Susanna Avoids Housework By Pondering Why She Writes Romances

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”

“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

From Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

In my freshman year in college, I discovered Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. This was a long, long time before I would do something as stupid as try to write books. Campbell’s work resonated with me because it reflects how my mind operates, spinning stories to make sense of problems. I always have one foot in reality and one foot in some fantasy world in my head. Campbell (and Jung) to some degree blueprinted the dreamscape. Yet personally, I always found something wanting in Campbell’s work as far as how he defined the heroine’s journey. In one book, which I can’t remember the title, he essentially says that to reach manhood a boy must venture out, meet beasts, slay things, be victorious, and come back. Of course, this journey is a mental and spiritual representation whether there be an actual physical journey or not. It’s all symbolism, ritual, etc.  But Campbell went on to say that womanhood just happened to the female. I guess he is referencing menstruation. I think that’s rather anticlimactic.

A few years later, I discovered Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I was enthralled. She dives deep into old fairy tales, pulling out the female psyche.  Yet, Estes explores the singular “Wild Woman” archetype and the dark side of the female archetype. I can’t pinpoint exactly why Estes’ work doesn’t reflect the stories in my head. But for one thing, my stories have happy endings (always a courageous act) and there are two archetypes working with equal dynamism.

Then one afternoon, I was sitting on my friend Laura’s comfortable couch as she explained her studies of the heroine’s journey.  First all, Laura is extremely academic and when she presents an idea she pull can from almost every piece of surviving lore from the beginning of human existence. She believes that the female journey is more circular that the male counterpart’s and has more facets, which she illustrated but by now I have forgotten. Her conclusion was that the female journey is about connection.

This morning, I was battering around my ideas with my friend Abigail. I said the male’s journey is very physical and violent as it reflects the evolution of the hunter man, going out, killing something, and coming back.  The threat is “out there.” Yet, on an evolutionary level, women survive by sticking together.  Childbirth and child rearing are all very vulnerable activities and need, in the words of Hillary Clinton, a village to do properly. Raising a child requires more than just the mother and father, but grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles, younger siblings and neighbors. (I chuckle as I write this because I think to back to Slaughterhouse Five which I recently read. The main character is told by his alien friends that to make a human baby requires a man, woman, gay man and  post-menopausal woman. And that these additional sex organs are in another dimension and can’t be seen. ) The point I’m trying to make is the female psyche is connected to society. If conflict happens in society, our survival and the survival of our offspring are at risk.  The threat is from within as easily as it is “out there.”

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Since the beginning of time, in my case, the 1970s, when I first saw Lee Majors as the Bionic Man, I have been weaving romances with the gods (or 70s celebrities) in my imagination. I feel that I’m a writer whose work is placed in the romantic genre because it is about two people who fall in love. Yet, it more than falling in love; it’s falling in love despite an active obstacle or problem which if not stopped would have painful ramifications for the characters and their social networks. My romance journey is twofold: the removal of an obstacle requires the combined and equal effort of the male and female characters, and the subsequent resolution heals both them and their community.  I’m focusing on the core of the social unit, two people, and the moving out to the greater social fabric.

So, while most hero journeys require a separation from the society that while ultimately benefit from the hero’s actions, my heroines and heroes don’t leave society but work within its threads to resolve conflict and strengthen the bonds between themselves and their community. Belonging. Connection.  It’s all rather like a soap opera *wink*

That is until I break my own theory and write part II.

9 Replies to “Susanna Avoids Housework By Pondering Why She Writes Romances”

  1. I am a follower and always enjoy your blog, but this is particularly good. I think I find “romance” as a genre often unsatisfying because it can be so one-note. Hero and heroine meet cute, there’s some annoying misunderstanding that somehow never manages to be cleared up despite an immediate and overwhelming sexual attraction, blah, blah, blah. What’s so often missing is the sense of anything larger or more real outside the immediate frame of these two people and their romantic distress. But to be interesting, a story must always be about something more, as you say. I think this is why Jane Austen is so good and why people who try to do fictional homage to her so often fail. “Pride and Prejudice” has a perfect Harlequin plot, but what’s outside the frame? The entail, and the possible future of shabby, genteel poverty awaiting the widowed Mrs. Bennet and her five unmarried daughters. Unscrupulous men, and the possible future of Lydia on the town. Conceited, pompous, narrow-minded and silly men, whose money nonetheless makes them a good catch, a prospect Elizabeth vigorously rejects in the person of Mr. Collins, though by accepting she could have secured not only her own future but that of her sisters and mother. P&P, comically skirting tragedy at every turn, is about so much more then “romance.” And so every successful romance must be. At the heart of Middlemarch are not one but three love stories: Will and Dorothea, Fred and Mary, and the disastrous Lydgate-Rosamund mess. But so much more is involved!

  2. Kathleen, I agree. I love complicated romances with more than one story line and details about the culture.

    Susanna, wonderful way to avoid housework.

  3. @Kathleen, Thank you. I agree. I’ve been reading a book by Brene Brown and she talks about context and social connections. I think women are wired for nuanced social awareness and we love reading about it. You know, I’ve never read Middlemarch. I really have to. Everyone raves about the book.

    Jane Austen really did create a world in her books. I guess it partially explains why we are so adamant to learn the details of the Regency. It kinda deepens and continues the story for us.

    Thanks again!

  4. How very cool that your stories explore these ideas in Regency and Victorian times — what an excellent foundation to explore. I’ve always been grateful to you for introducing me to Estes — it changes how I though about the spiritual quest, especially the female one. They say there are only two stores — there and back again, and a stranger comes to town — but I find that in feminine narrative, these templates are focused much more on the journey and the quest, and less on the object of said quest.

  5. For me, the difference between a cookie-cutter anything and something deeper is the dialogue and internal thoughts. Of course, great writing helps too. That is why I adore Susanna’s books.

  6. @Tina, I concur. Feminine narratives focus more on the actual journey — and what the heroine wore there and back again. That’s not an anti-intellectual statement. One can be brilliant and fashionable while having an intense emotional arc.

  7. @Liz, such a nice compliment coming from the queen of great internal thought and dialogue (both in fiction and reality)

  8. Thanks for mentioning me and my theory. What a great post. And all the replies here are absolutely right: what distinguishes a writer like Jane Austen (and Susanna Ives) from the mass of romances out there is that there is a sense of something larger. The microcosm of two people working out their difficulties is a starting point of solution for the larger problems that surround these two. Because, as Lao Tsu says, there cannot be peace anywhere if there isn’t peace in the heart.

  9. @Laura – You are awesome! I hope you get your heroine’s journey written and published very soon.

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