Joan Didion’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘔𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨

Though I deeply admired Joan Didion’s essays and fiction and had read Play it as it Lays many times, I avoided her acclaimed memoir when it came out in 2005. The book dealt with the death of her husband of forty years and because I was still reeling from the death of my mother, I didn’t feel I was ready.  Even a National Book Award didn’t change my mind.

Perversely, perhaps, I’m ready now when my 102-year-old father is in a slow decline and his hospice nurse is very pessimistic about his chances for pulling out of it.  He’s like an abandoned ship without crew or captain, barely recognizable as the man he used to be even into his 90’s. 

Seeking catharsis or comfort or something in between, I picked up Didion’s memoir last weekend.  It’s a stunning, visceral travelogue into a world anyone of us can enter at a moment: the land of illness, the land of sudden death.

Didion’s novelist husband John Gregory Dunne died after a massive heart attack at dinner one night in New York, at home, and this was soon after they had been visiting their deathly ill daughter at the hospital.  She was in an induced coma and there was every possibility she could die.

Years earlier, Didion had written about this terrible kind of unexpected disaster in Play it as it Lays: “In the whole world, there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”

The book is a meticulous mapping of what happened before and after her husband’s death and her daughter’s hospitalizations as Didion examines the events from various standpoints.  Her encounters with medical personal are sometimes discouraging, sometimes bizarre, and when it comes to her daughter’s repeated hospital stays, she had to learn how to ask questions without seeming like a nag or a smart ass.  Those times force her to learn about procedures and medications as if she were taking a crash course in a foreign language.

Didion and her husband were deeply connected to each other through their work, never rivals, always collaborators. Their privileged life of writing screenplays in Hawaii, trips abroad, publicity tours, mingling with other celebrities, and eating at famous restaurants was no protection from cataclysmic change.   Et in Arcadia ego is ascribed to Virgil: Death is in Arcadia too.

Didion seeks answers or solace or stability through reading sublime poetry and matter-of-fact depictions of illness and death like Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die.  And she explores all the ways in which friends tried to help her and assuage her grief.  Most mesmerizing is the clear-eyed recounting of how she could not cope with her husband’s death and even denied that it had happened.  This kind of trauma is approached as a medical/psychological issue and as a sort of mystery: What was she thinking?  How was she thinking–and why?

Didion is like someone who’s just barely survived an earthquake that destroyed her home and is picking through the rubble to see what might not have been lost. The book is harrowing, beautifully written and observed, an unforgettable exploration of grief and loss.

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir My Germany and twenty-six other books in many genres.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages and he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Oscar Wilde Would Have Loved TikTok

I fell in love with Oscar Wilde’s plays and short stories in college and felt inspired as a young writer by his wit and keen sense of paradox.  I’ve seen performances and films of his plays many times and had the good fortune to attend a Wilde Festival at Stratford, Ontario where the original 4-act version of his dazzling The Importance of Being Earnest was performed.  I even met his grandson, which seemed like a something out of a movie.

But it wasn’t until reading Nicholas’s fascinating The Invention of Oscar Wilder, that I came to see the famous playwright as a precursor of today’s Influencers and other social media stars.

Wilde lived very large.  As the author elegantly puts it, “His whole life was a provocation.  And in his personal appearance, behavior, and wit, he turned himself into a mythic figure in his own lifetime while obliging his fellow Victorians to rethink the things they held dearest.”

With care and precision, Kupar explains how Wilde cultivated his aesthetic image by unconventional clothing, witty conversation, and making connections. He was a first-class scholar at Oxford and a first-class networker once he moved to London.  He reached out to famous actors like Sarah Bernhardt and writers by publishing sonnets in their honor–and they befriended him. He assiduously made the rounds of London salons hosted by celebrities and aristocrats, impressing almost everyone by his charm and bon mots, intriguing them by his unconventional masculinity.  Wilde also cut a swathe through Parisian salons too–though some writers found his take on being a man unsettling.

He became friends with John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, with whom he eventually fell out–a soured relationship that yielded great copy.

Inside of a few years, and before his run of hit plays, Wilde lectured many dozens of times in the U.S. and Great Britain, sometimes twice a day.  But Wilde was often more interesting for his presence than in what he had to say about art or “the house beautiful” or anything else.  He was an immediate target for satirists in print and on the stage via Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which he instinctively knew was a sign of his notoriety.

