Month: April 2014
I’ve always thought a duel biography of Zelda and Nora would be interesting. Both married literary giants, Fitzgerald and Joyce. Both were incredibly unhappy. But since this is the last night of the A-Z Blog Challenge, Zelda gets the honors. After all she was the original flapper.
Zelda goes down in history for being the model of Daisy Buchanan, in Great Gatsby. But she was a frustrated writer, largely misunderstood who suffered in the shadow of her husband. It’s ironic that she was the quintessential It Girl, rebellious, hip and bohemian enough to break the rules of society yet she struggled with identity. It nearly destroyed her.
She seems not to have much confidence in her own abilities, but much of her witticisms made their way into her husband’s books. As a product of post-War America, she was the embodiment of woman who turned away from traditional roles of wife and mother. She was not domestic in the least. She contributed to a column of favorite recipes, this is what she wrote, and I quote:
“See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”
They had a difficult marriage. Unconventional, he, raging alcoholic who expected her to bask in greatness, she who suffered bouts of depression, commitment and suicide attempts. Hemingway did not like her. It was mutual. He thought she was crazy. She detested his “faux machismo”. The marriage issues stemmed largely when Zelda was left at loose ends while Fitzgerald was deep in his manuscripts. She wanted what he had, but on her own terms.
One of the more bizarre attempts at carving her own way was her obsession to become a ballerina. At 27. She practiced all hours of the day. It’s a bit like deciding to become an Olympic skier at age 32. She had a minor talent, and was invited to study in an Italian school. But she never went. She dropped the whole idea, just as it seemed she had got what she wanted. Or did she?
Zelda wanted to write. Can you imagine being married Fitzgerald, yet he never encouraged her, one suspects he was jealous and fearful of sharing the limelight. She was hospitalized in 1932, yet in that time she was able to complete an entire novel, Save Me The Last Waltz She sent it to her husband’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald exploded. He accused her of using intimate details of their marriage, yet he was more angry because she had beaten him to the punch; he was planning on using the same martial for Tender Is The Night, a novel that took him years while she banged Waltz out in six weeks. There was no pride, no encouragement. Her efforts, met with suspicion.
Fitzgerald forced her to edit out the scenes, though the novel was published by Scribner. Ah, connections. It wasn’t a success, though today her writing has been described as more sensual and verbally rich. It is best remembered, as one woman’s attempt to stop being a “backseat driver” in her husband’s life. Fitzgerald called her a Third-Rate writer. This broke her heart and she was never the same. She made about $120. And that’s why no pictures of him appear in this post.
This is about Zelda. Not F, or S. Those letters have been done. And I dedicate the blogs in this A-Z Challenge to her memory. Over and out. It’s been fantastic.
I remember in college a professor suggested I work on a paper with another student. I knew the subject matter like the back of my hand, in fact I was passionate about it and could write it cold. 35 pages. I knew the other student didn’t know half as much as I did. To prove it, she went to the library and checked out all the books. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to collaborate. I owned half of them anyway. I would go it alone. I got an A, while she got in the lower end of the alphabet I recall.
Writing is an intensely personal experience and sometimes we feel me vs. the rest. The way we see life is just so different. We need refuge away to make sense of the world around us. We need to write. Even if we don’t enjoy it, it’s just who we are.
That’s why it’s important to understand the journey we take is a long, lonely one and to most of our non-writer friends and family, it seems masochistic. A waste of time. Incomprehensible. But they don’t see the inner flame inside that keeps shoveling coal into the furnace of despair and insecurity. They never had a dream. Some don’t, you know. They’ve told me. Many people just never had a dream, and I don’t mean to get all MLK but think about it, as hard as it is, and as windy and twisty and bumpy as this road is, you can say, you’re living your dream. And you did it by yourself, because no one but you is going to sit down when the ice cream man rolls around, to tempt you with his treats. You’re going to keep sitting down and getting the writing done. You’re going to edit the work over and over. Because if it was easy you wouldn’t do it. Because it’s a dream. It’s all yours and you did it alone.
Now go hit the keys.
It’s just sometimes, I know that’s the way I’m supposed to go….I say someday I will.
This was a hard one for me. I looked up a bunch of words beginning with X. I even consulted a Scrabble prompt but they all seemed a variation of Xylitol, Xanthium, or other pseudo-scientific sounding names that gave me no inspiration. I’m stumped, as I am “Xausted” but Blogging A-Z has been so much fun.
So I’m moving on. Back to Japan. If you are looking for a wonderful Japanese film that explores the world of the concubine, look no further than the 1950’production, Life of Oharu.
It stars the famous Kinuyo Tanaka in the title role who was considered the Bette Davis of Japan. The movie adapts Saikaku’s Life of an Amorous Woman, and opens on a down and out old woman. As she recounts her story, we see her as a young daughter of court nobles, a great beauty but through her own nature, spoils her rise through the ranks as a daimyo’s concubine by a life of pleasure and rebellion.
