Chapters: My Growth as a Writer by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favourite writers and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned her on my blog yet! It’s time.

Last year I was fired up and researching whether writers I loved had written autobiographies or memoirs, hoping very much that they had, because one is curious about the person behind the magic pages that pulled you in, about their insights on writing and life, the experiences that shaped them, and you’re expecting their memoirs to be as engaging as their fiction. I don’t rush with this, because I’m usually involved in some extensive reading first, especially if the writer has been around a while and achieved a lengthy bibliography. Then there’s some digesting and thinking time after finishing a novel. It’s almost like I need to sit with the characters I met for a while before I move on to words directly from the life of the person who created them.

Chapters: My Growth as a Writer is a gem for many reasons. One of them is that between Lois Duncan’s memories and accounts of her writing, which are all absorbing in their own right, the book is basically an anthology of her riveting short stories (none of which I had read before!). She uses them to illustrate her growth and career, and while each point she makes comes across loud and clear, the stories themselves are a fantastic read, showcasing the incredible talent evident since Lois Duncan’s early years. They contain that unique suspense building up from the everyday experiences we can all relate to that is characteristic of her novels. What will happen? Will it be something bad? are the questions we keep asking ourselves when we read.

Visions of a woman’s life in a 1950s-60s America emerge, as a teenager, a young woman, a wife, a mother. The expectations, the preconceived societal ideas, the sexism, the condescension, the inevitable revolt against attempts, however small, to diminish a creative identity – unfortunately, some of it still exists today. One scene in which Lois Duncan describes her statement that she is a self-employed professional writer, while her conversation partner firmly insists it’s a hobby and not a “real” job is simply priceless.

Just like her novels, this memoir is a reminder that Lois Duncan was so much more than, as often mentioned in news headlines, the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer. She was a gifted writer, an attentive and precise observer and an amazing, engaging storyteller. She drew on and never disregarded her own experiences, more than proving the “Write what you  know” maxim, and she worked hard. She knew how to tap into that which scared us, young and old, what made us laugh in-between and how to grasp a life-changing moment, whether big or small, then put all this into written words.

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Home. A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews

Next in line for memoirs by inspiring female public figures. To not take away the many tantalizing and surprising bits, it was a filling, eye-opening read from an artist known not only for her unique singing voice, but cheery public image. I grew up with watching The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and while I was mesmerized by Julie Andrews’ singing, since I was little I had always noticed, that when she smiled, her smile reached her eyes. Not many people have that quality. That’s what makes it all the more fascinating, as well as grounding, to discover the hardships that she faced throughout her childhood and youth, filled with work. Despite the very real challenges in her life, what stands out is her enjoyment of life and people, her matter-of-fact descriptions of hard times, and the seemingly natural taking on of staggering responsibility for both her family and her career. Never once does she turn away, and when she describes her theater experience, you get the sense that she was simply where she was meant to be. Reading and writing defined her almost as much as singing did, in fact. Whatever life threw her way, and as much as she had to carry on her shoulders even when she was just a girl, she was always capable of having fun.

She also presents valuable insights on the ever current topic of what it’s like for a woman to work in the entertainment industry, and some experiences that she recounts are not that far removed from what we hear about today. One of the passages that I couldn’t stop thinking about after reading it (after the first preview of the US performance of My Fair Lady): “Everyone rushed to Rex’s dressing room to congratulate him. I slumped in my chair, thinking, ‘I don’t believe we did it…’ at which point my door was flung open and Cecil Beaton flew in. The little hat that I wore with the yellow suit was lying on my dressing table. It was an oval shape and flat like a saucer. In he haste of pinning up my hair and the hat going on my head in the quick change, it had been put on back to front. It was the only thing that night that hadn’t been done correctly. Beaton picked up the hat and slammed it on to my had. ‘Not that way, you silly bitch – this way!’ he snapped. I nearly burst into tears.”

If you’re wondering, she doesn’t elaborate any further on this incident, or recount how she felt when she got home, or indeed the next day. But as she says later in the book, “When actors work together there is a tacit understanding that the show and its message are what matters above all else. Personal issues are set aside once the curtain is up.”

Cue massive Sound of Music nostalgia (though she rarely mentions the film in her memoir).

The Only Pirate at the Party. By Lindsey Stirling and Brooke S. Passey

Lindsey Stirling is one of my favourite artists on the planet. So when I heard that she was co-writing a memoir with her sister, I knew at once that I would have to get my hands on it. It must have been the fastest pre-order I ever placed. When it arrived, I read it in a day.

