Awakening: An Artist’s Sexual Visions

Awakening: An Artist’s Sexual Visions

In her first novel, Queen of the Owls, Barbara Linn Probst’s main character, Elizabeth, is not only married to lawyer Ben (whose life has to be planned hour to hour) and the mother of their two children, she is also teaching art history and to earn her PhD, completing research on the paintings of artist, Georgia O’Keefe, the oeuvre O’Keefe completed during a stay in Hawaii.

Throughout the novel, Probst makes definitive references to O’Keefe’s work, a strong aspect of this Women’s Fiction novel, whose focus is the true awakening of a woman’s sexuality. In contrast to the paintings of flowers, their petals, receptacles and stamen, Elizabeth’s sex life is blunted, shaped by duty and sameness. This: “She’d been nudged half-awake by Ben’s erection against her butt.” This sentence pulled me right out of the story, until I realized I needed to understand why Elizabeth would put up with this. No words are exchanged. No kisses to celebrate this relationship: “Elizabeth had trained herself not to watch the calendar too closely because that made it worse. Still, an actual erection…was too precious to waste.” So they have what might be called sex. “Not memorable, but duly accomplished.” DAMN!

The compliant Elizabeth then allows Ben to sleep a little longer, though she’s making his coffee, getting a shower and of course it is she who will be taking care of their two children, Daniel and Katie—making sure she helps them dress and eat, and gets them to the sitter so she is on time for an 8:30 meeting about her PhD dissertation.

TITLE CONFUSION

Is this why Probst has entitled her novel, Queen of the Owls? Another reviewer also asked about the title. An engaging title can lead you into a work, echo engaging themes throughout. Owls might be known for their intelligence; owlish behavior might make us think of Elizabeth in a library, studying the works of Georgia O’Keefe, while her peers are out having a beers in a bar just off campus. Because others have lives, while Elizabeth has chores, one after the other, which she does with purpose and grace. But then: the meeting with Harold Lindstrom, her dissertation advisor.

He zeroes right in, suggesting Elizabeth has not presented and proved a new argument regarding the paintings of O’Keefe. The reader might decide that Elizabeth’s struggles to be a wife and mother are conflicting with her being an OWL, even a queen of the owls, one who stays awake at night, casting her eyes on readings and reprints of O’Keefe’s work. If Elizabeth denies herself free time to do anything but child care and research, she just might succeed in becoming Queen of the Owls.

STORY GOALS 

In the novel, Elizabeth does succeed, but only because of an awakening that Probst highlights, a change, a movement in O’Keefe’s work toward beauty and freedom, the power of the female body—metaphors and symbols that Elizabeth begins to experience in her own life, as well as in O’Keefe’s art: “Hawaii itself…lush, fertile, alive. O’Keefe had never seen anything like it…the abundance, the intensity of color and sensation…”

Contrast such feelings that O’Keefe’s paintings arouse in Elizabeth with the sex she recently had with Ben. Probst is building a story, one echoing that of many women, women who fear forging ahead to achieve their goals, who desire to move beyond the infusion of the male ego that comments or complains about EVERYTHING they do.

Thus we experience Elizabeth, arguing her thesis with her advisor: “O’Keefe’s White Bird of Paradise, one of the Hawaii paintings. You never see it listed as one of O’Keefe’s major pieces, but it’s where she brings together, petals and bones, life and death.” And then Lindstrom, the dissertation advisor: “Do you give your husband a hard time too?” A patronizing, dismissive male, one Probst might have created from her own academic experience.

But it is the foil character to husband Ben, to advisor Lindstrom—it is Richard who Elizabeth thinks of at that moment. “She thought of the way Richard had looked at her, in the Tai Chi class…” (Yes, we women are allowed to still look around.)

