On Being Creative When Life Feels Awful

The past six months have been like swimming uphill in an avalanche. I’ve changed cities and states. I have a new role on a new project team at work. I bought my first house and survived the sale of another.  During the lead-up to our move my husband and I spent three months living in separate states. While he began a new gig in Pittsburgh, I wrangled with realtors and repairmen in Maryland to finish the sale of our home outside of Washington, DC. Together, we packed dozens of boxes and dreamed of a day when we could both know where our can openers and socks were.

Things accelerated instead of growing calmer. I flew back from speaking at a national conference the same week we closed on our new home. Our lender needed new documents at the 11th hour. The seller hadn’t vacated. And then, the day after we moved in, my husband was called away on a 36-hour emergency flight to the Philippines to be at the bedside of his dying grandmother.

When we envisioned our start in a new city, this was not how we pictured it.

Moonrise over the Atlantic.

Throughout this spaghetti pile of transition, I kept writing. I burrowed deep into 19th-century England and South America and lost myself in battles fought 200 years ago, in silk dresses and kid leather slippers, in exquisite letters written in a style at once eloquent and arcane.

I was rebuilding a book, an effort undertaken following a fiction workshop with the wonderful Meg Wolitzer at the 2017 Southampton Writers Conference. The workshop fueled me to re-attack my manuscript, and attack I did. I felt closer to the finish than ever.

I sent the manuscript out for feedback (a second round of beta readers.) Feedback came back. Some positive, some negative. Some unhelpful, some constructive. And one piece of feedback was so devastating that it brought my writing to a standstill.

I doubted the book. Worse, I doubted myself. For months, I couldn’t look at my novel.

When the doubt became unbearable, I began a rewrite. I tried a new point of view, new chapters, new settings. There was a temporary relief to be moving again. But I still didn’t know where I was moving to. I was only walking in the dark.

Then came August, and with it, the loss of two family members. One was only 37. He left behind far too many “Whys?” and “What ifs?” for comfort. At his funeral I started at the box that held his ashes, and began remembering him living. Remembering playing alongside each other as children, remembering meeting at my grandmother’s every Christmas. Knowing that we would never meet again. Feeling sunk under the thought of a life burned down to only what a small metal box could hold. For he was more than that, and the unlived years felt bleak and colossally unfair.

The other death did not surprise me with its suddenness, and I felt some relief at the passing of one who herself longed to rest. She had lived a full century, through the Great Depression, a World War, Civil Rights, a man landing on the moon. She saw the beginnings of radio, television, rock n’ roll, computers. In short, a world that changed far faster than she could.

 As I spoke the eulogy for a woman who had lived 100 years, I realized that life is an aggregate. We are sums of parts. We are built through time. We are not defined by grand gestures, but by small moments.

Small moments, like getting up. Making coffee and noticing the color of the sky. Reading something just because. Getting out a new notebook. Opening a laptop. Going on.

I have no wiser words than these – go on. For to write is to look at a thousand roads and choose, and choose again, and to keep choosing always with the daring faith that you, and you alone, hold the end, and the beginning, and all that is in between.

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America’s Gun Myth

Ad for Daisy air rifle, c. 1968.

Columbine. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. The names of the schools where shootings have occurred ring out in a frightening, familiar litany. Some remain in the public consciousness for years. Other fade from memory as soon as the news cameras and microphones are put away.

Twenty years ago, my own district became the site of one such shooting. Edinboro, PA. Late April, 1998. I was a high school senior set to graduate in a few weeks’ time, and had spent the day with classmates on a field trip to Toronto. We visited the CN Tower and felt the thrill of vertigo standing on its glass floor, and cracked jokes about receiving Canadian currency in change after lunching at a nearby McDonalds. I toured the Ontario Science Centre with a group of friends and marveled at the tiny poison frogs, preternaturally bright, in the rainforest exhibition. We chattered on the four-hour bus ride back, arriving back in Edinboro shortly before midnight. And we returned to our homes and went to sleep, not knowing that our quiet college town had just become a bellwether for a horrifying trend of shootings that would only grow more nightmarish in the coming years.

