Randy Susan Meyers's Blog
July 31, 2015
Yes, death is the last frontier. In my circles, even friends who talk about sex, politics, and that most forbidden of topics, paychecks, rarely talk about the nitty-gritty of death. That’s something we save for our own private hells or heavens.
This is the opening to MacKinnon’s novel, Tethered.:
I plunge my finger between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn’t surrender itself willingly. Tethered between the heart and the head, the sinewy tube is often weighted with years of plaque, thickening its resolve to stay. More so now that rigor mortis has settled deep within the old woman.
Probably even those who, because of culture or religion, are comfortable with the notion of death — thinking it a walk into a better place — avoid the actual physical notions of our bodies decay after we take our last breath. What happens to our now soulless bodies? These secrets are reserved for those who work in this secret landscape.
July 1, 2015
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”–Frida Kahlo
Writers often don’t recognize their own embedded themes until after writing “the end”–and sometimes not even then. True revelations are often handed to us by reviewers, book clubs, and Goodreads. Only by looking back do we recognize our sore spots and consistent curiosity.
After finishing book three, when it became time to write a “think piece” on why I wrote that particular book (the why–besides fascination–being something I never truly see until well after I’ve chased ideas to the final page) the link for my novels jumped out like specters I’d avoided too long. Embedded in my stories of accidents, domestic homicide, infidelity, and adoption were enormous chunks of loneliness; the loneliness we can face, even in the midst of a seemingly intact group of family and friends.
As a child, the problems my parents faced kept me from being embraced by a larger community or neighborhood, whether cultural, religious or social. Thus, I find myself looking at families where affiliations and beliefs may provide comfort, or may create isolation.
Nor, by my third book, could I deny that exploring unintended consequences of actions fascinated me . . . “But I never meant for that to happen . . .”
The ‘but’ can be anything from a child’s bruise which resulted from that basket of laundry you left by the stairs, to a house stripped of all valuables, because you didn’t lock the door . . .or it can be your spouse lying in the ICU, fighting for their life, because road rage overcame good judgment.
Every move we make creates ripples within our circle of friends and family:
Tenderness and kindness engender waves of confidence and love.
Rage evokes fear and damage–sometimes as small as hurt feelings, sometimes avoidance, sometimes tiptoeing, and sometimes love is ripped apart.
In the worst of times, lives are forever altered. In my third novel, Accidents of Marriage, for the damage he caused, the husband and father in my book might as well have used a fist instead of his cutting words; a gun, instead of a speeding car.
And then there is guilt. Another of my perseverations. Working with batterers for many years taught me that change only comes when we face the damage we’ve brought–but admitting we’ve brought harm, especially to people we love, takes courage. In my work I found that I am always exploring how far we’ll go to avoid admitting culpability:
Will we lie?
Will we pile hurt onto already broken people?
How brave can we be?
I write to find the answers to these questions. I believe all fiction–whether atmospheric literary novels, science fiction, or romance– authors reveal themselves in unintended ways and the more vulnerability we allow ourselves (and the more authors take the eyes of their husband, mother, best friend off the work-in-progress) the more authentic the work.
And when a writer swears that no piece of their authentic self is on the page, I wonder why.
June 25, 2015
Does everyone have sub-genres within genres for which they hold an unusual fondness?
I can’t resist a good infidelity story (really, can anything beat Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow?) I can rarely refuse the intricacies of inter-racial love (Meeting of the Waters by Kim Mclarin,) or a memoir about substance abuse (Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. I treasure reading about the layers of an unknown (to me) culture (A Fine Balance by Rohintin Mistry) or the heartbreak of emigrants navigating a new world (my current audio/car book is Shanghai Sisters by Lisa See,) but for a real roll in schadenfreude reading, I pick up a juicy novel about novelists.
