Process is not for the faint of heart. I’ve emerged from my latest residency without coherent pages in my hand—nothing tangible, nothing new to read on my last day where we shared what we’d been working on. My time there was all about process, and I feel scattered. Does thinking count? Did I waste three precious weeks or take a big step? It’s been making me ponder this question: how do you judge your own “productivity” when it comes to the creative arts? Is it the thickness of the manuscript in your hand, or the heaviness in your heart from the wrestling you’ve done to get it there?
I could always write at Ragdale
We often talk about “writer’s block” (I believe that comes just before The Crack-Up), and I’ve certainly had it in spades, but never at a residency. On the contrary, I’ve been to a variety of writer’s retreats over the past twelve years, primarily at the wonderful Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois. And it’s always been a great experience, miraculous actually. Ragdale is where I’ve written about 90% of my novel, The Fourteenth of September, most of the time in a delightful nook with a sloped ceiling and French doors named after one of the historic building’s original inhabitants, my “lucky” Sarah’s Room.
When I first met Jill Wine-Banks about five years ago we were both writing books about topics we’d been told repeatedly were no longer of interest—me about the Vietnam War and she about the Nixon White House. We both felt we might have missed our windows, but I was much more skeptical that hers was ready to be put out to pasture. After all, she was the one who interrogated Rosemary Woods, the White House secretary responsible for the notorious missing 18½ minutes of the Watergate tapes. I felt Watergate was right up there with the Nazis in terms of perpetual interest—the creative gift that keeps on giving. How could she doubt herself?
Let me back up. First of all, to meet Jill you need to do a double and triple take and think, no way could this woman have been around and in her prime back in the early 1970’s Watergate days. She looks way too young and still so striking that it’s easy to imagine her in the mini-skirt she got so much flack for back in the day. (She was dubbed the "mini-skirted prosecutor,” and eventually auctioned the garment off for charity it had become so famous).
On January 27 I wrote a blog titled “A 48-Year Déjà Vu” about the similarities between the post-election Women’s March and the march to end the war in Vietnam in Washington DC on November 15, 1969. I’d been at both and have just finished a novel about the latter.
I commented on the longtime gap between issues that were compelling enough to get me back on my feet, and the “wake up” from my “radical sleep.” To illustrate my argument, I’d carefully combed through a circa ’69 photo of me in a protest march and lined up a corresponding shot from today.
The post was heartfelt. I received many comments (yes, a few about my hair) and reestablished connections from long ago. We were still all in it together.
I swear I didn’t plan it, but there was a lot of irony and surprise going around recently at my ninth Literary Salon. The featured author, Ellis Goodman, here to read from his new novel, The Keller Papers, brought more than a fascinating story both on the page and behind the scenes. He also unknowingly teed up the world event to happen later that evening, as well as resurfaced a bit of history between him and me.
More than a few years ago, when he was CEO of Barton Brands, my public relations agency at the time, Dragonette Inc, pitched Ellis for the Corona beer account. We had just left Edelman, so we were a young agency with a short list of smaller clients—Corona would have been a big coup. We jumped through hoops to demonstrate spectacular results for our modest clients with their tiny budgets, assuming he would, of course, easily extrapolate—“Wow! If they can get all this for only that, imagine what they could do for my big-budget beer!” Alas, his only words were, “It does seem that you have a lot of clients without much money . . . ” (I remember it verbatim). We were so charmed by his polite British accent and gracious manners that it took a while to realize we’d been rebuffed . . . and that he’d left the room.
I just returned from two back-to-back conferences and am reeling a bit from what I’ve seen as I begin to peddle my novel after quietly writing it for the past 12 years.
Association of Writers and Writing Programs—I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot
I’ve been to the formidable AWP Conference several times in the past, but always hung to the sides, picking up what craft or marketing information I could, but not feeling quite “legitimate” without a finished manuscript. I’d found my first AWP pretty frosty. Twice, someone I’d sat next to at a lecture responded to my “hello” with a quick look at my name tag and, apparently seeing nothing useful, literally turned full-body to the evidently more credentialed person on the other side. I’d been taken aback at such a PR faux pas. How do they know I won’t be the next Donna Tart? So, this is the world we’re in, I thought, as I was repeatedly mowed down again and again until I figured out a system—leave the current session before the Q&A and you’ll have a prayer at being able to get into the next, even though you’d probably still end up sitting on the floor.