I learned the news early the following morning. Four people had been shot, one fatally. The casualties included my middle school science teacher Mr. Gillette, a tall, blue-eyed former football coach. He was only in his 40s, but his balding head made him appear older, at least to my teenage eyes. He and I had a good relationship, once talking about geodes and minerals after class following my family’s trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And now Mr. Gillette was dead.

I remember walking out to the backyard in shock.  It was a beautiful spring day, bright and warm, with white clouds drifting in the sky. I sat in a hammock and looked at robins hopping on the tree branches, wondering how the world went on, how nature could be so oblivious to the fact that my entire town had been rocked off of its axis.

As the weekend passed there were vigils and songs and candles and prayers. Come Monday, we returned to school. I walked a media gauntlet every step along the sidewalk from the parking lot to the school entrance, a gauntlet now lined with news vans and cameras and reporters from the local newspapers all the way up to national networks. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel like “news.” I felt only sad, confused, invaded. And pissed off.

We weren’t headlines. We were kids.

At home, I saw my town and the story of what became known as the “Parker Middle School shooting” surreally played out on CNN and other outlets. It quickly grew into a repeated narrative: a 14-year-old loner named Andy Wurst had taken his father’s gun, entered the venue where the off-campus dance was being held, and shot Mr. Gillette on the patio. He then opened fire on his 8th grade classmates before running out of the building into a nearby cornfield. The venue’s owner, armed with a shotgun, gave chase and Andy was taken into police custody. He remains in prison today.

Lake Edinboro. Edinboro, PA.

Eventually the reporters and their ever-present cameras went away, and I was relieved. While the media was present, they had a wildly distorting effect on everyday life. The story they told about the place I lived wasn’t one I could recognize.  I’d grown up a free range kid, riding bikes with friends across town and spending hours playing imaginary games in a nearby woods. My parents hardly ever locked their doors. Violent crimes were practically unknown. And yet, overnight, home had seemingly become a place where previously unconceivable violence could – and had – occurred.

Too many other American towns have shared in this experience. Too many other students have lost classmates, friends, teachers. Too many other children haven’t lived to see their high school graduation.

I am angry. I am angrier now than I was 20 years ago. Because we have seen this. Again and again and again. And again. We grope for ways to explain it, for ways we can assure ourselves that every time will be the last time. All too often, the answer is another gun. We create the myth of escaping death by becoming capable of inflicting it. This myth has long, insidious roots.

Because didn’t guns win the West? Didn’t the American Revolution start with “the shot heard ‘round the world”? Isn’t the “right to bear arms” as unalienable as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The fact is – for anyone who still cares for facts – guns remained exceptionally rare for America’s first decades. Gunsmiths were few and far between, as only a small number of settlers could afford firearms. Guns were expensive and time-consuming to make. Many components, including gunpowder, had to be imported from England, as colonists lacked the means to produce these materials themselves. During the War for Independence, American forces relied heavily on shipments of French muskets. After the war, American-produced guns remained modest in number; the Hawkens brothers, a well-known pair of St. Louis gunsmiths, employed a dozen men and even then they were only able to make about a hundred rifles a year.  The U.S. government itself shied away from encouraging new gun manufacture well into the mid-1800s. For years after the Civil War, Springfield was stuck using leftover parts from Civil War-era weapons in the rifles that it produced for the U.S. Army. And Army brass frowned upon weapons capable of rapid fire. Bullets cost money, and officers worried that trigger-happy soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

But as American gun production became easier, cheaper, and faster, companies skillfully manufactured a need for guns along with the guns themselves. Advertisements presented firearms in all manner of alluring guises, from the hallmark of gentleman shooter, to a reliable form of home defense, and even as a stylish accessory for fashionable women. During the 1880s and 1890s, manufacturers targeted female buyers with illustrations of attractive, corseted ladies engaged in hunting or sport shooting with “suitable” (i.e. small caliber) rifles. These chic women frequently appeared surrounded by admiring men as well as other quarry. Simultaneously, Colt marketed revolvers toward nascent police forces in America’s larger cities. (In those days, many police officers furnished their own weapons.) The grips of Colt’s 1888 “New Police Single Action Five-Shot Revolving Pistols” are decorated with an image of a uniformed policeman. The officer is drawing a gun against an assailant. His assailant is brandishing a knife.