Then later on, Elizabeth allows herself to ruminate: “Feminist art was supposed to mean art that provoked a dialogue between the viewer and the artwork, rejected the idea of art as static, challenged patriarchal notions of what was beautiful…You saw what you saw, if you looked…O’Keeffe had also said: I feel there is something un explored about women that only a woman can explore.”

Of course. Elizabeth’s eventual research goal, and Probst’s purpose in this novel, is to have the viewer awaken to the power of art, allow Elizabeth to realize the power of the female body, which in this novel she discovers through O’Keefe’s feminist florals, her flowers and stamen, her colors brooding from dark to light. And though many museum viewers stood before those same works talking about genitalia, Elizabeth knew there was something more, something deeper, something more excitingly feminine than a label.

THE SISTER ACT 

Contrast is often good for character development. Thus, in the novel, when Elizabeth stops to visit with her only sibling, Andrea, she is reminded of the repeated statement of their mother: Everyone has different gifts. Coming early in the flow of the story, Probst is suggesting that Elizabeth, despite marriage, children, academics, has never truly been certain as to what her gifts are. Or it is because she has seen the flowering of her sister’s business as a hairstylist as something blocking her ability to value her own brilliance, the very different direction her life is taking her.

THE HERO FOR THE HEROINE 

And there is Richard, the handsome man in her Tai Chi class, a photographer, who after some discussion is willing to replicate the work of Alfred Stieglitz, this famous photographer who admired O’Keefe and took pictures of her nude. In time, he convinces Elizabeth to actually take her clothes off, so that little by little, she is able to reproduce the poses of a naked O’Keefe, Richard snapping numerous shots, awakening a flowering, a desire for change in Elizabeth. That certainly might be the beginning of her becoming not only an owl, but the queen.

All novels work with contrasts, make the reader wonder what choices the MC will face, the eventual decisions she must make. Elizabeth, at first weighted down: husband, children, teaching, her own sense of needing to achieve, to stand out. But can she do all that, keep husband and family happy while satisfying the desires that O’Keefe’s art and nude photographs have aroused in her? Considering that owls are often quiet during the day, but then rise to great heights at night, filling the night skies with their hoots, drawing attention to what is often referred to as wisdom—in The Queen of Owls Probst must answer all those questions. Read this engaging novel to see if she does.

 

THE KINDEST LIE

THE KINDEST LIE

The Kindest Lie is written with love, yet you feel the undertow of sorrow and regret. Amazing.

 

 

It’s Black History month and Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, has just hit bookstores, gifting us with an evocative and emotional story.

Ruth Tuttle inhabits an unsettled world before and after Obama, a world of struggle and success–a world where family love is sometimes misguided and often based on secrets. An engineering degree from Yale has transported Ruth from the small Indiana town of Ganton, where she was raised, to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The novel begins on a special night–Ruth and her husband Xavier have gathered friends to await the results of the 2007 presidential election. When Obama wins, there is joy in the room, the future now seemingly boundless.

“Her whole life, Ruth hadn’t dared to believe this could happen, and she almost forgot to breathe. A picture of the little house in Ganton came to mind…Mama at the kitchen table counting money on the first of the month. Papa’s body quivering underneath his plant uniform as he tried to walk straight in the early days of his illness…To get here, to this moment. To this man with the funny name. To this day in history.”

But their joy that night sparks in Xavier an amazing idea: if they had a child, now it might be possible for that child to become president. Ruth immediatly pushes back, asking: “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?” knowing if this is truly what Xavier wants, her life will change, she being forced to face her past in Ganton, to remember Ronald Atkins.

They met in high school, Atkins, a white football player, Ruth’s mouth becoming dry, just speaking his name. A story, eleven years past its due date, Johnson writes: “Ruth thought back to when she was seventeen, with Mama and her brother Eli looking down on her half-naked body in the bed, their faces tight with worry, urging her to push.”

