Writing, Woman Power, Serendipity, Friendship, Connection, Part 2
Picking up from last week's newsletter, recounting reunion of our 80's writer's group, 22 years after last meeting!
Above: L-R Lee Darby, Elizabeth Holmes, Kay Alden Webb, Hella Fluss, Diane Barnes, Carolyn Foster (invited facilitator), Diane Egelston, c1985. Valerie Kobal took photo. Don't ask why I'm turned opposite direction, and why 5/7 are in blue. I have no clue!
First, a correction! Been scouring the house and garage for my old manuscript.
Haven't found, but did find the original reports of our Meyers Briggs results. I misremembered(!). We were all NF's, N=grasp of possibilities, F=warmth and sympathy. But though we I's (introverts) were the majority, our group was both introverts and extraverts! Guess I felt so at home, I thought we were all like me!!! Close though: all us introverts were INFJ's! Others were ENFP's except Hella, the only one of her type, ENFJ! So, majority of us INFJs were 1%ers (1.5% of female, .5% of male), the rest 7%ers ENFP's ( 8% female, 6%male) and Hella, a 4%er ENFJ's (5.5% females, 2.5% male): UNICORNS!
So, after cake and tea, Lee handed me a letter I had written her from a writer's colony in June of 1988. I read it silently, suddenly sobered. It awakened a long-buried memory, one which might resurface in this next project, writing My Stroke of Luck, the memoir.
In the 80's, I spent six years working on an autobiographical novel of growing up. One writing teacher/editor/friend during this period, a published novelist I'll call X , read several chapters, said she loved my writing: "Fresh, original, smart, illuminating." Asked to be the first to read completed manuscript. Said she would love to be my editor. Her writing style was very different from mine, but, hey, editors work with all kinds of material, right? So, YES!
When I feel it's ready, send it to her, maybe 6 weeks before a two week writer's colony residency, where I anticipate completing final draft. Eagerly await her comments.
Several weeks later she calls. "I'm done. Why don't you come to our house for dinner. You can pick up the manuscript then. Anything you don't eat?"
I arrive, about 10 minutes late. X opens the door.
"Sorry I'm late," I say, extend a bottle of my favorite Merlot.
"Humph," X says unsmiling. She steps back, holds the white oak door wide, though she hides all but her face behind it. As she scans the length of my body, a series of fleeting micro expressions -none friendly- cross her face. "I guess some people are just congenitally sorry," she says with an eye roll through a forced, toothless grin.
A chill runs through me.
Dinner is a large, extended family affair. X seats me opposite her. She says very little as three generations of the family pepper with questions. They seem genuinely interested. Might have passed for normal, getting to know you questions, but X sits silent, moving hesitantly, hawking me with a look somewhere between suspicion and hostility. My eczema, which at that time had better social radar than I, erupts in ugly red patches on my arms and legs. Why does this feel so uncomfortable? What is she thinking? What did she think of my manuscript?
Finally, meal over, places cleared, I make my escape.
As X closes her front door behind me, she gives me one last look. Was that smug? A smirk? Contempt? The door slams.
Only when I arrive home do I open the manuscript, read from start to finish. Big red x's over much of the work, comments scrawled over the writing: "No way!" "This couldn't happen." "I don't believe this for a second." "I don't like this character very much." (My character!) "Now I really don't like her!" (Ditto.) "What?" "For real?" "No, no, no!" "Should be more precient!" That's all I remember.
Devastated is an understatement. The comments feel pointedly personal and unflinchingly hostile. I feel personally attacked. I replay the dinner tape, my intuitions beginning to make sense. But why put me through that evening? If she hates it, hates me, why not just return the manuscript?
After a week of agony, I share her critique with my writers' group who are taken aback. "We've heard your work. Feels as if she didn't read the same book." Hella then shares that X wanted to join her other writers' group. Per their routine, they invite her to one meeting. Afterwards, group unanimously nixes her. Years later learned that at another writers' conference, X disparaged writing groups, “Don't waste your time. I once read a book written by someone in a writers' group. It wasn’t that good.”