But what sells guns better than fear? Guns have promised protection against everything from burglars to vagrants to attacking grizzlies. Now some of us look to guns to protect us against school shootings. I believe such hopes will be disappointed. Rather, they indicate the dangers of when inherited beliefs go unquestioned.

Guns did not build America. And I’m convinced that more guns will not save it. Only courage and change will do that. Courage to question and challenge the status quo, as the students from Parkland have been doing. And change that is abysmally overdue – change in our worldview, change in our policies, change in the way we look at guns. Some myths we need to let die.

References:

Douglas C. McChristian. The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK, 1995. p. 107

Laura Browder. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006. pp. 3 -7.

Colt’s Military and Sporting Arms, 1888. Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Autry National Center, Museum for the American West. Object ID 87.118.167.

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Taming Your Overgrown Manuscript

Typewriter, notebook, and cup of coffee

They say that writing is rewriting. Or rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. Or put more bluntly, revision hell.

But how to tell when enough is enough? Where is the mysterious epiphany that lets a writer know when she is “done”?

I can’t answer that. But I can tell you that my revisions have taken far, far longer than my first draft. And that many of my early revisions were simply pushing words around on the pages. I wasn’t making hard choices. I wasn’t making hard cuts.

I was stalled out. I’d been living with the story so long that I could no longer see it clearly. I knew I needed outside perspective beyond what my first readers had given me.

Through a writer’s workshop and residency (led by the incredible Meg Wolitzer and attended by a supremely warm and talented group of fellow writers), I found the courage and faith that I could really rework the material and breathe fresh life into it. Since then, I’ve cut 25,000 words from my overgrown manuscript. For mathy folks, that’s a 21% decrease.

It wasn’t easy, but I believe this newer, leaner iteration of the novel is moving much closer to telling the story the way it should be told.

So how did I get there?

Taking Breaks

Long, hard breaks. Sometimes I put the manuscript aside for days, weeks, or even a few months to work on other things. When I returned, I could see it more objectively. By the same token, sometimes you’ll find that you need to write every day so that you don’t lose your thoughts and the connective tissue between chapters.

Getting it Wrong

Words are tricky, slippery things. Maybe a chapter has to be written wrong three or seven or 15 ways before it turns out right. Maybe it takes us that long to know when we’re only making something different, not necessarily making it better. (If anyone has a formula to make this faster, please let me know.)

Cut, Cut, Cut

We know that our job is to show, not tell. But showing takes a long time. So we must also decide – what things do I need to show? What is superfluous? How do I keep the writing interesting with tension, plot development, and spicy emotions? (If spicy emotions are your thing. I dig ‘em.)

At the end of the day, it’s saying enough to tell the story and getting rid of everything else. And having faith that when you let things go, better art emerges.

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Fantasy Football and the Married Woman

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is her heart and soul.

A quick comparison between the World Series and the Super Bowl confirms this. “Super Bowl Party” is a household term; a World Series Party is not.

Football quarterback preparing to throw the ball
Photo by Riley McCullough on Unsplash

On any given Sunday, you generally won’t find folks wearing the jersey of their favorite baseball player. Foodwise, the Super Bowl has spawned dishes created solely for the purpose of noshing while watching the Big Game. Is anyone making the family’s secret recipe chili to watch the Pirates take on the Orioles? No?

None of this was on my mind when I started my inaugural fantasy football season in 2012. I could care less about tradition. All I wanted was to win. The stakes were heightened considerably by the fact that my husband and I were newlyweds and “happened” to be in the same league.

I started off well, winning three out of my first four games. I was elated. Yet in week 5, things started to go south, badly. My star wide receiver, Jordy Nelson, failed to produce. Maurice Jones-Drew suffered a season-ending ankle sprain, leaving me without a key running back. My quarterback Matt Ryan choked and put up a measly 8 points.

It was alright, I figured. Everyone had their off days and we had to take our losses along with the wins.

But my players continued hemorrhaging until my starting lineup looked more like an injury report. I searched the waiver wires, adding and discarding players in an attempt to shore up my struggling team. I listened to radio programs dedicated to fantasy football advice. I chatted with coworkers, debating various defensive lineups and whether or not it was worth handcuffing pairs of likely receivers.

