A Million Other Girls

The following is a story of risk and fate.   

Many years ago, three thirteen-year-old girls became friends. They were like a million other girls in the world, eager to put their stamp on it. They were in junior high, and, interestingly, looked somewhat alike, in that they were all blond, slender, and tall. Of course their temperaments were different.

Susie was soft-spoken, slow-moving, almost languorous, and she was self-effacing, very sweet, never said a bad word about anyone—maybe it took too much energy? She was probably the prettiest; definitely the one who spent the most time on her almost platinum hair, plus she somehow got away with wearing blue eye shadow to school. Her grades were across-the-board C’s.    

Kathleen was giggly and energetic. She was Everywhere-girl, like a hummingbird flitting in and out and around the cliques in the lunch quad, raining energy—that rapid speech, constant giggle, and brilliant smile—down on all. Kathleen had long shiny hair parted in the middle, and was always tossing her head this way and that, making her light hair ripple. Kathleen didn’t care about her report card; she cared about movement.

Eileen was a moody bookworm who envied Susie’s blue eye shadow and Kathleen’s beautiful hair. She was prone to sullenness.                

The girls often spent weekends together at Susie or Kathleen’s house, but never at Eileen’s, whose parents had lots of rules and a curfew, and didn’t like the music the girls played or the makeup they experimented with—and let both be known.

Eileen, who pretty much lived in her head and was on the honor roll, broke away from herself when allowed to spend the night at Susie or Kathleen’s, reveling in the music she wasn’t allowed to play at home, and the dancing and makeup, and talk of boys. No surprise, but Eileen didn’t care much for rules for rules’ sake.  

Besides a shared love of blue eye shadow, the girls shared stories about where they’d be in twenty years—fantasies. All, of course, would find love, and their respective “Mr. Rights” would, naturally, be “cute” and accompany them to Rome.   

Kathleen talked of the four children she would someday have and the big parties she would throw, and Eileen wondered if she could one day write like Tennessee Williams, or sing like Joan Baez, or become a potter; perhaps all three. But Susie was curiously silent on life after returning from Rome. Susie merely listened to her friends dream aloud, smiling in her sweet way.

After junior high, Eileen went to one high school, and Susie and Kathleen to another. Although they vowed not to let their different schools and classrooms split them up, the girls made new friends, became involved in different activities, and inevitably drifted apart.

Years passed. So did graduations, many parties and attendant good and bad choices, trips to Rome, long hair, and blue eye shadow.

And then one day many, many years later, Eileen had lunch with another friend who dated back to junior high. His name was Jim, her oldest friend. By this time, Eileen had of course broken her share of rules, because she’d finally could; and become way less sullen and more complacent, even content; written a novel, and grown her hair long again because she still considered some rules, and any rule about hair length after a certain age, supremely asinine—and she was currently struggling with writing a piece that had been prompted by this question:

“What risk do you regret not taking?”

The piece wasn’t going well, yet Eileen still loved the question and asked it of everyone. But there were no “good” answers; in fact, there was much misunderstanding about the question itself, and Eileen began realizing (duh-oh) that “risk” is subjective.

Eileen’s BIG  risk, the one she’d avoided for an embarrassingly long time because it required all her bravery—finishing a novel—had finally been committed to—and so had her primary relationship. Ditto for financial decisions/risks, and for driving herself four hundred miles to Land’s End on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road. But physical challenges, which is how many people understood the question, like skydiving or sailing solo around the world, had never been attractions for Eileen, and so couldn’t be categorized as regrets.     

Considering the possibility that she had no regrets, Eileen was amazed . . . had her life really been so adequately . . . complete? So splendid? But—wait. What about all the stupid things she had done, the rules she had broken (and shouldn’t have); people she had hurt, and the recklessness and bad decisions—there had been plenty of those to go around! Fodder enough for ten novels! How was it her life hadn’t been utterly ruined by her bad decisions, or maybe even cut short?

Lunch conversation with Jim got around to junior high school days—and then, next, to Kathleen—what had become of her, did Jim know? Jim wasn’t positive—maybe he’d heard she’d married? Had a big family? And was happy? So much time had elapsed, he couldn’t be sure—but, yes, that had to be it. Eileen agreed: Kathleen had been such a magnet for activity, surely that big, happy family had been her destiny. 