Wilde gave as much attention to his hair and clothes as any Real Housewife and in effect made himself a work of art.  So it’s fascinating to follow his career as poet, lecturer, art critic, editor, short story writer, then playwright–and finally a pariah for “gross indecency” with other men and a cruel prison sentence.

Likewise, exploring his long fascination with living and writing about a double life in coded ways is deeply enjoyable with Kupar as your guide. This book is a fine introduction to Wilde’s life, his work and his ground-breaking queer persona if you aren’t acquainted with them–and a pleasurable deep dive if you are.

And by the way–Oscar Wilde is one of the most widely misquoted authors on the Internet, with observations of all kinds attributed to him that he never wrote or said.  But he did say “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery as well as hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Should You Write Every Day?




Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on social media as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But as an author, editor, and writing teacher, I think it can be oppressive.  Too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read online about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books urging writers who want to publish and stay published to write every day.  They make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

I never urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I’ve suggested they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While working on my 25th book, a suspense novel, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while I was on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns were involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a workable outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on the same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy. I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not.

I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s the prize-winning author of 27 books in many genres and has also published hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He edits and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Image by StockSnap at Pixabay

 

Writing is My Passion–But It’s a Business Too

My father had a small business which I thought imprisoned him, so when I was growing up I swore I would never “do retail.”

Boy, was I wrong.  As an author, I wound up owning my own small business and it’s as vulnerable to competition and the vagaries of the marketplace as any physical store.  Sometimes it’s just as exhausting.

From the beginning of my book publishing career in 1990, I was deeply involved in pushing my work, contacting venues for readings, investing in posters and postcards, writing my own press releases when I thought my publisher hadn’t done a good job, and constantly faxing or mailing strangers around the country about my latest book.

Then came the Internet and everything shifted to email.  Add a website that needs constant updating; Twitter and Facebook, Goodreads and Instagram; keeping a presence on various listservs; blogging and blog tours; producing book trailers; updating ebooks in various ways; and the constant reaching out to strangers in the hope of enlarging my platform and increasing sales.  It never ends.

And neither does the advice offered by consultants.  I’m deluged by offers to help me increase my sales and drive more people to my web site.  They come 24/7 and when they tout success stories, I sometimes feels as if I’m trapped on a low-performing TV show while everyone else on the schedule is getting great Nielson ratings.

Going independent for a few books after I published with big and small houses momentarily made me feel more in control, but that control morphed into an albatross.  My 25th was brought out by a superb university press, Terrace Books, and I was relieved to not be in charge, just consulted.  Ditto with nos. 26 & 27, mysteries published by Daniel and Daniel.

Way too often, the burden of business has made writing itself harder to do, and sometimes it’s even felt pointless because it initiates a whole new business push.  So this isn’t a blog that promises you magic solutions to your publishing problems.  This blog says: If you’re going to be an author, prepare to work your butt off at things that might not come naturally to you and might never feel comfortable, whether you’re indie published or traditionally published.

One author friend who’s been a perpetual NYT best seller confided to me that despite all the success she’s had, “I still feel like a pickle salesman, down on the Lower East Side in 1900.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He coaches and mentors writers, as well as editing manuscripts, at writewithoutborders.com.

Warning to Writers: Don’t Diss Your Peers

“Writers should not attack their peers.”

That’s what a famous author I deeply admired told me near the start of my career, and what he meant was personal attacks.  He’d made that mistake and it launched a feud that lasted years. 

I’ve been careful in my career not say much in public when fans ask me what I think about fellow authors if they’re not my favorite writers. If I do express an opinion, I keep the comments to something technical. So I might focus on their most recent book and say I wasn’t convinced by the point of view if that’s one of the problems I saw, of course.  I don’t make things up.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I’m cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. And what you say can end up on Twitter in seconds.  That’s what my mentor was trying to explain to me well before social media created firestorms.  He regretted disparaging another author personally because it made him look bad and they became enemies.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. A celebrated American author I’d never met and who had never insulted me in the U.S. apparently decided to mock me personally in an interview in a foreign magazine when he was on tour in Europe. He didn’t know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have known better.