Grub by Elise Blackwell: I ate up this Shakespearean ‘all’s well that ends well’ satire, described as a “a long overdue retelling of New Grub Street—George Gissing’s classic satire of the Victorian literary marketplace—Grub chronicles the triumphs and humiliations of a group of young novelists living in and around New York City.” This book reminds writers to watch the hubris and check literary-attitudes at the door; but it does it with tender love and great humor.
Breakable You by Brian Morton: All of Morton’s novels reveal the writer in his/her quirks, foibles, and often-unattractive hunger—though never callously. It’s hard for me to pick just one of this author’s books, but I found it most memorable for the story of just how far a writer might go to gain glory, and what it life might be as the wife, daughter, or friend of such a writer.
Read all of his books.
How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely: This broad satire of Pete Tarslow, a lost soul who sets out to write a novel to impress the woman who dumped him, somehow meets what seem like disparate goals by portraying a character who is a naïf attempting to be Machiavellian. Hely skewers self-importance with a broad gun. This is a fast and funny read. Treat yourself after the holidays: spend New Year’s Day reading this.
Misery by Stephen King: Page-whipping layered with psychological insight, this is a book that will not be put down. Publisher’s Weekly said: “a writer held hostage by his self-proclaimed “number-one fan, is unadulterated terrifying. Paul Sheldon, a writer of historical romances, is in a car accident; rescued by nurse Annie Wilkes, he slowly realizes that salvation can be worse than death.”
The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith: This fun and gobble-it-down tale for authors is described thusly by Publisher’s Weekly: “It’s is an old adage that books about publishing do not sell, because those likely to be most interested will beg, borrow or steal them rather than buy. In the case of the latest by Goldsmith (The First Wives Club) that would be a pity, because it is a highly entertaining tale with a good share of romance and drama, considerable humor and some cynical fun at the expense of the book business; there are many recognizable characters, and a number of real-life walk-ons. (There’s even an index so book people can look themselves up, but be warned: it is not what it seems.) Goldsmith’s busy plot which makes publishing seem as glamorous and crazy as fashion or the movies (settings for two of her previous books)? offers four women with novels being considered by high-powered New York publisher Davis & Dash. There is an elderly romance queen with a fading readership; a proud mother trying to get someone to read a magnum opus by her dead daughter; a cool young Englishwoman who has penned a quirkily charming book about a busload of American tourists in Tuscany; and a desperate young woman whose devious husband is trying to steal all the credit for her true-crime roman a clef. Throw in a corrupt publisher doctoring the books to try to make his own sales look bigger, a nymphomaniac and alcoholic editor-in-chief, a staunch young editor and her lesbian agent friend, and you have the makings of a spicy literary stew.”
Fun, huh? Can you see why I had to include almost the entire review? Sadly, the book is out of print (the author, Olivia Goldsmith died six years ago) but it’s well worth getting from the library or ordering second-hand.
June 21, 2015
I dreaded Father’s Day as a child. Every year (during those far less aware days) we were asked to make a card for our father as a classroom project. My father died when I was nine, so from that day forward I made cards for my grandfather, embarrassed by my lack.
I don’t know much about my father. He served in World War II. In Africa. He was responsible for something to do with writing. In the photos he sent back to my mother he was often wearing a bathing suit and he typed messages on the back of them. As a fatherless child (who hadn’t yet uncovered any family secrets) I read the simple sentences on the back of those photographs as though they held the secrets of the universe; trying to know out who my father was through those eight or ten words. He compared the beaches of Africa to Coney Island. He wrote funny messages to my mother; in my mind, I pumped up those messages until they became sonnets.
Most of what I’ve written about my father has been unhappy snapshots based on memories I’ve inherited or been given. Once he tried to kill my mother. He drank to excess, and when he did, he became (according to my cousin who saw more than I did) quiet, sometimes angry, depressed or sullen. According to others, he took pills. Many of them and they were the cause of his death at 35.
I have heartbreakingly warm memories of my father, despite the family history. I don’t remember him high or drunk. When I cried, he told me to “stop the banana splits” and then bought me something special. (I don’t remember why I was crying. I know it was on a weekend I spent with him, my sister, and my grandparents. He and my mother were divorced.)