And then in those powerful moments of Obama winning, Ruth surrounded by her successful husband, her smart and successful Black friends, she questions if she has truly ever left Ganton, left Mama, the grandmother who raised her after Ruth’s own mother left, seeking drugs, shrugging off responsibility, knowing that Mama would step up, would always be there rescuing family, even naming Ruth and her brother Eli.

Johnson writes: Ruth: one syllable, old school and biblical. A name that Ruth’s grandmother said would at least get her to the interview.

But though smart, farsighted and an indomitable Black woman, Mama cannot protect Ruth from every aspect of life, from Ronald Atkins, from the physical power of teenage sex, when this white football player tells a young innocent Black girl, “I see you,” Ruth becoming fired with desire because, “Everyone saw him.”

But as the “little knot of unripe fruit” grew, “everything felt like walking on the edge of a cliff.” Johnson knows how to fill in the background, these two burdened lovers dancing to “killing me softly” which in retrospect is exactly what Ronald Atkins did to Ruth. 

Johnson has created in Ruth, a character who epitomizes a woman who has found a new pathway and turned away from her past. But when that past rises, Ruth must know everything, make Mama tell her: who she gave her son to, where he is now living, how his life has been without her. Back in Ganton, a town suffering from a dying economy of closed plants, workers out of work, Ruth comes face to face with the poverty affecting people of all colors and stations. Searching for her son, she encounters a white boy of a similar age, named Midnight, encounters the loss, anger and futility that can affect children, no matter what color they are.  

Johnson has created real people, brought us into their kitchens to watch them cook wonderful foods, into a beauty salon to hear of their joys and sorrows, their complaints concerning how to raise a child, keep a business going. Though it’s the holidays, there is poverty at Christmas, at New Years, where weather holds people inside to once again find joy in friendship and the lights of a small Christmas tree. Johnson’s real people. We see it all, their weaknesses and strengths. We experience their honesty and their hidden lies, not only in reference to their own lives–where they live, how they live, how they struggle–but also in how they reveal their pride in Ruth and what she has accomplished. As Eli, her brother reminds her, “Nope, one baby don’t put you at ho status…” Certainly KIND and also honest.

 

THIS IS US is a BOUNTY of BACKSTORY

THIS IS US is a BOUNTY of BACKSTORY

In writer’s parlance, backstory is everything the has happened to the main character (MC) when a novel begins. It is everything that flows through their arteries and veins and makes up the thoughts, emotions and pains that person has experienced. Back story has formed them. As I say in my work-in-progress (WIP)–“There was dilemma with all of it, Ella knew, for in many ways the past had formed you—there was no escaping it.”  And that’s on page 48. The reader already sees the foibles and problems of each character. And though it’s nice to think a person can re-create herself, well maybe. But the past never goes away.

That’s true in life and in the world of the story. But in writing there are these dubious RULES attached to backstory–that you can’t use it in the first sentence, on the first page, etc etc. You have to be immediate to pull the reader in. The reader isn’t interested in back story. The reader wants to know “the now.”

Some of this is true, but Dan Fogelman, the writer of THIS IS US, certainly knows the POWER OF BACK STORY and how to use it. That’s why we are in the third season and aching for more.

We knew the father of this family, of Kate, Kevin and Randall, had been in Viet Nam. So okay, we knew that. But now Fogelman is using that, is GOING BACK, creating powerful tension by relating WHY Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) went to Viet Nam in the first place. He did have a medical deferment because of occasional tachycardia. But he went for his brother, for Nick Pearson. The season starts with Nick’s fear of being drafted. It’s about THE LOTTERY.

Some of you won’t have any idea what that was, but it affected many lives, including mine. Viet Nam was not a war that many young men were eager to fight. The draft, however, was up and running, and unless you had a deferment like Jack’s, you went. Until rioting swept the country and a change was made–a lottery was held. This happened on December 1, 1969. My future husband and I were in love and in college. John had deferments for college, but this lottery would be fairer, school deferments would go away.

