You Can’t Make Souffle Rise Twice

I’ve never attempted a souffle.  I have, on the other hand, made a cake or two and once that oven door slams and the science of deflation takes hold, there’s no getting back what might’ve been.  I figure it’s the same with souffles. 

I’m wondering if Alice Roosevelt Longworth ever put her hand to whipping up a souffle — or a cake.  The firstborn daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, she may have been a hands-on kind of young woman.  I’m thinking that she did and thus the quote from Alice used as a title for this blog post today.  Olive Johns, the fictional mother of Irene in The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights, would’ve enjoyed this common sense way of looking at life, or souffles, or cakes.  Irene, on the other hand, might’ve said, “What’s a souffle?” because Irene, to my way of thinking, was even less a cook than I am.  For Irene, if the task wasn’t associated with swimming, diving, performance of one kind or another, or bringing home the bacon in support of family — then Irene’s interest was minimal or absent.

Alice Roosevelt was fifteen years old when Irene Johns was born in 1899.  When Irene was two in 1901, Alice moved into the White House with her father.   I’m thinking Alice was more like Olive than Irene, closer in age to Olive, yet in some ways closer in thoughts to Irene.  A biographer of Alice (see ‘Alice,’ by Stacy A. Cordery: A Washington Monument: Her Life and Bold Times [November 1, 2007]), Cordery writes “a female caricature of her father’s most criticized traits — impetuosity, stubbornness, insensitivity.”  If I were to write a biography of Irene, the first two traits Cordery mentions relating to Alice would be on target for my human cannonball protagonist — but not the third.  My Irene was sensitive — tough-skinned, but sensitive. 

Here’s another quote from Alice:  “I have a simple philosopy: Fill what’s empty.  Empty what’s full.  Scratch what itches.”  Yes.  Both Irene and Olive nod their heads in agreement.  Yes.

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Anna Freud and Defense Mechanisms, Meet Irene

The thing about women who dared to do things other women wouldn’t dare to do is that they did dare. They did do whatever seemed the next natural step they might take.  Anna Freud picked up the work her father had been doing and made her own cut in the fabric of psychoanalysis.  She left her father Sigmund’s model, Id, in the dressingroom and clothed Ego in all the manisfestations her study and research allowed, including defense mechanisms — or how to get tempermental Id to work with staid and proper Super Ego.  The two had to saunter down the same aisle of life; the two had to live in the same brain, the same mind.  So Anna (to this writer’s way of thinking), clothed Ego with defense mechanisms as a way to educate Id and Super Ego that, yes, indeed, hot pink can be worn with somber gray and the wearer may still be considered a gentlewoman.  Or a bright tie can be worn with a dark business suit, even a red shirt can be worn with a white linen jacket and the wearer may still be considered a gentleman.  It’s all in the balance, in the negotiating of texture and hue, in the rationalizing of want set againt what is right and potential wrongs set against need.

(If I am explaining this poorly, blame it on too many writers conferences and too much time spent with metaphors and similes.  And right there, in that sentence, my Ego has flashed her defense mechanisms into play!)

Moving on:  I found myself researching Anna Freud because of new characters in my new novel project.  I wanted to know what made them tick, these new gals, and I was curious about psychoanalysis and where that field was in relation to understanding how the mind works in the late 1940s.  However, as I read about Anna and her father, about Anna’s dream journals and how Sigmund used them in his research, I began to think about Irene Johns of The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights. About Irene’s father, Joseph, and the dreamer he was, the romantic he was, the failed artist Joseph Johns was.  And, too, about all that was lost when Irene’s mother moved Irene and her siblings from the farm because Joseph, the dreamer, did not do enough hands-on work to sustain them — at least in mother Olive’s opinion.

How does this have anything whatsoever to do with Anna Freud’s defense mechanisms of the Ego?  A light came on for me as I read the summarized account of defense mechanisms on Wikipedia.  What I knew about my character Irene was that she felt obligated to bring home an income; her Super Ego told her, subconsciously or consciously (who knows?) this was the right thing to do.  On the other hand, her Id wanted nothing to do with climbing inside a cannon to be blasted out over the Atlantic in three acts a day.  Still, she did it.  Thanks to Ego, Irene rationalized that she must.  This was the “hands-on” work she could get in 1930.  This was what she needed to do.  And she did.

