This blog focuses on the processes of creativity and sources of inspiration, especially as I encountered them while writing In Mr. Handsome’s Garden, my first published work … a read-aloud storybook for children 4-10.
Many people have asked when I knew I was gay – a simple question with a complex answer I’ll try to explain through a pair of movies: Diane Kurys’s Entre Nous and Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. They map the journey from denial to acceptance that every LGBT person walks. For me, it was a very long journey.
If you can bear subtitles, Entre Nous is a must-see. It tracks the stories of two women, Lena (Isabelle Huppert) and Madeleine (Miou-Miou) through the eyes of Lena’s young daughter, who in real life is Diane Kurys, the daughter of the real-life Lena. The two women meet in the 1950s in Nice, both married to men who adore them but are in their own ways klutzes. They are drawn to each other by their interest in fashion, their mutual confusions and something deep and untouched in both of them. Slowly they discover, suffer and surrender to their love. There is no sex. There are no kisses. The movie is subtle, watchful and kind.
I was seduced by the movie but didn’t quite get it when it appeared in the mid-80s. I remember asking my friends whether it was possible that Lena and Madeleine could be lesbians. Talk about denial! It would be like watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and wondering if animation had been used. But that’s where I was … so conditioned by the notion then that homosexuality was about sex that I couldn’t see that it’s principally about love.
Flash forward a decade and you’ll find me rewinding, rewatching and weeping at the scene in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas are slow-dancing at a party like any “normal” couple. That’s when I learned that homosexuals can love each other. For me, that scene opened the door not just to loving a partner, but to loving my brother, my uncles, my friends and others in an entirely new way … I guess because I began to love myself.
When did I know I was gay? I still can’t say. Truth can strike like a thunderclap or emerge like a rose from its bud. Often it’s the watching, not the knowing, that matters. So let me ask you, since we’re talking about movies: What have you watched that has opened your own doors? What are the movies on your desert island list?
The first movie I remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz, and all I remember from that viewing is the monkeys snatching Dorothy and scattering The Scarecrow across the forest floor. I was four. I cried like a baby. And The Wizard of Oz has been part of my life since. Its magic and music have kept me hooked, but its characters have helped me discover my self and my soul.
For years – who am I kidding? – for decades, one of my favorite questions has been who I am more like, The Scarecrow or The Tin Man. Into my twenties, I always came down on the side of The Scarecrow; I regarded my brains as my greatest asset, so he was my hero. As a budding egomaniac, I also liked the fact that The Wizard appoints The Scarecrow as the real leader of Oz before stepping into the balloon back to Kansas, “the land of E Pluribus Unum.”
As I began to discover my heart, though – the deep heart that can ache and grow at the same time – The Tin Man started to take a stronger hold. Saying good-byes, for example, slowly became transformative: not merely moments of sadness but occasions to notice and hold the love that marks every close relationship. When The Wizard presents The Tin Man his reward, he says, “Remember, my sentimental friend, a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” To me, there is no finer, simpler or more gracious rule to live by. If this is where you point your moral compass, how far wrong can you go?
About six months ago, I finally understood The Wizard. Dorothy and the others have returned to the Emerald City seeking rewards for a job well done. Of course, Dorothy has held these rewards in herself the whole time – her brains, her heart and her courage. And it is she, not The Wizard, who bestows them … enabling The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion to discover these qualities in themselves. Her final gift is to The Wizard himself: unveiling his charade and challenging him as a “bad man,” she forces his deepest confession – “No, I’m not a bad man,” he says, “just a very bad wizard.” And isn’t that the point of the whole movie?
Isn’t that what we all struggle with? … We wizard moms and wizard fathers; we wizard accountants and sons; we weary bits of wizard straw blowing earnestly and haphazardly through the forest. We wonder all the time if we’re doing our best, painfully aware when we fall short of the mark and fearful that the people around us could draw the curtain at any moment, exposing the very things that disappoint us most in ourselves.
Fortunately there is grace for all bad wizards, and it is in each of us. All we have to do is let it out – quietly with our friends and in full force the next time a Wicked Witch hurls a fistful of fire in our direction.
Next post: Philadelphia.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only five movies, what would they be? I love that type of question not because it’s original, but because the answer always is: it helps us see who we are by revealing what films have left the greatest impression on us, not at the box-office, but on our souls.