I share X's feedback with my then therapist. "I read her [last] book." She shakes her head, purses her lips. "Your book is one educators need. It answers a lot of questions we have. It's an important work. They need to know." She never said what I felt: I was wrong to have trusted X.
After getting 2/3 through what I hoped would be my final draft at the colony, I stalled.
Then life and my sons happened.
I had long since buried those memories, but my 1988 letter to Lee brought it all back.
"Shared chapters with writers I’ve met here. Their critiques, more consistent with group and my editor friend, Erroll, not only extraordinarily helpful, but also point out X's failings. It has gotten so I look for her hostile remarks and x’s. Almost all identify the emotional core of the scenes, according to feedback, telling me what I need to clarify! Almost everything she crossed out was what wanted amplification! The lousy writing, clunky sentences, (sad to say I hadn't picked them up!) she passed.
Have had discussions here about handling characters who do less than noble things, unlikable characters, problems of self-critical autobiographical protagonist, characters who do hateful things… many struggle with same.
Key is to believe in yourself, your vision, close your ears to those who would destroy or silence. Easier said than done. If nothing else she helped me see: bearing witness will evoke hostile criticism."
After I read the letter, group shared their memories of her critique, which all remembered as unduly harsh and personal.
"I assumed she must have had mother issues which you triggered, so she just wanted to shut you down,” Elizabeth said.
Now, Elizabeth is our Yoda, so perhaps she is right! But devil's advocate, perhaps presenting my upbringing as a novel strained credulity. Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction, and memoir and novel follow very different rules and writing conventions. One of the best memoirs I have read recently, The Glass Castle, spent over 200 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list. Powerful, raw and incredible. But could the story have worked as fiction? Would we have believed it? Or is truth, memory and her story of survival its real power?
Sitting with these wonderful women, my creative sisters, I felt the power of support. We took Anne Lamont's blueprint, and created a space where creativity flourished. Our circle gave all of us permission to dive in, explore, grow. And once having shared heart journeys, we remain connected.
I suddenly flash on my experience recovering from my stroke, and developing My Stroke of Luck. My post stroke reinvention started with me in a very vulnerable, damaged state. Many people helped me, openhearted and generous. Once I started the creative exploration, I found only opening doors and encouragement. Had I been given a lot of negative feedback and pointed, personal criticism, I don't know if I'd have made it to the finish line, with myself or the show! Thankfully, Instead, I entered a world of Yes, And! With thanks to Patricia Ryan Madson and all my BATS coaches.
So, a bushel of thanks to everyone who helped along the way. All my improv coaches, of course. And David Ford, artist in residence and Director, The Marsh. David, encouraged us to listen to each other, to identify what really works for us, what we'd like to know more about, where we are lost or confused and share that. No shaming, no criticism, no judgement. Just emotional and intellectual information, And by learning what connects with our audience, where they need more, we are empowered to shape a compelling, authentic piece.
There are so many more I need to thank, including my new creative support group. But you know who you are! Some prefer not to be called out, but if you're not in that camp, and prefer a mention, LET ME KNOW! Your wish is my command!))
With eternal gratitude for the radical acceptance, radical fearlessness, shamelessness, support, intuition, and love that helped me arrive at the finish line.
Join the Annual Aneurysm and AVM Walk-a-thon Sunday May 6 at Chrissy Field.
I'll be walking and among the speakers.
For medical professionals, I'll be a speaker at the Pacific Stroke Association Annual Conference May 9th.
No public performances of My Stroke of Luck in the Bay Area scheduled until January 2019, but keep checking back!!!
Looks like Elizabeth took this one. L-R Lee Darby, Hella Fluss, Me, Valerie Kobal, one time facilitator Carolyn Foster, Diane Egelston, Kay Alston.