Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff. And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.
In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.
To her ex, Kamryn says:
“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”
And about Tegan:
“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”
In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.
“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”
“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”
These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.
At first, I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear was only for writers and other artists. But as I read, I found it reminding me that we can all live creative lives. A creative life is simply one that isn’t satisfied with merely working to pay bills. Do you like to make stuff? Do you like to cook, sew, garden, decorate your home, play with model trains, build birdhouses? You are entitled to a creative life. Yes, you! Everyone is.
I’ve included just a few of the many passages I highlighted in bright pink.
Relax and work hard
Gilbert tells us not to worry about being good enough. If the work makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what others think. The work is what’s important.
“We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners.”
“A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”
“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat.”
Where ideas come from and where they go…
“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form… Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”
Gilbert tells a great story about the novel she didn’t write. After getting an idea and starting a novel, some life-altering circumstances caused her to set it aside. Boxes and boxes of research sat idle for years. When her life settled down and she was able to start again, the idea had fled. She was simply no longer interested in it. Later, Gilbert discovered that that idea had flitted into Anne Patchett’s head and that she was now working on it. That idea turned into her book, State of Wonder. Clearly the lesson is, if you don’t do the work, the idea will find someone who will. Get cracking!
Success and failure
“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”
“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”
Live beyond fear, not without it
Gilbert recognizes that a certain amount of fear is necessary for survival, that those without any fear tend to act like sociopaths or out-of-control toddlers. Not people we should emulate. How does she deal with fear? Here’s the letter she addressed to her fear before starting a new project, what she likens to a “road trip.”
“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job… But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
Big Magic may be my new favorite graduation gift. In spite of the author’s magical thinking the book is loaded with very practical advice for how to live a creative, productive, and happy life. Furthermore, it’s delivered in a direct, cheerful, kind, generous, and encouraging voice. Gilbert values curiosity over passion. She argues against trying to make creativity pay one’s bills. She argues for keeping one’s day job, living frugally, and traveling. She also argues against going into debt to pay for advanced degrees. Pulitzer prizes don’t often go to folks with MFAs.
My advice? Treat yourself so some Big Magic and read this book.
This post is in response to a brief blog-versation I had with the charming Brian over at Bonnywood Manor after he kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award. Liebster means “favorite” in German and the nomination carries along with it some obligations, which I am politely, humbly, and gratefully ignoring. Brian was curious about my creative process and the critique group to which I belong. Therefore, instead of accepting the award, I wrote this. If you have something to say about writing, creativity, or lifelong learning, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. XO
In this photo, my granddaughter is celebrating her 100th day of kindergarten and being “100 DAYS SMARTER.” It got me thinking, shouldn’t we all celebrate getting smarter? Am I still learning?
I like to think so, but some of that learning is accidental. For example, perhaps we should have gotten an estimate to replace the roof on this twenty-year-old house before we made our offer. Or maybe drinking several cups of tea with my sushi at dinner the other night wasn’t such a good idea. I guess that’s what they mean by “live and learn.”
Other times, however, I’ve set out to learn a new skill. On purpose. I’ve put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being potentially and embarrassingly bad at something. Like blogging. Or yoga. In short, I’ve risked failure. At my age, being new at anything is refreshing—scary and humbling–but refreshing. Even exhilarating.
Case in point, at the urging of my friend, Joan, I wrote a “novel” in 2009 during NaNoWriMo. The quotes are because my “novel” was merely 70,000 words of collected scenes and sketches, held together with hope, Dove wrappers, and sticky notes. It added up to a word count, but little else. I knew I needed help massaging it into something meaningful (readable even?), but what kind of help? How much? And who do I ask?
Enter another friend, Marilee, who just happened to be a legendary writing instructor at Western Nevada College and founder of Lone Mountain Writers, a local critique group. LMW has been meeting every other week for over twenty years and has among its past and present members several published poets and authors such as romance writer, Wilma Counts. Marilee invited me to join. I accepted.
During my first few meetings, I observed the protocol and learned the ground rules. Up to four pieces are emailed to the group ahead of time so we have a chance to read deeply and make notes. Submissions can be up to fifteen pages. The group responds round-robin style with each of our oral comments limited to two or three minutes, all while the author remains stoically silent. We hand over our marked up copy to the author who only at the end may ask questions, defend, or clarify something.
I was profoundly impressed by the variety and quality of writing. Many people were working on novels. And for the most part, they didn’t need help with grammar or punctuation. The discussions focused on elements of fiction: plot, point of view, character, structure, pacing, voice, etc. These are the things a reader may not even notice, except in their absence. It’s what makes a reader want to invest time and thought and heart in the work. That stuff.
Consequently, I waited months before I worked up the courage to submit. I’d been writing personal narratives and opinions for years, but fiction was new to me. I polished my first chapters until (I thought) they sparkled. I just knew the group would be blown away by my literary genius. Instead, what I heard–repeatedly–was, “This is excellent writing, but you don’t have a story here.” Apparently, what I had was a mess of good writing.
But the story in my head kept pushing me forward. It wouldn’t let me give up.
