Last night I did a reading at the California Writers Club. Great fun. After all the years I've spent as an artist manager making it possible for singers and musicians to get up on stage and perform while I watch from the wings—it's really quite spectacular to be the one out on centerstage.
I remember sitting in front of my computer, hands poised, confronting the blank screen. The cursor winked. Nothing else. Not a word.
I was at a Writers Retreat on Hatteras Island, NC, where everyone was suppose to produce 2000 words per day.
Frustrated, I looked through the window seeking inspiration from the stormy Atlantic Ocean. Its waves muffled through the closed window, but I felt its unrelenting power to give and take away.
With my eyes closed, I saw a small gray-haired woman rubbing moisturizer on her wrinkled face, her eyes sad and teary. In my mind I follow her over to a couch. She faces an empty chair and says, “Good morning, Jules.”
Why are you talking to an empty chair? I ask my new character that I call Marisa. That question cracks open the seed of a novel. A novel that will keep me occupied for the following three years when I'm not taking care of my husband. Whenever Jim sniffles, or has an open wound, or says he’s tired and lies down, or complains of stomach pains, I go on high alert. I have to. He has a compromised immune system and a simple cold could become pneumonia and then, with no defenses, death.
Fortunately for me, Jim knows how to survive. He wears gloves when he goes outside. He never touches the subway railing where other hands have been, other hands that might carry a virus or bacteria. So even though it had been five years that he's been in remission from his stem cell transplants, I remain on high alert.
Our summers are spent in southern France. Jim, a jazz drummer like my character Jules, practices in an ancient sheepherder’s bergerie on an isolated mountaintop; his only companions the sheep grazing nearby who don’t care how loud he plays his music as long as he doesn’t eat their clover.
It was in France last summer that I finished the final chapter of Marisa’s story and asked Jim to copyedit it. That’s asking a lot because he has his own projects to complete. But he’s a good guy and he took the first chapter I handed to him and headed off for his workday on the mountaintop.
That evening we were seated on the terrace. The mid-summer sun was still shining and the sky was still blue. But at that moment Jim couldn’t see the sunlight or feel its warmth. His depression was my fault. Rather than talking to him about my fear of grief and loneliness, I had written it into Marisa’s story, where he found it, and it deeply upset him.
When he had been in the hospital fighting for his life, I had saved my tears for the shower where he wouldn’t hear my premature wails of sorrow. How could I tell him about my own selfish fears when he was fighting so hard to stay alive?
On the terrace that evening, I flipped through the twenty corrected pages he’d marked in the columns and between the lines in irreversible red ink. I told him I was sorry. I meant the novel to be a tribute to his life and hadn’t realized he would see it as a death rattle.
The next morning he made his lunch, a baguette spread with duck paté, Camembert cheese, and a neighbor’s heirloom tomato. He thinly sliced the tomato and placed it in the middle of the paté then wrapped the baguette in paper and slipped it into his backpack. He frowned when I handed him the second chapter, but he took it.
Alone at my desk I looked disparagingly at the edits he’d made with the same diligent and exacting care when he slices tomatoes for his sandwiches. He knew better than I did what my novel needed—a fat cut. And he saw where I scrambled the words and, aknowing what I wanted to say, made it clearer. I ws thrilled. All these years I’d been living with a brilliant editor and hadn’t known it.
While the late summer light still lingered, we would sit each evening on the terrace and move forward together as Marisa moved forward out of grief and into a new life without Jules. We discussed plot flaws and character weaknesses. He offered suggestions. I countered with my own.
I’d laugh when I read a line he’d added to Jules’s dialogue as if he was Jules. Other times, tears welled up when I read his encouraging comments. I was feeling Marisa’s pain when she realized the sound of Jules’s voice was fading from her memory and soon she’d have to find the courage to go on without hearing him anymore.
When we returned to our home in Monterey, California, Jim was diagnosed with a second cancer. It was at the same time as my book release. I had to ask myself if I’d done something rash and unsavory entitling my book “The Drummer’s Widow.” I asked Jim what he thought.
“No,” he said. “It’s a good title. Don’t change it because of my relapse.”
Family and friends who are familiar with my husband’s battle against cancer are squeamish (giggles, gasps, lips shaped into O’s) when I tell them the title of my new novel is “The Drummer’s Widow.” If Jim is standing nearby, he laughs and says, “Yes it’s true, she imagined my death and we got over it.”
Didn't want to bike in the rain. Made excuses. Said it was pouring though it was only drizzling. But here I am. Glad I came, though now it really is pouring.
Lesson for today: Do it! Do it! Do it! Practice! Practice! Practice! It's okay. The ride gets easier. If I take a break and not ride, it only slows down the process, puts a stop on what's important.