I remember being in my family’s living room, watching the television. The drawing was held at the Selective Service National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. All men between the ages of 18 and 26 were in this pool. And how did it work? The first birthday in a year of 365 days that was pulled from a box of all 365 would become number 1. This determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970.

Covered by radio, film, and TV, capsules were drawn, opened, and the dates inside posted in order. The first capsule – drawn by Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee – contained the date September 14, so all men born on September 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number 1. The drawing continued until all days of the year had been paired with sequence numbers. My husband drew 364. He would not be drafted!

BACK STORY, FOGELMAN’S FORTE 

It has been written that often characters function at a level of morality that is really just moral inertia. They do things out of habit, out of biology. They do not make choices. A good writer creates a character that must make a choice, a hard choice. Thus Jack, despite his cardiac condition, purposefully gets drafted so he can go to Viet Nam to discover how his brother is doing. And that begins an entire new story for season three. We learn more about Jack and Nick’s parents, how they were raised. BACK STORY!! And now there’s this chain and medal Jack wore and a photo of a Vietnam woman wearing it–the secrets increase, we can’t wait for another Tuesday night to arrive.

STORY IS REAL LIFE DISGUISED, IMAGINED

Freud wrote: “Every child in his play behaves like a poet, as he creates his own world, or to put it more correctly, as he transposes the elements forming his world into new order, more pleasing and suitable to him.”

I find a clue to my own “writing life” in this quote. As a child, PRETENDING was my forte. With my younger brother agreeing, I could imagine the corner of our dining room to be my “house” where I was a mother and ruled the scene. (Sorry, a very female poet, I agree.) But my brother and I also were enamored of Davey Crockett and one coonskin cap could create an entire world of adventure, even in the winter when we were confined to playing in the upstair hallway or on the stairs. IMAGINATION!!

Later, I was always about MAKING THINGS UP, with a few props. I wrote a play in the early grades and performed it with my friend Jean in our basement. We even charged admission. We had too much fun creating our own world on stage or riding bikes that were really horses, or hiding behind the mock orange bushes that were really our hide-out.

DAN FOGELMAN and VIET NAM 

Fogelman has always used his own experience in his writing. Too young for Viet Name, he had read Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, and wanted him to consult on the scripts. O’Brien had agreed to consult for one week, to help shape the story.

“We had an idea of how we wanted to get from A to B but not how we wanted to get there,” said Fogelman of how O’Brien contributed to the story — adding that now O’Brien is a fixture in the room. “He’s now writing episodes. He’s now reading scripts that have nothing to do with [Vietnam] — like, he’s giving notes on Kate storylines,” Fogelman said recently. O’Brien said he was impressed with how seriously Fogelman and his staff wanted to portray an authentic Vietnam experience. “I thought it was amazingly subtle, no mistakes. Most veterans would see [typical depictions of Vietnam] and go, ‘Oh, it doesn’t happen that way, nobody would react that way,'” O’Brien said — but not on This Is Us. “It felt like a dream of your own life. It was an amazing experience.”

IT’S ALL HOW YOU HANDLE BACK STORY

Milo Ventimiglia who plays Jack Pearson, talked about his own father’s experience as a veteran. “My dad and I have spoken quite a bit about his experience in war. I’ve got a lot of friends that are veterans of current conflicts as well as on active duty, so I get it from all sides,The one thing that I always try and do is just bring in the emotional responsibility to represent what they’ve been through in what I do as an actor and playing a fictional character.”

The research, the sensitivity to issues that both writer and actor are considering gives even more power to the stories that we experience while watching, THIS IS US. And though I might struggle now and again with how to incorporate BACK STORY into my own work, I know how valuable it is, how decisions, secrets, hurts and successes can determine the decisions we make in the future. Fogelman gets this too. And with his penchant for research and authenticity, he has a gold mine of scripts already written and probably swimming around in his creative brain.

Fogelman has realized the bounty of backstory and is using it to profound effect. I know I’ll keep watching. Falling in love with the work of a genius can inspire one that is still learning her craft.

