The Right Words at the Wrong Time

HTImpressMarquess_medDear Gentle Reader,

Please do me a great favor. When you are reading devouring my upcoming book How to Impress a Marquess, at some point in your reading, imagine that the following quotation is spoken by my heroine, Lilith Dahlgren: “No coward soul is mine.” Be sure to attribute the line to Emily Brontë. May I suggest mentally inserting something like:

 Lilith could no longer stomach George’s cruel attempts to squash her wild, unfettered heart and, borrowing from Emily Bronte, proclaimed, “No coward soul is mine.”

Confused?

Allow me to explain.

When I was fleshing out my heroine, I imagined that Lilith adored the written word so much she could readily quote poetry and would carry about a tattered beloved volume of Keats’ poems—a literary security blanket of sorts. I borrowed from some of my favorite Romantic era poems, as well as dug through old poems to find the perfect words Lilith would use to express her emotions to my stodgy, unyielding, and uncreative (or so it would seem) hero George. For example, in the first chapter she tells him:

“What would I do with something as horrid as sense? I want wild, overpowering feeling, passion, zest. ‘More happy love! more happy, happy love! / For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above…’ That’s Keats, dearest,” she said. “I know you wouldn’t recognize it.”

How to Impress A Marquess includes snippets from Keats, Tennyson, Milton, and Whitman (yes, Whitman was read in England in 1879, the time period in which the book is set. I looked it up just for you.)

I thought I had gathered a wonderful collection of public domain poems for the story until I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum during my summer vacation. I had forced my family to stop at the museum as we traveled between New York and Maine, because several years ago I fell in love with the book White Heat by Brenda Wineapple, which is about Dickinson and her professional relationship with her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson. After you read my book, you must immediately purchase White Heat because it’s all things wonderful.

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Emily Dickinson. FYI-she had bright red hair.

I ambled through Dickinson’s home, lulling about in a soft mellow high that only a history and literature geek could derive from a preserved home, knowledgeable tour guide, and poetry. The docent led us to a room with an installation about Dickinson’s poetry for that last segment of the tour. I hadn’t considered Dickinson’s poems for my book because the time frame is wrong. Almost all of her poems were published after her death in 1886. However, the installation listed earlier poets who influenced Dickinson, including Emily Brontë. Painted on the museum walls were Brontë’s words: “No Coward Soul Is Mine.” Dickinson had requested that Brontë’s poem be read at her funeral.

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Emily Brontë

When I read Brontë’s line, I sucked in my breath. My heart stilled. I wanted those words in a greedy, rapacious way. Lilith needed to say them. They were her essence. Why, oh why, did I not know about this poem? And I had even referenced the Brontës in my book. I wanted to bang my head on Emily D’s small writing desk, located by the windows where she would lower gingerbread in a basket to the local children.

Brontë’s words —

Had I discovered — their beautiful violence —

In time for revisions!

I would have captured  —  their substance  —

Rebirthed — on my final copy

Just Dammit!

By now How to Impress A Marquess had been released on Netgalley for review (Review it! Spread your book love around!) I had long passed the point of no return regarding significant revisions to the manuscript. Brontë’s words were perfect, but it was all too late for their gleaming perfection to physically appear on the book’s pages.

But you, gentle reader, have the power of imagination to insert them for me.

So I implore you to mentally sprinkle “No Coward Soul Is Mine” quotes into scenes where you think they would work.

For instance, when George, desperate to improve Lilith’s unruly ways, develops a regime to transform her into a gentle and submissive lady, she might cry out in defiance, “As Bronte said, ‘No coward soul is mine.’”

When George lashes out at Lilith because she has discovered George’s painful secret—that he had been an artist prodigy, but his father had beaten him until he gave up painting—that would also be an excellent time to unleash the quote.

When Lilith takes off her clothes and… Wait, I don’t want to spoil that part for you. But when you get there, you’ll know it.

If you feel the single line “No coward soul is mine” simply isn’t enough to get the meaning across, you might try inserting the entire poem into a scene. It’s included below for your convenience.

