In my fiction writing, the question “What if?” is a great way to get stories going. What if an abused woman discovers she can leave her body? What if a young boy makes friends with the monsters in the basement? It serves a creative purpose, and it’s a fun question. But in my real life, […]
(Since everyone else seems to want to).
So I’ve been getting gray hairs since my late twenties. Back then, it was a few hairs here and there, something to joke about, oftentimes plucked out, only to be replaced virtually overnight. Not a big deal, though.
It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that they grew numerous enough for me to feel compelled to cover it up with hair dye. But I wasn’t consistent about it–I’d do it three times a year, maybe. Part of it was laziness–who wants to deal with that stinky muck?–and another part of it was, Oh, who cares?
Well, it turns out quite a few people have some fairly strong opinions about it.
I’m in my mid-forties now, and I made the conscious decision about a year ago to never dye my hair again. That slow and steady turning of a few grays a year has accelerated rapidly in the last few years, and I have just as much gray as light brown. Again, the decision was part laziness, part rebellion against the societal pressure for women to preserve their youth and beauty no matter what the cost. Fuck that, right? Yet I was still a little nervous and chose to keep that last box of hair dye in the bathroom closet. You know, just in case.
The reactions I’ve gotten over the past year have been interesting and various, depending on age group. Younger people (35 and under) invariably don’t give a shit. Why should they? To them, I’m already “old” anyway. It’s beyond their noticing.
The only exception to this was some youngish person asking me one day if my gray was natural or if I dyed it gray.
Excuse me? Why on earth would anyone dye their hair gray on purpose? Oh yes, I was informed. Apparently it’s a trend now among the younger set. Lucky me. I’m “trendy” without even trying. And yet I found myself a little miffed, too. Sorry, kid, but you gotta earn those grays. How dare you youngsters try to usurp that privilege! Stick to pink and blue and green, will ya?
Those older than me (50 and up), men and women both, seem to adore it. I can’t get through a single shift at my cashier job without some customer commenting on my hair:
“Wow, your hair is beautiful!”
“Is that your real hair color? It’s gorgeous!”
Gratification ensues. Finally, after a lifetime of hating my limp, mousy hair, it decides to become my friend in midlife.
One older man waxed rhapsodic about my hair–and other women in general who let their gray out naturally–for a solid five minutes. He praised the natural look and criticized that “horrible pharmacy red” that women of a certain age tend to dye their hair. This man has become my champion.
Interestingly, it’s women around my own age who are visibly distressed by my decision. A particular family member seems almost angry: “You’re too young to have gray hair!” Others have commented how “brave” I am to show my true colors. I find both of these reactions a little sad, and yet I’ll still defend the notion with my dying breath that a woman (and men as well) should do what makes her feel comfortable in her own skin. Hair, make-up, liposuction, even plastic surgery. As long as she’s doing it for herself, and not for some one else or “society”.
But that’s where it gets sticky.
The truth is, if I didn’t get any favorable responses, if my gray hair came out in uneven patches or was yellowy and ugly, rather than the lovely silver I inherited from my mother, if I had an unfortunate face, I’d probably dye it. Hell yes, I would!
So that last box of hair dye still sits in the closet, dusty and waiting. You know, just in case.
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 Brontes. I 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
I’ve been running a little dry on the blog ideas lately, so I’m going with my go-to subject at times like this: television.
So Grimm wrapped up its run with an abbreviated final season in February. Words cannot express how saddened I am by this. I will dearly miss all the weirdness going on in Portland, Oregon, the supernatural mayhem and monsters of the week, the mythology, and all the great characters we came to know and love over 7 seasons. Except Juliet/Eve. Never liked her in any incarnation. Anyway, the creators had a mere 13 episodes to wrap everything up and answer all the lingering questions that plagued us throughout the series, and though things did feel a little rushed, I felt it was a satisfactory end to a satisfactory TV show.
So for years now, I could count on Grimm ending in May, and Game of Thrones starting in April, for a smooth spring TV transition. But this year, Grimm ended in February, and now Thrones won’t be coming back until July. I’m in a show hole right now, but more on that later.
It seems that the weather on location for Thrones was much too sunny and pleasant for their purposes (Winter had finally come, after all), so filming had to be pushed back while they waited for more miserable weather. Fair enough. It’s worth waiting for, especially since the Starks are finally beginning to make a comeback, after years of getting killed, paralyzed, stabbed, blinded, raped, and generally getting shit on for the entire series. And Danaerys is finally on her way to Westeros, after farting around in the East for years. It’s all coming together, people. Maybe. Until the next devastating blow.
