Report from Florida

I am breaking my self-imposed no blogging while in Florida rule here to share a few of my adventures so far. As you can see, it’s lovely and sunny at the beach and I am so glad to be away from snow, but it’s not quite warm enough to do without a cardigan all the time! My husband and I have been busy hitting up all of the local bookstores at our usual holiday rate of one (and sometimes two) a day and I’m happy to be able to visit Barnes & Noble again. (We tried to find good used bookstores here last time. They were mostly in crummy old buildings full of crummy old books. We’re not going to keep that game up this year!) I’ve managed to find four Virago Modern Classics, all in other editions (mostly NYRB Classics — I am actually trying to control a new mania to collect more of those!), but still thrilling none the less. I am considering reading more American authors, and am starting to be drawn towards reading about New York in particular. (Any recommendations there?) Edith Wharton and Truman Capote are two I’m wanting to explore further and it’s nice to see more of their books in stock here beyond their most famous.

I’ve also been skipping between about eight different books so far on this trip! I don’t know why I can’t focus on any of them (I do want to finish all of them eventually), but here’s the list:

  • A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf — read a bit of this on the plane, with pencil in hand. I finished Mrs. Dalloway in the car on the way to the airport (absolutely fantastic this time around, so glad I read it a second time) and wanted to bring some more Virginia with me to keep that happy floating lyrical alive feeling inside. I love the feminist angle of this essay and have some more thoughts of my own on the topic, but it’s not quite the same thing as Mrs. Dalloway.
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf — I haven’t read this since university and have been meaning to reread it eventually. I gave it a go our first night in Florida, but even it didn’t feel quite as joyful and light as Mrs. D (although isn’t as sad either) and I couldn’t quite handle reading about the old fashioned views on being a woman, as a big mother to all men, that Mrs. Ramsey holds. (I know those ideas aren’t embraced by Woolf herself, she’s just realistically portraying people as they are, but it’s too close to the way I was brought up.)
  • Someone at a Distance, Dorothy Whipple — to my delight this was waiting for me in Florida! I won a gift certificate from last year’s You’ve Got Mail reading challenge (thank you again, Stacy!), for the American Amazon, so had this sent ahead to my in-laws to meet me here. I was delighted with the first chapter, reading it our first day on the beach, but soon found the characters — the self-sacrificing mother, the demanding mother-in-law, the scheming frenchwoman, the daughter who loves her pony and her mummy so much, the noble brother in the army — to be slightly, well… unsurprising? I know so many of you love this that I will continue with it eventually, but for now I’ve skipped on.
  • The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim!!! This was my first book bought here (my husband found it for me) and when I began reading I breathed a huge mental sigh of relief. Wisteria and sunshine, holidays, yes every virtuous woman deserves holidays, I nodded along with the characters, smiling and sharing all their feelings. The problem is… I want to savour it! Especially for colder days when I’ll need more of an escape, when I’m no longer around palm trees and sunny skies and sand myself.
  • A Game of Hide and Seek, Elizabeth Taylor — I had brought this along for the trip, a fresh new Virago, and I breathed another sigh of relief on starting it. It starts with a fresh summer evening and young love, but quickly develops into a deeper and sharper examination of everyone’s motivations, just as I’ve come to expect from Elizabeth Taylor. It’s just a bit sad since things don’t seem to quite work out for the young couple.
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy — another one of my VMC finds here. For the first chapter or so I wasn’t quite sure about it, but I’ve really come to love it. It’s the story of an American girl in Paris in the ’50s and she acts like Holly Golightly while talking like Philip Marlowe, with her hilarious use of American slang and catch phrases all her own. I’ve been reading out bits to my husband and really, I think I’ll just solve my problem and come back to this one.
  • Bliss and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield — I always want to read more of her since I always like her when I do, so this was a noble attempt the other night before bed to get on with it. Perhaps it’s just not a good mix of author and my current location at the moment and I’m better off sticking with my amusing American friend above.
  • The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton — phew! I got this one out today from the library to get into this whole New York thing, but maybe it feels a bit too slow and old fashioned for the beach, even with social schemers named Undine Spragg… Oh my bookishly wayward heart!

Speaking of New York-ish books that are ridiculously slow, this quote was in my head today:

It was New York mourning, it was New York hair, it was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect to the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange…

From The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. (I do want to finish it and have never quite managed to. Talk about a book nemesis!)

Besides the new books, the wonderful thing about this trip is that I’ve started to write a few short stories. While thinking about feminism and what the act of reading means for women (it can be seen as a selfish act, since there are so many more useful things she could be doing — or this was how I was made to feel as a teenager when I was reading sprawled out on the soft instead of in the kitchen helping my mom and sister out. Reading Virginia Woolf’s essay earlier this week I was thinking, women need a room of their own just to read and think in privacy, just for their own peace of mind!), I came across this article from Bitch magazine a few years ago, about ‘women, writing and the problem of success.’ That women aren’t encouraged to be that ambitious as writers (let alone in math and science, etc!), that they need to downplay their creations as ‘this little thing’ so they won’t be so rejected. It challenged me to own up to something:

I want to be a writer. A Novelist. That is all I’ve wanted to be for years. I know it’s impractical, I know I need a back-up job (believe me I’ve been looking for a good one that will give me lots of free time and low stress with enough money for books and shelter), but it is all my heart longs for. And as it’s not at all harmful to anyone and will actually improve my mental health, I’m going to stop being ashamed of telling people this, as if it’s some pathetic little copycat secret.