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No Coward Soul Is Mine
by Emily Brontë

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

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Read the first chapter of How to Impress a Marquess

Preorder Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  iTunes,  Books A Million,  The Book Depository, or  Indigo

Face It, He’s Just Not Into You(r book) or 7 Ways to Cope with Negative Criticism

I’m trying to write blog posts for the upcoming blog tour of my book Wicked Little Secrets.  I’ve been invited onto a blog that gave a not-so-favorable review of a previous book.  Perusing through the list of suitable topics for their blog, I came across “How do you cope with negative criticism?” Oh, yes! My mind was teeming with ideas. But as I started writing, I realized that it was too personal to share with that blog. So I’ve decided to post it on my own site and add illustrations from Alfred Stevens. Enjoy.

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1.)    Do not waste your precious emotion on negative criticism from mean people or internet trolls. They don’t write reviews but project their mental issues.  It has nothing to do with you or your work. If such a person, who lacks self-awareness, empathy, or is driven by dark compulsions, destroys your work, feel grateful. You should be more worried if he/she enjoyed and related to your work.

“You always wanted
Something more from my body
And said you needed
Something more from my loving
But all you got was me
And that’s all that I can be
I’m sorry if it let you down
But I’m not gonna sit around
And waste
My precious divine energy
Trying to explain
And being ashamed of things
You think are wrong with me”

–lyrics from Esperanza Spalding’s song “Precious”

2.) Surround yourself with compassionate, intelligent, fearless, battle-hardened writers who have studied and appreciate good craft. They probably suffered through years of workshops and critique groups until they found artistic enlightenment. These people’s opinions are the only ones that matter. You can stop reading now.

“We should know why we practice zazen, and we should be able to tell the difference between something that is good and something that just looks good. There is a big difference.

Unless you train yourself through hard practice, you will have no eyes to see and no feeling to appreciate something that is truly good…I don’t expect every one of you to be a great teacher, but we must have eyes to see what is good and what is not so good. This mind will be acquired by practice.”  — Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So, Practicing the True Spirit of Zen.

2.)    Diffuse.

Call a friend and bitch. Nasty, bitter, ugly, name-calling bitching. Don’t get off the phone until you laugh.  And be there when your friend needs to do the same.

Exercise. Work out your anger without being arrested or getting drunk, going online and starting an epic flame war. Trust me, this will not end well.

3.)    Face it: He’s just not into you(r book).

Reading is like dating. It’s a personal experience. An author is sharing a world created from the raw material of her subconscious, the place of dreams and nightmares.  She wants to connect to you. She is asking you to dance. She’s a ready lover, demanding your heart and soul.

Let’s say you’re Sally. You speak four dead languages, have a fourth degree black belt, spent several years in the Peace Corp,  knit sweaters, raise Llamas and organic vegetables on your farm where you have renovated a nineteenth century home.  You are interesting as hell. And you are in love with Steve, who likes women who live to cook casseroles and adore Thomas Kinkade paintings. (I wasn’t sure how to spell the artist’s name, so I had to reach for my copy of Simpler Times by him. I admit I’m a sucker for light spilling from windows. You could make a drinking game from how many times gold light spills from windows in my writing).

Girlfriend, this isn’t going to work for you.  Go date Ronald, the handy man, masseuse, and chef.  Everyone will be happier for it. That is, once you get over Steve’s nasty review of y’all’s date on his extremely popular date review site.

“I think you’re just about there: You’ve listened to your friends; you’ve listened to the record; you’ve tried. Great music isn’t great to everyone — it simply can’t be. Great music stirs intense emotions, and intense emotions are destined to polarize, or they wouldn’t necessitate intensity.

Now, I do happen to think that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a masterpiece, and it’s certainly one of my favorite albums of the last 15 or 20 years. But I’m not coming to it cold. I found it on my own and I fell in love with it at my own pace, under pressure from no one, on headphones, during solitary walks. It came to me a little late, when I was ready to come looking for it — I was ready for its passion and intensity and sideways beauty, and the mystery of it transfixed me. But that doesn’t make me ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; if it were made for everyone to love, that fact would alienate the people it now attracts.” — from Stephen Thompson’s NPR music blog post “The Good Listener: Loved By Millions, Hated By You — What To Do?”