Feuds come and go in American fiction, and some of them raise questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste?  Jonathan Franzen has been a lightning rod because critics have praised him so highly.  Is that his fault? Best-selling author Jodi Picoult has dismissed him as nothing but a “literary darling,” ditto Jennifer Weiner who’s done so while publicly reveled in her wealth and mocking those at The New York Times who’ve ignored her as balding (a “hairist” remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should authors be engaging in this kind of snark?   I guess the mockery had an impact because Weiner eventually became a contributing opinion writer at the Times….

But authors let loose on reviewers too.  Franzen himself has outdone them when he attacked Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her “the stupidest person in New York.” And Alice Hoffman attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, actually asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. “Do you want to be respected for your work,” she asked, “or have people think you’re an asshole?”

It’s a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a peer.  It’s one thing to talk about the work, another to diss the writer.

Lev Raphael’s 27th book is the mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(free image from Pixabay)

When Did Writing Become a Damned War?

 

Lately I’ve been feeling like writing is a bloody battlefield — not for me, but for tens of thousands of writers across the Internet.

I’m talking about writers who seem frantic or depressed because they’re not writing fast enough every single day, as if they should be queen bees in a hive squeezing out their quota of eggs and the hive might collapse if they didn’t keep producing.

I read cries for help on social media from writers begging someone, anyone, to offer ways they can write more than 500 words a day, as if 500 words a day isn’t enough. And then I read jaunty, triumphant posts on those same platform from writers bragging about writing several thousand words a day.   

The writing world in America is infected with its own special virus. The sensible suggestion that beginning writers should try to write something daily to get themselves in the habit has seemingly become interpreted as a diktat for all writers all the time. What we write doesn’t matter, it’s how much we write every single day, as if our careers — no, our lives — depended on it. As if we’re the American war machine in 1943 determined to churn out more tanks, planes, and guns than Nazi Germany because the fate of the world is at stake.

I was mentored as a writer in a time when quality not quantity was the standard and I’m happy that’s the case, because yesterday I probably wrote fewer than a hundred words. But they were crucial words because they completely re-shaped the first chapter of the sequel I’m writing to my dark novella The Vampyre of Gotham set in 1910 Gilded Age New York.

I hadn’t written anything at all for a few days before that: I was just puzzling over what needed to be done before I was ready to return to my PC. If I don’t write anything more this week, that’s fine because what I did was exactly what was necessary for the new book to move forward. And I know, anyway, that I’m writing subconsciously now that I worked out the kink in my story line.  Writing happens to writers all the time, everywhere: we don’t need tablets, laptops, pens or pencils. 

And we don’t need to be driven by false quotas or to feel shame because somebody, somewhere is writing a short story every week (or maybe two!) and some weeks we can barely manage to piece together a decent metaphor.

There’s nothing wrong with having a daily goal if that works for you as a writer, but why should you feel crazed because you don’t reach that daily goal — what’s the sense in that? Why have we let the word count bully us and make us feel like miserable?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his fiction and creative nonfiction has been taught on college campuses across the country.  With twenty years of teaching experience, he now offers mentoring, tailored workshops, and editing at writewithoutborders.com.

Photo credit:madamepsychosis

Viral Quotes That Mark Twain Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and Mark Twain is a favorite “source.”

Here’s one that’s all over Facebook, and the first time I read it was early in the morning, spoiling an excellent cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

The quote doesn’t  show up anywhere as legitimately Twain’s, but it is definitely viral.

Then there’s this beauty:

2014-12-10-thesecretofgettingahead.jpg

Twain never said it, and it leads the list of the ten most famous bogus Twain quotes.

Why would anyone with half a brain or an ear for the English language think this could be by Mark Twain? It has no wit, no style, no soul. It’s all about mechanics and could have been written by a team putting together an instruction manual.

The Web is flooded with sites where Twain supposedly gives this banal advice, and because Twain supposedly said it, that means wow, it’s important, take note!

Twain is often picked as the avatar of what Oscar Wilde called “more than usually revolting sentimentality,” like this classic:

2015-07-23-1437675416-6376857-forgivenessmarktwainquote.jpg

Could anyone who’s read Twain or even read about Twain possibly think he’d say something this smarmy and illogical? And if so, how?

