Because Avocadoes Need Plenty of Sunshine, That’s Why

Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.

First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.

On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:

 “I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”

So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?

You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense  international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.

And then.

In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.  

So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?

Living Your Dream at the Worst Possible Time

Ten years ago I  wrote a book called “Quit Your Job, Move to Paris.” I wrote it after a young dewy-eyed college grad interviewed with me at the bank where I was working in the advertising department. (Dear God, I’m depressing myself just writing the words.) She’d recently graduated with a degree in advertising and wanted to know what she should do to, basically, get my job. I looked at her and asked: “Are you married?” She blushed prettily and shook her head. I said: “So no kids?” She reddened not so prettily and frowned at me. “Of course not,” she said. “Do you own your own home?” “I’m only 21,” she replied, as if speaking to a seriously mentally impaired individual. (Kind of like how my teenager speaks to me all the time but that’s another blog.) I said: “So, no ties, no mortgage, no private school tuition. My advice to you is…” She poised her little pen over her little steno pad.

Well, you can probably guess what I said (see above title of aforementioned book) and she did not appreciate being led on as she put it. In addition to being a new college graduate, she also happened to be the daughter of the bank’s vice president so I’m not sure why she even bothered to get my take on anything. She should’ve just gone to her Dad and said: “I want her job, please, Daddy.”

But see, I had a mortgage and a kid (plus two step-kids, but again, another time, another blog) and the idea of “living my passion” or waking up and smelling the croissants on the Rue de la Paix or spending a year writing a novel was about as possible as starring in a Broadway musical. She was young. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her choices hadn’t been made yet. From my perspective, I thought she should take advantage of her freedom while she had it, as if passion—for writing or travel or acting or anything—would dry up or run out like sand in an hourglass.

When I wrote the “Quit Your Job” book, I ended up researching various chapters on different life situations to suggest ways and ideas of how moving to Paris for a period of time might be possible: married with kids, single with kids, etc. During the course of my research, I discovered how it would be possible for me to go, too. The  information I came up with for my own situation was good and bad. The good news was: I learned I could go! I learned how I could make it happen! The bad news was: I chose not to. Yeah, I know. That part sucked. But it still helped to know I had a choice. I didn’t pack up the kid and the husband and shoot off to France in 2001 because when I sat down and thought about it, I realized I wanted other things more. Things that couldn’t happen if I took the Paris option at that time.

Funny thing about passion, though. If it’s real, it tends to stay with you. I don’t work in a corporate advertising department any more. I write full time. As for the Paris thing, well, my son is sifting through his college acceptances even as we speak which means, next year, he’s launched into his grand adventure. And guess what? Turns out, Paris is still there!

Seems that silly college girl was right about one thing: there really isn’t a time limit on passions after all.

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?

Get Hooked on A Great Beginning for Your Book

A few months ago, my husband and I curled up with a DVD of one of our favorite BBC mystery series from the nineties: Inspector Morse. Such avid fans of John Thaw and this series were we that we had seen every episode and read most of the books by Colin Dexter from which the series was derived. So it was with absolute shock and disbelief when we realized we no longer had the patience for the slow moving blocking and painstaking theatre of our dearly beloved show.

Life had moved at a pretty fast clip in the intervening twenty years. We had gotten used to television that grabbed you by the throat within the first thirty seconds, racheted up the tension and kept you hanging on by your fingertips for the ride-of-your-life until the climax and, if you were lucky, a respite at the end where the body count and, if there was any to be had, love questions got resolved. I have to tell you we were not watching cartoons since our Inspector Morse days. We love dramas with buckets of dialogue and twisty plot machinations and lengthy character rosters. We watched Lost and CSI and Masterpiece Theatre. Yet, when it came to drama and staging, we had moved on and clearly poor Pagan Morse had not.

I mention this because it’s sort of an example of how audiences and readers can be totally happy and accepting of a sort of style and then, when they get used to something else, totally intolerant. I loved Morse’s character. I still do. I’m tempted to write something for the man that doesn’t fall down dead asleep on the page. Meaning: I want to write something with today’s tempo, today’s pacing.

