Writing romances as an act of courage
Luncheon Speech, Dallas, July 2004
Author preface: It’s a dark talk, but remember, I do know how to deliver a happy ending….
It’s an unholy world we’re living in, isn’t it? Over the past five years, it has become an increasingly dangerous place. I sometimes look back and think, “What happened?”
For me, the dark times started on April 20, 1999.
An unholy date. Hitler’s birthday, but more specific to our current situation, it is the day two boys went into a suburban high school and murdered 12 children and themselves.
Those killing happened 100 miles from us, and they hit my eldest son very hard. They hit ME hard. My sense of safety was shattered, and there was no way to put it back together again.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was taking my son to school the next morning. Where a cataclysm could happen.
Where he was no longer safe.
I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. I thought of the parents of the children who were murdered, and the parents of the children who did the killing, and my soul was torn with unease.
I wanted to fix it. Solve it. Heal it. What could I do? There had to be some way to stop the madness.
It is an unholy world we are living in.
A couple of summers ago, I went to France for a hiking trip with a good friend of mine. It was a personal test-to see if I really had achieved the fitness levels I’d been working toward, and a reward for giving up cigarettes.
I wanted to see if I had the courage to venture into a world where I didn’t know the language, and hike-seriously hike– for seven days with a small group. My life had been changing and I needed time to see where I might be going next. On those hills in Provence, sweating, I found some answers. Or what I thought were answers.
I was buoyed by my discoveries. I was cheered.
I left Nice for Paris on an Air France plane. I’m not a nervous flyer, but as we flew over the Alps, I must admit to looking forward to getting back to the reliability of United-my pet airline. A nice, big, safe American plane, which would take me from Paris to Washington DC.
And yes, I boarded that plane in Paris so happily, slept all the way home, landed in DC and had a few hours to burn before my flight home to Denver. I wandered the nearly empty airport all alone, bought a latte and carried it around with me.
When I went through my receipts for taxes, I discovered the receipt for that latte. It was sold at 8:45 pm by someone named Mohammed, who I remembered, joked with me about drinking coffee so late.
The date was Sept 10, 2001. I arrived home at 3 am on Sept 11. And woke up to the same horrendous reality we all did that day. My grandmother called to be sure I was home, and said someone had bombed the Pentagon. She’s eighty. I thought she’d mixed something up.
Of course she had not.
I wept in sorrow and horror along with the rest of the nation that morning. I wept for my own lucky escape and the eerie brush of the scythe over my neck.
I wondered what I could do. How I could help end the madness, be a force for good, instead of evil.
Its an unholy world we’re living in.
Now, we’re at war. We have friends and family and acquaintances in the battlefields. It seems, sometimes, unreal to me. It frightens me. It saddens me. I don’t know what to do.
There are days I ask myself what good writing romances can possibly be doing in a world gone so terribly astray.
While I sat in my chair and scribbled my last novel, how many children died of AIDS in Africa? How many women were beaten by the men who promised to love them and cherish them? When I played my soundtrack of Gipsy Kings for the last novel I wrote, how many Indians died on reservations of drink and despair? How many more Israeli and Palestians were laid in their graves?
With so much going on in our world, how can we possibly justify wasting our precious hours on something as foolish as romance novels? Shouldn’t we be doing something?
The truth is: WE ARE DOING SOMETHING.
And the truth is, I don’t have any choice. Nor do you. You are not here by accident. Neither am. We didn’t CHOOSE, we were chosen.
Each and every one of us in this room as been chosen to do this work by that mysterious force some people call their higher power and some people call the universe and some just call ambition.
I call her the Writing Goddess.
Not everyone thinks in the same metaphorical terms, so you can call that force whatever you like. For now, I’m asking you to play along with my image of the goddess.
I want you to take a minute and think about your favorite book of all time. The book that most changed you, most moved you, most influenced your thoughts and feelings, maybe even the path of your life.
Now. Imagine that it had never made it into the world.
Wouldn’t that be an awful thing?
I believe that you have a book in you that’s going to be that favorite book for somebody else. You wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t have that potential.
The goddess has called YOU, specifically. YOU.
You and I are here in this room against unbelievable odds. Think about that for a minute.
To start with, writers are born as genetic anomalies.
You have to have such a specific, strange combination of gifts and flaws to become a writer in the first place that we’re practically mutations. I’ve been doing some research/work with psychology and schizophrenics, and trust me-it’s just a teeny bit alarming. Someone told me once that it takes nine mutated genes to have full-blown schizophrenia, and writers have around 6 or 7.
You start to wonder where the line is. I mean, I hear voices. I talk to myself. I have entire conversations with myself, or rather the conversations I’m imagining. I know I’m not alone when I say that on more than one occasion, I’ve been stopped at a red light, having a long, involved practice dialogue, complete with hand gestures and facial expressions to coincide—and then I look over and see the person in the car next to me looking at me quite uneasily.
But our mutation is not just that part, that– the ability to see and envision alternate realities. It’s not just being sensitive to language and form and story, although those alone make you rare enough.
