Part 8. The Genesis of My CPTSD: Mother as Mentor

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

Here Mother is teacher not simply of some isolated subject but of a much bigger curriculum. She orients the child to successfully living in the world. She teaches her child how to get along with others, how to make good decisions, and how to manage time, meet responsibilities, and pursue goals. Mother is in this sense the first “life skills coach.” Each of these capacities is huge, and any particular woman may be better at teaching some of them than others.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the woman who hissed “Saggy Tits” and “Chicken Chest” at my increasingly slumped teenage shoulders was perhaps not the best mentor on how to make my way in the world.

My mother had good skills for nursing, household tasks, as well as all kinds of handwork, including counted cross-stitch, crewel embroidery, and knitting. Self-worth, managing emotions, navigating interpersonal situations? Not her strong suit. The three of us cringed, muscles tensed, faces carefully neutral, on the rare occasions we dropped something on her antiseptic kitchen linoleum. There were no mistakes, only catastrophes that made her mouth form a tight line and her pale eyes harden.

Between the outright neglect during the decade of her Valium addiction to the general absence of verbal assurance, she was not equipped to teach anyone how to hold a conversation, pursue goals, or make good decisions. Time management meant two things: never be late and work without ceasing. The first has served me well. And I do have a strong work ethic, but it took me decades to feel okay about time off and relaxation.

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

Two incidents were a revelation that there were other ways to live. The first was when I was 12. A friend’s parents drove us home from the movies and interrupted my normal staring out the window reverie to ask me what I’d thought of the movie as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I tentatively offered my opinion and held my breath. The dad agreed and elaborated as in an actual conversation. I exhaled. Years later when I saw Little Man Tate, I was equally amazed that the mother (played by Jodie Foster) did not berate her son for spilling his milk. She was more concerned with him than the mess. She gave me a new model to break old patterns.

Part of breaking these multi-generational cycles has been learning some of these life skills and passing them on. At a round table, my kids and I shared dinner conversations, working out problems, being silly, learning from each other. Sometimes we solved the world’s problems, though they had to pick up navigating office politics on their own. We all have our limits. It’s about opening up more than we were allowed to with progress, not perfection. They’ll do even more for their future children.

Next week: Mother as Protector

What’s the rush?

In the last post, I briefly addressed the dragging of feet that can go along with finishing your work or getting it out into the world. We cannot know if success will come quickly, after many years or not at all. All we can to is to try to be prepared and that means making the work and ourselves the best we can.

There’s another way to defeat yourself and that is rushing work out. NaNoWriMo can teach you to just write and write fast. Very fast. There’s huge benefit in that. Clean out the system, prove to yourself you can be far more productive than you imagined, discovering that your characters have things to say in scenes that may not make it to the next draft, but give you valuable information on who they are and so on.

Sometimes you need to slow down. Examine the work, your process…. That can mean slowing down to play with the story. Whether you write fast or slow, it is important to honor your own process once you land on it, but be aware it may change from piece to piece or book to book. What is important about not rushing is not rushing the work out into the world. We tend to believe we’ve written THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD as soon as it’s done. It takes perseverance to write over seventy thousand words for a novel. Talent aside, it’s a lot of work! You feel you should be rewarded – at least appreciated – and that’s fine, but don’t act on it, not until you’ve had more eyeballs on your manuscript. Reward yourself in other ways and take the time to make sure your work is ready to send out.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have at least one great mentor and to surround yourself with talented writers, preferably ones who will tell you the truth. And one or two non-writers as well. Ask a few people to read it before you start querying agents. This does not apply if you’re, say, Jonathan Safran Foer with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor on your senior thesis. There are exceptions. Now back to real life!

Pay an editor to go through it and make sure it is free from errors and that it flows. Get both specific and global notes. Check the punctuation and do not rely on spell check. Look at the overall structure – do sequences make sense? Is there a strain of a theme that gets lost halfway through? I will give you an example. I had a very talented editor give me notes on WRESTLING ALLIGATORS. She pointed out that I made an allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth at the beginning that was then not explored in the rest of the text. It was a challenge, but in one of the subsequent passes (after I’d dealt with her other points), I spent a fair amount of time walking in the hills trying to come up with an answer and finally found it. It enriched the manuscript in a way I never expected and I would have not found it on my own. If I had rushed the manuscript out, that piece would have not been addressed and I would have missed the growth I experienced in that challenge. I really enjoyed solving the problem and discovering a way to solve it will benefit future work.