I watched the first episode of Any Human Heart on PBS Sunday night, watched as a rather self-absorbed inexperienced British boy waltzed his way into writing a bestselling novel, thanks to timely encouragement from Hemingway and a supportive girlfriend at his side. My brother-in-law also wants to be a writer (of plays, not novels, so we’re still friends) and what has he done, oh he’s taking it seriously, he got an MFA impractical as it is and writes every morning two hours a day, plus looks everywhere for related jobs, he’s taught writing at summer camps and for juvenile delinquents. Me, I’m too terrified to even apply to a single creative writing class. (I have taken playwriting and screenwriting classes in university, but only because they were the kinds of writing I didn’t want to do, so it was fine if I failed.) I finally got up my courage to begin working on a novel a few years ago, but it began to go in scary directions (after sleeping around with various inappropriate people, my main character had a baby which was supposed to solve all her problems and her marriage, but then she didn’t want the baby after all or the happy safe ending I was determined she have and I was venturing into more realism and also postpartum depression than I was prepared to handle at that point) and I stopped. There’s another great essay by Virginia Woolf called Professions for Women (that’s a link to the whole thing, it’s quite short and definitely worth reading), where she talks about women writers and even herself, holding back their imaginations because what they have to say about their bodies and passions and experiences seems too dangerous. I could have cried when I read that.

So I am determined to write again. Even if it’s not ‘good enough.’ Maybe “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body” could have saved Virginia Woolf? There is still time for me though. As long as I’m alive, I can be ambitious, I can tell the truth of my own experiences. I don’t need to keep silent anymore, I don’t need to listen forever without speaking up. I can model myself after the many great female authors I love and revere. I began to write a short story on the beach the other day, modeling it after Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (and Virginia Woolf’s novels!) and what they’ve taught me. I used to freeze up from just writing something, anything, thinking that unless I could be as stoic about it as Hemingway, a stand up soldier at the typewriter, I wouldn’t succeed. But there are as many different ways to write as there are people and I have my own voice to find and deliver.

I’ll be blogging less (only once a week) so I can focus on my writing more and I may not reply to every comment, but I do value them and all of you reading so much. In fact, I know that it’s because of my new-found confidence in writing here (via Virago reading week and Virago Press giving so many women a voice, lighting a fire in me) that I’m able to start writing other things again too. When I listen to waves on the beach, I hear Virginia Woolf describing the sea, I feel the tone of a Katherine Mansfield reverie, I remember how Elizabeth Bowen shaped her stories, and words, memory, invention, comes splashing back.

17 thoughts on “Report from Florida

  1. litlove says:

    Good for you! Of course you can write – and you can be proud of having that creative urge. Have you ever considered online writing classes? I’ve done a couple and find them to be helpful, and you don’t have to turn up places, or feel the need to compare yourself to others all the time. I also recommend Twyla Tharpe’s book, The Creative Habit, which is the only guide that I’ve actually found inspiring. But all it really takes is some pleasurable dreaming and some time with the keyboard or notebook. Have a wonderful time on vacation and enjoy your reading – lovely stack of books!

  2. JoAnn says:

    You have some wonderful books to choose from. I loved both The Enchanted April and Someone at a Distance. Although The Custom of the Country is my favorite Wharton, it may not be the best reading for the beach 😉

    Enjoy the sunshine and good luck with your writing!

  3. Karenlibrarian says:

    I just started Someone at a Distance yesterday! I agree that the characters seem a bit stereotyped, but it was so well-written I was quickly absorbed into it. I needed a break from Villette and my second read just wasn’t interesting me, I needed a good comfort read.

    I also agree with JoAnn, Wharton is one of my favorites but I think she’d be tough at the beach. Though I did bring Summer with me to California last year and actually finished it while sitting next to a pool (but I wasn’t swimming — does that count as a beach read?) Great that you have found so many good books, but I think you’re right about Enchanted April — I think I may have to reread it myself, or watch the movie again which I haven’t seen for years. It would be just the thing on a dreary cold day.

  4. Darlene says:

    That sunshine looks very inviting…lucky you!

    A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast featuring Sue Townsend, it was fascinating! She hid her writing for years because she thought it was rubbish, even her husband didn’t know what she was up to! So keep writing!

    And you have a great stack of books there…A Game of Hide and Seek was fantastic and Someone at a Distance still plays on my mind. Enjoy your holiday!

  5. motheretc says:

    Keep writing, keep writing! I find that writing even one sentence a day can keep me motivated. I’ve fallen into a slump now with our recent move and my son getting accustomed to a new place with slightly different routines, but I can’t wait to get back into it. Your description of what it’s like to read Enchanted April is making me all the more determined to read it!