Two things happened. First, I began having conversations that had previously been unimaginable. Is a healthy Heath Miller better than a less-than-100% Jimmy Graham? Will Matt Ryan come out of his slump? Is Beanie Wells ever going to have a breakout week?

Secondly, I could be fickle.  I couldn’t change my job, my house, my car, or my spouse. But by god, I could change my lineup. I blew through men faster than Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.

Things came to a head in week 13. I was playing my husband on what happened to be the weekend of our first wedding anniversary. I needed a win, and I had just the weapon to get me there: Robert Griffin III in his very first season with the Washington Redskins. With stakes high, I turned to an expert source on which quarterback to start. Via Twitter, Fran Tarkenton kindly congratulated me and advised me to go with Matt Ryan over RGIII. I did. I lost.

I don’t blame Fran. I ended the season 2012 season 7-6, which felt pretty good, all things considered. Because there is always next year with more players, more opportunities, and yes, more fantasy.

 

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The Makeup-Free Meeting

makeup brushes and eyeshadow
Photo by kinkate from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/

As Halloween comes around, it’s a time of year to think about costumes, masks, disguises. About being other than what we are. About trying on an alternate identity, even if just for a night.

The opposite of that, I suppose, is using nothing that alters the way we naturally appear. Earlier this summer, I was challenged to attend a business meeting at work sans makeup. I accepted.

It was a fearsomely hot day in August, the kind that swelters before the sun even rises above the horizon. I’d already walked my two dogs and was back in my air-conditioned home, gulping coffee while frantically running a blowdryer through my hair and wondering just how much more the thermostat was going to rise. I opened my cosmetic bag to begin my usual routine…and I just couldn’t. Too. Darn. Hot.

So I slathered on a little moisturizer and checked my face in the mirror. I hesitated. I looked again. And then, I cheated. A little bit. I dabbed a bit of pore minimizer onto my T-zone and swiped some chapstick over my lips. Then I was out the door before I could second-guess myself any further.

All day I waited for someone to make a comment that I looked tired or ask if I was feeling well. But no one did. During my afternoon meeting, business proceeded as usual.

For a decision that felt bold and daring, an act that flew in the face of workplace conventions, it was stunningly anticlimactic.

Despite the fact that I suffered no ill effects (and a remarkably shortened morning routine) from my makeup-free experiment, I haven’t repeated it. I’m still beholden to cosmetics to allow me to create my workday face.

But as for the weekends – those are the days you’ll find me barefaced, heading to the supermarket or out to hike in the Shenandoah Mountains.

As far as Halloween, I love a good costume, the chance to disappear into a role. And maybe, just maybe, by expressing a dimension of our personality that isn’t part of our day-to-day life, we actually become a bit more honest about ourselves.

 

 

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Whose America Is It?

Gardens behind the Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg.

In July, I visited Colonial Williamsburg over Independence Day weekend. Given the roiled state of American politics, I hoped that taking a step back and looking at America’s past might lend insights into how to navigate today’s turmoil.

But how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?

Read more about my visit: Colonial Williamsburg, Where the Past Shines Light on the Present, at World Travelers Today.

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The Timesuck of Being Female

You could make the argument that a woman’s worth is measured by her face – perhaps literally. A recent survey reports that women in the United States spend $300,000 over the course of our lifetimes, just on products that go on our faces. There is some regional variation: on the East Coast, women have more expensive faces, wearing  an average of $11 worth of beauty products each day. In the Far West, in areas like Montana, the average cost drops to around $5 a day.

Amy Arden hiking with a backpack in the grand canyon
Barefaced hiking out of the Grand Canyon in 2009.

By the time I walk on the door on a workday morning, I’ve applied no less than thirteen products. The idea, I suppose, is to look like me, only better. The tally doesn’t count shampoo, facial cleanser, body wash, and shaving cream in the shower.

They are:

  • Hair volumizing spray, applied while hair is damp to coax it into having some body
  • Facial moisturizer
  • Facial primer
  • BB cream with sunscreen (I mix two tubes to get a shade that better matches my skin)
  • Blush
  • Eyeshadow shade #1, base color
  • Eyeshadow shade #2, contour color
  • Mascara
  • Eyebrow pencil
  • Lip balm
  • Lipstick
  • Hairspray

You could say that it is my choice to do this. No one is forcing me. And yet.

