By Lesley Vos Once upon a time, someone somewhere told people they couldn’t be creative writers if didn’t have particular genes or characteristics of brains. Gone are those days when we believed those yucks. Writers have learned to unlock and develop creativity with particular daily routine and lifestyle. Positive thinking, mindfulness, tons of writing techniques, and […]
I could spend ten lifetimes reading the stories of humankind and still not know enough. Sumeria, Greece, Egypt, Rome. China: the Records of the Grand Historian, Bamboo Annals, the Five Classics. Popol Vuh. Genghis Khan. Charlemagne. Tesla. Secret writings of ancient and medieval women.
I could spend ten lifetimes carrying out the ambitions of various parts of myself and still not do it all or well enough. Art—the swirl of vibrant color on thick white paper. Music—Bach fugue played a nine-foot grand. Literature—a turn of phrase that takes away breath, stories that ache to be told.
Plant, cultivate, and harvest, dry, freeze, slice—onion and butter sizzle in a hot iron skillet, ready for potato. Goats— chewing alfalfa hay at the barn door, watching me with yellow slit eyes. Weave and sew fine cloth, yards of it filling my arms. Gather fallen twigs to kindle a fire, add more wood and watch the flames spread, leap, fall to pulsing coals and pale ash.
I could love ten thousand men and a thousand women and still not have loved enough. Never have touched enough soft skin. Never have kissed enough lips or marveled enough at the mingling of color in the iris of an eye. Lens to the soul I worship with my body.
With endless days would come endless shapes of clouds racing across the sky, dark and turbulent rolling in with thunder, thin wisps high in frozen air. Rain lash the walls, wind bend the trees. Deep in the forest an open glade glows chartreuse. Sun sears dry ground, bakes the insects scuttling for shade. Hoar frost coats the grass and fence wire, forms iridescent lace of spider webs. Snow drifts down at dawn, five degrees and the air is blue.
In these things and countless more, the joy of physical being fills my heart, tells me why I exist. More than the grief, the suffering, the despair, it is the supreme excellence of incarnation that drives me to my stubborn end.
From the desk, orders issue forth. Bits of paper and ideas settle into orderly stacks. Drawers open to reveal white paper, envelopes, pencils and pens, erasers, rulers, paperclips, checkbooks, random rubber bands and ephemera relevant to the civilization of mind.
The top of my father’s desk curved down at the front and back in a streamlined Art Deco style going out of fashion in the mid-Forties when my mother bought it for him. She purchased the desk new at a hardware store in Rogers, Arkansas, two years before I was born. It remains in the family household seventy years later.
The image of him sitting there with his big stubby fingers busily typing away on his massive old Royal typewriter stays in fresh my memory. Curses muttered in his deep rumbling voice signaled a mistake that required laborious erasures. Sometimes the errors ran so deep that the paper would be ripped from the carriage, accompanied by a mechanical zipping sound as the cylinder spun.
How satisfying, that ripping sound. The end to it, for once and for all! A new sheet of paper! A new start! And then the keys would tap again, clickety-clack, as he pursued the project at hand. A letter to a band parent? A notice to be posted on the bandroom bulletin board?
A bold red band graced the top border of his Bi-State Music Festival paper. It came in wrapped reams redolent of printers’ ink. Documents issued forth—letters to other band directors in the region, schedules of competing bands, ensembles, and soloists. I remember the watermarks on the heavy bond paper, the matching envelopes, the anticipation permeating our house as the festival neared. This was my father’s prize project for his years at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Then there were the hours, late into the night, that he bent over pre-lined manuscript paper with his quill of India ink to join the lines into a musical staff. His practiced flourish produced treble and bass clef signs, quick jots of ink for quarter notes, and quirky flags at the top of the note stem designating its status as eighth note or sixteenth. The side of his hand brushed the heavy manila paper as quarter note rests took shape or as a long slur line arced over two measures.
His concentration palpable, his cigarettes burned down to the filter in the wide glass ashtray. There were the groans and curses when his efforts went awry, when the ink bottle spilled or the muse stopping whispering in his ear. When real life demanded his attention to wife and children, the lawn that needed mowing, the bills past due. An artist at heart, he never fully accepted his role in the world of the mundane.