He played ragtime on the piano. He seemed to love me. He seemed sad. All the time.
After he died, no one ever mentioned him again. When I was old enough to be less afraid of upsetting my mother, I tried teasing bits information from her.
All she professed to remember was that she married him because he was handsome. And everyone was getting married. So I hold onto the love I feel for no reason I can truly remember, except that he once bought me pretty patent leather shoes with straps you could swing to the back.
When he fought in WW II he was so young—perhaps 21? He was handsome. He played the piano. He fought in World War II when he was barely in his twenties. And when I cried, he noticed.
June 19, 2015
Last night, at a fundraiser for AccesSportAmerica, inspired by Madelyn Bronitsky, Oscar-winnng actor, Chris Cooper, read a scene from “Accidents of Marriage.” (Hosted by Bella Luna Restaurant in Jamaica Plain, with the sponsorship of Papercuts JP and Westwinds Bookshop.
June 9, 2015
June 4, 2015
May 12, 2015
There’s a reason more people understand the Holocaust from The Diary of Ann Frankthan from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Story. Since the cave man days we’ve learned more history through storytelling than textbooks. I know I have.
Writing a novel that includes social, health or political issues carries great responsibility. We want our audience to learn as they’re immersed in the story; those of us writing hot-button issues are impassioned. We want to write a compelling story. And then there is the third, equally important point of the triangle. We must be unflinchingly honest and also empathic with the characters carrying our banners. We must represent for the people who experienced in real life what we put on paper.
And, I believe, we must give back to those whose realities we’ve appropriated.
Soon after the hardcover version of Accidents of Marriage (a novel of a family shattered by a mother’s traumatic brain injury caused by a her husband’s reckless and angry driving) released, a woman came up to me before an event wearing a quizzical expression. She asked if I’d written about her. Had I read about her in the newspaper? Been told about her accident by a neighbor?
Her name was Madelyn.
Same as my character.
She was a social worker.
Yes, the same.
She had three children. Yes.
And she had suffered from serious traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car accident eerily similar to–even geographically–my fictional crash.
After assuring her that I hadn’t known of her accident, I gave her a copy of the novel (it was her birthday!) and asked her to contact me to let me know what she thought. Waiting to hear, I was as nervous as I’d be if I were anticipating a newspaper review. Maybe more. Though I’d heard positive responses from many who had family members with TBI, or who worked in the field, Madelyn was the first person suffering TBI I’d spoken to post-writing. Had my research and empathic stretching been satisfactory?
We had coffee, along with her friend Vicky, not far from where my characters lived in Jamaica Plain. Madelyn calmed my fears–the book passed muster–but more important, this Madelyn helped me envision book-character-Madeline years down the line. Courageous. Funny. Heroic. Smart. Reader. Grandmother. Mother. Wife. Avid reader. Very strong at the broken places.
In the “thank goodness” department, though Madelyn Bronitsky’s injuries were similar to those I wrote about, her husband Sam was blessedly different from husband-Ben in Accidents of Marriage. Where Ben fought rage that brought character-Madeline into harm’s way, an anger that followed them through her recovery, Sam became Madelyn’s rock. Knowing this essay was coming, she wrote to me:
U should mention my husband, unlike the one in the book, is wonderful, supportive. That I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in if I hadn’t got help from him and my whole Temple Hillel Bnai Torah in West Roxbury community.
Meeting people–readers, writers, bookstore-folk (often all three in one)–through one’s books is a joy. Meeting those who’ve lived pieces of your characters lives is transcendent for the breathless wonder it engenders, the joy of learning you touched those who really know, but most important, to remind us of the responsibility we have to tell the truth of the story. To remember that for some, our stories may be the only introduction to the topics we explore and we better get it as right as we can.