The psychology of a writer is a very interesting thing. Oddly, creativity is not particularly well-understood by psychologist’s—they’re just now beginning to accept that there might be a profile, I think, or figuring out how to test it.
But there is a rare study, published in the 1960’s called THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CREATIVITY, by E. Paul Torrance. It studied the nature of highly creative children, and what characteristics they manifest. I’m not going to read the whole list to you, but here are a few of the things they found:
Always baffled by something
Attracted to the mysterious
Dominant, but not in a power sense
Doesn’t fear being thought “different”
Feels the whole parade is out of step
Full of curiousity
Appears haughty and self-satisfied at times
Independent in thinking
Keeps unusual hours
Lacks business sense
Sensitive to beauty
Willing to take risks
I notice other things about writers. We are, almost without exception, fierce, arrogant, compassionate, devoted, tenacious and almost always either loners or somewhat self-conscious and shy, or both.
We have exaggerated fears of odd things, usually imagined in acute detail. I am afraid of spiders, but specifically of spiders in my hair. One of the things that makes me almost positive that my eldest son is going to end up being a writer despite his protests is that he is flat out terrified of moths. He’s wrecked a car over a moth.
Writers are almost always acutely empathetic, which is-I’m convinced-what makes crowds difficult for so many of us. Most of us are also very sensitive to beauty in its many forms, and I believe that romance writers are peculiarly sensitive to beauty, and that’s what draws us to this particular form-we’re so full we’re spilling over with all the love and beauty in the world and we want to share it.
It’s not an accident that you’re sitting here.
When the goddess looked out on the hordes of others who were born the same day you were, she chose you from an assembly of billions. Billions. There you were, standing in the crowd, and she came through and put her hand on you.
It branded you. You know it, in your heart. Most of us knew, very early, that we were not like other people.
And that is the first gift of the goddess of writing. She marked us early, tattooed us with her name. In doing so, she gave us a sense of vocation and purpose. Each and everyone of us in this room knows exactly why we’re here on this planet. We know what we are supposed to do.
That’s a huge blessing.
So you’re rare to start with. Rare in genetic material. Rare enough just being born with those talents that you’re almost in the weird zone.
But then, as a woman marked by the writing goddess, you’ve got to get through so many challenges. You have to actually grow up, find some nourishment for your gift, and avoid the pitfalls along the way to writing that book or short story or gorgeous poem.
We lose so many of our number before they get to that point that it breaks my heart. We lose some in childhood to indifferent teachers or hostile environments. More in adolescence and young adulthood to early pregnancy and struggle for survival. We lose some to the academic world, which presents a model of literature that’s so alien to the way most women think, that the budding writer begins to believe she really can’t write at all.
We lose far, far too many of our number to patriarchal cultures who could not bear to let women do something as dangerous as writing books. And not just cultures in foreign lands, like Afghanistan, I’m talking the United States of America.
We lose many many of our number to the scourges of drugs and despair, tools the branded woman who has not had enough support uses to quiet the roaring of her amazing brain.
But somehow, you survived even those trials, and here you are, at the temple of the goddess. You want to serve her.
AND THIS IS WHERE IT GETS A LITTLE BIT MORE DIFFICULT. Because we all know that it’s not easy, serving the goddess.
She wants everything you have.
She wants your experiences. Your brain. Your heart. Your soul. She wants to know that you will give her everything you have, whatever you have, when she needs it. She wants that secret you’ve never told anyone, ever. She wants that wound that can still bleed if someone brushes it by accident. She wants your pain and your bone marrow and your joy and every desire you’ve ever known.
And she’s not interested, actually, in acclaim or good reviews or Ritas or money. She will see to it that you have a roof over your head, or a job to tide you over. She’ll see to it that you have the tools you need. She’ll even provide tuition for college your your kids, but usually in the nick of time.
No, she doesn’t care about acclaim. She’s about getting a particular truth into the world, and she uses her servants-us—to get the job done. She also gives us some things to get us through. Look at the woman next to you. She’s a priestess, too. She’s readying her blood and the marrow of her bones for the sacrifices she’s going to have to make.
IF IT’S SO HARD, WHY DO IT?
Because it’s magic, for one thing. When people ask me if I like writing for a living, I say, “How could I not? They pay me to sit in a room and make things up!”
But it’s deeper than that. By far.
The goddess makes it worth our while. We get to know, in a world that’s so confused, exactly why we’re on the planet. I’m here to do this, to write books. I’m here to get bloody and muddy and wade through the rains and storms in order to bring these babies into the world.
READERS need us. Desperately. When I begin, that’s the prayer I always offer: Let me serve the reader who needs me most. Let me get out of the way and serve her needs. Let me say what she needs to have articulated, let me dream a dream she can attain, let me give her peace and rest and joy. Let me serve her, that reader, who needs me.
We all know that books can be transformative. Sometimes a whole society is changed by a book. All I’m ever after is one reader. One. The idea of the person, that I’ve never met and maybe never will, keeps me true to the task. Keeps me from falling down on the job, from doing less than my very best, however short I fall.