The book is a crowd-pleaser for her fans, just as her performances are. It’s all that Lindsey is herself: lively, warm, attentive, dedicated and sparklingly engaging. It’s also a written extension of her talent to observe, process and create.

The relationship with her sister and co-author Brooke is a guiding factor throughout her life, work and the book. In fact, some of the most interesting chapters, besides the ones about her work and life as a performing artist, are those where she talks about her family and siblings. The searing depiction of the influence of her eating disorder on her life and how she reclaimed being a sister left me floored, blinking back tears.

I nearly jumped when I read the the title Chapter on my Young and Carefree Drug/ Alcohol Escapades – was there something I had missed? To everyone’s relief, and subtly pointing out certain expectations regarding famous people, Lindsey writes, “I have never done drugs or consumed alcohol, so this chapter is really short.”

As happy and as positive both her personality and her work are (not without effort), several chapters of the book are darkly honest, though while being direct, the stories and struggles Lindsey touches on are not delivered to shock – they are part of the journey that led her to being herself, and she chose to include them.

One can’t help feeling admiration for the amount of work Lindsey put in, continuing to tour and make videos while working on the book with her sister, especially considering the devastating loss of her keyboarder and close friend Jason Gaviati to cancer shortly before the book was published.

The Only Pirate at the Party is full of moments both heart-wrenching and endearingly funny. There were times when I wanted to shout, “Lindsey! Don’t base anything you do on some of those mean comments! And certainly not on those reviews in the paper! They just don’t get it!” or “Don’t you see, those other musicians were just jealous of you!”

I was very fortunate to see Lindsey play live two years ago. The keen feeling for beauty that she carries inside herself translates not only to her art, but to the way the book is written. By the end of it you understand who this girl is, and why she is the only pirate at the party.

I hope she will always know just how incredibly, uniquely gifted she is.

Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling

A logical sequel to reading Kaling’s first book was reading her second. Luckily it had already come out by the time I finished Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Why Not Me? is described as a “second coming-of-age”, and in the modern world it might as well be. Kaling started writing about her life and work experiences in her first book, and she made it clear at the end of it that she wasn’t finished. Which was nice to read – you wanted to hear more from her. “If my childhood, teens, and twenties were about wanting people to like me, now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.”

While still familiarly funny and recognizable in Kaling’s both snappy and flowing prose, the book makes a more paced, thoughtful impression. The simple dedication, “For my mother”, and subsequent poignant chapter are an example of further examining deep and tested relationships that filled the author’s life. Youth and experiences described in Kaling’s first book are still not at all far away, but she is at a different level of depth. She also takes a more detailed look at phases that were mentioned in the prequel.

One of my favourite chapters was A Day in the Life of Mindy Kaling, because it answered the questions all readers probably have when buying a book of this kind. You have a voice, a vision, an identity – how do you do the things you do? How do you see life and work? What is it like beyond what we see of you in public?

But my absolute favourite is 4 A.M. Worries. This is another chapter in which Kaling is plainly vulnerable and simply writes down things that many people can identify with. Perhaps not always at 4 A.M., but Kaling nails describing those deep-seated, sometimes hidden worries so well, you almost think you just spent an hour talking to her.

But even those 4 A.M. worries don’t diminish the sassy, intelligent optimism Kaling exhibits. The coming-of-age does take place, yet again. “And these days, I find I’m caring less and less about what people think of me. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my security in my career, maybe it’s because I’m skrilla flush with that dollah-dollah-bill-y’all, but if I had to identify my overall feeling these days, it’s much more “Eh, screw it. Here’s how I really feel.”

Here’s how I really feel: I would read this one again too.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

The New York Times review quote on the cover, while intentionally good, only makes me disagree with it. Mindy Kaling is not “like Tina Fey’s little sister.” Mindy Kaling is Mindy Kaling.

Kaling herself pokes fun at this in her opening chapter. Answering a probably typical question about her book, “This sounds okay, but not as good as Tina Fey’s book. Why isn’t this more like Tina Fey’s book?”she says, “I know, man. Tina’s awesome.”

One of the most pleasant impressions from this book was of intelligence and humour, which permeated the pages, easily mixing and trading places with each other in Kaling’s written delivery. She is truthful and frank, but, to a reader’s relief, neither coarse nor crude.

Most good memoirs seem to have a common denominator: witty and natural self-deprecation. Which in turn might also be a form of owning being bullied in the past, another thing the authors of said memoirs often have in common. Kaling is able to laugh at parts of her childhood and youth which are, from a matter-of-fact point of view, not funny at all, but she is in control of her narrative and easily shares the laughter with her readers. A description of a horrifying incident had me in unexpected stitches: “The sight of a fat child falling, lifeless, from a high distance into a pond, is kind of an amazing sight, I’ll bet.” More so it wasn’t due to the wording, but to the fact that Kaling was being humorous and still making room for a serious statement in an enganging way.