Like her father, Joseph, Irene had a dreamer’s side, too.  Unlike her father, she knew what loss of home and being uprooted could do.  And Anna, like her father, Sigmund, had a mind in search of discovery, of new understanding, and she dared, Anna did, to follow her own path of reasoning and research.

Observations in Book Aisles Re-imagined

Ok.  So I’ve started a new novel.  Two pivotal characters begin to take shape.  A slightly later time period than the one used with Irene is being investigated.  The words and research move on and I am occupied — for the most part.  Until a writing prompt asks for an imaginative recollection of some momentous event.  Then, I can’t help but imagine a future event based upon past observations.  The two characters evolving in the new work take a back seat for a moment and the what follows finds the page.

~

The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights does not deserve the underline distinction, that long solid line denoting a manuscript has metamorphosed from 8 ½” x 11″ letter-scored pages into a published and bound book, the kind of book a browser of aisles might tilt into their hands from a shelf in a library or selling venue of hand-holdable titles.  Yet an author can daydream the same way a child can daydream and turn a tea party of dolls and stuffed bears into conversational friends.

So too, that child grown up, an author (of sorts) can imagine an event has come to pass the way a bride-to-be might practice writing her nuptialized name, Mrs. (fill in the blank) So-and-So, days or months before she says, “I do.”

Just so with this daydreaming author.  I can see the title running vertically down the dark ocean-blue spine of The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights book jacket.  The font is italicized, red, and slightly skewed as if hand-written.  Horizontally at the base of the spine is my first name, lynn (lowercase “L”), centered over my last name, doiron; the font is Bodoni Bk Bt; the color is an off-white gray.  Yes, a pale gray like the color of sea foam that trails just behind the crests of breaking waves.

Of course my eyes are closed as I picture the book, my book, on its shelf – on hundreds, thousands of shelves around the country, eventually, around the world as translations come into being.  But for now, in my mind’s eye, a woman (I can’t make out if she’s thirty or sixty) has paused on the quietly polished floor running between spire-high rows of books in a large and airy, well-lit independent bookstore.  Imagination tells me this woman knows the owner, that the owner has responded to the woman’s question when she first entered his store.  Her question was, “What do you recommend? I’m up for a feast these days.”  And his response, “Take a look at the one by Doiron,” has brought her to this aisle.

I strain to hear the book, my book, as it slides from the shelf to be held in the woman’s hands – but I am too distant, too far away for imagination to carry the lisp of binding and jacket leaving the shelf.  She reads the back cover blurbs; she examines the cover photo of a human cannonball cannon, the tiers of crowded stands at an oceanfront amusement park as the cannon’s backdrop; she opens the book, glances at whatever lines appear on the right, then the left.  She opens to pages somewhere near the middle of my book, a random page.  Again, imagination doesn’t allow me to hear these pages as they’re turned.

Then it comes, the sound of her sigh, the resounding thump of all pages closed.  In my daydream, I can’t bear it, this disappointment I’ve caused a potential reader, and I turn away from the aisle, the woman, the shelf with the hollow space where The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights with its red cursive title and my residual foamy name had once been displayed.

But hold on a minute!

. . . the shelf with the hollow space?

I choke out a laugh (this computer screen is my witness), delighted with the realization my make-believe buyer, this woman in khaki cropped pants and sage-green shirt, this woman of indeterminate years (and discerning good taste) had sighed with pleasure, with anticipation of the “feast” – not disappointment.  I’m grinning still.  Imagine that!

~

Note to self:  Stop finding writing prompts and stay focused on the new work.

