Monday, October 23, 2017

The One Thing Every Fiction Writer Needs

Keri Russell as Jenna in "Waitress" movie written by Adrienne Shelly

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say." - Anais Nin

It amazes me how some writers are able to muster up the courage to write about troubling and controversial feelings that most people won't even admit to, much less write about. Sometimes I'll read a writer's story and wonder: What did her mom think (and say to her) after she read this? I have definitely written my novels and stories from my heart, but I know that I haven't written entirely from my mind. I don't write everything I'm thinking, and I hold back for fear of what others will think about me after they've read me.

When I saw the movie "Waitress," I was blown away by how deep and honest the dialogue was. The screenplay was written by Adrienne Shelly who also directed and acted in the film. Tragically, she was murdered at the age of forty shortly before the film was released. The film is about a young woman's feelings about her unborn baby while pregnant. Shelly was also a mom whose young daughter was only two and a half years old at the time of her death.

Jenna is the lead character in "Waitress," and she is a compulsive baker of delicious pies. I use the term "compulsive" because she can't stop herself from baking them whenever she needs to release her emotions. She names the pies according to what she's feeling while she bakes. One pie is named "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie" which is a good example of the unsettling feelings she's having during her pregnancy.

Jenna isn't happy about being pregnant at all, and she definitively says so to anyone who asks. But she feels a sense of obligation to have her baby. When her doctor tries to assure her not to be nervous during her first sonogram because it is normal to be nervous, she surprises him by telling him that she isn't nervous about her baby at all. Noticing how unenthusiastic Jenna is about her pregnancy, one of her friends gives her a notebook to write letters to her unborn baby, hoping this will summon up some feelings of warmth in Jenna. These letters are read throughout the movie, but instead of helping Jenna feel more bonded to her unborn child, she writes letters telling her baby how much she resents her. Later, when she has to pay for the crib, she writes the baby a letter telling her that the money she spent on her crib was supposed to be her money to get out of town and start a new life. She writes that now every time she puts her baby down in her crib, she's going to blame her for the fact that she had to pay for this crib and, in turn, couldn't start a new life. Once her baby is born though, Jenna immediately falls in love with her.  Shelly poured her entire heart out in the screenplay, and if any of these feelings and thoughts were actually Shelly's during her own pregnancy, it took an amazing amount of courage and self-examination to write these down for the script.

Amy Koppelman - writer of novel "I Smile Back"-  and Sarah Silverman who starred as "Laney" in the movie

Another writer who is incredibly brave is Amy Koppelman. In her novel, "I Smile Back," she writes about a wealthy mother who feels so much pressure to lead the perfect life of a suburban mom that it causes her to break down and secretly live recklessly by using drugs and having sex with strangers. Again, not autobiographical, but it was written as an exaggeration to show how a woman often struggles trying to live life in the role of a happy and well-adjusted suburban mom. Koppelman, who is also a suburban mom, has stated in interviews that all of her novels contain at least something of herself and her life. Koppleman's book takes courage to have out there because no writer would want anyone to believe that the things Laney does and says are in any way autobiographical. Readers often believe that at least SOME of a novelist's protagonist's thoughts and actions come directly from the writer's own psyche and experiences. It took a lot of courage to write so uninhibited and to take the chance that anyone would think Koppelman felt Laney's feelings or worse did the things she does in "I Smile Back." There is one scene where she masturbates with her son's stuffed animal and another where she tells a stranger she just met in a bar to lick her ass during a sexual encounter. Laney acts out due to fear and depression which is explained in much of the dialogue in the movie: "I just don’t understand why anyone bothers to love anything at all. I mean by the time you’re three you’ve pretty much figured out that everything you love is going to be taken away." Laney doesn't see the point of being happy when there is so much misery in this world.

Quote re having a child said by Sarah Silverman starring as Laney in "I Smile Back" movie based on the novel by Amy Koppelman 

I feel that both Shelly and Koppelman have successfully and commendably completed works with a no-holds-barred approach. They have dug deep inside their souls and wrote about the feelings that all of us women have lurking somewhere inside but would never have the courage to admit, much less write about.  Again, not everything a fiction writer's protagonist says should be deemed autobiographical, but we do know that many literary giants have admitted to basing their novels' protagonists on themselves and that events in their plot lines were often true events.