She pauses plenty of times for self-reflection, and you wait for it every now and then, you come to expect that paragraph that makes you either nod or shake your head, but you understand it. “A note about me: I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.

Kaling is yet another female voice with a sense of self expressing hope for something. When reading, inner responses range from, “Girl, why?!” to “Yes, same here!” “I’m kind of a mess,” she admits candidly. But a successful, hard-working, driven mess. Taken separately from the TV shows she was involved in, the book in itself also showcases how Kaling creates and carries her own project. She is definitely as chatty as she is known to be, but her chatter is clear-spoken and attention-grabbing.

An ultimately amusing and touching non-fiction read, which I would pick up again.

 

Yes Please and Bossypants

It looks like I’m on a memoir reading kick now, more specifically those written by US female entertainers receiving considerable media attention. The stack of books in the abovementioned genre on my nightstand has become higher, and since it is in danger of toppling over and waking me up in the night (falling books make quite the noise), I got a move on.

Two of the books from said stack have been read. Before I pull out the parts that stuck with me the most, why did I turn to these memoirs? Because I was curious. They kept popping up in stories on sites I regularly visit and being mentioned by authors writing pieces I identified with. Quite a few of these books were bestsellers in the US and internationally, and as is sometimes the case for me with massively successful cultural phenomena, I wanted to form my own opinion. Also the authors of these books, whatever opinion one might have of their preceding and continuing work in entertainment, were hard-working women with established creative projects they felt strongly about and had pushed through themselves. I wanted to read what they had to say.

The first book was Yes Please by Amy Poehler. I opened the book straight to the middle, to be greeted by the simple statement, “If it’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.” True, and thank you – that’s actually what got me in the reading mood before I started at the beginning. The order of events described in the book is not chronological, jumping from youth to childhood to adulthood and then back to childhood. Observations on family, friends, children, work and careers are interspersed with each other, which I found relatable, as that is basically what life is like on a daily basis. While some of the sketches described were not to my taste, quite a few experiences strike a chord, especially when Poehler switches from sarcastic to observant and humble in one chapter. Time Travel is a touching depiction of how time and friendships connect: “I believe you can time-travel three different ways: with people, places and things…In the shop, I found an old-timey bathing suit. I bought the bathing suit home and looked at it. I thought about who might have owned it before. The bathing suit didn’t fit into my life at that moment …I put this bathing suit in a drawer and it waited for me to take it traveling. And then six months later I went to Palm Springs with a bunch of wonderful women. They were my beautiful friends who helped me through a difficult year. We were going swimming and I reached into my bag to find a bathing suit….I realized I had traveled again, this time into a happier future.”

She also writes a succint and to-the-point passage about the reality of unwanted approaches women may deal with in the workplace, however small: ” But I did let him hug me. I let that creepy guy hug me. I stayed seated and he came over and hugged my stiff body while my arms stayed at my sides. All I was thinking at that moment was that if I let him hug me he would feel better and this would all be over soon. Do you think he would have hugged a male performer? Me neither. Either way, it never ends.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey followed, and I can’t help feeling I read it a little too fast, as I’m leafing through it now for this blog post and discovering passages that seem new to me. The additional catalyst for taking my own look at the book was hearing people talk about it at a party and rewatching Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin. In any case, one of the chapters I enjoyed most was titled I Don’t Care If You Like It (One in a series of love letters to Amy Poehler). The scene she describes, where Poehler speaks her mind about a, albeit jokey, reaction to her own joke, aptly sums up her creative approach to comedy entwined with views on independence: “With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not ******* care if you like it.” This is followed by a nugget of always true and handy advice that is never amiss (and also made me want to read on): “So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on.”

The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter is one of the best parts of the book, and one I confess I skipped to before reading in orderly fashion. Both humorous and heartfelt, it rounds up what a memoir is for – writing about yourself without being strictly autobiographical: “Oh Lord, break the internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers.” Regardless of whether you’re a parent or not, you will probably find yourself smiling as you read.

Just like the two women are famously friends in real life, the feeling you get after finishing reading is that the books could be friends too. Both authors mention each other and the role they play in each others lives without overdoing it, and those parts of the books are some of the most heart-warming. You believe in this friendship. Both honestly mention what it was like to write books and are open about the process of writing – yes, it’s hard! But the unstopabble part is that they both wanted to do it. Most notably, when you have experienced and achieved a lot in what occupies the main time frame of your life, the truth is that it can make a book.

Off to read the next one from the stack.