Decades

 First things first. 
At the moment posting a link to a site with the heading “Lone Star College – Kingwood” tops my list.  This is the place —  http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decade00.html  —  to find American cultural history broken down by decades from 1900 through 2000.  The link will take you to 1900-1909; a menu bar across the page offers the subsequent decades.  A couple cool things about this site: the font is easy to read; there are small blocks of statistical info like population, life expectancy, wages, unemployment, cars on the road, miles of pavement in existence, days necessary to cross the continent, etc.  And there are additional links provided to other sites such as the Library of Congress and interesting connections to art, architecture and design pertinent to the era.  
Sites like these are the reason I love research.  A mention of one thing ‘here’ sets me off to learn more about that one thing ‘there,’ and ‘there’ I stumble upon the mention of another thing that sets me off to learn more, and from yet another ‘there’ the interests hopscotch or leapfrog way-way beyond any information I will possibly use in the project at hand. 
Caution, however, is advised.  When many things of interest clutter my mind, when I want to somehow include a mention of as many of these interests as possible — the work stumbles under the weight.  Choices!  Choices?  I fear I’ve made some wrong ones while writing The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights, eventually spending more time on the Winton automobile than on Irene’s athleticism or the plight of women athletes, in particular swimmers and divers, during the first thirty years of the twentieth century.  Then again, the current draft is only number 5; changes may yet be made; the balance of information in the current draft may be on the button; or not. 
Waiting — is difficult.  And decisions in regard to further edits to the current draft are difficult.  Self doubt enters.  An agent has draft 5 in hand.  I should wait.  I should make improvements.  I should wait. 
The advice from Coach Vannucci [my editing advisor with the Beat the Book gang] is:  Start the next novel.  Busy your mind.  Put this one away for the present.  Drink a bit of the bubbly.  Relax.  Enjoy.  Create. 
Yeah, Vannucci.  Right.

Annie Oakley and Me

Blame it on Friday’s Writing Essentials over at Gather.com for the Irene Journaling that follows.  They had this writing prompt that I came across just after finishing my blog write-up about parallels between Annie and Irene.  The prompt was to write about an encounter with someone famous, living or dead, real or imagined.  So I put myself on a bus and train; I put myself into daydream mode.  I put these words to the screen:

In my daydream we are riding a train and the tracks are not smooth; the train is not new but from the turn of the last century, perhaps 1920 or 30.  Velvet curtains with fringe hang at the windows, brass fixtures glow with the touch of the sun angling through.  I’m daydreaming a private car; my companion is Annie Oakley.

In actuality, I’m riding a bus and the roads here in Mexico have potholes a Volkswagen bug could slide into and never be seen again.  In actuality the seat next to me holds a ten or twelve-year-old boy with a cage on his lap containing a chicken.  Both the boy and the chicken are quiet; their heads nod as if both are taking small naps.

My head nods too.  The bus hits a pothole but Annie Oakley and I take the side-to-side bobble of the dreamed train on its dreamed tracks in stride.  The bobbles are as natural to us as wind would be to rooted prairie grass on the plains – we right ourselves again without conscious effort.  For long spells of time, neither one of us speaks.  We are sewing, our needles going into and out of goods we hold in our laps.  She’s working an embroidered pattern of red roses a few inches above the fringed hem of one of her sharpshooter show skirts; I’m backstitching in black the block letters of my name on the inside cuff of a dark brown silk shirt.  Annie borrows my scissors to snip a thread.  She hands them back.

We are both sixty; we are both content to rock along the track we are on and we are both headed somewhere – somewhere perhaps not better, perhaps not worse, but different.  I think about how precisely she’d snipped that thread, barely taking time to aim and close in on that thin presence of red string, my scissors leaving less than a sigh for the ear to pick up on.  I remark on her tiny hands.  She responds with a slight lowering of her lids as if to say, Yes, small is good.

I dot the “i” in my last name with a black French knot.  Annie says, “You make a fine French knot.”

“Thank you.  I’ve practiced a lot.”

Annie does that lid-lowering acknowledgment thingie again with her eyes.  The fringe on the velvet curtains in the private car sways as the train bobbles again.  Annie and I, like that prairie grass in the wind, sway too.