And what about Susie?

Jim stared at Eileen.

“She died,” Jim said. “She was murdered. I thought you knew.”

Nooooooooooooo! How, when, what, where??????????

The murder had occurred years before. Susie had been hitchhiking alone in Sacramento, California, 600 miles away. She was 22.  

Her body had been found by youngsters playing in a sandy ravine—they’d seen the near-platinum hair, just a lock of it. The rest of Susie had been covered with sand. She’d been buried alive, suffocated, her only visible injury a dislocated jaw.   

A day or so after their lunch together, Jim sent an old newspaper article about Susie’s murder to Eileen, and Eileen carried it around for days, reading it time and again, wondering if Susie’s murderer had ever been caught, and what Susie had been thinking, hitchhiking alone in the dead of night. I mean, how stupid was that? And then—Eileen couldn’t help the thought—she kept imagining Susie’s terror when all that sand came down on her and filled her throat, her mouth, nostrils, everything . . . it couldn’t be borne—yet, Eileen, who could still so easily get stuck in her head, couldn’t shake the picture loose.   

Eileen saw other pictures as well. She saw the three young girls they’d been, their camaraderie and blue eye shadow. She saw them styling one another’s hair, laughing and dancing, sharing dreams, knowing they would one day own the world—but then Eileen suddenly remembered: Susie had never talked about life for herself after her dreamed-for Rome trip.  

Had Susie had a premonition?

Eileen thought again of her own younger-years’ stupid actions and decisions—and wondered, how is fate determined? Because it was surely not by doing everything by the book, as she could attest; making all the right decisions and never slipping up, or, completely fearless, taking every risk there is.     

Or, in Susie’s case, regretting the risk taken.

What was it all about then? Was it possible a young girl’s life had been in vain? Eileen couldn’t get that thought out of her head fast enough either–but what point had Susie’s story served?  

I believe there remains this huge attachment to history, to lessons learned. There’s everything right about that, learning about life through stories, because everything goes back to stories handed down through generations, or other firsthand accounts; or film, novels, periodicals, and journals—every single way we get stories counts. Because every story goes back to the people in them.

We were just three young girls full of life and dreams and hopes, who knew nothing about the vagaries of fate—or that vagaries even existed.   

We were like a million other girls.

Because you matter . . .

Books I've Read: The Immortal Life of Henriett...

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The other day I visited a friend—I’ll call her Amy—whose mother had just passed. A close friend of Amy’s had also recently died, and her dog had passed as well. All within weeks of one another, although only Amy’s beloved dog’s passing had been unexpected.

Still, even when a death is expected, it’s often a punch to the gut when it happens—a pretty amazing thing, really, when we’ve already projected and think we’re ready, only to stand in the midst of pent-up emotions flying free when it occurs, facing down a new paradigm of knowing zip about the enormity of loss—of knowing zip about anything, actually.    

Amy told me about packing up her mother’s clothes and books—and then we talked of the photo albums—in this case, dozens of photo albums that her mom had so carefully put together; every photo captioned and arranged just so. Catalogs of life—all intended for her progeny. 

My mother died young and I inherited her albums and my grandfather’s as well, so I know about this photo album conundrum. As a little girl, I’d loved sitting beside my mother, listening to stories about the people and events documented on her and my grandfather’s album pages—it was one of our sacred pastimes.  

But I have not looked at my mom’s albums since she died, except to find a photo that a relative requested.

But can I just toss those albums out?

Can I just stick a rusty fork in my eye?      

So I said to Amy, “It’s sad about these books, that someday when we’re gone, our mother’s books will be gone, too, and all their stories lost.”

But Amy said, “Does it matter? Are any of us really that important?”

I didn’t dismiss Amy’s words. I examined them instead, turning them over and over in my head—which wasn’t at all pleasant. But I kept thinking, Even if I don’t want it to be true, what if it is? What if our stories don’t count for anything?

Then what’s it all about?   

