In Praise of Lonely Women

lonley woman facing awayWhen I was a kid, I read the New Yorker every week, and it formed my ideas about what being a grown-up would be like. I particularly liked a Talk of the Town feature, which usually began, “We have heard from our friend, the long-winded lady.” “The long-winded lady” (who I later found out was Maeve Brennan) would write her wry observations as she sat alone in a bar or restaurant, having a cocktail, watching and listening, noting the ironies, peculiarities and peccadillos of the people she observed around her. It seemed to me at the time that having a cocktail and eating alone in a restaurant was the epitome of being a grown-up, and I could hardly wait to do it. I was probably seventeen the first time I tried it. I quickly found out a few things. One, it wasn’t any fun without the drink; and second, that  a young woman by herself in a bar or restaurant is like an itch that must be scratched for a good number of men. I was rarely left alone to observe the peccadilloes of the people around me; instead, I was drawn into conversations with men who were trying to pick me up.

I didn’t want to be picked up. I wanted to be alone.

Maybe it was the incipient writer in me, but what drew me to the long-winded lady was the idea of a woman alone in bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, streets, observing and eavesdropping. She was not interviewing; neither was she the impersonal omniscient narrator. She was a woman unapologetically alone.

You don’t often see women alone and okay in fiction.

A solitary man is often seen as heroic. The brooding moody loner, wounded and complex, a flawed man who doesn’t fit in or really belong, can still be, as Raymond Chandler puts it, “the best man in his world.” Women are drawn to him, only to be left by him. He has bigger fish to fry than forming bonds.

This romantic trope did not begin with cowboys or detectives, though they certainly fill the bill. Shane, The Lone Ranger, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mathew Scudder, Jack Reacher are but a few among countless examples of men who ride into town, literally or figuratively, solve other people’s problems, have romantic interactions here and there, and then ride off into the sunset alone. This pageant has a long lineage that goes back to the Byronic hero, and before that, to the crusading knights in shining armor, and before that, to the Buddha, whose successful search for enlightenment required him to leave his wife and child behind. (The scriptures do not tell us whether he was humming the sanskrit equivalent of “By the time I get to Rajagaha, she’ll be rising.”)

So what’s a girl to do, when this is the romantic ideal that calls to her, too? Not being the expendable one, who makes trouble, falls for the hero, and gets left behind, but if she herself is brooding, troubled, tough and smart, with a sense of justice, a troubled past, a need for redemption, a defining quest that doesn’t involve getting or not getting the guy?

Why are lonely men romantic, and lonely women pathetic?

Maybe, along with equal pay and reproductive freedom of choice, women should claim equal access to a heroic ideal. In addition to the male privilege of not having to worry about what to wear and being distinguished rather than discredited by signs of age, perhaps women can appropriate the appeal of the outcast, the misfit. Marginalized by her inability to fit into prescribed roles, yet still being the center of moral good.

The problem is, of course, that the archetype of the loner hero is a byproduct of patriarchy. It requires leaving the world of women behind. Women can be cherished or demonized, idealized or eroticized, but not lived with. Children and family, connection and care are valued primarily as spurs that goad a man onwards and away, to protect and defend a world in which he can never truly fit in. It is a paradigm of separation and disconnection.

This chivalrous ideal, of defending home and hearth by leaving it behind, doesn’t translate so well when the leaver is a female. Patriarchy succeeds by relegating all the needs for bonding, connection and care to women, and it’s not part of the deal for women to reject or fail to fulfill them. The women who have needs and wants that have nothing to do with making homes or keeping them running, well, we’re the bad girls.

We don’t quite fit in either.

So we’re lonely too.

One of the reasons (there were many) that it was so difficult to finish my first novel, Coldwater, was that I was aware that in Brett Tanager, I was creating a hero, not a heroine. Someone whose need for redemption drives the story, a woman whose quest has nothing whatever to do with whether or not she hooks up with some guy.

I spent so much of my life knowing that I was not like other girls, but hoping no one would find out. So I wrote a book about a character who also was not like other girls, and then was afraid of what it would reveal about me.  The response from readers has been gratifying beyond anything I could express.

Turns out there are a lot of us. Women with strong feelings and deep longings, problems to solve, obstacles to deal with, goals to attain and journeys to take.  Quests that might include altar and bed, but not hold them out as the ultimate goal.

Women who can eat alone in restaurants, not looking to get picked up.

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FIVE THINGS FAMOUS WRITERS SAID THAT KEEP ME GOING WHEN THE GOING GETS ROUGH

writer-at-desk1.  “The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

2.  “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann

3.  “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles.  The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book.  Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty, he strengthens other virtues, he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air and it holds.” – Annie Dillard

4.  “Trying to use words, and every attempt/Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure/…For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”  – T.S. Eliot

5. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  – E.L. Doctorow

And to begin each day:

6. “This is the tale I pray the divine muse to unfold to us.  Begin it, Goddess, at whatever point you will.”  – Homer

 

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Crime Writer by Day, Dharma Teacher by Night

mysteryMy days are spent writing novels and stories involving murder, revenge, and hatred while at night I teach a spiritual practice designed to cultivate compassion, generosity, and kindness. What gives?

It’s actually not as schizophrenic as it seems.

My first novel, Coldwater (Gibraltar Road; A Vireo Book; ISBN: 988931249) is not quite a murder mystery, not quite a thriller, not quite a detective story—although it incorporates elements of all of these. It is definitely a crime novel. One crime is committed in the first chapter, one before the book begins, two more in the course of the story, and Brett Tanager, the protagonist, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book, desperately needs to solve all four even though she is neither detective nor a cop of any kind.

Crime fiction and the teachings of the Buddha.  How to reconcile the two?

When you look up the word “crime” in the dictionary, you learn that its Indo-European root  “‘(s)quer – extension of *ker’ ) comes from an imitation of the hoarse, rough sound of a cry for help; the cry of the offended one, akin to the Anglo-Saxon word hream for outcry, or lamentation, similar to our English word for scream.”  In other words, this is fiction that deals with pain, injury, and fear.  Events so dreadful as to call forth a scream. Its stories are of life and death.

And “the dharma,” a Sanskrit word that means law, or natural law, or the truth of the way things are, is used to convey the principles and practices taught by the Buddha 2600 years ago. These teachings purport to alleviate the suffering that is the inevitable byproduct of being born into a world of change, in a body that will inevitably die – more often than not after getting old and sick. These teachings are also about  life and death, and events so dreadful as to call forth a cry of lamentation.

The Buddha tells us that all suffering comes from the same three poisonous roots:  greed (desire), aversion (fear and hatred) and ignorance (delusion.)  Out of ignorance, we are self-centered, and this self-centeredness leads to our pain.

Crime novels also deal with envy, lust, greed, ambition, corruption—which is why so many of them take place in Los Angeles.  A crime writer’s building blocks are desire, fear and hatred.  And crimes are committed out of the self-centered delusion that doing harm will bring relief.

Each of my professions deal with life and death, each deal with pain and suffering.  And each offers, in its own way, a solution for that pain and suffering.

I’ve always thought of Coldwater as a crime novel with a spiritual undertow; a soul’s journey nestled within a page-turning murder mystery.  Brett Tanager has several crimes to solve, but in order to do so, she must come to terms with the harm that she herself has done. The trail she pursues leads to clues, but also to something deeper, which goes by many names, but which all spiritual teachers tells us is within.

 

 

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