My oldest son recently begun taking online college courses. Naturally, he is encouraged to do well, and that tends to be where the friction lies. He doesn’t want to be asked about school. This is mostly because his focus is elsewhere—whether it’s video games or going to work. We have come to a point where we have stopped asking…almost. We made him very aware that college is way different from high school, and he has to be on top of his coursework. In the end, we are skeptical he will succeed in the first semester. Those who have gone to college understand what that means, especially when it comes to funding.
It got me thinking about my rerun through college a few years ago. I did the work and became dedicated to getting my degree. Just like my son, I didn’t take my first year in college at 19 as seriously as I should have. However, I do wish I did. I shared that with him, too. His 19 and my 19 were vastly different in circumstances, but the mentality seems to be the same. Learning from my mistakes and experiences doesn’t seem to be working.
Going back to college in my forties changed me for the better—but, in the end, that’s all it did. There was no job waiting for me after earning my Bachelors Degree. There was no indication that a degree would even help. It is such a paradox. Companies want a degree-toting employee, yet having one guarantees you nothing. I’m not naive to think experience and knowledge isn’t a factor. In my experience, even a resume that matches a job description perfectly doesn’t get you any phone calls.
I tried pointing at things to blame. Was it my age? My last name—which was Spanish at the time of graduation? Was it because I took a few years off, not working, to raise my kids? Was it the field of study? I found that nothing I came up with was conclusive; only that having a degree really didn’t matter. I will clarify: it didn’t matter when getting a job, but it did for my own personal goals.
But, how do you persuade your children to go to college and get a degree to have the career they want when they know it didn’t work for you? I’m not sure. I will, however, continue to emphasize the immense feeling of gratification it gave me. I will expand on how I learned more about not only what already interested me, but gained other interests. I will tell them it taught me focus, patience, and perseverance. College heightened an appetite for knowledge.
This is the take-away I want for them.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am opposed to the idea of New Year's resolutions. However, I am all about personal goals and challenging myself. In my house we have set a reading challenge between my fiance and me. We are challenging ourselves to read around 55 books collectively. Naturally, we hope for more, but in the basic structure of a day with work and family, sometimes it's difficult to squeeze in the reading time. Reading isn't merely a hobby of ours, but a necessity. There are numerous benefits to reading and the notion that reading is a drag is only for those who are a drag. I didn't meet my reading challenge for last year, which was low to begin with. I found myself busy with other things and didn't manage my time wisely. I forgot that the very things I needed would have been found by picking up a book—mental stimulation, stronger analytical thinking, improved focus, and most of all, stress reduction.
As a writer, it is absolute must that I read. My writing and vocabulary skills will not only improve, but I'll find the inspiration I need to write my own stories. How a writer makes me feel as a reader will only aid in reaching my goal of how I want my reader to feel. My first three books of the year have writers who have inspired me. I started off the year with the historical fiction Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. She researched Zelda's life, the untold stories, creating a plausible viewpoint from Zelda's perspective. It's written in first person, so I had the benefit of reading Zelda's internal dialogue. Her story has stayed with me and offered empathy for a woman people have claimed to have ruined her husband's life and career--if the many stories about her are even true. Did she really keep F. Scott Fitzgerald from attaining his goals as a writer? Did she really keep him up late partying and make him the raging alcolholic he was? What I gained from the novel is that she could have easily been a victim of circumstance and society. As far as I see it, F. Scott Fitgerald is responsible for his own actions—as we all are
What's currently on my typewriter is a first-person story that leans towards creative non-fiction, with some historical events. I doubted my direction of first-person, but now feel more comfortable with carrying on after reading Fowler's book. The interesting part about creative non-fiction is that it's more common that we think as many fiction writers include their own experiences and people in real life. The names are changed to protect the innocent, although "innocence" is not always the case. Whether or not you're into fiction or non, in the camp that Zelda was crazy, or that she hindered Fitzgerald's success, the book is an excellent and eye-opening read. If anything, it will make you think more about her situation from rational perspective. It's very much like the idea of reading a book before watching the movie. You get more of a backstory, the reasons for the character's behavior, and insight that the movie can't offer in 90 minutes. This novel is no different in that regard when trying to make your Zelda determination
Another great read was Dominick Dunne's autobiography/memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper. Dunne writes about his start in the Hollywood scene and the many people he met along the way. His writing feels honest and there is a sense of humility. The catch with autobiographies is that they are an account of our life as we "remember" it. Although Dunne refers to his journals that he kept along the way, it's not easy to think the same as our younger selves. Trying to rely on our memories, even with photos and journals, doesn't necessarily lend itself to an accurate event. But, Dunne puts it plainly in the title, "Recollections." What I appreciated the most is that he is overall respectful of those he writes about. He doesn't assume he knows why other's behaved as they did despite having background stories. Dunne also wasn't afraid to be a bit self-deprecating. His account of his life didn't feel exaggerated—something I am immensely aware of. Dunne's writing will affect how I share my story. I want the feeling of openness and honesty with each word, regardless of after-affects of popular opinion. Everyone around you, in your inner-circle, think they know you. They may in some form or fashion, but writing down your thoughts in the quest to be completely true will probably make them question how much they really know. I admire those who do, even if I don't agree with their decisions in life.
I recently completed Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McLain, a fictional memoir of Beryl Markham. Beryl was born in the UK, however moved to Kenya in 1906 when she was four years old. She became the first woman to become a licensed horse trainer in Kenya. Beryl is also the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo when she flew from Europe to North America. Although Beryl wrote her own memoir in 1942, West With The Night, McLain offers the emotion behind her story. It offers the feeling of hearing Beryl's story as it's happening, or as we imagined she was feeling at the time. Her story is inspiring for me as a woman, encouraging me to move forward with my own goals. She was determined and unafraid of society's limitations on a woman. The rights of women have come a long way since the 1920s, so it's not lost on me that my advantages are far greater than hers. If anything, there should be no excuses on my part.
