The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

February 24, 2009

Oscar’s Prisons

(Spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen Revolutionary Road or — god forbid — don’t know the important place of Harvey Milk in our culture’s history)

The Oscars were held last weekend which, for a lot of us, meant a scrambling race to the finish line to try to view all the major contenders before the ceremony Sunday night.  Something else to do when I should have been writing. I did pretty well though, missing only two of the upper tiered films, Happy Go Lucky and Frozen River.  This year’s batch of films was particularly stimulating, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else noticed an understated theme amongst many of the cinematic messages.  Prisons.

Whether the prison walls were made of flesh and failings, as were those for the characters played by Kate Winslett, Mickey Rourke and Brad Pitt in The Reader, The Wrestler and the Curious Case of Benjamen Button, respectively; or those built out of years of guilt, grief and blame, as were those that imprisoned the subjects of Anne Hathaway, Richard Jenkins and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performances in Rachel Getting Married, The Visitor and Doubt — the intensity of  the lack of freedom that all these characters suffered was staggering.

But probably the most difficult states of confinement to witness were those created solely by the  constructed standards of intolerant societies in the films Milk and Revolutionary Road.  In both these films, the leading characters battled defiantly against the essentialist gender roles their frighteningly patriarchal and heteronormative societies had assigned them.  Kate Winslett’s character in Revolutionary Road, and Sean Penn’s portrayal of the real crusader Harvey Milk, both bucked some of the most strident of those arbitrary norms that typically arise as antidotes for humanity’s fear of the uncategorizable.  Women who don’t know their place.  Men who are just a little too soft.  People who think and analyze and question and therefore, must be crazy.

Sadly, a happy ending is as rare for this type of character in fiction, and in real life, as it was for the writer Virginia Woolf who, in 1941 in the throes of depression and an ongoing frustration with a world in which she felt she didn’t neatly fit, finally filled her pockets with stones and walked slowly into the River Ouse.   Be it a botched home abortion or bullets fired by the hand of a homophobic man, the real cause of all these deaths, Woolf’s included, was a world too tiny for more than one type of woman or man — a world that forced those with the audacity to think outside the cells in which they were given to live to ultimately sacrifice their lives for their prison walls to fall.

Ironically, the big winner of Oscar night was Slumdog Millionaire, a film that celebrates a young man’s escape from the prison of poverty in India — a country far enough away from the western world for American viewers to safely criticize its culture.  Unfortunately, it is less ironic, and actually pretty typical, that the socially approved means of escape for this valiant and spirited young man was money.  A happy ending courtesy of both Holly- and Bollywood.

February 5, 2009

Northern Exposure?

I was writing in the beer book today about a place we visited during the Portland expedition on one of our ventures out into the magnificent highs and lows of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.  Mount Hood Brewery is located just south of Mount Hood and north of Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain (seriously) in a little community called Government Camp.  The commercial part of the community is pretty tiny, consisting of little more than the Ice Axe Grill where the brewery is housed.  As indicated by the multiple layers of snow still visible on the Sunday we visited in June, there may be more money in skiing in Government Camp than there is in beer.  Ski resorts are nestled around the pristine mountains and valleys, hidden from view, as is the Timberland Lodge, a WPA construction that we’ve all seen at least once in the opening scenes of The Shining. 

We parked in a rutted parking lot and hopped over puddles of melty snow to get to the Ice Axe Grill where we would belly up to the bar and begin sampling from the Mount Hood Brewery’s finest. 

As much a part of the beer book as the beer are the people we’ve encountered on our quest.  Looking around the Ice Axe Grill I was pleased to find many of the typical characters one might expect to see on a snowy day in June when you’re almost 6000 feet above sea level.  A sedentary balding guy who seemed to have gathered dust around the perimeter of his mug while he nursed his beer.  A lost looking tattooed girl whose eyes betrayed the innocence of the story she wanted to tell.  A trio of large bearded men dressed in flannel and gathered into a covy — or should I say den?  And us. 

Recalling this today put me in mind of one of my favorite fantasy destinations — Cicely, Alaska.  Home of Joel Fleischman, Holling Vincoeur, Mourice Minnifield and Chris in the Morning.  I’m the kind of person who claims to not watch a lot of television (de rigeur, right?), but will often fall in love with one or two specific series.  Right now it’s True Blood and Weeds; in the past it’s been Boston Legal, West Wing, Six Feet Under, St. Elsewhere and MASH.  I always inevitably fall for shows that are destined to be canceled, too — think Sports Night and Studio 60.  But I never loved a show like I loved Northern Exposure.  The theme song was my ring tone for a while.