I work as a consultant. There is an unspoken but no less potent expectation that women in my field will dress according to a certain standard and arrange their physical appearance accordingly. Every woman in the management chain, from project managers through vice presidents, wears makeup. I have only seen a single exception (and even she highlights her hair.)

I did the math. If I spend 15 minutes on an average workday styling my hair and putting on makeup, for 250 workdays per year (roughly) = 62 ½ hours go into looking better.

That’s over 1 ½ workweeks. And this calculation is only scratching the surface; it doesn’t count time at the gym, time getting haircuts, the occasional manicure or pedicure. All of this is time I’m not researching or reading or building new professional skills. All of it is time I’m not writing.

Applying makeup before my wedding in July 2012.

So comes the double burden for women in the professional space – and arguably, anywhere that women work in Western culture. We must not only be competent, but also attractive – or at least take steps to enhance our attractiveness. There are real financial costs if we don’t. According to a landmark study by Cornell University, attractiveness, and specifically weight, have measurable impact on promotions and wages.

So we are in a bind, spending our time putting this stuff on and then spending our hard-earned wages on buying more of it.

I don’t know if Jane Austen reached for the rouge pot before setting off for a local dance, or if Charlotte Bronte plucked her eyebrows before her meetings with her London publisher. And while I’m bold enough to spend most Saturdays bare-faced, I’m not ready to brave a client meeting in such a state. Yet I can’t help but wonder what would happen if I did.

 

 

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Your 1st Writer’s Residency

Making art can’t happen without living life. But often, life gets in the way. Residencies offer the gift of time apart, time for focusing on craft, for enjoying the company of other creative souls, and for letting go – for a time – of other obligations.

And yet the first residency experience can be terrifying. And there are many things I wish I’d known before walking in.

A few years ago I was honored and humbled to be accepted into my first artist’s residency. Elated and intimidated, I packed my suitcase and bundled up my laptop and notes and drove off deep into the countryside to a fittingly lovely and rustic retreat set amongst hills and farmland.

Picture of a wooden fance in front of a pasture
Hills, meadows, and trees in the countryside.

The space of those hours was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I spent my days writing, writing, writing. Occasionally I would walk in the woods, using the autumn quiet to incubate ideas. In the evenings I mixed with writers, artists, and composers from across the country and around the world: a sculptor from Germany who crafted exquisite figurines, a young modernist composer from Chile, an installation artist from Denmark. Writers from everywhere: poets, novelists, essayists. We were a veritable jungle of talent from all tribes.

Where was I in all this? I was working on my first book. I had publication credits in a few national magazines. (None of them literary.) I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have an MFA.

I was thrilled when one writer expressed interest in doing a co-reading and asked me if I would share some of my manuscript with her. I pored over the pages and eventually gave her an extract. Then I waited. I wanted to read – the thought of putting my work out publicly frightened me but I also desperately wanted to walk over that bridge. And I didn’t want to go alone.

That night after dinner she invited me up to her room to talk. She spoke a lot but the word I never heard from her mouth was “Yes.” She handed me back the pages and gave me some advice – I can’t remember what. And though she never verbalized it, it was clear that she was retracting her invitation to read together. I took the pages. I didn’t touch that manuscript for two and a half years.

Our work is our deepest, most sacred, most intimate thing. To expose it is to put our naked heart into the world. We want honest responses. But we hope that the honesty is gentle.

The first residency is an opportunity to screw courage to the sticking point. Emotions surfaced. In the long hours with only me and my silence and my work, I found myself ambushed by a mix of feelings I neither expected or welcomed. Eventually I found a way to manage them: by journaling, by going for long runs in the afternoons, by the occasional phone call home to my husband. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t anything anyone had told me to prepare myself for.

And I kept writing. By temporarily putting aside my nonfiction manuscript, I produced my first draft of a new novel in less than a year. (For me, I am an achingly slow writer so that is a record!) It poured out in the weeks and months following my residency. I even managed a research trip to Scotland and started an e-mail pen pal exchange with a Brit that has blossomed into a lovely, real-world friendship. I attended conferences and made new writing contacts. And I launched both this website and my monthly e-newsletter.