My other show in the “Triumvirate” is The Walking Dead, and after finishing Season 6 on Netflix a few months ago, I’ve been too afraid to start Season 7 on Xfinity. I know, of course, that Glenn (and Abraham) are going to meet Lucille in a bad way, and I don’t know if I can sit through it. On the other hand, by this point I also know that the evil Negan will be eaten by a tiger. So I just need to get from Point A to Point B, and see where it leads. These people need to catch a friggin break. So if I find the strength to witness the bludgeoning of Glenn, I think WD may fill the show hole I’m in now.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll wait until Season 7 is on Netflix in the fall. Except fall may be filled with the next mini-season of X-Files. I wrote a post on the last mini-season, and for the most part, I thought it was well done. Except the ending–you can’t end it with Mulder dying on a bridge with a big spaceship hovering up above, and not know if there is going to be a continuation. Well, worry no more–I just found out there is going to be another season, and maybe now we can all rest easy knowing we’ll at least find out what happens. Maybe. X-files never guarantees answers or neat solutions. But I’ve learned to accept the mystery, and just enjoy the alien weirdness that if offers.
So that’s what’s on my TV horizon right now. I can only allow myself one show to watch at a time, otherwise I’d never get any writing done (which is challenging even without TV).
Do you watch any of these shows? What shows can’t you live without? Let me know and we’ll talk about it!
I came across this Masterpiece Theater film on PBS the other day, and my heart leaped a little with an anticipatory thrill. Ever since ninth grade English class, when I fell in love with Jane Eyre, the Brontes have held an almost mythical position in my budding writer’s mind. And though I’ve read the books countless times, seen many film adaptations of their work, and (many years ago) read several biographies, I’ve never seen a movie about the Brontes themselves and their struggles.
To Walk Invisible focuses on the three years leading up to the publication of their books as well as their brother Branwell’s death, with intermittent scenes of the siblings as children, playing and creating their fantastic, imaginary worlds. The children are shown with strange, fiery crowns over their heads, as if signifying their creative genius, masters of their imaginations. Kind of weird, but I understand the intent.
Their father Patrick Branwell is the curate of Howarth, in North Yorkshire, amid the hilly, twisty cobblestone streets of the town, with the lonely, windswept moors all around. It helps to know a little about the events leading up to the beginning of the film: Charlotte and Emily have recently returned from Brussels after trying to open up a school for girls; while there, Charlotte had developed an obsessive, unrequited love for a professor she studied under. Anne and Branwell had returned home from Thorpe Green, a household where they held positions as governess and tutor, respectively; Branwell had been dismissed, purportedly for having an affair with his employer’s wife. Anne had left earlier, having known what was going on and being unable to cope with the shame of it.
Branwell, as the only son, is expected by the family to do great things. A writer and artist in his own right, his creative efforts are derailed by the doomed love affair, which sets him on a course of destructive alcoholism and drug abuse. The sisters wonder what their future may hold, since as women, they are not allowed to support themselves outside the home (except as governesses or teachers, positions they abhor), and it seems obvious their brother is not going to provide any kind of support. Already in their late twenties, their marriage prospects (the only other way to find security) seem dim.
But Charlotte (played by Finn Atkins, who brilliantly brings to life the diminutive, eldest sister’s fierce intelligence and practical ambition) has another idea: the three sisters should try to publish their work. Under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, they could “walk invisible”, and therefore be judged by their work rather than as women writing (which was considered vulgar, coarse and immoral).
They begin with a volume of poetry, propped up by Emily’s brilliant verse. It sells two copies. But it opens the door for their fiction: Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte’s The Professor, based on her experience of unrequited love for her teacher. Emily’s and Anne’s novels are published, but not Charlotte’s. She tries again with Jane Eyre, and it is this novel that eventually propels her toward fame and financial security.
In the meantime, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis, who manages to elicit pity from us for the dissolute brother, as well as contempt) continues to deteriorate and torment his family with his drunken shenanigans. Charlotte is furious at his behavior, Anne (Charlie Murphy) feels responsible for not stopping his tomfoolery at Thorpe Green, and Emily (Chloe Pirrie), though frustrated with him, has a soft spot for her brother and is often the one cleaning up his vomit or dragging him home.
The sisters finally tell their old, ailing father (Jonathan Pryce) that their books have been published, to save him from worry about what his daughters will do when he’s gone. He’s proud of them, and understands their desire to keep their identity secret, from the world, and especially from Branwell. But an error on the part of a publisher forces Charlotte and Anne to travel to London to fix it, thus revealing their identities.
It isn’t long after that Branwell dies from tuberculosis. There’s a sad little scene of the Bronte children, with the three sisters with their fiery crowns seated at a table, and Branwell, his own brilliant fire now doused, approaches them, offering his box of soldiers that they had played with and created their stories around. Young Charlotte looks at him gravely, and announces “You can go now.” Dejected, the boy turns around and leaves. Cue lump in throat.
The film ends here, with a jarring fast forward to the present, showing a crowded Bronte museum with subtitles that informs us of the fate of Emily and Anne. Tragically, Emily dies merely three months after Branwell, also from tuberculosis, and several months after this, Anne succumbs.
Oddly, there is no mention of Charlotte, who lives on to write several more books. She eventually marries a friend of the family, Arthur Bell Nichols, but dies from complications during pregnancy.
I’ve often had flashes of envy when I think about the Brontes–to possess such brilliance! To have your name live on long after you’re gone! But if the price is to live a short life of repression, unrequited love, and death all around you, I can pass. I’m grateful for the gifts of literature these three extraordinary women have left for the rest of us.
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.
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.