Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My Mother Made Me -- Remembering Virginia Carson Kelley (1924 - 2018)

My mother made me a novelist. It wasn't her intention. We had the worst of our disagreements when I insisted on pursuing a life in the theater. She was right. I wasn't cut out to be an actress. But I did, as I once told her in overly dramatic fashion, HAVE to write. And that's because of her.

Language was Mom's life. Our house was full of books. She loved reading to herself and to us. Usually the books were from her own childhood--well-worn volumes which her own mother had probably read to her. Some were classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Little Women. Others were more obscure, such as Jane's Father, who, like my own dad, had unconventional but endearing ways.

Mom was also a master of conversation. She could talk with anybody, particularly a shy person whom nobody else seemed to notice. She understood people sometimes painfully all too well. She paid attention to details that we kept hidden even from ourselves. She usually pointed those out to us in humorous fashion. Her "zingers" were famous in our family. She was hardest on herself, however. She loved retelling the story about the time a guest discovered the dead chipmunk our cat left under a chair. Mom just laughed and said she should have done a better job of dusting.

But her letters were her real gifts to us. She seemed to type them effortlessly, batting them out, as she said. Droll descriptions of what she had been doing, the tennis games, the strawberries picked and made into jam, the lunches with friends whom my father referred to her as her clients because they always needed to talk to her. Mostly the letters contained questions and compliments about the details of our lives. They are treasures. I wish I had saved every single one.

At the time when I was becoming a writer, I discovered a short story she had written when she was in college. I can't remember how I found it in a box in the attic. Mom's family had many writers. Her own mother was a well-respected novelist whom some compared to Jane Austen. Her aunt was a biographer and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her great aunt was a newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Journal. And so I wasn't surprised by the quality of Mom's short story. I was surprised that she hadn't written more.

Who knows why some march forward while others stand to the side. When I asked her why she hadn't kept on, she said that she was too lazy. But I suspect her own parents hadn't been as encouraging as mine.

Mom was very proud of my books. I always read her early drafts of whatever I was working on. She was generous with her laughter and praise, and always had a few astute suggestions. I am forever in her debt.

Virginia Carson Kelley does leave a legacy. Her beloved children and grandchildren all have some of her wisdom, her wit, her love of family, and her appreciation for words.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


A writer friend read a draft of one of my novels. She gave me lots of great feedback. In particular, she pointed to a scene in which the kids visit their friend and are greeted by a stay-at-home mom.

"I know you're writing the world we usually see," my friend said. "But why use stereotypical roles? Why not show a more diverse world? Then it can become the norm."

"Absolutely," I agreed. I felt chastened to be caught in conventional thinking.

So I changed the scene. I had the stay-at-home parent be a dad. I gave the mom an important, high salary job as a lawyer who is fighting for justice.

There was an unintended consequence. The mom never appeared in the book. She was at her law office. The dad got to be in a funny scene baking spinach brownies. This caused a whole new imbalance. What had I done?!?!

Obviously I could have conceived of a story in which the lawyer mom had a crucial role. But my intention had been to write about saving our planet! (Unfortunately, that was too big a job for a kid, so I changed the idea to saving the butterflies.) Did I have to worry about male-female role models too? Isn't this just a kids' book?

No, it isn't. Words have power. We feel validated when we connect with a character or situation we recognize. When we encounter the unfamiliar, we are enlarged.

Writing is a series of choices. The character does this or that, looks like this or that, and says this or that. The multitude of small decisions coalesce to make the book.

Which brings me to the question I'd been pondering even before my friend's suggestion. The world is beset by problems. So many injustices, so many crises, including those poor monarch butterflies. I'm just a writer. What can I do?

Pay attention. Be aware of the problems. Learn about them. Use facts whenever possible. That will lead to better writing.

Upend preconceived notions. Shun the stale and the trite. That's better writing.

Strive for balance. Not just among types of characters, but within them. Treat every character with respect. That's better writing.

Be honest. Kids see through our best attempts to guide them. They know damn well there's spinach in that brownie. Don't gloss over situations. Characters should change and grow. That's better writing.

One of the reasons I love what I do is that I can make a happy ending. I can't cure cancer or end poverty. But I can make bold heroes who happen to be girls. I can make friendships exist where they usually don't. I can make sensitive dads and brothers. I can make wise women give just the right amount of encouragement and advice.

I can write the change I want to see in the world.