It’s as incongruously Twain’s as this other quotation that’s run amok across the Internet, spread by people eager to associate any thought at all with some distinguished American author, preferably dead:

2015-07-27-1437991767-1428287-MarkTwain.png

Yes, unbeknownst to most Twain scholars and fans, the great satirist really wanted to write greeting cards….

The maudlin violets quote has been been sadly mis-attributed to Twain for some decades with the help of the Dear Abby advice column. More recently, it got the imprimatur on NPR of self-improvement guru Dr. Wayne W. Dyer (W for Wikiquote?).

You’d think that someone looked up to for enlightenment by tens of millions of people might want to get his facts straight. All he’d have to do was consult Google to see the quote show up as problematic right away.

If you want to check a Twain quote yourself, it’s very easy.  One resource is Snopes, which has its own Twain page.   And there’s Barbara Schmidt’s web site TwainQuotes.com where you get the real man, not a fake reeking of  Victorian sentimentality or bogus can-d0 spirit.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Literary Agents Haven’t Helped Me

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  It don’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts, took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a Skype relationship would work out despite her saying she would come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

Diversity Takes a Hit at MSU’s English Department

In 2011 I returned from a successful book tour in Germany where some of my audiences had been college students and I found myself missing the classroom intensely. Three days later, I received an email from the chairman of Michigan State University’s English Department asking if I’d consider teaching there.

Of course I said yes. When we met for coffee, I told him about the serendipity. He said that he’d reached out to me because I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together and I had unique experience in publishing that the academic writers didn’t.

I remembered the department’s home in Morrill Hall fondly–it was where I did my PhD–a 19th century building that was down-at-heels but spacious and full of character.

(Lansing City Pulse photo)

I was only back there again for a semester before we moved to offices in another building on campus. These offices were cramped and utterly soulless. The conference room was brightened for me, however, by large framed posters of writers featured in the Library of America series. There are hundreds of books put out by this nonprofit organization whose aim is “to celebrate the words that have shaped America” and their publications cover several centuries of American writers of all kinds: poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, historians.

The framed posters in that conference room happened to be of a diverse group of writers who had all inspired me in my career as an author and teacher: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain.

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Baldwin, for example, changed my life when I discovered Another Country in high school because that bestselling novel spoke openly about sexuality and race in the 1960s the way that none of my assigned readings did, and in prose that was sometimes breathtaking. I’ve since read it novel many times, always finding new wisdom.

“I think you’ve got to be truthful about the life you have. Otherwise, there’s no possibility of achieving the life you want.”
― James Baldwin, Another Country

The conference room itself was grim and shabby around the edges. But the posters reminded me of the joy of seeing the world through completely different eyes, the fascination of watching students discover new viewpoints and revel in or wrestle with them, and how powerful authors motivated me as an author myself to keep working at my craft.

Returning to the classroom was exhilarating, and I felt as inspired by those writers as by my college mentor whose own teaching was witty, compassionate, and incisive.

I’m not at MSU anymore (I teach online at writewithoutborders.com), but I was still surprised and disappointed when several friends in the department recently told me that the Library of America posters were coming down. None of them could offer a compelling explanation. Or explain why when the removal was first announced at a faculty meeting, some professors were enthusiastic and practically cheered, as I was told.

That’s a very disturbing response at a time when universities around the country are focused on diversity and inclusion. More than half the writers in the group are Black, gay, lesbian or both. Why would anyone be happy to see them disappear? And why would the department want to symbolically cut itself off from a rich, diverse American literary heritage? What kind of message does that send to students and the university as a whole? What kind of statement does it make about the department’s priorities? And really, what on earth does anyone have against James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest post-World War II writers?

The department’s web site states that should the Internet ever collapse in some kind of apocalypse, books would still survive and “continue to galvanize readers.” I guess their authors won’t matter, though.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  This piece originally appeared in the Lansing City Pulse.

I Don’t Read English Novels–And Neither Should You!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines recently when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels been written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing was like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

I admit I might read an occasional English novel if I’m crazy bored, but Americans, we really know how to live la vida loca.  I mean look at us now: D.C. drama 24/7, exciting tweets every few minutes.  We’re in the fast lane.  And driving on the right side of the road, too.

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.