Command center to the world around us or doorway to the ether of creation, desks are the place where business is done. Here I utter my own curses at the petty requirements of temporal life. Can’t you see I am far away, the whispers of characters and scent of distant meadows flowing from my fingertips? Yet the desk is not only the arena of creation but also where I organize my world, establish schedules for my time and finances, and write letters to compliment the helpful and excoriate the stupid. Here I sit to stare out the window as memories and worries rush onward, ever onward, in my unruly thoughts.
Now the world unfolds on my computer screen. Words scroll across virtual paper, easily erased and corrected. No more ripping paper from the typewriter. How much more music could my father have written with the tools of modern times? Playing a simple phrase on a digitally-connected keyboard would have produced perfectly crafted notes on a virtual page, no ink required.
Maybe the result of such ease in the mechanics of creation is that we are now drowning in a sea of mediocre art. Perhaps we were better served with pages ripped from typewriters and music penned with India ink. When the need to tease out a deeply held emotion, find words that best describe, or form scenes that best reveal, I drag out the paper. It sits expectantly on the desk, this thick pad of white paper. Sometimes even the use of a pen is too facile, and I dig up the Number 2 lead pencil. It makes a satisfying sound as my hand forces the tip over the paper.
What I write on paper with pencil is different from what appears with keystrokes on a digital keyboard. The words are more carefully chosen. The shapes of letters carry significance. The words have real weight and I use them in new ways, unexpectedly poignant.
I am at my desk with paper and pencil. I can see my father bent here, his profile etched against the dark of night in the light from his desk lamp. His quill scratches across the page.
I recently read another author’s lament that her self-published book had appeared in the marketplace under another author’s name. Soon other authors in this discussion thread added their emotional stories about finding exact sentences or entire paragraphs of their works appearing in other books. Everyone lamented these problems that seem inherent in self-publishing.
No one should assume such problems occur only in self-publishing. Here’s my story.
As often happens to me in the spring, in March 1995 a brilliant idea captured my imagination. A book on breasts! Why were there hundreds of published works on World War II, for example, and nothing out there about breasts but dry tomes on cancer or breast feeding? What about the rest of the story?
The book I had in mind would explore each aspect of this hallowed and controversial feature of the female anatomy. I jotted down a quick outline as my brainstorming progressed. I went to the library and searched the “books in print” to see if something like this had already been published. I also searched the listings of ‘forthcoming books.’ Thrilled to find nothing similar to my concept, I dove into research.
By late winter that year, I had a chapter outline and partial manuscript, enough to start sending queries to prospective publishers. I kept checking the most recent edition of ‘forthcoming books,’ haunted by the idea that someone would beat me to the punch. My chapters included the following:
- Female Breast in Society: An overview of how the breast has been viewed in human cultures through art, religion, word derivation; the influence of the breast on women’s place in society.
- Clothing the Breast: evolution of women’s attire; how women’s identity is influenced by methods of dress.
- Woman Revealed: how artists since the earliest times have depicted the breast in statuary, engravings, paintings, and pottery; the use of the breast as a symbol of fertility; erotic depictions of the breast; breast in political and religious symbols; classic and modern realism; modern day entertainment and advertising.
- Her Pappes Round and Thereto Right Pretty: A review of breasts in literature including poetry and modern erotica.
- Glands, Ducts, and Fat: An overview of breast physiology and its functions, diseases, and treatments; history of breast cosmetic surgery, ritual mutilations, tattoos, and piercings.
- Mother’s Milk: Review of the biological process of milk production; examination of controversy over formula versus breast milk; breast feeding and breast milk in health and psychological development of the child.
- Pointedly Erotic: Review of the many roles breasts play in human sexuality
- Poking Fun: Jokes, slang terms, cartoons.
- Testimonials: Candid personal testimonials revealing views about breasts; photographs of non-glamorous breasts.