It is a cautionary tale of what can happen to the courtesan when beauty runs out in this world that prizes beauty above all else. It is Mizoguchi’s most important film that actually made him some money. Interestingly, the film almost never got made. It was a crazy idea. To bring a lush, historical, 17th century tale of a courtesan’s exploits when such dramas were forbidden by the American occupation. It had everything going against it. Accept passion.
The director wanted greatness and he reeled in his leading lady, Tanaka to stake their reputations on the film. It was like the Japanese Gone With the Wind. In this post-war austerity, the country had never seen anything like the drive and scope it took to get the picture made. The film went over budget and the critics complained that Oharu was being treated too sensitively. Both the director and his leading lady soon grew exhausted.
The film shut the critics down and won a major festival in Venice. There are so many moments to this film that are brilliant. The silent recognition when Oharu sees the son she gave up as a child on the road and a later glimpses him as a man. One of the most poignant moments-Oharu overhears an aged courtesan singing a tune, and she herself will sing this in the same circumstances as a mendicant nun, showing how difficult it is to escape one’s destiny.
What gets you running for the hanky? I think of Lily Bart and I’m there. The House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton. Wharton is my favorite American writer. Win-win.
It’s been a long time since she published. Yet with her unique perspective, humor and the emotion she poured into stories she inspired me in a big way to become a writer. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived within the constraints of a stiff, manacled culture on her terms when few women had aspirations outside the cotillion room.
The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart-a poor relation on the fringes of high society. What’s interesting here is that Wharton could have started the novel at a much earlier time. No. Instead, we get a sense of Lily’s past as the belle of the ball, but things haven’t turned out the way she hoped. She’s 29 and on the sunset of her beauty. The money her father left has dwindled and that makes the novel all the more taut, full of razor-sharp tension and projects impending doom for Lily as she tries one last grasp at the brass ring, to arrange a good marriage.
She drifts on good graces and invites from regattas to house parties, racking up debts from cards and clothes she can ill afford. The irony of her situation is all the more acute, since she needs these props to make that advantageous match before her beauty runs out. The promises of an inheritance held as a carrot become spoiled by her own behavior and her desperation to be accepted.
Lily’s conflict-the trappings of wealth pull against her attraction for Seldon who offers her a chance to be herself-as they come crashing down in scandal where she has the means to destroy happiness in one sacrifice. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is Lily’s utter inability to be anything other than what she is; a product of that culture she longs in-part to escape. Her attempts to hold down a job at a hat maker end with realization that she is “a useless sort of person.”
The novel is not a light-hearted beach read but I guarantee you’ll never forget it.
As a child, and later teen I dreamt of the following; girl writes book; girl mails off book; girl gets published and maybe gets a miniseries. I read a lot of Judith Krantz. Mistral’s Daughter is one of my favorite 80’s tomes.
Young and inexperienced, seems so easy doesn’t it? But in today’s uncertain publishing climate, one size fits all is gone.
What do you do to get your head on straight and make the best decision for yourself?
You read a lot. Educate yourself about this rapidly changing business. Know this; even if you push a boulder the size of a house uphill; even if you follow your heart; you will face lots of risk. It’s just not cut and dry anymore.
But there are opportunities. Pause, learn and consider what path you’re taking. Going shotgun on a 100 queries isn’t a plan. Trust that you’re talent will be the life raft you will need to navigate this thing called publishing. Indie authors are exploding. That’s no secret. A few years ago when I was busy writing with my head in the sand I ignored debates going on. One reason is that it bothered me. I wanted the traditional path and I didn’t want to hear all the poo-pooing about ebooks and publishing is a button and ya-ya-ya. Yawn. It kinda scared me. It threatened my dream.
When I bought my Nook three years ago I didn’t think about it. I still had paper books. All this talk must be just that. Then two years ago I walked into Barnes and Noble. There was always new-fangled book lights or pretty diaries for sale. What I saw I couldn’t ignore. 3/4 of the store was given over to candles. Expensive soaps. Godiva chocolates. The stacks of books seemed an after thought. Soap. Think about that. I knew I had to learn the business and quick.
Today, we have choice but it’s overwhelming. Getting an agent has never been harder. So what do you do? Go the small press route to crack in, get your cred and build your career? I don’t have any answers in 2014. Except, think carefully. Don’t be desperate. Read and investigate. If the idea of getting smaller royalties and giving away your rights is okay for a date at the prom, small presses may be for you. Read the contract. If you don’t know what you’re reading get help. If you don’t want to give your rights away, you’re being required to promote your book, heck you’re already doing it, and you want to keep 70% of the profits maybe you want to look into self-publishing.