And that gets us to why I'm really here on this hilltop in a rain and windstorm; it is to write my new novel "Marisa," which by the way is going great! Near the end of the first draft but I have to keep at it every day. Just something. Anything. Just a thought. As long as its 1,000 words a day.
So that 's it for today. Got to go fill that blank page. Happy Sunday.
KATHERINE MANSFIELD translated into French! Katherine would have been very pleased.
It's my dear Provencal friend, Brisou Buis, who translated it. I tried to convince her to read Proust so we could talk about it over a morning tisane or an evening glass of wine, but she said she'd prefer to translate my novel. And she did.
When Brisou and I converse, she in English and me in French, we understand each other. But for her to translate my words and Katherine's into French took great determination and patience.
In September, I will visit her at her 16th Century hameau in southern France. We will sit on her sunny terrace under the shade of an ancient walnut tree and raise our glasses to Katherine Mansfield - our Muse.
"I started reading "The Drummer's Widow" two days ago, and only put it down when there was something else I absolutely had to do. It's a wonderful book. The author's inside knowledge of the music business - its magic and its madness - and her deep understanding of love, loss, and life make it soar. A courageous book, beautifully written. Highly recommended."
I was thrilled to receive this enthusiastic review from my old friend Laurel Massé, whose career I managed back when I was a manager instead of an author. I stood in the dark wings of many a concert hall and listened to the well-earned applause she and the other members of The Manhattan Transfer received onstage. So for me, now as a writer, I can say that Laurel's review feels like a standing ovation.
Cassandra, the damaged singer in my new novel, "The Drummer’s Widow,” was drawn from the heart-wrenching life and tragic death of the irreplaceable Amy Winehouse who died three years ago today.
When I forget why I am a writer, she reminds me: “I’m not here to be famous, I just want to challenge myself. If all goes wrong, I'll have my music."
Thank you, Amy, for leaving us your music.
Amy Jade Winehouse, pop singer-songwriter, born 14 September 1983; died 23 July 2011 at the age of 27.
Before becoming a writer, I managed Divas. So it was natural for me to write about them in my character Cassandra. But I also turned to the Divas I knew for help. And now that The Drummer’s Widow has been published, I want to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Holliday, Whitney Houston, Yvonne Jackson, Etta James, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper, Laurel Massé, Bette Midler, Gretchen Peters, Linda Ronstadt, Janis Siegel, Nina Simone, Ronnie Spector and Amy Winehouse who are not only Divas, but my Muses throughout the writing of The Drummer’s Widow. It was their voices, their lyrics, and their personal stories that made Cassandra real.
There are certainly other spectacular Divas throughout recent history but this is a personal list centered around the singers, some that I worked with, who inspired me with their courage and determination; the Divas whose narrative song-poems gave me the lines I needed to trigger my own ideas as a novelist; the Divas who kept me crying, laughing, and dancing right up to the last written page of The Drummer’s Widow; the Divas who guided me through my darkest days while they too tumbled in the dark.
Today I remember Whitney Houston who sang so encouragingly, “I didn’t know my own strength” and “not to break,” and then she tragically did. I think of Amy Winehouse who said before her untimely death, “I'm not here to be famous, I just want to challenge myself. If all goes wrong, I'll have my music.” Both of them got lost in the maelstrom.
How would I have ever gotten through the first chapters of my novel, much less my adolescence, without Aretha demanding that you “gotta respect yourself”? How would I have made it through my failed marriage or Cassandra’s disastrous affair without Carole King’s illuminating lyrics “it’s too late" and "something inside has died”? And what about Cyndi Lauper’s ‘feminist’ rocker, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” When I first heard her belt out that song on the radio, I had to stop my car on Sunset Blvd. and get out and dance. Only a stone could resist moving to her rhythmic sound, just as Marisa, my protagonist, found her groove amidst overwhelming grief.
These days I am experiencing a different kind of grief, a kind of literary post-partum depression for my lost diva, Cassandra, as well as the character closest to my heart, Marisa. The novel is finished … edited, printed, bound, slid onto the shelves of virtual bookstores all over the world. And those two women have left me all alone.
So, feeling a bit homesick and out of place, I bought the reissue of Bette Midler’s memoir, A View from a Broad. When I peered at the glossy photos, I thought of my own small part in her story: The day her manager asked his new assistant, which was me, to pick Bette Midler up at the airport. “But how will I know her?” I asked, embarrassed. His lips turned up and he said, "You can't miss her."
And when the Divine Miss M strutted down that airport corridor toward me with her flaming red hair, I saw what he meant. I also knew my life would never be the same again.