Confidence can be a hard thing to hold onto. The writing life is rewarding but rarely easy. And every day for my first residency I had to push myself to believe in my right to be there. Over dinner one night I spoke with a novelist about his work and his path to becoming a writer. He talked about his MFA program – he was only a few years older than I – and we spoke of the fact that I hadn’t attended one. The he looked at me and said, “At your age it’s a bit late to go and do one.” (NB I was – and still am – in my 30s. And Ta’nehisi Coates has said it interviews it took him 18 years to build his writing career.)

My fellow author didn’t mean to say I was old that night, that I’d missed the boat. He didn’t intend to make a cut. But cut it did, for here was something I lacked, and now I was being told that the door to get it had already closed.

The world gives us plenty of reasons to doubt ourselves. I’m convinced that one of the most important things that writers must do is cultivate belief. Belief that what we are doing is valuable. Belief that we are saying something that is worth saying. Belief that the hours, days, weeks, months, years spent working on our material, practicing our craft, building our platforms are worth it.

Don’t let emotion determine your conviction.

A couple days later I was in the residency program’s shared kitchen. A very well-known author (multiple New York Times bestsellers) stood next to me by the sink as we rinsed our coffee mugs. Without preamble, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of epilogues?”

With that question, he launched a lively discussion that covered not only epilogues, but his current book project and how he researched it.

Picture of an open window with checkered curtains
View from my writer’s studio

That 10-minute conversation did more to make me feel like a peer than anything else I experienced during my first residency.  And what I took away from it was this: Even when you feel like an imposter, show up. Show up, because serendipitous moments happen. Show up, because you never know who you might meet. Just keep showing up.

The final thing I wish someone had told me was the importance of creature comforts. New places, however welcome or exciting, aren’t home. The very first trip I took away from my writer’s studio was to get snacks, warm socks, and waterproof boots. (It was a rainy October and the shoes I’d brought with me were no match for the weather.) I had brought a Keurig coffeemaker with me and that was a lifesaver on chill and damp afternoons.

This summer I’m headed to another writer’s residency program. The pages that my fellow writer passed over were submitted to a national memoir contest this spring. And I’m working towards seeking representation for The Admiral’s Wife, the novel that sprang out like a tidal wave post-residency.

Writing is a long and winding road. But each step is part of a journey, and every part of the journey is yours to own.

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Letting Out, Letting In

When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand.

~ Alex Haley

At the city docks of Annapolis, only a few feet away from lapping blue-gray seawater, there sits a bronze statue of Alex Haley. Ten quotes from the family saga Roots, each inscribed into a bronze marker, surround the sea wall near the statue. All of them are poignant, powerful, memorable. But my favorite is this: When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand.

This weekend I’ve been cleaning. Not just the average spring cleaning that wipes away dust and cobwebs. No, this is the kind of cleaning that goes years deep. Back into boxes of forgotten letters. Envelope of photographs whose edges have stuck together. The kind that thrusts into drawers and old closet shelves and pulls out dresses last worn at a college formal, satin shoes last seen at the (first) inaugural ball for President Obama. T-shirts from a summer job two decades ago. Cassette tapes for which I have no equipment capable of playing. Boxing gloves. The gei and obi from my high school karate class.

Why have I held onto such things? Why have I dutifully laid them into boxes and packed them up as I moved from apartment to apartment and now to a house that has the feel of permanency to it?

Part of it is pride. I don’t want to admit that I’ll never be the size 8 again who shimmied into a black and yellow cocktail dress that was once mistaken for vintage couture.

Part of it is fear. What if I need it again? What if I will regret letting it out of my life?

Part of it is sentiment. I don’t want to throw away things I associate with a memory. And so the clothes or the cassettes or the letters endure, becoming artifacts of what was. Ready for me to reach out and touch then, ready for me to reassure myself that they – and I – are real.

And yet such artifacts are a testament to what was. And in the sunshine of spring, as the world reawakens, I stretch with it. I open my fist. I allow the past to drop from it. I reach to what will be.