When I hear so and so say, oh yeah I threw my book up on Amazon and didn’t make a dime, that tells me that they probably weren’t serious. They didn’t invest in a good editor, good cover artist (be willing to change that cover if need be) and weren’t prepared to promote the book and weren’t writing more books. If you want to self-publish you must do all three things. If you want to go the small press route be prepared also to do more. You won’t get an advance, but with small presses you’ll get passion and help.
If you go the traditional route, if you have the dream of getting an agent and trying to stalk the Big5 peak hunker down, it’s a long winter. Build you’re ice fort around your ego and your skin. Stake your heart to the ground to be safe. Stockpile food for the haul because you’re looking for someone who will love you’re book like a lover. It may be an extended wait. Resist the urge to tear apart you’re work every time you get a No. Believe in your story, keep writing and realize that it’s the numbers game. Keep coming back, it’s a matter of time.
So be thoughtful before you leap at any contract. Make a plan. Have a vision. Embrace risk. Get excited it’s uncertain times but writers are reaching readers like never before and that’s why we do this right?
“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”
Edo 17th century. Shogun ruled with an iron fist. The society was heavily stratified with a land-owning samurai class at the top and the merchants at the bottom. But while the samurai began to decline and grow poorer the merchants grew wealthy. What merchants lacked in respectability they more than made up for in money. They spent that money freely on kabuki; courtesans and other pursuits found in the pleasure quarters. Ukiyo-e embodied a live for today attitude, live while the money is flowing, while the samurai prepared for death. Stark contrast between two cultures.
The merchant class popularized woodblock images, “heroes of Ukiye-o” because they had kobans and ryo to burn on mass consumption, the acquisition and the patronage of artists whose images graced their homes. It’s not surprising that the more conservative government wanted to stamp out the images. They feared that woodblocks would infect the mass culture of Japan with a licentious greed. Waves of artist persecutions came and went, but in the end people loved woodblocks. Merchants wives and daughters copied courtesan style of the day. They imitated flashy kimono and piled their hair high with pincushions of expensive kanzashi hair sticks, which led the government to enact more, futile sumptuary laws.
Everyone wanted to dress like a courtesan and that was the problem.
In the 19th century some of the greatest artists became inspired by the woodblocks of the Ukiyo-e. Van Gogh was rumored to have seen an Eisen woodblock of a famous courtesan when he was painting abroad. The style of the floating world swept opera, musicals, furniture and china, styles that became known as Japonaise. What was largely a hedonistic art form born in a city ruled by a dictator went to Paris.
Some examples of Japonaise art.
Van Gogh’s La Courtisane.
Another charming example of the style, La Japonaise by Wordsworth.
Those who walk barefoot in life, hold their pain within and withstand much.
The foot in Asian culture has long been revered an erotic appendage, but the courtesans who scooted around cold, dark floors, even in the dead of winter were a breed all their own.
The courtesan was a unique creature. She wore flashy layers of silk kimono and padded outer coats called uchikake that rippled as she walked-for a courtesan took five steps to the one everyone else took. She hobbled around engagement to engagement with nothing on her feet. Even during dochu procession, a courtesan walked with her bare feet shoved inside stilted shoes to show her height and her majesty amongst a short-statured culture. The bare foot set the courtesan off from the rest of dull womanhood and was not merely an erotic enticement. The barefooted courtesan showed herself to be tough, resilient, flowering, thriving like beautiful red flowers in a place flowing with tears.
She had to be tough. She came to the brothel as a small child. She was exposed from a very early age to the ugly paying business between men and women. If she was lucky and beauty was on her side, she was groomed by a sponsor to become a courtesan herself.
Exalted beauty had a price. She had an iron-clad contract with her employer, the brothel keeper, that was heavy and one-sided. Everything was charged to her account. She was expected to purchase her clothes and accoutrements for entertaining clients which naturally was designed to keep her in debt until her contract could be bought out by a wealthy daimyo. Sometimes her beauty waned before that could happen. Sometimes she succumbed to disease or death first.
There are no old tayu in Edo. Tayu do not grow old.
The courtesan, a complete creature of the artifice dare not show any concern for ordinary cares, even hunger. The number two rule, after though shall not take non-paying lovers, thou shall not eat in front of a client. Parties and entertainments could well go on for days. Sake flowed, noodles were spilt but the courtesan would never allow one bit of noodle powder to grace her red lip. Men might have thought it was more erotic, the brothel owner decided men did not need to watch women eat. Brothels kept their girls starved and they were allowed to eat to their hearts content one day of the year, on New Years.
Good thing dreams were free.
Of course, very few contracts were ever bought out. The girl had to be extraordinary. Famous, a sensation of her day. If she rose to the very top, she might get out of the life while she was still young enough to enjoy what was left. Before she left the Yoshiwara behind for good, she would wash her feet at the well and walk away free and clear of the quarter and into life with her feet covered as a sign she was retired. Respectable.