Recently I wrote to Madelyn for help in identifying a group with whom I could join for my paperback release. Using each book launch as a fundraiser–where all sales are matched for a non-profit that connects to my book–is an offshoot joy. Madelyn shot an email back instantly:
What immediately occurs to me is AccessSport, the organization with whom I exercise in the winter at the Y and in the summer I go canoeing and biking at Spaulding. I just emailed Ross Lilley, the guy who developed the program to get the address. I am allowed to bring friends canoeing or hiking with me if u ever have time. I would love to take u.
This is the generosity Madelyn brings to the world; she may not be able to keep up with the rigors of social work, but she still cares for all around her. Madelyn reached out to the director that moment. When I then asked my friend Marianne Leone, author of Jesse: A Mother’s Story, what she thought of AccessSport, it turned out her son, Jesse, had some of his peak moments (maybe more nerve-wracking than fun for Marianne, though. Doesn’t motherhood always mean being the one holding your breath?) windsurfing and tubing at AccessSport, a nonprofit which inspires higher function and fitness for children and adults living with challenges through high-challenge sports and training. And in case it wasn’t all clearly bashert (meant-to-be) Marianne Leone and her husband Chris Cooper are on the board of directors at AccessSport.
On June 18th Madelyn Bronitsky will join Marianne Leone and me at an event raising funds for AccessSport at Bella Luna Restaurant in Jamaica Plain. We’ll eat, read from our books, talk about how we became friends, and provide a gift for Father’s Day: books which show all the many ways men affect the lives of their wives and children: from my father-character being forced to find courage and face the damage he’d done to his children, to Marianne Leone’s husband, Chris Cooper, who knew his son needed ferocious love for Jesse’s light to come out in full. Together we’ll raise money so adults and children of all abilities can navigate rough water and hike the trails.
We’d all love to see you there.
May 10, 2015
(originally published in 2011)
“How did you get published? Do you have an MFA?” a reader asked last week. I struggled for the right answer—how to tell her that, no, I don’t have an MFA, but still, I credit being published on other people’s teaching.
A number of years ago (about ten to be inexact) I faced reality. If I were to be taken seriously by publishers and agents, I had to work with more intent. For a number of reasons (money, reluctance, working 50+ hours a week, and hyper-impatience with lectures) I didn’t return to school. Instead, I dove into self-study and set myself up as a virtual Miss Grundy.
On my bookshelves are over 90 books on writing (not counting those borrowed or given away.) Adding those would bring the number up by 35 or more. I read all, highlighted most, and drove the facts into my brain by writing papers (for myself) on them.
This week, as I began the process of outlining my third novel (having just given over number two to the temporary care and custody of my agent and new editor) I thumbed over a few of my favorites and realized, with gratitude, how much these authors gave me. A private MFA (minus the personal critique—for that I thank Grub Street’s Master Novel Workshop, led by the incredible Jenna Blum.)
I cannot be more grateful. Thank you all, generous writers of craft and more.
On Revision: “Cut it by 10 percent. Cut everything by 10 percent . . . Cut phoniness. There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people. It is true of me, and it almost surely true of you. I have maybe never known a writer of whom it is not true. But literary pretension is the curse of the postmodern age. We all have our favorite ways of showing off and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch
“The only way to improve our ability to see structure is to look harder at it, in our own work and in others’. When you read a book you love, force your mind to see its contours. Concentrate on structure without flinching until it reveals itself. Text is a plastic art, not just a verbal one: it has a shape. To train your mind to see shapes more easily, write them (and sketch them if you like) in a notebook. As with writing down dreams, the more you write, the more you will see.” The Artful Edit: On the practice of editing yourself, by Susan Bell
“Significant detail, the active voice, and prose rhythm are techniques for achieving the sensuous in fiction, means of helping the reader “sink into the dream” of the story, in John Gardner’s phrase. Yet no technique is of much use if the reader’s eye is wrenched back to the surface by misspellings or grammatical errors, for once the reader has been startled out of the story’s “vivid and continuous dream,” the reader may not return.” Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
“What is the throughline? Throughline is a term borrowed from films. It means the main plotline of your story, the one that answers the question, ‘what happened to the protagonist?’ Many, many things may happen to her—as well as to everybody else in the book—but the primary events of the most significant action is the thoroughline. It’s what keeps your reader reading.” Beginnings, Middles and Ends, by Nancy Kress
“Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act: you’re really getting involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, ‘Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?’ . . . This is exactly what happens when you explain your dialogue to your readers. Self –Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne & Dave King.
