This year has presented a lot of where-were-you-when moments that are impossible to keep from reflecting upon. And, if you miss one, just catch the CNN special on 1968: The Year That Changed America and you’ll be immediately transported.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Unlike that of his brother, five years earlier, I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard—but I do vividly recall the next day. I was in study hall, supposedly getting ready for what would be the last finals of high school. I was wearing a green skirt. I remember because I kept staring protectively into my lap, away from my books and the tense eyes of others, darting back and forth across the aisles of desks, anxious to commiserate. I couldn’t keep my mind focused and resented that I had to. How could we be expected to study, I screamed in my head? Or even take finals, or even be in school with all this going on? Another Kennedy dead, two months after King. This is happening here, in our country, not some remote third-word place I couldn’t picture. I was terrified. We were terrified.
Recently, while promoting the fall publication of my novel, The Fourteenth of September, which takes place during the pivotal 1969-1970 years of the Vietnam War, I was asked if—of the many iconic moments in American history that happened during that time period— one had impacted me more than any other.
I paused to consider the word iconic...icon—a symbol. No question. It was the Kent State Massacre, a symbol at the time of the total chasm between the government and the youth it was supposed to be protecting: the bridge too far that blew away most of the remaining support for the war, though it’s death throes dragged on another five years.
I’m quite excited to introduce the cover design for The Fourteenth of September, the novel I’ve worked on for so many years. I have to admit, it’s pretty thrilling to see it come to life, and I AM palpitating more than a bit…
I must say, the journey to this final cover has been a surprisingly challenging process. I probably should have known this, coming out of over 25 years in marketing. Looking back, when the cover is done it seems so obvious, like the title. However, after years of wrestling this complex story into a narrative, and naming it (thank you, Gary Wilson), and now again having to digest it all into a single image with the power to instantly engage the reader who would most love, enjoy, and relate to it? Well, that clearly required a specific eye and expertise far different from anything I’d done before.
Watching the news on Valentine’s Day about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, my mind raced back ten years—Valentine’s Day 2008. That year, too, broadcasts broke a story of horror mid-day, shattering a holiday celebrating love. A young man with a shotgun and two pistols had killed five students, injured seventeen and shot himself at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University, in a lecture hall where a few decades earlier I had taken many classes. More than one student in my preferred section of seating didn’t make it. At any random stroke of time one of those casualties could have been me, could have been one of my friends, could have been my second cousin who was a senior at NIU at the time. I wasn’t there, but I was. Iwasin the shot.
I've been getting a lot of questions about my position on the subject of Jim Morris's guest post sent out last week and that's fair. I didn't want to include it until I heard from you all and it was a lively series of comments indeed. In thinking this through, I got a little carried away given the complexity of the Art vs Artist debate. I hope you'll find it provocative as we all struggle with this tricky issue. Let me know what you think.
Many of you have asked my “stand” on this fraught issue. So here I am weighing in and wanting, really wanting, to purely say that the Art should be above the behavior of the Artist. But is that an absolute? I find censorship anathema and have always felt that people who reject the pleasure of Wagner’s music (or Cate Blanchett’s sublime performance in Blue Jasmine — it's worth it, Frank) are being way too rigid in a world that requires more flexibility. But then, does that very flexibility give permission beyond what our viewing or listening, or overall enjoying of the art, intends? Are we, God forbid, enabling?
This month I’ve invited my first Guest Blogger, advertising veteran Jim Morris aka Tagline Jim (whose brilliant tagline for his own business is “long story, short”) to share his POV on a difficult subject. Jim is a radical thought leader in his industry, per his bio below. As an engaging and opinionated author, speaker, teacher and blogger, he often branches out into topics with ramifications for us all. His recent white paper on “Art Versus Artist” caught my eye as a subject that’s been around as long as Hitler and Wagner, and is as blazingly current as the behavior of Woody’s Allen’s actors. It’s a tough issue. Please read and weigh in, even if the answer remains “It depends.”
The question of whether we can separate the art from the artist has been much discussed for centuries. This current sexual harassment brouhaha that seems to preoccupy our news media compels us to visit, (or, for some of you, revisit) this question. Of course, character flaws and bad behavior extend far beyond sexual predation. They include, among other things, bigotry, various addictions and compulsions, non-sexual violent behavior like assault, mental torment and murder, as well as a host of other bad acts from embezzlement and thievery to bribery, plagiarism and combinations of deplorable behavior of which, one could argue, Hemingway and Picasso are prime examples.
So here’s the famous story. Sheila Talton hired my public relations firm back in the early ’90s to represent her technology company. One day, she took me to lunch at Chicago’s famed University Club. There, in the glow of the glorious two-story, stained-glass windows gracing the sumptuous corporate dining room, a shared history was revealed.
It turns out we’d both been at the same school (Northern Illinois University), at the same time, and in the same massive student protest—she in one faction as a civil rights protestor yelling “Black Power,” and me in the other as a member of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, shouting “Bring the Troops Home Now.” I’m sure you recognize the era.
Though it’s been in the works since April, I’m very excited to be able to officially announce that my debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, will be published by She Writes Press on September 18, 2018—the closest date possible to the actual title of the book. Sometimes the stars align!*********
For those of you who haven’t heard the story by now, it’s about a female recruit, in college on a military scholarship during the Vietnam War, who begins to have doubts. She goes underground into the counterculture, and risks family and future, as she’s forced to make a choice as fateful as that of any Lottery draftee. The story is ever so loosely based on a character-defining personal experience of my own that happened during that critical time frame between the first Draft Lottery and Kent State, one that I’ve always felt defined our generation and cried out to be examined from a woman’s point of view.
This “borrowing” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote about the rich kept working its way through my head as I listened to award-winning poet Christina Pugh talk about her work and her process at my recent Literary Salon. Though his comment was disparaging, mine is meant with all admiration and, as one Salon guest put it, “awe.”
I’d met Christina in 2013 at what we both can only describe as a “celestial” experience at Ragdale, an artist’s retreat I’ve mentioned before in these posts. I’d been tremendously moved hearing her read her gorgeous words, delivered with a voice that invited us into a truly uncommon experience, and wanted to share. When she told me she had a new book out, Perception, we set a Salon date. However, of the nine Salons I’ve held over the past eight years, only one had featured a poet, and it was a bit of a hard sell to get my avid fiction readers to come out for it. That Salon, featuring the wonderful Parneshia Jones introducing her book Vessel, was a tremendous success for those who attended. I wanted an expanded audience to drop whatever “perceptions” about poetry might be holding them back and get re-excited about the literary form.
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.
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.