And if I’m successful, if I do it, just change one woman’s life for the course of a day, or maybe if I’m lucky, give her courage to dream something for herself, it’s worth all the blood I’ve given, all that I’ve had to give up. If actually meet that woman at a booksigning or in the street or at RWA, and she takes my hand or haltingly conveys to me whatever the goddess said to her through that book, I’m ready to do it again that second. Just as all of us are ready, the second we see our baby’s new face, to go through the trials of pregnancy and labor again.
BUT THE NUMBER ONE REASON TO DO THIS IS -the writing itself.
The pleasure of getting right, once in awhile. The pleasure of connecting with that whatever-it-is out there that gives us the stories, the words, the paints we use.
I recently read a novel by Sara Lewis called The Second Draft of My Life, and I have to plug it for all the writers in the room-I happened to pick it up as an ARC from the towering stack in my mother’s bedroom because I had to get on a plane for a book tour. And as it happened, it was about a poor woman on book tours and in all the awful circumstances writers find themselves in. She’s decided, after twenty years, to just give it up. She can’t stand it anymore, and she goes back to teaching.
As it happens, she has a little trouble with teaching first graders, but a character from a former novel she’s written shows up in the form of a workbook she writes for herself. Our heroine writes a very wise line:
“People always ask me if my books come from my life. No one ever thinks to ask if my life comes from my books.”
My life is transformed by writing. The simple act of imagining and writing enriches me beyond measure.
We are so rare and we are holding up the tent for so many who could not join us. And we honored by her choice, her picking us out of the crowd. It is not an easy path. But it is worthwhile.
What if your book goes unwritten? What will the world have lost?
WRITING A ROMANCE NOVEL IS AN ACT OF FAITH IN AN UNHOLY WORLD.
A lot of our critics think we are foolish women, spoiled housewives with not a thought in our heads for the greater good. They believe that our work adds nothing to the world, that our books are like so much candy, fine in their place, but bound to rot our brains and layer them with the fat that clogs real thinking.
They are so wrong.
First of all, we are not spoiled housewives or foolish children. There is not a woman in this room who has not endured tragedy. Even many tragedies. Clarrissa Pinkola Estes says that all women belong to one clan, no matter what our race or background. She calls that clan the Scar Clan, because we are all marked with the scars of living in a world that is more brutal than kind, more harsh than forgiving, more violent than loving. We carry those scars all over our hearts and souls.
We don’t write romance novels out of some foolish notion that the world is all sweetness and light. We write them in spite of the fact that there is evil afoot in the world. We write them in defiance of knowing how bad it is out there. We write romance because they are powerful acts of faith, acts of light in a dark world.
Romance novels are born of the sorrows of women-they protest, with great gentleness and deep firmness, the nature of evil. Romance novels are acts of tremendous bravery, a heart-felt dare to believe that a better world is possible. That love conquers all. That if there is enough love, it will finally blot out the darkness.
In our books, we don’t say that we know life is a bowl of cherries. We say that we will never stop believing in a world where beauty and honor, love and light prevail. Where a good man is honorable and treats his children well, and makes his wife not only his beloved, but his kin. Where women don’t leave their babies in dumpsters, but tend them with great love. In our books, there is not teenager who cannot be saved, no grief that cannot be healed, no challenge without an answering courage and hope.
Is it the real world? No. Do we know that? Absolutely. Does that mean our vision of the world is false? No way.
We do it though we know this is not always reality-but it is true sometimes, and that’s a lot. We do it with the faith that the possibility exists. We dare to say, aloud, and with defiance:
Love counters evil.
Compassion soothes an angry heart.
THE GODDESS WANTS US TO FORM CIRCLES OF HEALING
I’ve happily stumbled into a group of women who hold sweat lodges on full moons and other sacred days. The Clan mother of that group is a wise, kind, gentle woman who tells us that we must tend to our own healing so that we’re strong and balanced when we go out into the harsher world. If we are strong and balanced, we can heal the earth and each other. She brings us together to sweat, where we can grieve and rejoice and let go of all the small and large stresses of our lives.
Katherine is devoted to the idea of circles of women, creating them, sustaining them, so that their joined unity and power can transform this world of darkness. We are the healers. Katherine tells us that we have to tend our gardens, create beauty and order at all times, especially in the darkest times.
Writing and reading romance novels creates one of those circles-a healing circle where each of us comes and can put down our burdens. It is a circle contained in the garden of order and beauty that we’re all tending together. A place where we can retreat from the harsh world outside, lie our heads on the shoulder of a sister and let go of a sigh. Here, in the secret, beautiful world we have created in our genre, we renew ourselves and renew each other. The circle begins with the writer, who heals herself by writing, and goes to the reader, who heals herself by reading, and both are enriched by this intimate communication between the two. It is a circle of two, but it is also a circle of millions.
Millions. Think of that. It’s a very big circle, and it lives in a garden where we are growing all of our hopes and dreams and wishes and prayers for a better world.
These are dark times. But your weapon is that sword of hope, your talent, your offering. Do it well, because it is a sacred calling and we all need you. Writing romances is an act of faith in unholy times.
Now, go do it.