I still have yet to conquer this fear of what others will think about me when they read my writing. This is a hurdle that every fiction writer needs to overcome in order to be truly great. Of course, the best way to write is as if nobody will ever read it, and then, once it's done, just release it and throw caution to the wind! We have to become fearless in writing, same as we need to take chances in all other facets of our lives. For women, this often gets easier with age. Most of us can only become truly radical once we are older. We have to risk being not liked. We have to risk not being dutiful and good. We have to deal with the verbal onslaught and mistrust that will ensue once we have gotten our writing out there. It's not the end of the world. I guess that's the only way to be brave enough to write EXACTLY what we are feeling and thinking and to never hold back in writing ever again. To realize that whatever happens after we've released our writing to the public, it will never be the end of the world.

Adrienne Shelly

Thursday, September 14, 2017

I Choose Writing (Over Wine, Opiates, Laudanum...)

When I'm upset, if there is a choice between having a glass of wine or writing my thoughts down on paper, I'll always forgo the wine and instead find a pen to write my feelings down on paper. I've released my emotions through writing for many years now.  I call this habit "Therapeutic Writing." I just let all my words flow out in a stream of consciousness until my mind is finally less foggy.

As a teenager, this essential outpouring of feelings most often took the form of song lyrics, stories and poetry. But in my early twenties, I was given a gift of a blank journal with inspirational quotes on each page called a "Book of Days." At the same time, I'd been indulging in reading my first Diaries of Anais Nin. Inspired by Anais, I decided to write in my "Book of Days" daily, under each labeled day. By the end of the year, I filled the book up completely, even if some days only contained one sentence. I was amazed at how there was always SOMETHING I could come up with to write once I formed the habit of sitting down every day. I believe this is how I developed the "necessity" to write.

These days, therapeutic writing is no longer a conscious habit. Instead, it is now a sense of urgency where as soon as I feel emotional about something, I just HAVE to get it down onto paper. Even if it's on bits of scrap paper that I tear up afterwards, just the act of emptying my thoughts from my mind through my hand makes me feel so much better.

A coworker once told me that my emotions are all at the surface. I asked her if this was good or bad. She said it was good. She said it meant I was in touch with my emotions. I know that when I get upset, my thoughts are completely ruled by my emotions. Most of the time when I have a desperate need to write, I am either angry or very confused. Somehow, the act of writing my emotions down allows my brain to understand what I'm feeling. Even if I can't solve the problem, I do gain a sense of clarity, and I don't stop writing until the familiar feeling of relief comes over me. Suddenly, something that seemed insurmountable just minutes earlier has now become clear, and I'm finally calm. I am able to write down the facts of my situation and to identify the fears that are behind these emotions.

Speaking of coworkers, years ago, I noticed that two of my coworkers seemed constantly upset. They were very negative in general and always conflicted about decisions they had to make. So for Christmas, I gave both of them blank journals and told them about my very essential, daily writing habit. I suggested they write something in it every day, even if it's just a sentence, just so they can develop the habit. I explained that in no time, they will be able to use their journal as a mental medicine that will help them think clearly about what is positive in their lives and to identify their inner thoughts in order to enable them to make decisions. Sadly, I don't think either of them took me up on it. Maybe they needed an expert in the field to guide them and to confirm my beliefs about the benefits of therapeutic writing. I believe that the book I'm reading now, "Writing For Bliss," by Diana Raab, Ph.D. would have convinced them!

I met Dr. Raab through our devotion to Anais Nin because we both contributed writing pieces to Volume 13 of the Anais Nin Literary Journal "A Cafe In Space." Another thing we have in common is that both of us use the word "Bliss" in our titles! My first novel's title, "Bliss, Bliss, Bliss," is based on a quote that has the word "Bliss" in it several times and is from "The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Volume 4." Dr. Raab's new book is a great starting point to learn how to use writing to heal and to release the usual everyday tensions and stressors in a healthy way through writing rather than engaging in destructive outlets.