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4.)    Do you know the difference between these two negative comments?

a.)    “I hated the character Amy, especially when she went bat shit on Billy before kissing him in the Krystal’s drive thru in Unadilla, Ga and then lying about it to Ed while they were in bed at the Paris Ritz the next day. What a bitch. She ruined the story for me. I read the whole book, hoping that she would get run over by a Renault.” (Blogger’s note: I don’t know if Unadilla, Ga has a Krystal.)

b.)    The Amy character was poorly developed and unengaging.  She lacked nuance or dimensionality. Her actions were inconsistent and implausible.”

Answer: B is a valid excuse for binge eating Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

“I know this, even though my personal practice is to ignore what is written about me. I do not, for example, read interviews I do with news outlets. I hold that it is none of my business what people think of me. I arrived at this belief after first, when I began working as an actor 18 years ago, reading everything. I evolved into selecting only the ‘good’ pieces to read. Over time, I matured into the understanding that good and bad are equally fanciful interpretations. I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem, or my autonomy, to any person, place, or thing outside myself. I thus abstain from all media about myself. The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself, my personal integrity, and my relationship with my Creator. Of course, it’s wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration. And casting one’s lot with the public is dangerous and self-destructive, and I value myself too much to do that.” — Ashley Judd in The Daily Beast.

5.)    Just because something is flawed doesn’t always diminish its merit. I thought the movie Up in the Air was a convoluted mess. I thought the main character’s arc was superficial and petered out to an unimpressive ending. That said, there were scenes in that movie that were so gut-churning real and soul flattening painful as to transcend all its flaws. And maybe that made it even more powerful.  It ranks as one of my favorite movies.

6.)    There, I’ve given you enough rationales to effectively remove you from reality. So the New York Times thinks you wrote the worst book in this century and all the previous others. Look, it’s not you. They’re just not that into you(r book.). They don’t understand the fears, the insecurities, the monsters you battled on the page. They mistook your soul’s blood splattered on the margins for ketchup. Don’t take it personally.

7.)    Accept and be vulnerable anyway. Write more. Write through the pain, hold it, transform it, make it beautiful, allow it connect to others. And watch that Brené Brown vulnerability speech on Ted TV again.

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.

Memory of a Gentle Night

My graduate school experience was like one long car wreck. The last quarter I worked around the clock just to get myself free. By the time I graduated, my brain was exhausted and all my emotional resources were spent. I couldn’t make plans or think in logical sequences. I gave myself the present of going out of the country for the first time in my life. After reading Joan Smith novels in my youth and watching BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” over and over just to relieve the pressure of graduate school, I chose to escape to England.

My cousin traveled with me. Now this was almost fifteen years ago and those odd three-wheeled cars were still on the British roads. We naively chose to rent a huge station wagon that was a nightmare to navigate on the tiny streets. We would drive to a town, go to the local tourist info office and find a place to stay. One night, we stumbled onto a Bed and Breakfast on a lonely country road. We were shown to a communal parlor where comfy armchairs draped with blankets of fur were drawn by a fire. The owners brought us red wine and hot cream of mushroom soup topped with crisp toast. Another lady shared our parlor. We didn’t speak but nodded our greetings, each happy to have the other there, but sharing an unspoken understanding for the need for silence. We all sank into our books – I believe I was reading Agnes Gray — letting the low pop and hiss of the fire calm us. For the first time in two years, I felt this drowsy peace deep inside my muscles and I relaxed.

Today, as I drove through the congested traffic in the slippery rain, I thought about that night.

Leonard Campbell Taylor – The Rain It Raineth Every Day

(Okay, so this painting doesn’t really match the post, yet, somehow it does…)

A song for this post – HEM’s version of a Rainy Night in Georgia. Note: You will need Spotify to play this song.

Bustin’ Out in Charleston

I’m supposed to be sharing my inner most secrets at a memoir writing conference. At last night’s session, I was told it was ok to cry, and let us read our work aloud without judgement. I had to pretend to take an extended visit to the ladies room.

So this morning, I played hooky. I feel like the bad student as I sit in Jestine’s Kitchen, drinking  a RC rootbeer, waiting on shrimp, collards, and black-eyed peas. Let the others talk of the alienation of their childhood and the wounds of their feminine spirit. I’m feeling pretty damn good at Jestine’s.