The boy with the caged chicken is gone when I open my eyes.  The bus is stopped.  Annie has packed up her private train car full of sun-touched brass and gone on to some place different while a different woman, about my age I would guess by the lines in her face, sits where the boy once sat.  Two long and very dark braids run vertically down her dress front.  Her hair, I think, must be nearly as long as she is tall.  When she opens a small basket and pulls bright-colored threads out to continue weaving a bracelet with a name in the design, I am content.  The bus rocks through another pothole.  We sway, the dark-haired woman and I, both on our way to some place different.

~

I often took just such imagined/daydreamed journeys with Irene.  I climbed inside that cannon at Poseidon Park and waited for her dunderhead brother, Wilbur, to give the signal he was lighting the fuse.  I sat with her in her dressingroom between acts.  And as I write these words, she sits with me.  The truth is I think she misses my company as much as I miss hers — even though our friendship is only through words.  Well, and the power to invent one another.

Writing prompts – whether they come at me from some phenomenal story or novel or poem I’ve just read and want to try my hand at working such magic with some other subject or time, or if the prompt is a list of factors or one factor to approach with words – are the best sources for moving me from whatever place I’m slogging through in my writing.  They put me back on the road again, if not to the place intended, at least moving.

To visit Writing Essentials on Gather, go to http://writing.gather.com/ This post originated with Friday’s prompt “Close Encounters” but there are varying prompts and informative pieces for each day of the week.

Research : Parallels in Lives

 I bought a booklet of postcards while in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (By the way, if you ever get to Raleigh and you love books, visit the Quail Ridge Bookstore — it’s terrific.  Folks are nice, too.)  The postcards are all of women who dared to make changes.  One of the black and white photos is of Annie Oakley.  The small blurb on the back sent me off to research Annie on the internet.  I knew a little.  I wouldn’t be using the information in The True Life Adventures of my Irene novel, yet I had an interest, a curiosity, and followed it.
What I found was that Annie Oakley was thirty-nine in 1899, the year Irene Parilee Johns was born.  Annie died at age 66 or thereabouts; Irene, the fictional heroine of The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights, didn’t live half so many years.  Yet, the two women, Annie and Irene, shared a stage in “time.”
Imagination tells me, they shared a physical stage as well, perhaps at the Hippodrome in New York City.  Or perhaps, during Irene’s “horse-diving” days, both Irene and Annie toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wildwest Show.  This last seems highly doubtful – but it’s grand to imagine these two women who dared to do what they did, who stepped outside the tiny confines of womanhood back then into worlds where they brought home the bread.
Irene was born in Penn and Annie in Ohio.  Irene’s fictional mother was Methodist and Annie’s Quaker.  Both mothers did the best they could. 
Annie’s mother, a widow three times over, had it rough with eight children (Annie was the sixth) from her first husband, Jacob, then a ninth child with her second husband, Joseph.  When he died, she married a third time and was widowed again.
Irene’s mother, Olive, married only once.  His name was Joseph, too, and Joseph had “prospects.”  However, after nine children (Irene was the seventh), Olive left, not her family, but Joseph, who, to Olive’s mind, squandered his “prospects” on dreaming.  She took eight of her children with her – the oldest daughter having already wed and moved on.
Both Annie’s father and Irene’s died as a result of, or during, freezing weather – Jacob from pneumonia after overexposure; and Joseph Johns due to a mishap while cutting block ice from the pond.
Nine year old Annie, to provide for her family did a stint at the county poor farm, followed by harsh labor with a local family.  When she returned to her family, Annie hunted game in the surrounding area and sold her take to townsfolk.  She was 13 or 14 by then.  
Irene at fourteen was touring with an aquatic Vaudeville act – Dottie Clay’s Mermaids – and sending home money to help pay the mortgage on a brownstone in Brooklyn where her mother had settled after leaving the Pennsylvania farm.
Neither girl had much by way of schooling; what they learned, they learned along the way.  Irene, as a younger girl, had been too hard-headed to apply herself.  Annie, it would seem, never really had the chance to attend regular school in her youth.  Still, monies earned by Annie for the game she sold eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm.  And Irene, until her death, contributed to the safe-keeping of her mother’s Brooklyn home. 
The parallels go on, at least in my mind.  The Irene Johns of my novel is inspired by Irene Lowe, a woman who dared to climb into a cannon and be shot, as a human cannonball, out over the tiered stands of crowds at the Atlantic City Steel Pier back in the 1930’s.  Irene was the “bullet” so to speak, while Annie fired bullets from a rifle.  Both women were show-stoppers.  Both women did what they did to bring home the bread.  Both women dared.  One of them lived twice the span of years as the other.  You might say one woman’s show was all skill, the other’s was pure folly.  I like to think Irene did what she felt was required.  Women who dare often do.
 