This was a working outline I fully expected to be refined as an editor provided experienced feedback. I said as much in my cover letter, which I sent along with the outline to all the major publishing houses. By early June, I had received form rejection letters from all of them. Of particular interest to my story here is the letter from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. “Thank you for your recent letter. We have discussed the manuscript which you propose, and I am very sorry to report that it is not a likely prospect for Knopf…”
I regrouped and started contacting agents. I got interested responses from three agents and went with the first one who replied—the Claudia Menza Agency (NYC). Richard, the agent who wrote me, asked for whatever manuscript I had. I sent it to him in October. He projected a read/wait time of 10-12 weeks.
In January 1997, Richard called me to say that Knopf was coming out with a book very much like mine. I couldn’t believe it! Why no mention of this in the listings of ‘forthcoming books’? Why didn’t their rejection letter tell me they already had a similar concept in the works and save me months of work? I had no choice but to wait until the book hit the market January 28. I ordered a copy and steamed through it, hardly able to believe my eyes.
Authored by Marilyn Yalom, a professor at Stanford University’s Institute for Women and Gender and with two books previously published by Knopf, the book was entitled A History of the Breast. The table of contents:
- The Sacred Breast: Goddesses, Priestesses, Biblical Women, Saints and Madonnas
- The Erotic Breast: Orbs of Heavenly Frame
- The Domestic Breast: A Dutch Interlude
- The Political Breast: Bosoms for the Nation
- The Psychological Breast: Minding the Body
- The Commercialized Breast: From Corsets to Cyber-Sex
- The Medical Breast: Life Giver and Life Destroyer
- The Liberated Breast: Politics, Poetry, and Pictures
- The Breast in Crisis
At 279 pages, the book trudged through quotes, a few images, and a boring narrative.
To me, it seemed obvious that someone at Knopf saw my outline, thought it was a great idea, but didn’t think I had any credentials to be the author. Who was I? Not published. Not a professor. Just somebody out in the heartland with a great idea.
Richard tried to comfort me. He said things like this happen. He said it would be unusual for a big publisher like Knopf to resort to such tactics and that pulling together a book that fast would be difficult. I argued back—Knopf had my outline in March. Why no listing in the ‘forthcoming books’? What about Yalom’s stable of graduate assistants to kick up research?
Currently on Amazon.com, Yalom’s book has only ten reviews: six at 5 stars, two at 4 stars, and one each at 3 and 2 stars. On Goodreads, a deeper history of reviews shows an average 3.91 rating. One of the 29 people who wrote a review gave it one star with the following statement: “In reading this book I was hoping for something entertaining and engaging, or something that offered interesting anecdotes, historical facts, people, or situations. That is definitely NOT what this book is. It is actually more of a history of the depictions of breasts in poetry, art, and propaganda, and even then, the book is focused at least as much on a feminist analysis of these texts as it is on the presentation of historical facts/stories…”
In other words, Yalom drew largely on her previous scholarship in feminist studies. She evidently didn’t share my passion in celebrating the breast. But now the book was out there and my project was DOA.
On Richard’s advice, I rewrote. The new book, tentatively entitled simply ‘Breasts,’ would carry a less scholarly tone and take a more ‘fun’ approach to the topic. Richard and the agency liked the rewrite concept I sent two months later. That spring and early summer, I wrote the manuscript, commissioned sample photographs, and sent him the package in July. Over a period of months, we discussed various elements and tweaked the text. The following March 1998 they sent me a contract giving the agency sole right to represent my work.
Stay tuned—the next chapter of this story will be posted in my next blog.
Wake up. Shower. Dress. Computer—Pandora on New Age Electronic, email two accounts. Facebook sometimes, if I’m not deep in a project. All that angst and friendly chatter impacts the story, the dialogue, the next scene that has penetrated my dreams, followed me to the toilet at one a.m., hovered around me until this moment.
This moment, when I start to write… Wait, make a cup of tea, get a glass of water. Eat a pear to stave off serious hunger, to buy at least an hour before I have to deal with food. Get the document open, remind myself of where I quit the day before, edit, equivocate, pep talk about how I’ll get there, how it will work out, how to let go and let the words flow.
