Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

The Post – Twenty Years of Marriage

February 27, 2008

A time out, today, from both my writing journey posts and my fiddler crab posts. No new info on the latter yet, by the way. It’s like pregnant women past their due date – you just wait and don’t ask if the contractions have started yet.

Today is a special day. It is our twentieth wedding anniversary. It is a milestone, and worth taking time out to honor. The years have gone quickly, sprinkled with child-raising, dogs, sick parents, near-death experiences, heart-ache, joy, aging. A good mix for life I’d say. As I’ve noted, we are both geeks in our own ways, and as such, we understand each other. I just wanted to take a moment today to honor my best friend, and I figured he would enjoy and understand the movie reference below. He and I speak in movie references – lines from movies that capture the emotion of a moment for us. Over the years we have accumulated a collection of lines from hundreds of movies. They have become a kind of coded communication between us.

This particular movie is called 84 Charing Cross Road. Anne Bancroft stars. Her husband, Mel Brooks, purchased the rights to produce it – his gift of love to her, knowing how much she loved the story.

It’s the true story of a New York City writer, Helene Hanff – a person kind of like me – no bullsh–, doesn’t mince words, very “unglamorous.” She has a sharp, but kind sense of humor and a great heart. Helene LOVED English literature, but in late 1940s New York City where the movie begins, she could not find any English literature books except at the library. Then she discovered Marks & Co. and began a decades-long correspondence with them. The story is told through her letters. From the opening of the movie:

“October 5, 1949, to Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2, England. Gentlemen, Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate antique with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions. I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have any clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, would you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”

Thus begins her relationship with the very proper bookseller at Marks & Co., “FPD.” FPD, over letters and time becomes Frank Doel, then simply, “Frank.” It’s a love story, but not the usual kind. They live an ocean apart, have different lives, and he is married with daughters. Happily married. So no, there are no hot sex scenes, the crutch of most modern movies. Yet it is a love story, anyway, because true love at its deepest is about caring, generosity, and the connection of souls. It is not limited by the relationship but can be felt for spouses, friends, relatives, neighbors. Their friendship enlarges their lives, expanding to include his wife, neighbors, daughters, other workers at the bookshop, her friends. Their love is about adding something to each of their lives, not taking things away or destroying things. It is about understanding each other, and that is the quality of love that sustains it, whether in marriage or friendship, well into old age. And frankly, a marriage that lasts well into old age is as much about friendship, as anything else.

Throughout the movie, she revels in the old books she buys, books better for having been owned by someone else first. Again, it is a love of connection to others, even those she never met. She says: “I love inscriptions on fly-leafs and notes in margins. I like the camaraderie-sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.” She can’t get enough of the books. Frank finds them for her.

By the end of the movie, he is “Frankie” to her, and she tells him, “You’re the only soul alive who understands me.” It’s a sentiment that reflects a bond where you are known deeply, valued, and most importantly, accepted. Your truth is safe in the hands of another. Whether two people are the same or very different matters not if there is acceptance. When someone knows our deepest places, our vulnerabilities, and accepts us, they give us the best of gifts. The wish to be understood and accepted is one of the bonds that links us all. These are things I have felt for and from my husband.

At one point a friend of Helene’s made it to England and visited the book store. She wrote Helene with a description:

“It’s the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens. You would go absolutely out of your mind over it….It’s dim inside. You can smell the shop before you see it. It’s a lovely smell. I can’t articulate it easily but it combines must and dust and age and walls of wood and floors of wood…The shelves go on forever. They go up to the ceiling and they’re very old and kind of gray, like old oak that absorbed so much dust over the years they no longer are their true color.”

Such a visceral, sensual description. It was a description both my husband and I fell in love with immediately when we heard it. It is a place we hope yet, to be.

At one point in the movie Helene writes to Frank:

“I require a book of love poems with Spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley. Send me poets who can make love without slobbering. Wyatt or Johnson or somebody. Use your own judgment. Just a nice book, preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.”

Late in the movie, Frank is shown, reflecting on her as a Yeats love poem runs through his mind. The moment, and the poem, are my gifts to my husband, my best friend. Thank you for these last 20 years. They’ve gone so fast. I’d like 20 times 20 more, and if time allows, I’d like yet to walk into 84 Charing Cross Road with you.

So to “Eddie,” all my love, and to you and all romantics out there, a poet who can make love without slobbering:

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). The Wind Among the Reeds. 1899.

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The Post – Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over

February 14, 2008

As I mentioned, I had reached that place in my Phase I apprenticeship where I had grasped that it takes a long time to become an overnight success. There is no way around paying your dues and learning your craft. You can’t short-change apprenticeship. I knew I did not want to give up my dream to write, so that meant going back to the drawing board, taking classes, and starting at the bottom, all of which would take time. This also meant I had to find some way to bring in an income while pursuing my goal. The most marketable skill I had was that I was an extremely detail-oriented anal-retentive, par excellance. As it turns out, not such a bad skill to have.