There are many things about the writing life that are challenging and one is the balance you have to strike between knowing when to go fast and when to slow down. Have you ever wish you’d taken more time before sending work out? Or do you have a triumph about taking your time?

Who Needs A Mentor?

I’ve been very blessed with great mentors. Rob Roberge and Gayle Brandeis in particular helped shape my work. Cheryl Strayed totally saved me in workshop – saved Growing Chocolate – with her suggestion to flip the last two chapters. I did have to go back and clean some things up, but that change kept the tone consistent all the way to the end and preserved my original intent. That’s the great thing about a talented mentor – they will not rewrite your work or suggest changes according to their vision or how they would write, but try to help you find your own way in your own voice. Also, for me, kind encouragement goes a long way and all three of these people are extraordinarily kind. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rigorous because they are. I never felt like I could slide or get away with anything. Plus they’re so fiercely smart, it would have been foolish to try. But as far as mentoring styles, I cannot hear ridicule. I shut down. Mean mentors don’t work for me. Criticism as bloodsport? No thanks. The world is cruel enough. We don’t need to help things along in that department.

Rob got me started on the path to better writing. He’s one of the best teachers out there. He asked a lot of questions and clarified the difference between mystery and murky and so many other issues. Mystery is fine, withholding certain bits of information is fine, but you don’t want murky. Readers want to know what’s going on in any given scene, so tell them. Lucky for all of us, he’s working on a craft book.

Gayle has many gifts including relating writing to the body. Plus she gets more done than practically anyone I know; we, her mentees, were suspicious that she does not need sleep, but she says she does so we will take her at her word. She must bend time somehow. 🙂 Anyway, as writers we tend to live in our heads and Gayle always reminds me that there’s much more to it.

In addition to the mentorship on any particular book, there is the mentorship of career, which is now more or less where I am with these three wonderful people. At a certain point, you make the shift from writing to your writing career. These three writers and others I had the privilege to work with at Antioch and elsewhere, have all taught me the value of continuing to move forward, of hard work, of taking chances. They are all productive and pretty darned cheerful in the process. Cheryl has been unfailingly gracious as she steps into the dream so many writers wish for. Rob and Gayle are generous with their time even with the demands of their own writing, teaching, readings, and so on.

Did I mention they all write beautifully? They do.

Who are your mentors? If you don’t have one, find one at a conference, a master’s program, workshops, even conventions such as Book Expo or AWP. It will save your sanity, help your writing, and, if you’re fortunate, enrich your life.

P.S. If you need a pep talk, here you go.

narcissism

New look! Got tired of the old one and I know it’s harder to read white words on a black background. I like to change things up now and then.

My annotation of Paul Harding’s TINKERS is up at Annotation Nation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about narcissism and writers, especially since the Mailer Colony. Reviews of his widow’s memoir, A TICKET TO THE CIRCUS mention “the book does little to dispel the image of Mailer as a narcissistic hothead with redeeming streaks of cuddliness and charm…”   Jesse Kornbluth wrote, “Despite his fabled, self-conscious narcissism and his hefty ego, Mailer was in some ways not a conventionally autobiographical novelist, though he was certainly an autobiographical journalist.” (I’m currently reading MENTOR: A MEMOIR and Grimes has a passing encounter with Mailer too. He’s everywhere!) Rona Fernandez writes about this subject and we both have heard from Chitra Divakaruni that it’s possible to be a good person and a good writer. Necessary even. Not that Mailer was a bad person. He wasn’t and he was very generous to young writers. Anyway, I agree with Fernadez’ conclusion that most writers aren’t narcissistic. I would add that you can’t be because part of the job description is being able to imagine other people in all their glorious imperfection.