Dr. Raab describes the importance of journal writing in these quotes from "Writing For Bliss":

"A journal, diary, or notebook - whatever you choose to call it - can play many roles.  It can serve as a vehicle for self-expression, a tool for clarity, a repository for observations, and a container for thoughts.  A journal may also be a powerful tool for comfort during difficult times...Journal writing can be as calming and grounding as meditation is.  It can orientate you and stabilize your emotions."

I highly recommend Dr. Raab's step by step guide, "Writing For Bliss," which is extremely thorough and includes numerous exercises to get you in the habit of therapeutic writing. It is a good way to get real with yourself and to confront painful memories from the past. It helps you to learn to write from your heart, which is where the truth is, rather than from your mind. It also helps get you started on writing your own poetry and memoirs, if you've ever considered doing that.

Basically, I don't know what I would do if I didn't have writing to release my tensions and emotions. It's truly amazing how something so simple and cheap can heal so much!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Reading "Moshi Moshi" And Sharing Tea, Grief, Hotels, And Smiles With Banana Yoshimoto

"I nodded and sipped my cocktail. The taste of fresh fruit spread over my tongue.  This was all that being alive meant, really." - From the novel "Moshi Moshi" by Banana Yoshimoto

The first novel I read by Banana Yoshimoto was "Kitchen." It is a short novel about a woman in her twenties dealing with grief. I was also in my twenties at the time, and it hadn't been that many years since I had lost my dad at the age of fifteen. In "Kitchen," lead character, Mikage, has just suffered the loss of her grandmother to whom she had been very close. To deal with her loss, she takes to sleeping on her kitchen floor because the hum of the refrigerator makes her feel less alone. "Kitchen" is what hooked me to Yoshimoto's novels and solidified her as my favorite modern author. Yoshimoto's newest English-translated novel is called "Moshi Moshi," and it continues to display her genius in describing twenty-something women suffering early loss. What is different about Yoshimoto's novels is that although her characters are hurting, each of her novels shows a glimmer of optimism. I haven't come across any other writer who accurately depicts the devastation of dealing with grief while simultaneously describing the protagonist's ability to maintain a positive attitude. Each of her characters finds happiness in the simplest of things. This trait matches Yoshimoto's "deceptively simple" prose, as her writing has often been described. Her language is simple, yet the meanings underlying her novels' themes are deep.

"Moshi Moshi" takes this grief theme full circle from "Kitchen." "Moshi Moshi" is the story of a young woman in her twenties named Yoshe who has just lost her father by carbon monoxide poisoning. Her dad had recently begun a relationship with a bewitching woman without Yoshe and her mom knowing.  This woman wanted to die but needed someone to take along with her, so she coerced Yoshe's dad into a car parked in the forest and poisoned them both.

Yoshe is an only child, just barely a woman, who is living on her own. She is fresh out of culinary school and now has a job helping out in the kitchen of a bistro. Yoshe tries to deal with her grief, and as she is "finally starting to be able to feel the joy in sitting down to a cup of tea or just getting up in the morning," her mom decides she can no longer bear living in the condo the three of them had shared in the town of Meguro. Instead, she wants to move in with Yoshe to the city of Shimokitazawa which has younger residents and many tourists. She tells Yoshe that Shimokitazawa reminds her of the first city she and Yoshe's dad lived in when Yoshe was a baby:

"Back then both your Dad and I were happy, for no particular reason - maybe because we were young, or it was just that kind of age.  We'd shop every day in Yanaka Ginza - we'd get deli food for dinner, savory preserves, roasted rice crackers, and then a cup of tea. If we had time, we'd stop at the traditional dessert parlor and have a beer, or some isobeyaki."

Yoshe realizes that her mom needs this time to heal. Yoshe absorbs herself in her cooking and waitressing work at the bistro and begins dating a customer she meets there named Shintani-Kun. But her grief overwhelms her.  Still, she shows up to work every day at the bistro no matter how badly she feels:

"Even so, come tomorrow morning, I'd be kneading bread dough, boiling water, shredding salad vegetables, mopping the floor. My body would know what to do, and I'd smile and greet customers when they came in."