I loved the purity of those characters — how they all seemed to know and own themselves and their eccentricities outright.  Mourice knew he was a puffed up, patronizing asshole and he reveled in it.  Maggie O’Connell loved being the bush-pilot bitch that she was.  Joel was prepared to take his particularly Jewish neurosies to the grave.  But mostly, I loved the idea that somewhere up north, if there wasn’t a Santa Claus, then at least there was a place where people lived an honestly thinking life; freed of the harsh boundaries of the suburbs and car pools and the daily commute.  I thought the characters were unique, diverse, intelligent and purposeful.  And, as humans are wont to do, I based all my assumptions about the real Alaska and its inhabitants on the characters in this TV show.  It was a lovely fantasy.

But on August 29th, 2008, that pleasant fantasy was ripped from my head like a scalp full of hair when presidential candidate John McCain approached a lecturn in Dayton, Ohio and announced that  Sarah Louise Heath Palin would join him on the Republican ticket.  For the next two and one half months I was reminded daily that not only is Alaska not the diversity heavy, cerebral haven I had hoped for, but that the residents of said state were thick enough to elect a hollow-headed Caribou Barbie as their governor.

There are a lot of things I will forever hate John McCain for.  Race-baiting and re-raising the Red Scare as he accused Barack Obama of being a Socialist notwithstanding.  But forevermore he will remain the lone individual who tore a big moose-shaped hole in my fantasy world by taking away my dreams of a better place on earth — a place like Cicely, Alaska.

February 4, 2009

writing for a prejudiced audience

Filed under: Columbia,SC Arts,Uncategorized,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 01:17

I had the opportunity recently to write an article for one of The State Newspaper’s magazines on local arts couples and  how they balance their relationships with the demands of their arts.  (You can find the story at http://www.thestate.com/static/images/magazines/LakeMurrayColumbia0209/ or by clicking Zen and the Art of Relationship Management at right.)

The piece was a joy to write.  Some of the folks featured were already friends; others I knew of, but got to know better; and others I now feel will be friends for life.  Given how poorly local freelance pays, a writer can’t ask for more than that — friends.   I was  proud to highlight my friend Simone Cuttino, for example, and how she balances her demanding life as a ballet mistress and teacher with the responsibilities of parenting 4 children — including a pair of infant twins.  She and Walter are doing an exceptional job — especially given the contributions they both make to the local Columbia arts scenes. 

 I was also pleased to get to know Mana and Steve Hewitt better.  Mana and Steve are both visual artists and  fixtures in the arts community.  We actually went to college at USC together, but didn’t know one another then.  Mana does amazing copper creations and paintings of tattoos, and so much more.  Her piece on the silenced majority stays in your head for days.

But probably the most exciting and satisfying section for me to write was the one about Christian Thee and Bruce Bahr.  Christian and Bruce are a beautiful gay couple who have been together longer than most of the hetero couples I know.  Christian is famous for his murals and tromp l’oeile paintings and Bruce, ever the backer of his beloved, is a former costume designer who is currently heading up the capital campaign to move Columbia’s only indie film theatre to a new and expanded home on Main Street.  While anyone would find them fascinating, I readily admit to realizing a distinct pleasure in the small part I was taking to highlight the two men as an admirably successful non-heteronormative couple. 

Unfortunately, not all my readers agreed with me.  I hear through the grapevine that there were complaints from disgruntled readers who argued that The State and its publications are “family” reading.  Really?  How many murders, rapes and assaults do we read about on a daily basis in our local newspaper, and besides that, haven’t Mr. Thee and Mr. Bahr been a family for almost three decades now?  There were other complaints — seven of them, to date — but I won’t do them the service of repeating them here.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised.  We need look no further than the lack of diversity in our state government to see the pitifully short social distance we have progressed in our state.  No women, few blacks, and certainly no gays (at least not “out” gays and you all know who I’m looking at.)  But it’s sad all the same. 

The flip side however is the way my editor, Kristine Hartvigsen, responded.  She answered all the complaints personally and professionally, when she could have thrown me to the wolves.  This reminds me that while there were seven complaints — there were ONLY seven complaints.  There could have been many more.   So while there may be a prejudicial element to any audience, it’s important to remember that when we write for them we are acknowledging they are there.  Better to ignore them –and maybe they’ll eventually disappear.

February 3, 2009

I am a lemming, too.

Filed under: not writing,procrastination,Uncategorized,writer's life,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 20:38

I really never thought I would do this.  Blog.  Just what cyberspace needs — another self-important blogger who thinks the world is interested in what she thinks.  Classic.  But here I am, staring at the screen — as usual — when I should be writing something constructive.  I’m working on a book, you know.  I’d like to get it done by the end of the summer, too.  We’ve been researching it for 17 months now and are just about finished.  I’ve written about 100 pages and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve written.  So, why am I not writing page 101 or page 102?  Or doing that continuous self-editing thing that I love to do and that one is never supposed to do when you’re trying to get your words on a page.  You know what I mean, going back and re-reading everything you’ve written so far and tweaking words and phrases here and there,  fact checking, rearranging — that kind of thing.  That’s the kind of thing that keeps you at 100 pages for months at a time.  I wish I wouldn’t do it.  But I love it.  I think part of the reason I love it is because it reminds me that I can write at times when I’m feeling not so sure that I can.  Which is how I’ve spent too many minutes of my life.  Questioning.  Second-guessing.  Stupid.