Open for Business

Now, I have this perception of the universe as analogous to a big invisible computer hard drive holding all the answers (and even the questions) about, well . . . everything. But in order to see or hear the answers, revelations, affirmations, what-have-you’s, we have to be open for business, all senses attuned.   

So that same night, still pondering Amy’s words, I sat down to dinner with a newspaper, and wouldn’t you know it, on the front page of the local section was a piece about Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  

Here’s the story: When Rebecca Skloot was a biology major, she was constantly running into references about “HeLa cells.” (HeLa is code for Henrietta Lacks.) When she asked her teachers who Henrietta Lacks was specifically, no one seemed to know.

Well, Skloot found out. She spent ten years finding out, and when she published her biography of Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five, it became a mega bestseller. Huge.   

Long story made shorter (because you must read the book), Henrietta Lacks had a diagnosis of cancer and wound up at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors removed two pieces of her cervix for research. Henrietta died at 31, several months after this.

Turns out, Henrietta had some remarkable cells. Strong, sturdy cells—and those amazing cells of Henrietta’s became the first human ones successfully grown in a lab. And since then, billions of those cell lines have been grown in labs, and the medical treatments they’ve given birth to changed the world. For example, by 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk was using HeLa to develop a vaccine for polio.

I went up to bed that night with Baby Rae and a smile, not only because the universe had delivered the goods, but because I’d liked its answer:

Henrietta Lacks had mattered. Amy’s mother had mattered—and Amy’s friend mattered, and her dog mattered, too.

My mother mattered.

Every story matters.

It just took a writer to dig up Henrietta’s (another big smile here), so we could all know just how very much Henrietta mattered.               

I post on Thursdays and Mondays, and sometimes more, but sometimes less—and thanks for coming by, because you matter.

Back To The Beauty

How can a story be heartbreakingly terrible and transcendently beautiful at the same time?

How can life?

The other morning while getting ready for work and listening to the news, I heard a man interviewed about rescuing a dog in New York (my precious Baby Rae is also a rescuee, an abused puppy smuggled across the Mexican border eleven years ago—that’s her in Tecate, above, on the day I found her. See my 10/3/11 post titled Writing With A Blue Dog– also see Baby Rae at the end of this post).

But back to the man being interviewed. He was a professional rescuer, and he spoke of a call he’d received about an injured dog in the street. When he arrived at the address and bent to examine a small dog, he found it so badly beaten it couldn’t move (it had sustained a broken back).

As the man whispered comfort words to the dog, he was rushed by a gang of thugs (they were the ones who’d beaten the dog–and were taking bets as to how long it would take to die; thus, their ugly rationale for attacking the dog rescuer as well, for intruding on their sick party).

The thugs beat the dog rescuer unconscious, and then, scared, ran off.

But this is where the transcendently beautiful occurred:

This small half-dead dog with the broken back army-crawled to the unconscious man’s side and began licking her rescuer’s face. She literally licked her rescuer back to consciousness, until he was able to call for help.

Of course I cried listening to this story—I’m an easy crier when it comes to brutality, or the beauty of certain hearts, human or otherwise.  

All day long I carried this story around with me, sharing it with anyone who’d listen, and as I and others spoke of this dichotomy of life—the ugly and the beautiful—I considered other stories that have touched me, even changed my life.     

Starting with an old children’s book called Old Yeller.

Old Yeller is about a rescued yellow dog called Yeller (I’m seeing a commonality here, especially considering that the last novel I cried—buckets!—over was The Art Of Racing In The Rain, also dog-centered).

In Yeller’s story, he brings joy to the family he’s adopted, but then is bitten by a rabid wolf while protecting his primary human, a boy named Travis. Knowing Yeller will also get sick with rabies, Travis is called upon to shoot the beloved friend who not only saved his life, but also introduced him to the incredible exhilaration of just being. This story is still so heartbreaking to me, I’m having trouble typing dry-eyed, thinking, And this is a children’s story?

But once again, transcendent beauty:

Yeller’s lookalike puppy subsequently helps Travis recover from Yeller’s death. And of course Yeller’s little puppy is also a teacher, illustrating for Travis—and sobbing readers—the strength that can come from rebirth.