“ . . . the quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
“Because fiction requires a mighty engine to thrust it ahead—and take the reader along for the ride—backstory if used incorrectly, can stall a story. A novel with too little backstory can be thin and is likely to be confusing. By the same token, a novel with too much backstory can lack suspense . . .. Remember this: The fantasy world of your story will loom larger in your imagination than it will on the page . . ..
Balance is the notion that every element in the story exists in its proper proportion . . . When you lavish a person, place, or object with descriptive details, readers expect them to have a corresponding importance. Between the Lines: master the subtle elements of fiction writing, by Jessica Page Morrell
On Sustaining: “ ‘You have to remind yourself that it’s very hard work. If you drift along thinking you’ve got some sort of gift, you get yourself into some real trouble.’ Arthur Golden
‘I try to remember that a review is one person’s opinion—and a cranky person’s at that.’ ” Elinor Lipman
‘The only reason writers survive rejection is because they love writing so much that they can’t bear the idea of giving it up’ M.J. Rose. The Resilient Writer, edited byCatherine Wald
“Over the years, I have calculated that feedback on any given piece of writing always falls into one of three categories, and breaks down into the following percentages: 14 percent of feedback is dead-on; 18 percent is from another planet; and 68 percent falls somewhere in-between.” Toxic Feedback, by Joni B. Cole
On Tension: “Inner censors interfere with effective revision in a number of ways. For instance, most fiction writers act like protective parents towards their characters, especially the hero and his or her friends. Writers are too nice. You not only don’t have to treat your characters nicely, in revision you should look for ways to make the obstacles bigger, the complications seemingly endless, and their suffering worse. Avoid the temptation to rescue your characters.” Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, by Elizabeth Lyon
On Sex: “Sex is not an ATM withdrawal. Narrate from inside your characters’ bodies and minds, not from a camera set up to record the transaction.” The Joy of Writing Sex, byElizabeth Benedict.
On Public Reading: “Few writers are truly gifted at giving readings, and most have panic attacks before doing an interview, whether for radio, print, or television. And nowadays an author who isn’t deemed ‘promotable’ can be a liability . . . It’s important to plan your readings and selections before you speak in public. Long descriptive passage usually put people to sleep, as does staring down at your book for twenty minutes and reading either too fast or in a monotone . . . provide some meaningful stories. If an audience has come out to see you, give them something they won’t find in the book.”The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner
On Humilitation: “The lowest moment in my literary career was when I found myself bidding for a middle-aged oil magnate in a mock slave auction at a dinner in Dallas. I was bidding for the sake of Bloomsbury and for the honor of England, but I think the compounds the shame.” Margret Drabble, Mortification: Writer’s Stories of their Public Shame, edited by Robin Robertson
On Environment: “In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.” On Writing, by Stephen King
May 5, 2015
I started Jesse, A Mother’s Story twice.
The stark beauty of this memoir hit me the moment I began. Marianne Leone’s narrative, written with an unrelenting immediacy, yanked me into her world.
Leone’s son Jesse owned me from his first moment on the page. By the end of the prologue, Leone had so engaged me that I put it aside. Because I knew how it would end. Because I was a coward. I’d already fallen in love with the family and I needed to build up courage to continue.