My book gripped in the hands of a reviewer, on holiday in Puerto Vallarta, who “could not stop reading it” – Well! let’s just say that made my day: I was no longer “a legend in my living room.”
This feeling of being stranded in the Universe, only supported by my own self-inflicted importance, comes on me when I’m building my website, and then, again, when I’m on my Facebook timeline where I expose my work, my words, myself.
It’s all done in the hope that someone will hear me above the noise, or even better, will visit my lovingly constructed website.
In anticipation, I hang photos on its walls and set my journal on a coffee table for my visitors to read. Lying next to it is a short story I wrote, and excerpts from Katherine Mansfield and The Drummer’s Widow. My scrapbook is there, too, its pages pasted with press releases and book reviews.
I take pride in counting my new Facebook friends and I practically implode when the stats on my website go up and I can count the visitors who have passed through my living room. Their visits are sadly brief. If only I was really there, we might sit down and talk awhile about books and things.
It doesn’t matter what happens to us, it matters what we do with it.
This is a journalistic blog. A forum for me to express what is foremost in my mind—the launching of my new novel The Drummer’s Widow.
When I began writing The Drummer’s Widow, three years ago, my husband of thirty years was in remission. And though my overwhelming fear of becoming a widow had dissipated after his long remission, I was still compelled to write an “almost” story of how I imagined it would be for a widow to reinvent her life after her husband’s death.
Then, abruptly, one month ago, just before my book's release, to use a popular Virginia Woolf phrase, "life interrupted." My husband was diagnosed with a second cancer, lymphoma, and I slammed up against the realty that my fictional widowhood could actually become true.
Having sent out pre-announcements of "The Drummer's Widow," I received sympathy notes from people who knew my husband was a drummer but didn’t know the book was fiction. I suggested to my husband that we postpone the release until after his chemotherapy treatments or change the title. He insisted that I go ahead, in spite of what might happen.
Alice Munro has said that some of her stories are “almost stories” because they are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” That’s how Marisa came into existence: she was the widow of my imagination but she was also my worse nightmare. The threat of my husband’s death has hovered over me for the past ten years and, no doubt, it influences my writing even now. It was the unrelenting fear of what might happen that urged me to move more deeply into my own heart and soul where I found Marisa’s story waiting to be told and shared it with my readers.
Nora Ephron learned from her mother, also a writer, how to make the best of what life offers. "No matter what happens,” her mother was fond of telling her, “It's all copy." My understanding of that is that It doesn’t matter what happens to us; what matters is what we do with it.
Release date: May 1, 2014 And am I excited. The Drummer's Widow was three years in the making and now here it is.
"The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things," wrote Louis Pasteur. "They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language––the word 'enthusiasm'--en theos--a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and obeys it."
I chose "harvest" as the ending title for “Summer in la Drôme,” because, during my stay there, I lived in the fields of my imagination, where I planted and nurtured what grew into 116,297 words of my new novel THE DRUMMER'S WIDOW. I’ve brought the results, my harvest, back to America to sell in the publishers marketplace.
I chose Louis Pasteur's quote on enthusiasm because I would never have finished MELISSA if I hadn't obeyed my “en theos” who supported me through the days when no words budded or worse they died on the vine, and who celebrated with me on the days when words burst forth into colorful and loquacious blooms.
I chose the butterfly and poppy images because the enthusiasm of nature is the source of our own and it's contagious. In a sliver of Brazilian forest only a few miles square, scientists have counted more than 1,500 species of butterfly. And the poppy when coupled with another poppy and given seven years and the right conditions will produce 820 thousand million million million descendants. That’s enthusiasm!!!
News to follow on Marisa's publication date. First I must complete the third draft come Spring. So from now on my blog will be about the writing life. Well, not entirely. I am pulling up my Manhattan roots, deeply grown down under for thirty years. It isn’t easy to get out of New York, it takes a lot of enthusiasm, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
If you would like to learn more about enthusiasm I recommend "Exuberance: The Passion for Life" by Kay Redfield Jamison from whom I cite in the above text.
"Exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague." Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
And as the summer wanes these sun worshippers, which van Gogh painted, turn their heads toward the sun to catch the last of summer's light.
Outside my writing studio, in the fields, the lavender has been cut down by the local farmers and taken to the distillery to be condensed down into its essential oil. The distillery is down the road and the balmy warm wind from Provence brings the essence of lavender to me in the early morning air.
I'm in the middle of my manuscript's second draft and, taking van Gogh's advice to heart, I am exaggerating the essential and leaving the obvious vague as I revise chapters and cut, cut, cut!