Back in the Fall of 1969, I was increasingly disturbed by the direction of the Vietnam War and just sticking my toe into the campus counterculture at Northern Illinois University. I would comb notices for events advertised on posters and began to attend a few—a planning meeting to support a student strike, a gathering of the campus chapter of the SMC (Student Mobilization Committee to End the War). I’d cling to a wall at the back of the room and try to blend with my brand new jeans, and be amazed at how order would arise from the chaos before me—everyone yelling at once, purposefully raucous, yet somehow arriving at decisions. I’d slink out, without interacting. Intrigued, but not ready to engage.
One day at the union, Marcia plopped herself down next to me, shoved a petition under my nose, dared me not to be apathetic and told me to sign it. I don’t remember what it was for, but I certainly obeyed. She had seen me at all the meetings and knew a ripe convert who needed a push when she saw one. From that moment she became my radical mentor, schooling me in all the important things—we were “freaks” not “hippies;” it was “grass” or “weed” not “pot;” proper attire meant the bells of your jeans had to be a complete circle, not sticking out like triangles from your ankles; and there were “right” ways to get involved (SMC yes, SDS and YSA—the Young Socialists Association, no). She immediately introduced me to her expansive circle including virtually any non-straight person on campus (back when “straight” meant “conforming,” not sexual identification) and gave me the name I am still called by to this day, “Lovely Rita.”
The last time I was part of a massive protest march was November 15, 1969, in Washington DC to end the War in Vietnam. It was major. I wrote a novel about it. This past Saturday, I was in Chicago, part of the Worldwide Women’s March to maintain our hard-won rights. It was bigger. It will be mentioned in inevitable books to be written four years from now. In both cases, I immediately knew I just had to be there, if for nothing else than to be counted.
The first song at Saturday’s rally was Let it Be and 48 years dropped away
Back in ’69 I’d arrived in DC sleepless, after an all-night trip on one of three school buses taking 200 of us from Northern Illinois University to what we were certain would be the end of the war. I froze in a threadbare pea coat left over from high school and gym shoes that got so muddy I had to pitch them the minute I returned. I had three PB&J sandwiches in my paisley bag along with a knit hat to hide my red hair so my military mother wouldn’t see me on TV and realize that I’d gone even though she’d pitched that fit. “What do you mean you have to be there?”
As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway would put it, at long last, I’ve finally taken the plunge. I’ve burst out of the business world and into a full-time creative career.
I anticipate a wild ride, and I’d love your company.
After my toiling away on my first novel for twelve years, my editor has, as she puts it, “taken away my paintbrush.” I’m ready to go public and find an audience for The Fourteenth of September, a Coming of Conscience novel that follows a young woman in the time of the Vietnam War who must make a choice as fateful as that of any draftee. Think—if Tim O’Brien in the “On the Rainy River” section of The Things They Carried had been a woman—that’s the emotional intensity I’m going for. Like most debut novels, it’s based on personal experience. I’ll be sharing more on my story, what I mean by a Coming of Conscience novel, and on the plunge into the creative life in posts to come.
The next Literary Salon will be on September 14, 2017 with with Christina Pugh, author of Perception.
Perception consists of short poems rooted in observed objects. Using metaphoric description as well as association, the poems inhabit the objects or entities that they contemplate — ranging from paintings and shop signs to wallpaper and flower species. These poems are seeking to enact a tenor of attention — the power of singular focus — that is too easily lost in our multi-tasking age.
The next literary salon will be held on April 6th, 2017 with Ellis Goodman, author of The Keller Papers.
The Keller Papers is a fast-moving espionage story, including factual events and personalities of the times, which have become so relevant in today’s strained East/West political environment. A worthy sequel to his first novel, Bear Any Burden.
Throughout my career I’ve written for the trend, for the times, for the zeitgeist. I spent years in the public relations/marketing profession, where being current was currency, and built a reputation as someone known for “getting it.” So I was surprised when I encountered push back over the years as I wrote my first novel, set during the Vietnam War, as to why anyone would be interested in the subject matter. It’s over. It’s been done. Why should I care? I wasn’t around then. It’s irrelevant to me, to today.
Such comments always made me respond with a crack referencing the latest hit movie set during World War II, about a war that took place before most of us were “around,” and yet endlessly of interest, of relevance.