Sketchy Outline

A few years back I bought a book by James Scott Bell titled Plot & Structure.  In fact, I’d been working out an imagined life for my imagined Irene for two years by then.  It seemed time to figure out a different approach.  Seriously, how long could I sustain reader interest in the interior, semi-conscious recollections of my heroine?  At some point another point of view would become necessary.  Not having lived on the other side of life, I didn’t think I could pull off working Irene’s story from a stance beyond the grave.  I needed help.  I needed a “how-to” on structure.  I needed, two years down the line of writing my mini-epic saga, a plot.What I like about Bell’s Plot & Structure is the brevity used as he walks a wanna-be novelist through the basics, offering enough examples and varying methods/approaches to give an understanding of how structure and flow might be accomplished without going too deep or waving long rippling banners with the announcement This Is The Best Tried-and-True Way To Write A Novel!  Nope.  Long story short:  What works for one writer may not work at all for another. 

Take outlining, for instance.  Some highly successful writers make outlines crammed full of the tiniest details; other highly successful writers have “an idea” they expand upon as they write;  still other HSW’s (that’s “highly successful writers” for those of you who may wonder — I was going for a word-saving/space-saving way to repeat that string of modifiers one more time) work between the extremes of “tiniest details” and “an idea.”  In other words, there is no “right way” to write a smooth-flowing structurally sound novel, one that keeps the reader turning pages, coming back for more — but when the way a writer is working, isn’t working for that writer, isn’t getting the story told — then perhaps it may be time to 1) throw away the outline, or 2) sketch one out. 

I wrote the following little ditty a while back.  It’s not an outline.  I don’t think of it as an outline.  I don’t particularly care for outlines.  But, after a few years of letting imagination meander the word trails, I slammed this (let’s call it a “summary”) together. 

(Untitled Summary)

Irene introduces her dunderhead brother
Wilbur, who lights the fuse: Cannon; barker;
Small-time band; suckers in the stands.

Sharon introduces Teddy, dead, and a desert house
With fake panes and a ghost of her in the window:
Painted chairs; green-tined rake; a daughter;
Pendulum lights; a smudge like a kiss on the glass.

Ricky Towne slouches past Theo’s City Junk Store
Wishing for better days, bicycles in a row, stead of:
Ivory combs; shattered silk; empty ornate frames;
Bowling pins; styrofoam cups; a red lacquered trunk.

Foster introduces Irene, little man, overstuffed;
Irene and Little Fish introduce Bucky and Bucky
Intros the pigs sliding down pig-chute ramps:
One little pig; two little pig; three little pig;
Four; a dog for Buddy; bail to get outta jail;
Pesaries and quiffs; capes and sails; slats nailed
To Sycamores in Penn. 

One by one they tumble to page, one by one they expire
Like paper dolls cut and paper-clothed: Daughter;
Brother; Mother; Son; Strongman; Cousin; Friend;
Clown; Lover; Woman; Girl: The story ends.

~

Believe it or not, that bit of line-broken whimsey above helped me with focus.  I still recommend Bell’s book to beginning novelists as a basics on “how-to” when the chance arises.  The other “how-to” I follow is studying the best novels read.  When an author stuns me with some accomplishment in a chapter, I dissect that chapter page by page, paragraph by paragraph, modifier by modifier, etc. and so on.  Often, those HSW’s are the best mentors around, whether or not they “outline” or simply “idea.”