I don’t think I was born with that skill. It became second nature from the 15 years I worked in a hospital lab. In a hospital, there is no acceptable margin of error. You have to be right. No matter what I did in the lab, whether it was a crossmatch for someone’s transfusion, a glucose level for a diabetic, a blood count for a leukemia patient, or a drug level for someone’s medication dosage – I knew that the results I reported would directly affect someone’s life. A doctor would base a decision to treat, or not treat, change a dosage or a medicine, based on what I reported. If I was wrong, their lives would pay the price. That training deepened when I worked in the pharmaceutical company. There I validated hundreds of thousands of pieces of data with an allowable error level something in the neighborhood of 0.01 %. The bottom line – details mattered – and in becoming a writer, that wasn’t such a bad place to start.

I decided with that kind of skill, perhaps I could find some editing jobs. Phase I was supposed to be about going “out there” and experiencing, experimenting, and trying new things. So I searched both locally and nationally. I cold-called countless managing editors in all of the publishing houses to let them know I was available for work. I was so terrified on each call, I had my “script” written in front of me while I talked. I sounded assured and confident, even as I sat there rapidly skimming every book on copy-editing, proofreading, content editing, and freelance editing that I could get my hands on. This was survival. I HAD to make this work or I had to find another 40-hour, 9-5 job. If I had to go back to that, I had to give up my writing dream. That, to me, would have been failure. I had given up good jobs, and good income. I just couldn’t give up the dream, too.

I did a few copy-editing jobs for major publishers. That was an interesting time, including the one publisher who didn’t like my work because the editor in charge of that project was a semi-retired person who liked stickies with notes in brown colored pencil . . . ONLY brown-colored pencil. I used the wrong color. No one told me about the colored pencil thing. They later acknowledged that that particular editor was a little “persnickety.” Whatever. I moved on.

A local vanity publisher hired me as their editor – copy-editor, substantive editor, press release writer, you name it, I did it. The money was terrible – flat rate no matter how long the job – but it was money, and it was training. I learned a LOT. After a while I could quote sections of the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and knew it inside and out. The trouble with that local publisher involved getting paid. When their cash-flow stopped, so did mine. It took an attorney to collect from them, so I vowed, no more small self-publishers.

In keeping with experimenting, I answered an online position announcement on the copyeditors email list, for a “native speaker of US English who had experience with other cultures.” It turns out that Bloomsbury, a publisher in the UK was doing a “Global English dictionary.” They needed someone to review all entries to make sure all definitions were there for each word, that they were culturally correct, and sounded “American.” I didn’t expect much but went ahead and sent a note indicating I grew up in a very multi-ethnic community and had just spent 4 years in a British drug company. They gave me an online-test and I passed, so my next title became “lexicographer.” I am listed as one of the lexicographers in the Encarta World English Dictionary, as well as in a thesaurus. They were GREAT to work with and I recommend the experience highly. It was all done by email and overnight overseas deliveries of work, and they paid well . . . and on time. Their Barclays Bank checks were so beautiful that if I hadn’t needed the income, I would have kept one just to frame.

During this time I also became associated with a medical ethics board that would be the mainstay of my freelance work for 10 years. I reviewed the research study documents, and edited, and often rewrote the consent forms that the research subjects would sign. This job spoke to my heart. It used every bit of my medical and pharmaceutical background and then some, REQUIRED someone picky and anal-retentive, and it tapped something else in me – the strong desire to protect. My job was to protect these people by making sure we gave them consent forms that told them fully, what the research might do to them, good and bad. I was well-suited for the work, well-paid, and the job did not require a large chunk of my time each week. That meant – I still had time to write.

I went ahead and did the other direction for Phase I: get outside knowledge. I took courses through the Duke University continuing education program. Classes in essay-writing, picture books, fiction, and how to run a freelance business. I also took and completed two children’s writing courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attended their conferences. I joined writing groups and paid authors to critique some of my work. And of course, collected more rejection letters.

I started to have a few successes in my writing efforts. I sold an essay to two parenting magazines about the heartbreak I felt every morning dropping my son at day care. I sold an essay to The Writer, and articles to Boys’ Life magazine. I even wrote two CliffsNotes – a result of one of the cold calls I’d made a year or two earlier – one for Dickens’ Great Expectations, and one for Michael Shaara’s, The Killer Angel. I still collected more rejection letters, but the quality of the rejections were getting better. 🙂 Busy editors took time to write personal notes on the form letters. Sometimes they even requested another revision or two before they said no. Overall, a good sign.

All in all, Phase I had taken a turn for the better, and I was learning a great deal very fast. My goal of seeing my name on the cover of a picture book, however, kept eluding me. Yes. Like many others, I had the idea that I should write picture books. They’re short, easy, quick to bang out, and besides, isn’t that what children’s writers write? I banged my head against the brick wall of the picture book writer idol for a long time before I finally surrendered to the truth that even my husband pointed out: I do NOT have a voice for picture books. He also noted I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe I should stop trying to be something I’m not, and focus on what my real strengths appeared to be . . . longer stories. When I finally accepted that truth, I also came to accept another set of truths: a good picture book writer, like a good poet, is rare. It takes special talent and voice, and writing a picture book is about the hardest, at least for me, of all children’s writing. Don’t let short deceive. Like the Tao Te Ching, those short entries are the hardest to do well.

UP NEXT: FINALLY, I GRADUATE TO PHASE II – FOCUSING THE LENS