THANKS TO GOOGLE TV BANNERS

 

Announcing: A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE

Announcing: A MOTHER'S TIME CAPSULE

NOW IN SOFT COVER AT AMAZON.

Mother. Writer. Those are two of the titles that I have proudly claimed for a long time. But today I have something to show for those two titles—A Mother’s Time Capsule—my first published book. It’s fiction, a collection of stories that grew from being a mother, but more importantly from being a writer. Because writers can be alchemists. We absorb life experience and then, with hope in our hearts, we work to create gold—something meaningful that honors the human interactions that we have witnessed or experienced. Writers also read and read some more, and listen–eager to hear the stories of people’s lives, their joy and their pain. Over time my stories accumulated and some of them made it into small magazines. But when I began to really look at them, I saw that they all dealt with some aspect of motherhood. My book was born.

A Mother’s Time Capsule takes you on a time-travel journey, some stories pulling you back in time, others taking you to a present and immediate place. Though the experience of pregnancy, birth, raising children and the empty nest has commonalities, there are many more variables. In these stories, mothers are married, divorced, aging, young, facing their fears and blinded to them. You’ll meet their children who struggle with responsibility, know the pain of an absent father, ruin the one opportunity to bond with an absent mother, go missing, attempt suicide and teach their parents that being fearful is not the way to live one’s life. There are mothers whose lives are welded to helping their children, and mothers who must settle for only the memory of a child.

The book is dedicated to my husband and three children who are the children of my dreams and of my life. But know, these stories are not pure autobiography—instead they are tangential to what I have experienced as a mother to my children and the daughter of my mother.

Last week I wrote about how Boomer Highway came to be. Now I want to thank you for the opportunity to share more of my journey from writer’s desk to the publication of my first book. I hope you enjoy A Mother’s Time Capsule and I welcome comments about the stories on here and on TwitterFacebook, Goodreads and Amazon. I have also created a board on Pinterest with an illustration for each of the stories. You can find it here.

A Mother’s Time Capsule by Elizabeth A. Havey ebook available now and soft cover will be available soon. Check : www.elizabethahavey.com  You might want to share it with the mother in your life this Mother’s Day, May 10, 2015.

Events: On Facebook, I will be chatting about CAPSULE with Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) on Tuesday, May 5th at from 1:00to 1:30 eastern time. Here’s the link

And Thursday, May 7th, on Twitter, I will be talking with Sezoni Whitfield on Writer’s Kaboodle. That’s from 1:00 to 1:30 eastern time. https://twitter.com/SezoniWhitfield

Below are a few examples from the 13 stories in the collection:

FRAGILE: It’s a given that mothers worry about their children. But can a wife and mother who worries too much shape her own reality? And how would that affect the father who is almost a stranger to such concerns? In the story, a couple takes their young daughters, eight and four, on a camping trip and an accident occurs. My husband and I had two daughters those ages. I certainly had fears, and he was often traveling. As I wrote the story, my fears came onto the page and I worked through them, actually learning from my children.

MAKING CHANGE: Motherhood totally changes the direction of a woman’s life, filling up the days and determining choices. The empty-nest years can offer shining promise, but they sometimes bring confusion, health challenges and regrets. Whether a woman has many children or just one, there will come a time when that child takes on an individual life and the mother’s trajectory changes. Even if a full-time job filled the mother’s life, the empty-nest years can bring about challenge.

WHEN DID MY MOTHER DIE? We all know a mother, our own, and even if during our lifetime we never have children—as our mothers age the role will reverse, and like it or not, we will know many aspects of motherhood. This is my most recent story, written after my mother died in 2013. It reflects the anguish and confusion of loving someone so intensely that when they develop dementia and their lives are narrowed down to sitting in a wheelchair, you can hardly bear it. But you have to.

Thanks to FOREVERLAND PRESS.