Pretty soon, Yoshe and Shintani-Kun start going out for drinks after she finishes her workdays at the bistro, and she feels a sense of hope:

"I felt joy. Working at the bistro, Shintani-kun feeling at home there. Seeing my apartment across the street. I knew it wasn't going to last forever - things changed and moved on, and if you thought they could stay the same, they got ruined, like our family had done. Still, I desperately wanted all of this happiness to stay, just the way it was."

My Banana Yoshimoto collection of books on my couch

When your parent dies while you are still in childhood, a part of you remains arrested in that state because the only place you can be with them throughout adulthood is in your memories. I definitely related to the solace Yoshe seeks in her memories that she relays throughout "Moshi Moshi." Yoshe remembers her childhood vacations this way:

"The light from the TV dappling the dark room made me think of family vacations of old. I felt as though I was back in a room in a traditional inn, already asleep, while Mom and Dad watched TV lounging on the mat floor."

I particularly liked this hotel memory because my happiest memories from childhood are the times my mom, dad and brother took family vacations to Disney World or the Poconos, and we had our parents' undivided attention. We explored the parks and swimming pools by day and then shared the same hotel room by night.

Yoshe believes that memories of her dad are etched not only in her heart and mind but also in the places he walked through: "Of course, there were some things that didn't change - the familiar and nostalgic colors and smells, tastes and places in our memories.  But we could no longer relive them as things that were real to our own bodies."

These lines remind me of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" poems which were a favorite of my dad's. He even wrote his own rock opera in the late 1960's-early 1970's by composing his own versions of Whitman's poems through several original songs, often titled the same as Whitman's poems.  The main theme in "Leaves of Grass" is how we are all connected as entities who live the human experience. This includes all of us now living in the present, those who have lived in the past, and those who will walk this earth in the future. Whitman talks about how all generations have physically walked over the same grounds as each other, and when blades of grass grow, these blades are nourished and grown out from the bodies of our ancestors. There is a connection between past, present and future generations because we walk the same steps over the same parts of earth together. The following line from "Moshi Moshi" reminds me of Whitman and also of my dad:

"I started walking again, and even though I was wearing grown-up shoes on a grown woman's feet, the lightness of my step felt just the same as they had when I'd walked in my favorite childhood sneakers, which Dad had taken me to buy."

My dad and me

As the seasons pass, Yoshe's mom embraces the fact that there are so many young people living in Shimokitazawa, and she seems to be returning to a previous youthful self that Yoshe didn't even know existed.  My mom did that too after my dad died. Suddenly, she started hanging out with friends who were in their twenties, and she listened to pop music on the radio and went out dancing. It makes sense now because she was so young back then: my dad was only forty-one when he died, and my mom just turned forty the next month. I remember one of my mom's friends gave her a birthday card that said: "Life begins at 40," and my mom hung that card up in our kitchen.  But I didn't like that card. I wasn't ready for anyone to have any kind of new life other than the childhood I had grown familiar with.

Yoshi expresses similar thoughts. It appears to her that her mom suddenly doesn't need any help with her grief while Yoshe is still struggling so much. It feels like a blow to her when she finds out her mom has landed a job in a tea shop. Yoshe wants to be happy for her mom but realizes she is initially unable to:

"I'm the one who didn't want Mom to get better, I realized. I was shocked at my own immaturity. I was the one who wanted her to stay at home in my apartment, who wanted to keep my mother to myself.  Now, standing in this shop, she was back in the wider world, among everyone else."

I can relate to those feelings too.  All children believe that even as life changes, and they leave school and move on to work life, at least their family will still remain intact. It was a rude awakening for Yoshe and for me when our lives suddenly changed before we properly reached adulthood.

Yoshe tries to follow her mom's example to move forward, but she is still very vulnerable and not in the proper mindset to enter into a healthy and mature relationship with Shintani-Kun. When she finally allows herself to take the next step in their relationship, she's not really into it: "We're probably going to sleep together now..., but so what? What's it going to change?"