Finally, the hunger becomes overpowering. It’s 9:30 a.m. I’ve barely geared up into the mind-frame of the story, what century I’m in, what character is speaking through my voice. I tear myself away to the kitchen for a bowl of granola, not in itself a major task, but then I’m reminded that I meant to do dishes yesterday, and the goldfish is swirling frantically in the tank, signaling in big gorps that it’s past feeding time.
And then there’s the guilt that comes in looking at cat food bowls now empty, cat water below their preferred level of freshness, dog food bowls also down to a few crunchies, and laundry wrinkling in the dryer. I should tend all these things, check the folder of bills due, write some checks, go to town for groceries.
NO! Carry bowl of granola to desk, sloshing milk on the floor (clean it up later) and get back into the story. The person. The scene. Belly shuts up loaded with granola and milk. I have maybe three hours now before my body makes other demands. Well, yes, I need to pee.
The hunger starts around eleven, but I sip the cold remnants in my tea cup and try to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head. What will you have? Do you need to cook? What about grocery shopping? Finally angry with a hunger headache hovering in the top of my head, around 12:30 I peel myself away from the desk, the plot, the people, and try to find something to eat.
The kitchen is a wasteland. Oh, sometimes I’m very good and prepare a stew or chili or a pot of beans, anything that might work for several meals. I can eat stuff I’m tired of if I’m hungry enough. Open a can of blackeyed peas and have it with a bread and butter sandwich. Heat up the meager leftovers from last night’s supper, left in a thoughtful moment for this very purpose. I can no longer force myself to eat microwaved one-dollar frozen entrees, and peanut butter and honey on crackers is pretty much on its way out as well. Lunch, in other words, is hell.
But—I must eat, because I live inside a freaking biological entity that requires food. Once the belly is silenced, I’m back to the computer and this thing that drives me, this play of words, this world—multiple worlds—screaming for release from inside my head. More hours. My hips ache. My back aches. I want never to do anything but write, but the plants in my solar porch are shriveling. The floor begs for a broom. I have errands to run.
Cholesterol is gathering.
And phone calls, oh please God not the phone. Relatives, friends, whoever thinks it’s his or her duty to wish me a happy birthday, or Merry Christmas. Chat. Please take note. My happiest birthday truly would be a day left utterly and serenely alone, perhaps food served at my desk, the house cleaned while I don’t watch. Bills paid by magic, without me wrangling over every last dime, juggling which gets paid first, which waits until a bit more money finds its way into my accounts.
It would be dishonest of me not to say that I own two deeply mortgaged commercial rental properties, a total of sixteen units in one which are rehearsal studios for rock bands, and a total of ten units in the other which are low-cost entry level downtown business spots for fledgling entrepreneurs. These properties also have bills to pay and endless drama. Vacancies and eager new faces come and go. It’s a business. It’s how I pay my home mortgage, electric, and the numerous and sundry costs for existence in this world. Well, maybe not new clothes this year… I thank myself often for having the foresight oh so long ago to pursue these bits of real estate. Without it, I’d be working in some else’s employ into the dim days of my antiquity.
Never mind the dream that someday, with due diligence and supreme good fortune, this play with words might actually produce meaningful income. I can’t think about that. It’s too much to hope for, too out of the norm for all us who stumble along this writerly path.
So by four or perhaps five p.m. depending on the story, the people spilling onto the screen at the stroke of the keys, my creative juices finally dwindle to a drip and my writing day ends. In all, if I’m blessed with the least possible number of distractions, I’ve been able to write/plot/dream a total of eight hours. I collapse on the couch to watch mindless television, have a drink (or not) and deal with the last demon, that monolithic hurdle of What To Have For Dinner.
The body is relentless. As are the plants, cats, dog, goldfish gorping again at me from his tank, the dirt caked on my hapless Honda, the twigs and other debris littering my porch, the dust bunnies taunting me from the corners, the laundry still wrinkled in the dryer.The evening sinks into a war between my guilt for so many shortcomings and quickly jotted notes as one, perhaps another, plot point resolves itself in my subconscious.
The bed looks good, refuge, haven. But by the time I’ve wrestled my night’s sleep thru distant gangs of howling coyote, a relentless full moon, and the continuing bits of dialogue slipping in and out from wherever it lives, I’m ready to get up. It’s dawn. The story calls.