Another story with marked elements of terribleness and beauty within it is Atonement.

The terribleness is a young girl’s lie (Briony is her name), and what happens to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie, as a result of something that is tragically understandable given Briony’s tender age at the time.     

And then poignant beauty:

Years down the road, a 77-year-old Briony, now a successful novelist, tells of her stab at atonement by way of writing about Cecilia and Robbie’s reunion and happiness—neither of which is actually true, come to find out—and so the tears flow again with the elderly Briony’s bittersweet words at the ending of her story about Cee and Robbie: “I gave them happiness but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”

The piercing sadness of the win . . .

Near the ending of my own novel, The Angry Woman Suite (available in 2012), Elyse claims a hard-fought autonomy from her—to put it mildly—neurotic family, and she then speaks of “the piercing sadness of the win.”

The terribleness and the beauty co-exist within one phrase.          

Certain stories resonate. They move us, and even have the power to change us, because they emotionally connect us to truth and paradox. 

And to the flip side of terribleness, even if we can’t always see it right away. That flip side is the beautiful soul of a small, battered dog rescuing her rescuer, and the nobility of another dog sacrificing his own life to save his human; and the character of a guilt-ridden old woman attempting to square a wrong she committed as a young girl, and the tenacity of another girl—Elyse, worn out in body and spirit—winning the fight against her father’s inner monster.

It’s mystery, dichotomy and paradox. It’s yin and yang, and balance, and balance always means hope—and hope never fails to move. 

Baby Rae today, in her San Diego garden. Look at that smile.

Tell me a story that changed you.

Going Into The Unknown

The cover of the first edition of Adventures o...

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Is anything scarier for a writer than total blankness?

As in his or her mind? And the blank screen in front of same?

In a word: no. Though rejection runs a close second.

“Going into the unknown is invariably frightening, but we learn what is significantly new only through adventures.” M. Scott Peck, MD (psychiatrist and best-selling author)

I sort of love that quote. So I’ve reframed writer’s block—the dreaded blankness—as Peck’s unknown. And Peck’s interesting use of the word adventures, as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is infinitely more seductive than the word discipline (what is actually required for trudging through the darkness of blankness). And, see, I can’t help translating adventure as fun: a night on the town, an exotic vacation, and/or white water rafting. Now we’re talking.

We’re talking a method of making writers block palatable, even … adventurous. Because writing can be hard, people.

So why do it?

Excellent question—but it’s like asking why climb Everest, or build outrageously tall buildings, or do Sudoko. (I get the first two, but Suduko?)  

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is generally regarded as the first Great American Novel, is my conception of the complete man. He was smart, brave, a little dark—okay, a lot dark—funny, and hot, and a first-class adventurer.   

So hot that I initially (and unconsciously) fashioned Aidan Madsen, the romantic lead of my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, after Mark Twain—er, till someone told me rather derisively that George Clooney might actually be hotter than Twain (and way less dead). An apt observation–and so, yes, Aidan Madsen is now Clooney-hot . . . he also has layers. And secrets. He is, in a word, complicated–maybe even dangerous. But more about Aidan later.   

Mark Twain put the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn away for months, even years, before finally finishing it. Maybe because he was drawing blanks all over the place. Or maybe it was the fear of confronting the realities of slavery—but in the end, Twain the adventurer followed through on the theme of his novel, doing what he had Huck do: the hard thing. 

Despite the occasional “blank-out” or boredom, rising to a challenge, along with tenacity, are the primary characteristics of writers (and mountain climbers and builders-in-the-sky).

Okay, and Sudoko savants, too. The act of writing is not an unknown. Neither are the acts of scaling mountains and building skyscrapers. The mind itself is the unknown. Whether blank (asleep), or awake, it’s the uncharted.

So, going into the mind—what all adventurers do—is the ultimate game. The kind of work that’s fun. It’s why writers confront the dark blankness of fear, and keep going back to it again and again, meeting self-imposed challenges and repeatedly raising their bars. Simply put, writers are competitors who write to best themselves.