Yoshe's nihilistic attitude is a common example of the depression that often hits young women after a major loss in the family. Your entire world has been turned upside down and everything you thought you believed in as a child has suddenly changed due to that one event. I remember sitting in a movie theater in 1990 watching the film "Sweetie" and relating to one of the lead characters, a woman named Kay. She analyzed everything but felt nothing. She looked for symbolism to try and make sense out of life and find messages in things while performing obsessive rituals. In her case, she was obsessed with trees and cracks in the sidewalk. But her anxiety only increased. I also suffered from obsession, anxiety and a feeling of meaninglessness. Looking back, I see I was still trying to make sense out of life and to heal from my grief. Life is frightening when you have to recover from loss. You long for the security you knew as a child.

At the end of the novel, Yoshe visits the scene in the forest where her father and the woman were found dead in the car. She tells her dad it is alright to let go, and he can be at peace. She realizes that she must now focus on the present. Once you suffer a loss, you always fear it will happen again. It's probably more on your mind than someone who has never experienced a significant loss in their life. But we have to be thankful and mindful of what we have in the present. We don't have to worry every single minute. The people we have in our lives are still here:

"My father was gone now, but my mother was here. I could be with her today, for certain, at least, and hopefully much longer than that. I'm coming home now, Mother - Mother, I'm glad you're here - I'll be coming through the door in a moment."

My mom put this yellow happy face in her car to cheer herself up on cloudy days

While getting ready for the paperback version of "Moshi Moshi" to come out, Banana Yoshimoto lost her own father unexpectedly. For years, people had criticized her for not writing about grief in a realistic way. After all, many of her novels are about losing primary family members, but she had never lost one. I remember after I'd read "Kitchen," I was shocked to learn that she herself had not lost a parent. Yoshimoto says that after she lost her father, she realized that she indeed had been on the right track all those years. She said her own writing in "Moshi Moshi" gave her the answers she now looked for as if she somehow knew what she was going to need to help her heal.

Recently, I posted my Goodreads Review of "Moshi Moshi" and was thrilled when Banana Yoshimoto responded to me and thanked me in English for my "beautiful review!" Previously, she had only communicated to me through emoticons and emojis because she doesn't speak or write in English. But just like how Whitman believed previous generations can communicate with present and future generations through shared experiences, language is not a barrier either. I will forever treasure the time that Banana Yoshimoto sent me this smile:

I'm still dreaming that one day I will take a trip to Japan and meet her in person. Why wouldn't I want to meet my favorite novelist?

Monday, January 30, 2017

My Book Review Of Anne Leigh Parrish's "By The Wayside" - A Collection Of Short Stories

"By The Wayside" is the latest book by talented and inspiring writer, Anne Leigh Parrish, and I became one of the beta readers for it in anticipation of its release on February 8th. When I was asked to be a beta reader for Parrish, I didn't know what a beta reader was! But I quickly realized that it meant I got the privilege of being one of the very first people to read all the stories in the collection before they were officially published and made available to the general public.

I had already read a couple of Parrish's short stories through her online links from her Twitter account. The first story I read was "Artichokes," and I must admit that when I first opened my beta reader copy of  "By The Wayside" and saw that "Artichokes" was included in it, I squealed with the same excitement I used to when I'd surprisingly found out my favorite rock band was coming to town! That's how deeply Parrish's stories can impact. They hit an emotional nerve, and you remember them.

The other story I'd read online is what I'd consider a classic of Parrish's entitled "Where Love Lies." It is about a woman named Dana who moves to a quiet, yet gossipy, island town to escape her former life. Her self-esteem is wrecked, and she wants to start over and rebuild her confidence and heal herself through her love of painting. However, as she befriends an older man and finds herself attracted to another man closer to her age, she realizes that this beautiful island town is everything but serene, and danger lurks because, as she says: "Hating was far easier than loving, and came more naturally."