This is the second novel I've read by Paula McLain. I read her historical fiction, The Paris Wife, about the life of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife. It could definitely be said I appreciate the biographical novels as that is what I seem to read the most. Hadley's story is also a remarkable one and she displayed self-sacrificing dedication to her husband and his writing. Unfortunately, her efforts were unappreciated by Hemingway at the time and he moved on to another woman, Pauline Pfeiffer. It was after three more wives and several women later that he appreciated Hadley, calling her the love of his life. Nevertheless, McLain did it again for me with Circling the Sun, drawing me in to an extraordinary woman's life, leaving me wanting to know more about them. I want a better understanding of how McLain came to her conclusions of how these women may have felt during these events in their life.
I'm about to start reading Zelda: A Biography, written by American biographer Nancy Milford. Because of Therese Ann Fowler, I truly want to know more about Zelda and if my empathy for her is justifiable. This will be my second biography by Milford, who also wrote Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (1923) and she did so writing beautiful poetry. Needless to say, I have acquired Millay's poetry in my fascination with her life and her work—all because I picked up a book. She is also responsible for the the popular line in her Fig from Thistles: First Fig poem, "My candle burns at both ends" —an idiom that applies to me sometimes.
Aside from the inspiration I derive from reading, the increased vocabulary, and the many other benefits, I do believe I've become a bit more cultured My appreciation for poetry has expanded over this past year with both Millay and Sylvia Plath, having read their biographies and journals.. I think Oscar Wilde summed it up nicely with "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it."
Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real
As any writer will tell you, reading the work of others stimulates our own writing. I've also realized that watching documentaries about great writers is also inspirational. I recently watched a Netflix documentary on Joan Didion— "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold." She is an American journalist and literary icon. Ms. Didion's life story is a captivating one as it's full of remarkable and heartbreaking experiences that she used in her writing. It all began with her entering a contest (which she won) for Vogue magazine while she was a senior at UC Berkley. Afterward, she moved to New York and started her writing career working for Vogue.
Her love for writing began at the age of five when her mother gave her a notebook--telling her to cure her boredom through writing. As an adult, Ms. Didion spent time with movie stars, rock stars, and political leaders. In watching the documentary, it seemed there were few she didn't rub elbows with. She is Aunt Joan to actor and director Griffin Dunne, who did an extraordinary job sharing her life's story by talking with her and sharing archival footage. Ms. Didion told Tom Brokaw in an interview that her stories come to her as she is writing. A lot of us (including myself) sit and wait for something to come to us. All we really need to do is just start writing. Write anything; and the stories will come. In fact, I find that even if I sit down with a story in my head, it changes direction completely as I'm writing.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
Ernest Hemingway offered this and a lot of great tips, such as stop writing when you know what will happen next. If you stop when you hit a road block, that's exactly what will be waiting for you when it's time to write again. Another is to not feel the need to describe the emotion of your character, make it. Identify the action that caused the emotion and present it. A lot of times, we want to spoon-feed our readers. Allow them to create the intended emotional response along with your character. It's always helpful to learn from writers whose work we admire. We want to explore their processes and find out their secrets--hoping to gain some divine knowledge of becoming a great writer. The good ones will only tell you their secret is to read a lot of books and write everyday. Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Writers can't teach us how to write, only how they became a writer. W. Sumerset Maugham, known for "Of Human Bondage" and "The Razor's Edge," said it best:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
Another inspirational documentary was not specifically about writing, but the tool in which to write--the typewriter. I watched "California Typewriter," which is about those dedicated to the typewriter as a tool and muse. Everyone shared their love for them, making me want to buy one immediately. I had one growing up and even took a typing class in high school (yes, I'm that ancient). I used it all the time. Many of those commenting in the film were writers in some form or fashion. Tom Hanks, the most fabulous actor ever that I’ve followed since Bosom Buddies, has about 250 typewriters in his collection. In fact, he’s written a book, "Uncommon Type"—a collection of 17 short stories featuring a typewriter within each one. The late Sam Shepard—actor, screenwriter, and playwright—received one from his son and used it almost every day. John Mayer, singer and songwriter, bought an electric one online and types out his random thoughts that may or may not become lyrics for his songs. Then there are renowned writers like David McCullough, who has used only his typewriter to write his books. Books such as his two Pulitzer Prize winning works, "Truman" and "John Adams." McCullough hopes that one day his grandchildren may write their very own books on his 1946 Royal KMM. I completely understand the magic behind typing on a typewriter. With all of the technology we have today, such as computers and iPads, it is a lost art form. They aren't just antiquities on a shelf, but a tool used to encourage creativity—seeing your words instantly in print, typed one letter at a time.
I love to write. Whether it's in a notebook, laptop, or my soon-to-be-purchased typewriter. However, life gets in the way and becomes the excuse to abdicate. And, I love to read. I have a library of books that constantly grows. I willingly fall into a world the author has created for me. I actually imagine all the characters stopping what their doing in the story when I close the book. They just wait, chatting amongst themselves, doing the things people do when waiting for someone. They can get impatient with me and I imagine their annoyance when I'm taking too long to start reading again. It brings a smile to my face to hear them cheer as I start reading again. That's precisely what I love about writing and reading—bringing the characters to life.
I am a woman-child at heart; continuously evolving to find my place in life. I am a mother, a daughter, and a sister. I am a lover and a dreamer--an explorer and a traveler. But it's my passion for writing that allows me to explore my ingenuity. This is something that undoubtedly carries over to the many roles that make up the ever evolving woman I am.