So I kept listening and learning. I read books on writing and revising. I rewrote and resubmitted. I attended a local writers conference and got feedback from a real, live editor. I “killed my darlings,” deleting lovely little bits of writing that didn’t serve my story. I learned not to take any critique personally and to listen to those who shared my vision for my story. I smiled and respectfully set aside advice from those who wanted my story to become theirs. (It needs more explosions! How about some robots?)
Now, five years and countless drafts and revisions later, what I hear is, “This is the best thing you’ve submitted,” and “I finally like this character. I understand her now.” Whew.
So while I may not have a cute hat to wear to celebrate getting smarter, I nonetheless feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s enough to keep me going. Good thing, because it’s not done yet. But neither am I. I’ve invested too much time and energy to quit now. I’m smart enough to know that.
Warning: This post is directed to members and former members of Weight Watchers. Others may be confused by the talk of Points, the WW calculation that takes into consideration nutritional elements besides calories–things like protein, carbs, fat, and fiber. The program and formula have changed over WW’s 50 year history, causing much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Every time.
In 2001, I weighed over two hundred pounds. How much over, I’ll leave to your imagination. It only took me two years to reach my goal. Am I just slow-learner or do I suffer from attention deficit issues? Maybe both? You can read about my weight loss journey here: Gains and losses go beyond the scale. But I’m not talking about that today. Today, fifteen years later, I’m talking about perspective, trust, and looking at the big picture when it comes to change.
First, I know that the support and accountability I received from staff and other members at Weight Watcher meetings were key. Anyone can hand you a diet. That’s easy. But with WW I learned strategies to replace a lifetime of unhealthy habits with healthier ones and to make myself a priority. We commiserated and celebrated. Where else could I get applauded for losing two-tenths of a pound, eating only half a doughnut, or being able to cross my legs?
Long story short, I lost weight on the Points program, living on 19 Points a day with a few extras thrown in from a weekly slush fund we were given. The little extras were to make the program livable so we wouldn’t feel deprived. Back in those days, we still had to count Points for fruit. That seems like the dark ages now. Not as dark as the 60s, when you had to eat liver and couldn’t eat pasta, but still, dark.
I became a part-time leader when I retired from teaching. It seemed like a natural fit, passing on the lessons I’d learned and encouraging others along the path. You can learn some of those strategies by clicking on the HH4HH tag on this page.
A few years later, Weight Watchers unveiled PointsPlus at leader training. All of our daily points increased from 19 to 26. You’d think we’d be happy. Nope. We were afraid. Everyone cried and fussed. Remember, leaders are successful Weight Watchers. We LOVED and were committed to the old program. We KNEW it worked. We KNEW we’d gain weight on this “new and improved” program. Who were they kidding? We whined,“I can’t eat that much and maintain!” and “Why do I have to change?” and “Can’t I keep going on the old program?”
What we were told, with a smile, was this: “Weight Watchers offers and supports the best program, supported by the latest research. If you don’t feel you and your members deserve the best, feel free to stick with the old program, but without our support.” Ouch.
Still grumbling a bit, we thought more about it. We realized something. With the new PointsPlus formula, while the points for some of our favorite foods (like carbs) had gone up, now all fresh fruit and most vegetables were free, as in ZERO points. Essentially what WW did was drag us (sometimes kicking and screaming) toward healthier choices. Under the old system a cookie and an apple were roughly equivalent choices, point-wise. In the new system, a cookie would cost you points, whereas the apple was free. Zero points.
Okay, I got it. I was supposed to eat more apples, fewer cookies. And I did. I also ate fewer processed foods, cut my oatmeal serving from 1/2 to 1/3 cup, and added fresh fruit to it rather than raisins. Small changes, really.
Little by little, we adjusted. More people joined WW and lost weight. And if they’d never experienced any of the previous programs, PointsPlus was WW. And as always, it worked if you worked it.
Nevertheless, time and science keep marching on, so now, along comes the latest research-based (r)evolution, SmartPoints. And guess what! This time calories, sugars, and saturated fats were added to formula, so lots of the foods in the WW data base changed values. Again! But, once again, they gave me MORE points to eat every day. Now I get 30. (Remember, I used to get only 19!) And I still get extras every week.
If I’m honest about how I’ve worked the program over the last few years, even though my daily target was 26, I ate about 30 points a day. I also traded my Activity Points for food, so that most of my extras remained (ahem) on the table. So this “big change” isn’t such a big change. For me. I changed which tortillas and salad dressing I buy. I use the bar code scanner on the WW mobile app more often to discover the best SmartPoints bargains.
While I no longer work for WW, I do trust them to provide me with the best program. And I still weigh in at a meeting every month, because as long as I stay at goal, it’s free. And because it works.
Thanks to WW, I weighed less on my 60th birthday than I did on my 50th. So now I try to keep the big picture in mind as I adapt to this particular change and continue to take baby steps toward a healthier me.
“If there is no solution to the problem, then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem, then don’t waste time worrying about it.” ~Dalai Lama.
This column appeared on New Year’s Eve a year ago in the Nevada Appeal. Click on over to read… Count your blessings