More On The Making Of The Angry Woman Suite

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Some time back I was invited to contribute some pieces for another blog. I immediately outlined my first piece (“Dateline: Query Hell,” so titled for obvious reasons), and my second (“Dateline: Unsold Novel Hell”), about what it’s like to sit hoping for a call from my agent saying my debut novel, The Angry Woman Suite, has sold.

But turns out I didn’t submit those particular pieces after all, primarily due to a sudden line that moved into my head having zip to do with queries or agents, and everything to do with dumping outlines that can immobilize us as writers. That line is:

Tell the one about getting so mired in your own brilliant notes that you couldn’t move forward, backward, anywhere, until a big bad headwind knocked you flat, and then and only then did two simple “saving” words pop into your nimrod brain.

Those two simple words were meant to transition a relationship between a protagonist of The Angry Woman Suite, Elyse Grayson, and her controlling father. It’s a scene I’d actually written several gadzillion times, because this scene—Elyse’s scene—had been a monster, impossible to nail. Yet, armed with my outline to keep me on point, I’d kept going back into the scene, feeling my way through a valley of words, searching for those phrases meant to convey game, set, match for Elyse Grayson—and, oh, to be delivered in an above-the-fray manner, too. Sounds easy-peasy, right?    

Oh. So. Wrong. I struggled.      

And then I heard a simple “Goodbye, Daddy” on the night wind, like a prompting. I typed the words, glanced at the time: 8:42 p.m. Though they didn’t interface with my outline at all, they were monster-smashing perfect—yet, I felt strangely depleted, not elated. Not only because “Goodbye, Daddy,” had just opened a window onto the resolution of my novel, putting me thisclose to ending my daily visits with Elyse Grayson, but because it felt as if something else was also pulling away from me—but what?                  

Almost everyone who’s read The Angry Woman Suite has asked if I’m Elyse Grayson.

The answer is I’m not.

And I am. We’re connected—everything’s connected.        

At exactly 8:50 p.m. that same night my phone rang, and I had a premonition: I suddenly knew why I felt so gut-emptying awful when I should’ve been feeling celebratory.         

Hello?” Heart thumping, I looked again at the time. 8:51 p.m.

Someone from my father’s new life told me rather coldly that he’d just died.

Damn—no, double damn . . . and oh, geez, the irony . . . how often does something like that happen? Writing an actual hard goodbye heard on the wind mere moments before a real goodbye? A whole life kind of goodbye. And that voice I’d heard on that wind? It wasn’t unfamiliar. . . . 

My relationship with my father had been a neurotic mess. He’d been the neurotic, and I’d been the mess, and eventually we’d fallen away from each other, never speaking of why in detail, never actually speaking, never “officially” finishing us.         

I looked up at my screen, at Elyse Grayson’s words, “Goodbye, Daddy,” and I wept, finally. For my father. For me. For never being able to play on the same field, for now being finished, and for my novel being almost finished too—they are linked. Big caterwauling vessels of tears I’d kept stored inside for eons, and was always tending, always checking for cracks, hyper-vigilant against leaks.

Later, I filed away what had become a totally non-helpful outline of The Angry Woman Suite, and invited my inside voices to line up again for closer examination. And that’s when those final chapters of The Angry Woman Suite also fell into place, not as initially planned, but as inspired by Elyse Grayson’s “Goodbye, Daddy,” on the night my father died.         

To anyone who’s asked me how in the world one ever finally finishes a novel, I’ve laughed and answered, “Don’t be afraid.”  

Because these stories, Elyse’s and mine, are both about letting go. Not just of outlines, and stubborn positions, and control, but fear of failing, and fear of rejection, and fear of the unknowable. It’s entirely possible I might never have known this (the way I think I know it now) had I not been emptied enough to hear a prompting delivered by a long-missed voice on a night wind.      

So consider setting aside The Plan—go ahead, try it—and letting your voices free to soar above what you’ve spent countless hours planning (whatever it is—doesn’t have to be a book). And then look at what you’ve got on the screen in front of you. The words left there might just be the freest, most monster-smashing ever.

And, yes (because someone just asked me), freest is a word (best kind, too).