  6. Cristina says:

    You CAN write… please keep on at it and I hope to read some of your work one day soon 🙂 Your description of your first novel is quite powerful and it sounds like a therapeutic action… it seems as though you were discovering new things about yourself.
    The sea looks wonderful. I love the sea and I miss it so much right now. Have a lovely holiday!
    By the way, I like the new look and the gorgeous pictures in the sidebar.

  7. nymeth says:

    Wishing you the very best of luck with your writing – not that you need it, judging my your blog alone. I don’t write fiction anymore, but I can relate all too well with being somewhat ashamed to tell people that this is something you aspire to.

    Those are some excellent bookish finds! I have recently read To The Lighthouse for the first time and it’s probably my favourite Woolf to that, though I can also relate to your discomfort. Enjoy your new books, and enjoy the rest of your holidays.

  8. Chrissy says:

    How about a creative writing course by correspondence? I found one at the Open College of the Arts and did all 3 levels (got the certificates!) before joining a writing group. There were 8 of us. We’ve all been published since then. If you don’t feel brave, or are cut off, or prefer to work alone, a course on-line is a good start.

    It sounds as though your own life would be a good subject on which to base a novel. A journal (not every day happenings but short items and thoughts) is really rewarding to look back on.

    Oh – and there are all sorts of great books to inspire: ‘My Life as Story’ for instance.

    I do wish you all the best with your writing. Can there be anything more satisfying (along with reading, of course!)

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Good luck with your writing, I think that sounds great! I was an art major in college but it took me years to finally buckle down and do it (I think almost 14 years…). Fear, I think, was a major reason and allowing the time for it. When I finally got going, it turned out to be fine. Imagine that! 🙂

  10. Jenny says:

    Good for you! I feel like every book I read helps me become a better writer, if I pay attention to what the writers are doing. Yet another reason that reading is a wonderful way to spend the time. :p

  11. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    Lovely to hear about your holiday, holiday reading and your thoughts on Enchanted April.
    On writing… My mother signed up for a writing course about 5-10 years ago and the section on poetry, the bit she thought she’d enjoy the least, was infact the area she had the most gift and enjoyement from. This has led to her writing some biblical meditations which have been published, and she’s now being comissioned to write more. The point of this is encouragement, and to have a go at a writing class – who knows where it will lead to. Do keep us updated from time to time.
    Enjoy the rest of your holidays and looking forward to your weekly blog posts.

  12. bookssnob says:

    Jealous of you on the beach! I am so desperate for some sunshine!

    Good for you with pushing on with writing. I bit the bullet and did a creative writing evening class just over a year ago. I was terrified but in the end I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately my teacher was rubbish and I didn’t finish the classes because his idea of teaching us was just reading out his own (poor) poetry which was heavily influenced by his racial identity and his gender and upbringing, and he basically wanted us to reproduce his style of writing, which was completely different to mine, as I’m not black, male or working class! If you didn’t write like him, he didn’t like your writing. But – what can you do. Even so, it still encouraged me and showed me that I can write and it’s not a ‘waste of time’. Not that I ever have time to write these days but one day I shall channel it all out. I don’t think women need to be afraid of expressing themselves anymore. Those days are gone!

    Good luck with the writing – I’m sure it’s spectacular!

    Oh – stick with Dorothy. You WILL grow to love her, promise.

  13. Coffee and a Book Chick says:

    Congratulations on finding that inner passion again to begin writing! I hope I can find it myself – it’s been a struggle of late!

    Where in Florida are you?! I live in North Florida, about 8 minutes from Neptune Beach – if you’re in my neck of the woods, let me know if you have time to grab a coffee! 🙂 Email me at coffeeandabookchick at gmail dot com

  14. Bellezza says:

    So fun to see Florida again; I live in Chicago, but was just there for my birthday at the end of January. Isn’t it lovely to see those sunsets?! I can relate to your frustration in finding crummy old books in crummy old stores; sometimes the tried and true Barnes and Noble offer the best choices. As to being a writer, most certainly you can. Don’t forget Madeleine L’Engle said she could wallpaper her ‘office’ with rejection slips, but it didn’t stop her, one of my most my beloved authors.

  15. Sunday Taylor says:

    Just discovered your blog. We share the same taste in literature. Elizabeth Bowen (The Death of the Heart), Virginia Woolf, the Brontes, Elizabeth Von Armin, Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster, Jane Austen… “To The Lighthouse” is my all-time favorite book. Keep at it, you will be happy you did. And I recommend reading the “Letters of Virginia Woolf.” They are so inspiring about becoming a writer and being a reader. I have read all six volumes, they are fabulous! Her letters are little literary gems. And so witty and gossipy. Good luck with the writing!

  16. Josh's Mom says:

    Have recently found your blog and selfishly sad to hear that you will post only weekly but if it is to devote time to writing – go for it! I would like to write too and have toyed with the idea of a class. Suggested comments to try an on-line class may be the way to go.

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