a piece of wood.

“Bite down on this,” he said. “This is really going to hurt.”

Eddie passed out during the operation, as you can imagine any man would. When Eddie woke up, at least according to him, he propositioned a very sultry nurse, having sex with her right there in his hospital bed. Slavic boned, with wide sensual lips, and an ass to die for, she was just what the doctor ordered.

There, fresh out of surgery, Eddie proved to himself that he was still functional, still a man.

sexy nurse

Another one of these men – we’ll call him Andy – told me all about a photographer friend of his who had been killed by firing squad somewhere in the Middle East. I was aghast listening to his story. Being only about twenty-four at the time, I’d never met anyone outside of my own war-torn family, who had actually known someone who’d been executed.

This was a person young enough to be my peer, and now, they were dead. No, not just dead, but put up against a wall and shot point-blank by a group of strange men. I wondered if he got a last request – a prayer or cigarette.

“Why did they do it?” I asked Andy.

Andy shrugged, his face a mask of irony. “They didn’t like him.”

Andy was a bit of an anomaly among these guys. He was hugely talented and had spent years globe-trotting from war to war just like the rest of them. And he had a wry and irreverent sense of humor that lurked behind his every word – also like his cohorts. Andy was different from his friends in one crucial way, however: he was married and had two small children.

He’d left the battlefield behind, and was making a nice living snapping portraits of prominent individuals and the like.

This did not go over well with his war photographer friends, let me tell you.

Andy was taunted pretty mercilessly for no longer going off at a moment’s notice and raising hell. For staying home and raising his kids instead, trying to be a faithful husband to his wife. It was hard for Andy, too. I could see it in his eyes and in the way he talked about his past adventures.  He missed the excitement, the danger, the freedom – even if he did love his family.

Not long ago, a mutual friend told me she’d heard Andy had left his wife and was now sailing around the world. I guess I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad for him. Andy had a good soul, he just seemed to struggle when it came to claiming it.

man in boat

Only a few months after I left both my ex-pat life and this motley crew of war photographers behind, I got to know another group of men. I had fallen in love with my husband, and one of his best friends was in the United States Marine Corps. At the time, my husband’s friend – who we’ll call Dave, because it’s his real name – was a colonel and lawyer. In the wake of 9/11, he left his growing law practice in the dust and went back to full-time soldiering. A born leader with the temperment of a philospher, Dave would go on to be commissioned a full-fledged general.

Dave and his Marine buddies were fun, courageous and wild. They told stories about training and camaraderie, with the occassional tale about combat.

I remember Dave confiding to me and my husband about two young men who’d been under his command. They’d been killed during an ambush and Dave was remembering them on one, gloomy Memorial Day a few years ago. He went into some detail about their lives and interests, who they’d loved. And he asked my husband to tell those young men’s stories to our children, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Dave told us all of this on the phone, but I could imagine his fierce blue eyes the whole time. Powerful, lived-in eyes that were full of humor, but took everything seriously. The eyes of a man with grave responsibilities.

For his men, for whom he had sacrificed so much, and for his family, who had sacrificed so much for him.

Marine coming home

Not long before leaving on one of his tours, Dave and I found ourselves alone in my kitchen. We were drinking beer, casually, after my husband had washed his hands of us and gone to bed.

We talked about how his wife had put her own concerns aside and taken on the full burden of family life, all the while not knowing whether he would return. The way Dave had to leave the people he loved most and enter a world of danger and few comforts. These weren’t voiced as complaints, but observations. He felt a reverence for the faith his loved ones had in him – the fact that they shared his values despite what they had to endure when he was gone.

Dave, with those same blue eyes boring into mine – in person this time, alive with tenderness and emotion, unflinching – revealed to me how much he loved his wife.

“She’s all that matters,” he told me, going so far as to describe the way she looked when she was sleeping.

The way her hair lay against the pillow. The look of soft determination that marked her face, even at rest.

love soldier

As I’ve been endeavoring to write a truly compelling romantic male character over the past few years – I’ve been thinking back on the war photographers and marines, training my cold writer’s eye on them, a vision sharpened by years of steady surveillance. But I’ve engaged my heart, too – one warmed by half a lifetime of being a wife and mother.

Both teams of men command our attention, making us want to follow their journeys, root for them. I’ve tried to understand what sets them apart and anticipate which man a woman would choose to be her lover and why. How a woman would assess these two groups of alpha males if she found herself having to choose between them.

men arm wresting

Manhood, for Dave and his friends, was defined by meaning, and meaning was attained through the exercise of duty and honor. Being husbands, fathers, friends, and in their case, soldiers was a thing of the highest order. They held within them a deeply personal form of power. A competence that stretched far beyond what they were capable of on a battlefield, or any other professional arena. You didn’t dare underestimated them.

Andy and Eddie were charming, intelligent, funny and untamed. They were curious and had an unquenchable appetite for life. The sort of dangerous but captivating men you could find in any number of movies and novels. Full of bravado, fighting wars within themselves while they sought the wars outside. All of this hinted at an inner depth that might make a girl get out her shovel and dig until she found it…or didn’t. Yes, they were riveting in their own right.

I believe they truly cared about the people and events they were capturing with their cameras, despite their sardonic posturing. And I often wondered if they felt a bit lost in the theater of war – like people once removed. Intermediaries who were putting their lives on the line to bring images of conflict to the rest of us sitting at home. Denied the fight, all the while being exposed to the same perils. Dressed in the blood and grime of war, but not the uniform.

“Sometimes I can’t figure out what the hell we’re doing out there,” one of them once remarked.

Maybe that’s why those war photographers lived so hard, playing up their bad boy romanticism. Occupying that middle ground is complex and befuddling. You might have the courage of a soldier, but not the motive. You’re both up close to and at an arms length from humanity at its most base and most noble. And unlike a soldier, you have no articulated directives that bind your heart and mind – Semper Fidelis, First to Fight, Uncommon Valor, The Few, The Proud.

A man like that might be a bundle of ingredients that can’t seem to come together if he wasn’t careful.

man confused and blue

It occurred to me, as I thought back on how Dave had described his feelings – employing no irony and embracing, boldly, a deep sentimentality worthy of a Carpenters song – that clarity is an aphrodisiac few women can resist. It’s a Holy Grail for men all over, too, and some spend their entire lives in search of it.

Clarity of purpose. That law dictated from the bowels of the conscience, and adhered to. That’s the difficult part. Most can hear the call, but not every one can figure out how to follow it without getting lost.

But it is that very fidelity to intention that distinguishes men and boys. A husband from a boyfriend. The protagonist in any story from the rest. It is what makes a man whole, and a character transcend the story that’s been written for him.

And for even more on men and male characters, click here and visit me on Patreon!

 

 

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