Tormented Genius Women

I have a thing for tormented genius women.

Not because I think I’m a tormented genius. I’m often tormented, but not much of a genius. It just seems like true brilliance often comes with a price, whether it’s tragedy, mental illness or repression or all of these. I’m thinking mostly of women like the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and a host of others. Men aren’t immune–think Van Gogh, or Edgar Allen Poe. The myth is that artists and writers need to be a little unstable to create their immortal work.

Obviously this isn’t true for all creatives. But the ones we’re often fascinated with are the ones that suffered and bled out genius.

What got me thinking about this is the recent film A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, as well as the BBC’s film To Walk Invisible: The BrontesI haven’t seen the Dickinson film yet, but it’s at the very top of my list as far as movies go right now.

Dickinson was famously reclusive, and towards the end of her life barely left her room. She died in 1886, at 55 years of age, of “Bright’s Disease”, commonly known as nephritis.

(Shamefully, I live only 20 miles away from her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and I’ve never visited her museum. I’ve put it on my summer to-do list.)

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Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia Dickinson.

A few other wonderful films I like about tormented genius women include:

The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Though not a straight biography, this film interweaves three story lines concerning Virginia Woolf, her work and themes. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. She committed suicide in 1941 by drowning, at 59.

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Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf

Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Plath, a young poet in the 1950’s, trying to make her mark in the literary world while still outwardly conforming to the feminine ideal of wife and mother. Plath suffered from depression, and committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Paltrow as Plath, with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes

Cheerful, right?

Luckily, we have other genius women, like Jane Austen, whose dazzling gems of comedy and social satire emphasize the genius rather than the torment. Despite her own life being marked by financial struggles, loss, and the boundaries of her gender, her works are a delight to read. She never married, and died in 1817 at the age of 41, possibly of Addison’s Disease.

I’ve read all of Austen’s novels repeatedly, but never read an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. It’s been made into a movie called Love and Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale, and it’s also on my must-watch list. As far as biopics about Jane, there’s Becoming Jane, which focused on her relationship with Tom LeFroy. An enjoyable film, but it probably took some dramatic license and exaggerated the romance with LeFroy.

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James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane

While I’m talking about women authors and film, I want to mention The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (brilliant in her own right, quite sane, and very much alive). I’m seriously thinking about subscribing to Hulu simply to watch the new series based on the book.

 

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Elisabeth Moss as Offred.

Have you seen any of these movies? Do you have a favorite tormented genius woman author? Who have I forgotten? Drop me a line, and we’ll talk about it!

The Most Important Thing in the World

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Not to beat this subject to death, but there are days I wonder if I’m wasting my life, spending all these hours writing. Maybe I should be doing something more constructive, more meaningful, more helpful to society. Something with more tangible results, other than reams of paper filled with words that only a few people actually read.

Maybe I should learn how to cook. My husband would certainly appreciate that. Maybe I should get more involved in spina bifida advocacy. It’s a condition my daughter has to live with for the rest of her life, after all. Maybe I should do more yoga, or learn meditation, or, here we go, train for a marathon. That would be quite an accomplishment. Maybe I should try to find employment that pays more than a cashier job at a supermarket. So I can, you know, actually retire instead of work myself into a pauper’s grave.

Those are all worthy things to pursue. They’re also a lot of “shoulds”, and by now, I’ve learned to be wary of the word “should” in front of anything. But the truth is, my life is cut in into two parts: writing, and everything else. Not that “everything else” isn’t important. My family, my health, and just living life are important, in and of themselves, but they also feed my passion, which is writing. It’s a symbiosis. So yeah, it’s important.

Is it the most important thing in the world? Nope. North Korea won’t stop its belligerent blustering if I threaten to stop writing. ISIS will continue its carnage. Children will still starve in Africa. Donald Trump will continue to exasperate. In the scheme of things, my writing won’t make much of a difference to the world at large.

But in my corner of the world? It sustains me. Satisfies me. Delights me. Sometimes frustrates me. It’s not the end result of the words themselves but the act of writing them in the first place that allows me to continue living in this world in a fairly sane manner. I think that’s why art exists in the first place: to render meaning to the meaningless.

So yes, Mr. Steinbeck, I will hold onto my illusion, even though I know it’s not true. Isn’t that what we all do?

 

 

Narrowing the Gap

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I’ve been working on a new story, in the hopes of adding to my Fifty by Fifty list. It’s an idea that’s been rattling around in my  head for awhile now, involving a local poet who lived in my area in the mid-nineteenth century (who I’m fictionalizing in the story), a contemporary young woman who is researching him for her graduate thesis, and a strange stone she finds near a local landmark built in honor of him, a stone that has the strange power to flash her back to the poet’s life. There’s a mystery involved concerning his wife, and though I’m not sure how it will play out, I’m very excited about it.

However…as I’m writing along, I’m finding it’s going to be quite a long short story, if not a novella. It may even have the ingredients for a novel.