This brings me to what Les Edgerton talks about in his amazing how-to book, Hooked. This is a book about “writing fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.” Do yourself a major favor: get the book and go through it with a yellow highlighter and then re-read it and underline more bits after that and then type up all your notes and underlined and highlighted bits and paste it up on a wall or send it to your smartphone and read it in traffic or whenever you have a down moment.

Seriously.

You do this and you will be that much closer to being a better writer and that much closer to creating fiction that readers can’t put down.

Edgerton, who has a very engaging, easy writing style, himself, provides a list of agents and editors explaining why they often reject manuscripts vis-à-vis beginnings. It’s a real eye opener. Here’s just a taste:

Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency: “Unless you grab our attention immediately, your book has no chance. Never open with scenery! Novels are about people, about the human condition…Never open with the villain. We are looking for voice.”

Julia Castiglia, Castiglia Literary Agency: “Never start with weather, dreams, setup or a passive scene that take the reader nowhere. A story must begin with an immediate hook. That first sentence and paragraph immediately draws one into the story and makes it impossible for the reader not to read on.”

Barbara Collins Rosenberg, Literary Agent: “I tend to like books that start in the middle of a scene. I want to be involved in the action right away.”

Get the book and get better. Next week: let’s take a look at that muddle in the middle!

7 Counter-Intuitive Ways to Improve Your Creativity

While I’m as big a believer as anyone else in the “just do it” mentality when it comes to getting my daily word count in, I have to admit I’m always on the look-out for an edge in the quality aspect of  “just doing it.” To that end, I’ve discovered a great article (via Behance in case you haven’t discovered them yet—an awesome resource for creative and compulsives alike) and recapped it here!

Enjoy and after you put that barbell down and finish playing with the dog, get back to work!

  1. Eat breakfast. I know, I know. I always suspected Kellogs invented this one but it turns out it’s probably true. At least a quarter of all Americans skip breakfast (me, included.) But studies show increased productivity, lower weight, etc. if we eat breakfast (and not, of course, beignets and Fruit Loops.)
  2. Sit less. Okay, a little tricky when you are writing at a computer, I know but a report on a recent 14-year study showed that there was a 20% increase in the death rate (40% for women) for those people who sat six hours or more every day. So! Motivation to get off your ass? CHECK!
  3. Exercise helps your mental performance and overall productivity. Turns out hitting the gym during the day will help you problem-solve and write better, longer. Who knew?
  4. Get a dog. Well, it doesn’t have to be a dog. Any kind of a pet will do. The reasoning behind this is that having an animal while you work increases trust and team cohesion. On the other hand, if you work alone, and collaboration is not an issue, skip the dog and get back to work.
  5. Kill the commute. If you write in your back bedroom, go ahead and skip to the next item on the list. If you have a job that forces you out of the house and that job is not close by, a new finding has shown that a commute of much duration is a total happiness killer. It significantly decreases your quality of life. My suggestion on this one? Find another house or find another job or just accept you won’t be as happy as you could be.
  6. Use all your vacation days. This was never a problem for me. In fact, I struggle to understand people who don’t take paid days off from work. I’m not making this up. An article from the Harvard Business Review said that “More than half of all Americans now fail to take all of their vacation days.” Okay, since I really can’t understand people who would do this, I can’t speak to it. (OTOH: if you really want to work so damn bad, donate your vacation days to me.)
  7. Get pissed. And I mean that in the American sense, not the British. New studies show that being angry (sad works too) is a key driver to creativity. And if you’ve ever knocked out some of your best work right after you were dumped, fired or lost your best dog, you’ll understand. Anger, it seems, fuels idea generation while sadness, perversely? drives us to work harder.

So there you have it! Seven easy ways to boost your creativity and get the most out of your writing environment. If you’ve tried any of these ways—or have issues with any of them—I would love to hear from you!