Sometime later I began reading again. This time, thank God, I couldn’t stop, because Jesse, A Mother’s Story gave me one of the greatest gifts of my reading life. I learned that you could go on. You could have utmost love, and then the worst possible pain, and, though you never lose the grief, you could still find that love. That connection between mother and child can continue to envelope you in your dreams and soul. Perhaps that’s what keeps you from total madness.
Jesse, A Mother’s Story is a written by a mother who loves her son with ferocity—the ferocity parents of disabled children needs more than others parents. Jesse Cooper had severe cerebral palsy, was unable to speak, and was quadriplegic and wracked by severe seizures. He was also stunningly bright, funny, and loving. His parents, Marianne Leone and Chris Cooper needed both rage and ferocious love if Jesse’s light was to come out in full.
Leone writes so close that I felt the cigarette she held as she “paced the floor of our apartment above the store, smoking, crying and feeling helpless . . . Our session with the physical therapist was a disaster. She roughly stripped Jesse of his outside clothes, and he began to howl. “Well, I can’t work with him if he’s going to cry all the time,” she said.
Jesse was failing physical therapy. Or was the therapist failing Jesse? To watch your child handled roughly is to have a piece of your soul crumple into ash.”
Marianne Leone brought together a band of parents and professionals to fight the system—a battle that continues serving children in the region where Jesse went to school—ensuring her son and others could be fully integrated into the school system, get the services they needed, and write essays poems, like this one written by Jesse:
Courage is like one ant trying to cross a roaring stream.
It may seem impossible but you have to try.
Jesse and his parents lived not only with candor and courage, but with edgy humor and street-fighting reality. Jesse, A Mother’s Story is not a worshipful account of saints, but of parents who reach into every pocket of strength they can access to help their child live fully in this world. Leone’s narrative pulled me like a page-turning novel—I needed to know what would happen, especially when, despite promises made and a law guaranteeing Jesse’s inclusion in a regular classroom, the school system fails not just by sins of omission, but by dedicated commission.
Leone’s realizations of these sins—after sending Jesse’s wonderful home aide, Brandy, to observe Jesse’s school aide and teacher in his classroom—radicalizes her. Thinking that Brandy hates her job, as obviously they do, the aide, in front of a non-verbal, but totally cognizant Jesse, says “he don’t belong here,” and “between you and me, Brandy, we both know where he’s gonna end up.” Jesse’s teacher talks in front of him, as though he were invisible, about the “life-expectancy of a CP kid,” speaking with faux-sympathy, though in truth with criticism of Leone, about how Leone needs to “learn to let go.”
In the last few minutes I had joined the berserker tribe of mothers, those who go into battle without any armor but rage. Mad as dogs, fierce as wolves, they fight to the death.
We who are unaffected might turn away from the Leone-Cooper’s story, from all stories like Jesse’s. We might want to protect our own denial, but oh what a loss. Jesse, A Mother’s Story has a plethora of happy endings before the ultimate sorrow.
That is what this book taught me: Sorrow doesn’t erase joy. We can hold both.
I, probably like you, am a constant reader. Sometimes I forget titles even as I turn the last page. Some books are appetizers, some momentary candy, some are solid meals. The moment I finished Jesse, A Mother’s Story I wanted to read it again. This book is an account of how we manage to rise further than we ever knew we could.
Leone does not sing her own praises in this book, but I can. She showed me a way. Mothers, even through moments of exhaustion, exasperation, even as they doubt they are up for the task, can find the way to lift that truck off their child. This book lives on my ‘read again and again’ shelf. Jesse, A Mother’s Story was not a book of a disabled child, but a story of being able to move on after a tsunami has hit your heart.
If you are a parent, then you, like me, fear losing your child more than anything in the world. Screw up your courage and buy this book. If you don’t believe me, come here her speak (see below) and read. Not only can she write like crazy, damn that woman is funny. Jesse was blessed to have her for his mother.
PS: Marianne and I will be hosting a fundraiser for AccessSport on June 18 at Bella Luna Restaurant and would love to have you join us. All book sales will be matched for AccessSport.