Crap.

That’s not what I intended. It always seems that as soon as I set a course of action, my mind immediately veers off in another direction. And though I’m enjoying writing the story, I’m well aware that there are a lot of holes and fuzzy areas. For one thing, I’m not a poet. Nowhere near. And my protagonist is an aspiring poet, trying to decide if she wants to finish the thesis, become a teacher and marry her doctor fiance, or ditch all that and stay in this small town to write her poetry. So I feel I need some poetry in there, both the poet’s and my protagonist’s. Yikes.

I often feel that my great ideas surpass my talent to tell them. Great ideas are a dime a dozen–anyone can come up with one, but the real test is to actually pull if off and write it. I always fear that my stories fall short of what I had envisioned in my imagination. What I’m capable of writing can never live up to the “brilliance” of my vision. That’s frustrating, and a little depressing.

But I do know that just picking up the pen and trying is the first battle. To have the audacity to give it a go. And if it doesn’t work? Oh well. Keep trying, and learn along the way. Maybe the next one will be better. Keep writing until the gap between what I achieve on paper and the movie inside my head narrows and they meet.

“Fake it til you make it,” as the saying goes.

 

Fifty by Fifty

It’s been a weird couple of weeks, as I’ve dealt with some personal funks that’s caused some highly philosophical musings, such as: what’s the f***ing point, anyway? I couldn’t focus on writing, so I decided to take some time and just do whatever the hell I wanted to do. Important things like long walks, napping in the middle of the day, and listening to music I love. Reading books, as always. Some not-so-important things, like aimless TV watching, and tooling around on Facebook, Pinterest, and You Tube. It felt good to indulge in a little bit of time-wasting.

But it’s time I pulled myself together, because the truth is I’m not happy unless I have some concrete writing goal. Since I suspect the source of my funk has been Time itself, as in, the swift passage of it, my youth in the dust, and my perception of having nothing to show for it, I devised a goal that would help me look forward to the arrival of the next decade. Namely, the big 5-0, less than 5 impossible years away.

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I love writing short stories. Why not try to write 50 stories by the time I’m 50? If I let myself count the 16 stories I’ve already written (some here on the blog, the rest on my hard drive), that leaves 34 to be written. That’s roughly 7 stories a year.

I can do that.

Here are my parameters: they have to be completed stories, not sketches or fleshed out ideas. They can be flash fiction, or short stories of any length. They don’t have to be submitted for publication anywhere, or posted on the blog (unless I feel they’re good enough to do so). They just have to be written. They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be the best that I can achieve. They can be about anything, in any genre. They have to please me.

If I do this, I think hitting fifty won’t be so formidable and depressing, but rather, an achievement, a culmination of a creative goal I’ve set for myself. If I don’t quite make it, that’s okay. The point is to keep writing as if I will. It’s the act of writing itself that’s always gotten me through the tough times, no matter what it is.

Time flies, as I can attest, so I better get going!

 

Labels

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So I’ve been doing this writing thing for many years, beginning in my early twenties when I feverishly wrote in my journals, discovered Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and decided to make it my practice, and penned fantasy stories about kings and priestesses, war and magic. It was, and continues to be, my “thing”.

I spent most of those years writing in private (I was a “closet writer” for a long time), and then later only showed my sister my work, or posted as an anonymous writer on Fanstory. It’s only been in the last 8 years or so (since my daughter was born) that I decided to become a “real” writer: write everyday if I can (even if I don’t feel like it-just show up); revise my work; and submit it to magazines and contests. I wanted to take myself seriously as a writer and try to sell my work. I even began telling other people that I was a writer (that was big). I started the blog over a year ago as a signal of my serious intention, to share work and meet other writers and bloggers.

During that time, I had one short story place in a fairly important contest (The Memory of Oranges, in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition in 2013), and an essay published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book in 2015. I’ve earned a total of $225 for my writing, and a little bit of personal glory (and much-needed validation) for those two successes. I’ve had over a half dozen other stories rejected countless times. That’s okay-it shows I’m trying.

But something’s been bugging me for awhile now. Just what kind of writer am I? Am I a hobbyist or a “professional” writer? From certain sources, it seems you’re either one or the other. Either your writing is simply a hobby because you only write when you feel like it, or don’t approach it like a “real” 9-5 job; or you’re a professional because you are making a living off of your writing. Well. I certainly don’t make a living off of my writing, and I’m not a copywriter or journalist or even a writing teacher. I’m a cashier.

On the other hand, I bristle when others suggest writing is my “hobby”. It’s not like knitting, or stamp collecting, or gardening. It’s not something I do in my free time; it’s something I make time for. There are plenty of days I’d rather be sitting on my couch eating ice cream and watching Netflix, but I don’t. I’m getting out the notebook or firing up the computer to get something down. I finish stories, and I send them out. I’m very slow at this, because sometimes I can’t write everyday. But I do it, and will continue to do it indefinitely.