I’ve been writing creatively since I was a little southern girl in a poor Spartanburg County elementary school surrounded by kids who couldn’t imagine writing anything they weren’t required to.  I wish I remembered who first indicated to me that what I wrote wasn’t garbage — if there was anyone.  I’d like to both hug and wring the neck of that person.

But I remember as early as the third grade saying I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  I mostly wrote poems then.  And when I moved on to junior high (before it was called “middle school”) and then high school, I always either wrote for or edited the school newspapers and literary magazines.  I think I won my first award in elementary school though.  I think this because I have a tiny bronze (colored) charm, shaped like a miniature scroll, in a box in the attic with the words “READ Magazine” on one side and, if I’m not mistaken, where I placed in the competition (cannot remember this for the life of me) on the other side.  Third grade?  Fifth?  I’m not sure.

In high school I was one of three self-acknowledged poets in my class.  Me, Frederick Tucker and Suzie Something.  I started winning awards freshman year for my poetry.  The University of South Carolina – Spartanburg held an annual literary contest and published the results in a fairly nice literary magazine called “Maggie’s Drawers.”    In the four years I was in high school I placed or won every year.  For poetry.  Which I rarely write anymore.  Me, Arnold Kimmons and Barry Bridwell.  Arnold and Barry were in my future husband Bob’s class — two years ahead of me.  I considered their company validating.

 

At this point I should mention the things I have done while trying to write this blog entry.

got another Diet Coke

re-stacked the books on my window shelf so the new kitten, Jimmy Carter, wouldn’t knock them over when he climbed over them

409’d my desk

scootched one of my printers over so Zora the cat would have a larger spot to lie on her Heineken towel in the sun

looked out the window into the woods for deer

popped my knuckles

checked my email three times

purposefully stretched

made a list of possible blog topics in one of my new Urban Outfitter’s notebooks — the green one with the cuckoo clocks on it

tried again to get the cuckoo clock we bought in Rothenburg summer before last while researching beer to work

self edited four times

got another Diet Coke and restocked the fridge with more Diet Cokes

noticed that my stomach was growling and tried to ignore it

 

I didn’t win any writing awards when I was in college because I was in love.  It was much easier to write poetry in high school because of broken hearts and insecurities and general adolescent angst and malaise.  In college I was preparing to be married and then being married.  I wrote for myself only occasionally.

In graduate school I wrote all the time, of course, but rarely for myself.  My mentor, Tom Dietz, sent one of my papers in — can’t remember what it was about — to the Irene B. Tauber competition for Sociology Graduate Students and I won.  That helped me remember the pleasure of accolades for my words.  But I finished my masters, moved back to SC, bought a house, had a baby and began my doctoral work and taught my first adjunct classes in sociology and women’s studies all within the next year.  I wrote constantly about the South and even wrote a chapter for a book my mentor in the history department, Dr. Tom Connelly, was writing about the South.  He died before it was published. 

I had another baby 16 months after the first and decided to stay home and try my hand at freelance writing.  Made the decision in April and had my first piece accepted in a national publication in June.  Took that to be a sign.  For 10 good years I wrote constantly for local magazines as well as national and international women’s and parenting magazines like Family circle, Parents, Parenting, American Baby, Expecting, Woman’s Day, Brides, Southern Living — mostly writing about women’s and children’s health.  I loved it.  Pretty soon I started writing fiction — short stories actually.  And sometimes I finished them. 

My first biggish award came the year we built our house on Muddy Ford — almost 16 years ago now. I had written a story about the night my dad asked my mother to marry him.  It’s better than it sounds.  I entered it into the South Carolina Fiction Project – something I had revered ever since I’d  heard of it – and it won.  The next year I entered another – and it won, too.  Then the powers that be (cliche — pardons) decided that once a person wins, she or he has to skip a year before entering again.  I skipped a year, then won again.  I did that a couple more times until I had won five times.  In the meantime, The Proposal, the story I’d written about my parents, took the Porter Fleming Prize as well as a prize from Rock Hill, and was published in an anthology that Hub City Writers put out and was edited by Janette Turner Hospital.  She had some nice things to say about me, both in the forward to the anthology and in an article on southern writers in which she was quoted.  She grouped me with people like Sue Monk Kidd.  It felt good.  I was writing and raising kids and a pretty happy camper.  Then came the year of death.  I’ll write about that soon. 

 

In the meantime you should know that while I was writing this I took time to …

snuggle Uncle Joe the kitten

 have a green tea instead of a diet coke

pee

get myself a couple of chunks of cheddar

check my email twice

check Facebook (damn addiction)

pop my knuckles

add to my blog list

check the cuckoo clock – still not working

check for deer

twist my hair into a bun

and self edit again

 

This is why my blog is called the Reluctant Writer.

Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — cynthiaboiter @ 19:16

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