Yet Dana survives, as Parrish's female protagonists seem to do. No matter how difficult situations get for these strong women, they persist and often turn out wiser and more confident and capable than they were when we first met them in their stories. Not only do we as readers discover shocking truths about them, but the characters themselves are often surprised at the capabilities they hold inside and of what they are able to achieve if they just have the courage to speak up or to make changes in their lives.

In "How She Was Found," lead character, Fiona, begins the story described as a "mouse." She is compliant and insecure, and these traits are not likely to serve her well when she sets out as the only female on an archaeological dig with her professor and three male fellow graduate students. When she finds the bone of a human hand, she believes her professor will finally take her seriously, as she feels he never listens to her. She also suspects that the only reason why she has been invited on this dig is due to his instructions to abide by gender equality when choosing the students to attend it.  She initially puts the bone back, tells her fellow students about it, and finally her professor. For the next nine days, the team finds more and more bones of what they believe is a woman skeleton. As they camp out, she tries to be one of the guys, drinking beer (which she hates) and eating goat that they cook themselves. But unlike her companions, she becomes fascinated by the female skeleton. She wants to know everything about this woman. She names her "Estrella" after the stars they can see in the beautiful night sky. She imagines that Estrella is a complete woman, where she feels that there are so many missing parts to herself. She tries to figure out what kind of clothes and jewelry Estrella wore and pictures her as having been far more beautiful than she herself is. Suddenly, the skull speaks to her: "You need to get a life.  Stop living through other people and just do your own thing." The next morning, the guys find Fiona sleeping in her cot with her arm embracing the skull.  But instead of thinking she's crazy, they see her as being daring and brave and as doing something that timid Fiona would never do. "That was pretty fucking badass," one student tells her. Another adds: "Didn't know you had it in you." Suddenly she is seen as someone who has guts and who has a sense of humor they didn't know she was capable of. Finally, Fiona has the courage to make her own decisions rather than abiding by everyone else's wishes for her.

"An Act Of Concealment" is another example of a woman who just does as she's told and does what society and those in her life expect her to do even though she often feels misunderstood and as an outsider. When she befriends a fellow male outsider, the story reaches a shocking conclusion that I didn't see coming from a mile away when I first picked up the story.

Yet as serious as the subject matter of many of these stories is regarding women being mistreated and feeling powerless,  Parrish's stories often have a subtle humor underlying them.  "Letters Of Love And Hate" is the perfect example of this. Protagonist Cammy J has trouble getting her articles about helping at-risk youths published. Even her father is out of touch with the points she tries to make. Parrish writes: "He grudgingly admired his daughter's growing confidence on the page. She was acquiring sass. He liked a sassy woman, in moderation." This last sentence is an excellent description of how society often regards women who show dissent either in writing or verbally: Be assertive. But not too much.

Cammy J decides to start a blog instead. She tries to do everything by the book. She follows people on Twitter who she thinks would be interested in reading her blog, and she reads up on how to promote herself on social media.  Finally, she puts up the link to her blog and asks people to comment. Here's an example of why I love Parrish's talent for humor: After unfolding the events for us, giving the facts of how Cammy J puts together her blog and her Twitter account and asks people to comment, she says: "She received two comments. One was from someone identifying himself as Ronald 123: 'You're a dingbat. Actually, you're probably worse, but I'm too nice a guy to say exactly what.'" I didn't expect that, and although I felt sorry for Cammy J who had all these expectations that people would embrace her initial blog post, I still had to laugh at how Parrish paints a realistic portrait of what often happens when we express our opinions on social media!

Ultimately, all of Parrish's characters endure as best as they can. They keep plugging along because they have to, and in doing so, they find new-found strength and a sense of identity they never knew was in them.  Many short story writers depict women, yet Parrish's stories stand out to me. She immediately draws us in, and we know that something profound is going to happen as soon as we meet the women in her stories. It could be a physical circumstance that shakes up their lives or it could just be a revolution from within. But either way, it will always be interesting, and we'll always feel changed when we reach the last line.

"By The Wayside" - A collection of short stories by Anne Leigh Parrish will be available from Unsolicited Press on February 8, 2017