In another life I worked as a tax preparer for an accountant. We had lots of clients who filed a Schedule C for their small businesses. If the business recorded a loss for three years in a row, in the eyes of the IRS, that wasn’t a business. It was a “hobby”.  I don’t consider my writing a business because I’m not making any money with it, so I suppose in the eyes of the law my writing is a hobby.

And yet, it’s not. It’s more than that. It’s not my job, but it’s my work. It’s my practice, my discipline, my lifeline to meaning. And yes, someday I’d like to be published, and I’d certainly love to make money off of it. That’s definitely a goal. But I’d still do it even I didn’t accomplish that. I can’t not write.

So where does that leave me? A professional hobbyist? An aspiring professional? Do we even need these labels? I write, therefore I am a writer. That’s the only label I need.

Dream Weaver

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I often use dreams as inspiration for my writing. Once in a while, I’ll have this long, complicated dream, and while I’m dreaming it, I’ll think, Wow, this would make a great story! When I wake up, I simply have to write it down and capture this brilliance! But upon waking, that dream-like state where everything make sense evaporates, and I’m left with the thought, “That was the dumbest thing ever.”

But once in a while, a dream or a piece of a dream will inspire a story. One of my first short stories I ever wrote involved a dream where my daughter Lilly was surrounded by lions. I was so terrified, but it turned out that they were afraid of her. She was stronger than I gave her credit for. It inspired a story I called The Lion, in which a mother kills a vampire for its blood to “cure” her disabled daughter. The mother had the lion dream one night; she hatched the plan to kill the vampire to “save” her child, but she realizes in the end that her daughter is perfect the way she is. The vampire wasn’t the lion; her daughter was the lion. I didn’t post this story on the blog because I don’t think it’s very good, actually, but I learned to take cues from my dreams to inspire stories.

I’m working on a story right now that is based on a dream I had sometime last year. I was thumbing through my notebook looking for inspiration when I came across the entry describing it. It was another dream about my daughter in which she and I were at a carnival. I turned away for one moment to buy ice cream or cotton candy, and when I turned back, Lilly was being led away by another woman. She was luring her away from me with candy or something, and Lilly didn’t hear me calling for her. The woman turned to me and said, “We’ll teach her what she needs to know.” And then they were gone and I was left sobbing on the ground.

So I basically lifted that whole scene from my dream and wrote it down, but that’s all I have right now. I have no idea who the woman is or what she’s going to teach the child or why she took her. It may not be about that at all; it might be about how the mother deals with the loss and the lack of answers she has. I’m not sure, but it will be interesting to find out.

Most of my dreams are silly gibberish; but I do think our unconscious minds have a way of speaking to us. Sometimes, I can pull out a gem and polish it up for a story.

If you’re a writer, do your dreams ever inspire stories?

Pressing the Bruise

Despite my previous assertion that I probably won’t be writing as much as I’d like to for a while, I’ve managed to write another short story. This reminds me that sometimes the writing comes easier when I’m not trying so hard. It also helped that I’d sketched this one out a few months ago, and it was now ready to be fleshed out.

It still needs some work, but short story revision has never been as arduous for me as novels; and when I feel it’s ready, I’ll send it out on the usual round of submissions. I like it. I’m pleased with how it all came together for me as I began writing. Outside of this, however, I find myself questioning the fact that it’s another horror story. Looking over the short stories I’ve written over the past few years shows me that more often than not, what comes out of my mind is murder and mayhem. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself–many writers have done quite well in the horror genre. What puzzles me is why the blood’s been flowing through my work lately.

While I’ve read a good portion of horror fiction over the years–Stephen King is a master at the short story (check out Full Dark No Stars), and the dark, erotic fiction of Anne Rice shaped me at an early age–it’s not what I usually reach for these days. It’s certainly not the direction I saw myself going in when I started out. I wrote strictly high fantasy for a long time, and thought that’s what I’d always write. And while I still love those characters I created in lands I made up, I guess I’m just growing out of it. I find it much more interesting now to write stories that take place in this world, albeit with a supernatural twist.

But more and more, when I sit down to write short stories, I’m drawn to the dark places of the human heart. I want to scratch beneath the surface and dig down into the muck of human desire, hatred, fear, joy, and the monsters they conjure up. I guess I want to confront the specter of death itself, something that horror fiction does very well.

Death defines us, of course. I’m at a stage in my life where mortality is more than a rumor, where aging parents remind me everyday of where it all ends. I’ve never felt more alive because of it, never felt each precious moment more fully, never been more aware of how ephemeral it all is. Perhaps I’m scratching an itch. Or rather, I’m pressing on a bruise just to feel the pain, and to relish it. Maybe it’s a phase. Maybe not.

Whatever the reason, I’m not going to shy away from it, or worry about what people are going to think of the stories that come out of me. To embrace and explore the darkness: to me, that’s what makes life interesting.

At least on paper.