I expect my manuscript to be harvested by the autumnal equinox but time is going by damn fast! And that is why I've had less and less time to blog. My inconsistent blogs are accessible by e-mail if you click the RSS button found on the right column.
By the way if you ever want to read an awe-inspiring book on the life of an artist check out "Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh." Not only was van Gogh an exceptional artist he was a really good writer.
You might be wondering why I'm photographing sheep for my lesson on gear shifting. Well for one they're cute and might draw your attention and, more significant, they are a metaphor for those who hardly ever shift gears.Sheep prefer to move very slowly and eat and then be eaten. The other half of the lesson is for those of us who are gear-shifters. My brother, Greg, an avid bicyclist once said to me, "If your bike has gears, it's easy to ride uphill." Though there are five gears on my bike, I still hadn't figured out how to make it "easy." Today huffing and puffing on my uphill climb I breathlessly said, "I can't do this. I'm going to get off and walk."
But then I shifted gears in my head and said, "Wow! look what I can do. I'm climbing a hill. The little engine can do it." And I made it to the top feeling breathlessly wonderful.
There's still a lot to learn about gear shifting that can't be covered in one lesson.
If you would like to subscribe to my column "A Summer in la Drôme" click RSS feed in right column and link your Google reader or whatever to my blog or you can have an email subscription. Facebook link is not necessary. I publish my la Drôme column on my bike riding days, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays but because of my full writing schedule I don't always make the deadline.
Today I'm letting the Big Boys take over on the bike trail. After riding already for sixteen days these guys are not slowing down as they pass nearby on their way up into the Alps going over 25 miles per hour. Three days from now they will reach Alpe d'Huez (6000 feet), which is 370 miles from here. How about that for fortitude!
I'll be watching them on television this year as we are having a bit of winter weather and it is not conducive to picnics on the grass. These pictures were taken two years ago when I last watched them whiz through la Drôme with my sister Kate Hudson.
Come fly with me ! ! !"The more you let yourself be distracted from where you are going, the more you are the person that you are. It's not so much like getting lost as it is like getting found." William Stafford, poet (1914-1993)
This is a very important lesson for me. When I ride my bike, I get so focused on where I'm going, which is usually up or down a hill, that I forget the joy of distraction. Today I stopped on a hilltop and allowed myself to be distracted. And in that moment I found myself drifting with the clouds and it was grand.
Get Going! Marcel Proust called it exercising the authority of his inner self.
I woke up this morning knowing it's Tuesday and I've committed to riding my bike though I'm really not into it. This early in the morning I'd rather be in bed reading. But once on my bike, I take off down the hill and immediately start feeling really good. And now I'm on my way home with the results of my work; a baguette, a good workout, and several new ideas I want to put to paper.
I realize I do the same with my writing. I go to work at my desk saying I have to do it as if it is a terrible chore. When actually once I get going it is the most fun thing in my life.
There is no bike lesson today. As I am a practicing writer I also like to discuss writing. And today I was inspired by this quote and looked it up to find out its history:
The original quote came from Apelles, an ancient Greek painter in 4th Century B.C.: "Nulla dies sine linea."
Then Beethoven (1770-1827) said, "No day without a line" in answer to how he accomplished so much work as a composer.
Then along comes van Gogh (1853-1890) who wrote in "Letters to Theo" (an extraordinary, intimate, and uplifting correspondence about the work of one of our greatest painters):
"Not a day without a line. By writing, reading, working and practicing daily, perseverance will lead me to a good end."
That's it! That's what you gotta do, whatever your creative expression is. Now if I can just apply it to my own daily work I'll finish this mansucript before the end of summer in la Drôme and turn it into a novel!!!
"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well preserved body but rather to skid in sideways thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "What a ride!"
Today's lesson was difficult! I just couldn't find the energy to pedal up the final hill and had to stop. Looking down on the goats who felt as enthusiastic as I did reminded me of this anonymous quote I use to get going.
I got back on my bike and pedaled hard and when I reached the top of the hill, I loudly proclaimed, "What a ride!"
If you want to reach the top of a hill on a bike, you must have a goal in mind. Upon awaking this morning, I realized that I had no reason to go to la boulangerie to get a baguette as we were having lunch with friends at midday. Oops. Now what am I going to do? I asked myself, lying there in my peaceful bed. Croissants quickly came to mind. That's it. We'll have croissants for breakfast with strawberries. And being quite interested in the DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) affair, because I really want to see this guy go down, I will also bring home Le Dauphiné to read the latest on the scandal that daily enfolds like a soap opera here and in the USA. So with two worthwhile goals in mind I took off on my two-wheeler.