Category Archives: Portrayals of Writers

Links: the extrordinary poet Ruth Stone, and Barnes & Noble

In case anyone missed it back in November, you can read about the extraordinary poet Ruth Stone in the New York Times. I call her extraordinary not only because of her talent, but also because of her steadfast refusal during her lifetime to quit doing what she loved most: writing poetry.

She finally achieved literary success at the age 87 when she received a National Book Award in 2002. She’d been a poet for over 50 years by then and despite all she had been through had kept writing.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read about her life–what if she had given up on poetry in her fifties and sixties when things were rough? What if she hadn’t kept going? It was in her seventies that she began to break through.

In other links, Digital Book World has two great articles: one on Barnes & Noble’s strengths, and one on Barnes & Noble’s weaknesses. The article on the weaknesses includes a look at Amazon’s KDP program to contrast it to Barnes & Noble’s Pubit that is well worth the time to read.

Harriet Vane in GAUDY NIGHT (Portrayals of Writers)

I recently had the pleasure of rereading Dorothy L. Sayers’ GAUDY NIGHT after about a gap of ten years, and was struck by how much hidden fun I discovered in  it the second time around now that I have some writing experience behind me.  It was my favorite book by Sayers when I first read her entire Lord Peter Wimsey series ten years ago, and now I love it even more for her wry commentary about the writing life.

It was comforting to find that the same issues that plague writers today also plagued Sayer’s mystery writer character Harriet Vane in 1930s Great Britain.   Worries over advances and contracts, struggles to grow as a writer while still writing a novel that fit one’s genre, and the infernal nagging question from others of “Where do you get your ideas?”  Here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 1:

…Here was that awful woman, Muriel Campshott, coming up to claim acquaintance.  Campshott had always simpered.  She still simpered.  And she was dressed in a shocking shade of green.  She was going to say, “How do you think of all your plots!”  She did say it.  Curse the woman….

And then there’s the fun of reading about Harriet having to deal with the headaches of having a key character (Wilfrid) in a mystery she is writing completely messing the story up.

“Well,” said Harriet, recovering her poise, “academically speaking, I admit Wilfrid is the world’s worst goop….”

[Harriet] : “Yes–he’d be interesting.  But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.”

[Peter]: “You would have to abandon the jigsaw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”

“I’m afraid to try that, Peter.  It might go too near the bone.”

“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”

“Write it out and get rid of it?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll think about that.  It would hurt like hell.”

“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”

I strongly recommend reading STRONG POISON and HAVE HIS CARCASE before reading GAUDY NIGHT for the first time.  The relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey goes through a character arc that runs through all four of Sayers’ novels that include Harriet.

JULIE & JULIA film (Portrayals of Writers)

I just saw the film JULIE & JULIA (2009), which for me whipsawed between being exhilarating and excruciating to watch.  In the movie two women characters (Julie Powell and Julia Child) go through “an artist’s journey.”   Both of them will become published writers by the end of the film.

I don’t know how close the film actually mirrors the lives of Julie Powell and Julia Child, so I’m going to just focus on the characters as portrayed in the film.

The Julia film segments whizzed by, and I enjoyed them immensely.  However, the narcissism and whining of the Julie character got so irritating that I had to pause the film several times during Julie segments to do something else.

I ended up concluding this film provides terrific contrasting examples of how to act and how not to act as an artist.

Just for fun, here’s:

Top Five Things I Learned from Julia in JULIE & JULIA:

1)  Master your craft.  Find the absolute best teachers and classes you can.

2) Keep doing and submitting your work, even when it feels hopeless.

3) Don’t whine.  Take action.

4) Have a personal life as well as your work.  Don’t take love for granted.

5) Aim for being world-class in your work.  The worst that will happen is you won’t reach that level, but you won’t know how far you can go until you try.

Menolly in DRAGONSONG (Portrayals of Writers)

I still have the paperback of Anne McCaffrey’s DRAGONSONG that I picked up from an elementary school book fair back in 1980.   The cover has  a wonderful drawing of a girl playing the pipes while surrounded by tiny dragons; it caught my eye while looking at the display tables at the fair.   This would be the first, but not the last, book I’d read by Anne McCaffrey.

Recently I pulled out DRAGONSONG to reread after many years, because I vividly recalled Menolly’s struggle to become a musician and songwriter on the planet of Pern, and I was curious to see how I would react to the story now.

For those who don’t already know, Pern is an imaginary world created by Anne McCaffrey where dragons were bred in order to destroy threads (an organism which falls from the sky from Pern’s moon that threatens all life on Pern).

Menolly is a teenager who lives in a traditional culture where female roles are strictly defined.  For her to become a Harper (musician & songwriter) is unthinkable to her parents.  Her gifts as an artist, which would be a source of pride if she were a boy, are instead a source of shame that drives her family to thwart her at every opportunity.   In the end her parents’ punishments become physical; her mother actually attempts to cripple her so she can’t play an instrument, driving Menolly to run away.

More adventures for Menolly then ensue, but I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who may not have read it yet.

I found the treatment of Menolly by her family even harder to read about than before.   Knowing that there have been times in the past when being a professional writer or other artist was forbidden to women, I found it all to easy to imagine how our foremothers must have felt at being thwarted at every turn.

As the winter spun itself out, Menolly found that her sense of loss when she thought of Petiron deepened.  He had been the only person in the Sea Hold who had ever encouraged her in anything: and most especially in that one thing that she was now forbidden to do.   Melodies don’t stop growing in the mind, tapping at fingers, just because they’re forbidden.  And Menolly didn’t stop composing them–which, she felt, was not precisely disobeying.

There’s a sad, but deep truth, hidden in McCaffrey’s book.  If one’s family and friends (perhaps even culture) are determined to destroy one’s gifts as an artist, one has to leave if the opportunity presents itself.

George Sand in IMPROMPTU (Portrayals of Writers)

Actress Judy Davis, striding through the streets and countryside of 1830s France, brings writer George Sand to life in the 1991 film IMPROMPTU (rated PG-13).   Written by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, the film is  loosely based on George Sand’s life (for example, Sand really did wear men’s clothing and smoke cigars).

The film succeeds in conveying the frustrations of being a woman and an artist in the 19th century.  Sand attempts to live as free as a man, but is faced with being treated as a possession by her ex-lovers.   And she has to deal with the disapproval of some about her being a woman writer (women often had to take a male pseudonym due to the societal disapproval of a woman writing).

While the relationship between Sand and Chopin is romanticized in the film, I found it uplifting to watch how Chopin comes to respect and treat Sand as an equal.  Their relationship becomes one of mutual support in their artistic endeavors.

It is also fun to watch Sand’s interactions with her editor/publisher, wheedling him for advance money.  And her determination to write every night (no matter what) results in her being treated as a hack by Alfred De Musset, who is suffering from writer’s block in the film.   Alfred’s jealousy and nastiness reminded me of a few writers with productivity problems who take their spite out on others.  Like Sand, it’s best to ignore the insults and just keep writing.