Babette’s Feast has been on my list since 1987, and today I’m holding tightly to the lessons it teaches about dignity and acceptance. A quick synopsis.
It is a dark and stormy night in 1871 on the Jutland coast of Denmark. Babette (Stéphane Audran) appears at the spare home of two elderly, Puritan sisters as if blown there by the wind. She has barely survived revolution in France and carries a letter from Achille Papin, a world-renowned opera singer and one-time suitor of the sister Filippa. It is an appeal for Babette – who herself has been the head chef at the celebrated Parisian restaurant, Le Café Anglais – to work as a cook and housemaid for this elderly pair. Babette has lost nearly everything: her husband and sons; her life of prestige and glamor; everything but an impeccable set of clothes, her dignity and her immense talent as a culinary artist. Fourteen years later, she prepares a feast to honor the sisters’ long-deceased minister/father – a feast that rekindles the dormant spirit of love and gratitude among the brittle Puritan sect the father created and the sisters have served for decades.
There’s a scene when Babette sits alone to a dinner of Danish mush in a room the size of a closet. The sun is setting. She watches. Gold light fills the space and illuminates a single tear that forms and falls from the bed of her eyelid. It is the only sign of sorrow and loss Babette shows us in the course of the movie.
I am no Babette. My daughter is thriving. My closet is filled with clothing I should probably not have bought. And the only revolution I’ve encountered is called the Internet. But I have lost my career, my house, my savings and a little bit of my sanity this year. Thankfully, I live now in a guest room with my mother … and my cat … and the soothing, hopeful impression of my courageous, enduring Babette. Like the Great Teachers, her impression rests on my soul.
Tomorrow: The Wizard of Oz.
It’s hard not to think of J.K. Rowling these days when we imagine what a successful writer looks like. I think of others too – from Faulkner to biographers to really good speechwriters. The great thing about being a writer is that each of us can determine what success means. To me, it means being able to write from your heart, nothing more.
My favorite line of all time – from all of literature, from all the scriptures I’ve read, and from all of the movies I have seen – comes from The Wizard of Oz. It is one of the lines the Wizard says to the Tin Man when he presents him his heart.
Remember, my sentimental friend, a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.
I am not saying I am the best-loved person in the world. Just yesterday, I was called “vociferous” by one of my Kickstarter backers! But I have determined for myself that if I write from a place of understanding for others, I’m doing pretty well. I feel good about the work I produce and the letters I write. Other people seem to like them too.
I’ll circle back to points I made in two preceding blog posts, Being Heard and Being Known. To be heard, you must be known; and to be known, you must know and reveal yourself. This is the secret to all good writing … a journal, a letter to your children, a cookbook series or your request for a promotion. If you know why you’re writing and you reveal yourself, you will succeed.
Being known is a whole lot different than being heard. It’s the most difficult disrobing of all. Think of Madonna or Helen Mirren, naked or next-to-naked on film for all the world to look at. How do they keep their composure? Their faces? How can they bear to be so seen and so known? If you asked them, I think they’d say something simple like, “When you know yourself, you can expose yourself.” Isn’t that the truth! But getting there, that’s the trick.
If you’re thinking about writing of any sort – a work email, a novel, a letter to your mom – you begin by knowing where you are. Which means knowing some critical things about yourself:
- What are your biases or judgments? Can you set them aside? If not, you’ll need to deal with them in what you write.
- What is it you really want to say? Or – looked at another way – what is it about yourself you want your readers to know? That you’re sorry? That you’re committed? That you’re worried or vulnerable? That the product you’re writing about is the best thing on the market?
These are difficult questions to answer because no answer is clean. In all but the most mundane situations, there is some drama or humor or tension. Who said exactly what to whom? Did so-and-so look better than someone else on a certain evening? Is it really a good idea to lay off 1200 people? What did you feel when your own eye wandered?
Being heard depends on being known: being known first to yourself and then being known – exposed – to your readers. I don’t mean to imply that this is always an act of exposing yourself to the core … in most of her photos, Helen Mirren is wearing clothes! What I’m saying is there are few things more gratifying than explaining something you believe is important in a way that others understand perfectly, precisely, perhaps even compassionately. That always requires exposure and honesty. It requires courage.