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10 Regency Women to Know

 I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me…the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.
~ Jane Austen

Despite their under-representation in history, 19th-century Britain had notable women in the arts, in science, in math…and even in the Royal Navy. Many lived long enough to become contemporaries of Queen Victoria, who began her rule in 1837 and arguably became the most famous woman in the British Empire, with influence felt around the world.

 

Jane Austen

1.       Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Author of six novels, her works are read and loved around the world. Her wit and gift for satire shone through even in her childhood, when she wrote her very own “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st.”

2.       William Brown (c. 1815)

William Brown was an alias used by the first black woman known to have served in the Royal Navy. Her true name is unknown. She sailed on the warship Queen Charlotte and contemporary newspapers report that she was discharged after her gender became known. (More about William Brown and the Queen Charlotte.)

3.       Katherine Cochrane (1796 – 1865)

I’m in love with Kate’s story and at work on a novel based on her life. Kate Cochrane rose from penniless orphan to countess, but more remarkable than that is her extraordinary life. She traveled widely in South America and Europe, was highly persuasive (she got Thomas Cochrane, her firebrand husband, a pardon from the British government) and survived multiple assassination attempts (her husband helped support revolutionary activities by South American nations against Spain). Kate herself may have lent a hand to revolutionary activities; there’s evidence that she carried “dispatches” on her South American travels.

4.       Maria Graham (1785 – 1842)

An intrepid traveler, author, and science buff, Maria Graham became widowed as she sailed to South America with her husband. She bucked convention by staying on in Chile alone, and her adventures there included surviving an earthquake, cruising with Admiral Cochrane, and befriending the Brazilian empress, Maria Leopoldina. Maria wrote widely about her travels and became a popular author and illustrator.

Ada Lovelace

5.       Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Ada’s mother insisted on a disciplined academic program for her young daughter, fearing that Ada would develop a moody temperament like her father, Lord Byron. Ada had a natural gift for mathematics and was thrilled by the idea of the idea of an “analytical engine.” She created formulas and codes for how the engine could perform calculations – in essence, the world’s first computer program.

6.       Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877)

A talented author, Caroline nevertheless could not access the money she received from her writing due to laws that gave husbands legal rights to their wives’ income. Her husband’s mistreatment included physical brutality and in 1836, she left him. He retaliated by preventing her from seeing her three children. Caroline promoted laws that would extend the social rights of women, especially married and divorced women – laws that were eventually passed in 1839, 1857, and 1870. She also supported better working conditions for children in factories. However, Caroline did not support full equal rights for women, writing “The natural position of woman is inferiority to man… I never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality.”

Title page of The History of Mary Prince.

7.       Mary Prince (c. 1788 – after 1833)

Born into slavery in Bermuda, Mary was sold away from her family when she was 10, and was subsequently sold three more times. She performed backbreaking labor to manufacture salt, and was frequently beaten by her owners. She married a free black man, Daniel James, in 1826. In 1828 she came to England with her master’s family. There Mary fled and sought help from the Anti-Slavery Society. Though slavery was illegal in England, it had not been abolished in British colonies and Mary feared that is she returned to Bermuda, she would be re-enslaved.

Her book, The History of Mary Prince, is the first account of a black woman’s life published in England. It was widely read and became highly influential in the British abolition movement. It is unknown whether she returned to Bermuda.

8.       Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

Mary Shelley was just 20 when she wrote Frankenstein. Her father, who disapproved of her relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, nevertheless praised the book “”[Frankenstein] is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of. You are now five and twenty. And, most fortunately, you have pursued a course of reading, and cultivated your mind in a manner the most admirably adapted to make you a great and successful author.”

Frankenstein not only sparked the horror genre, but shows a keen understanding of the scientific theories popular at the time – especially the potential of electricity. In her later years she wrote plays, poetry, and books about travel, though her finances remained precarious.

9.       Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

As a child, Mary used her brother’s assistance to learn algebra. Her interest in math and science continued for the rest of her long life. She conducted experiments and presented her findings on magnetism to the Royal Society in 1825. She also translated scientific works and her translations became widely-read academic texts at British universities. She continued working, writing, and researching; her final scientific book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published when she was 89. Mary also served as a tutor to Ada Lovelace.

10.      Elizabeth Creighton, Lady Wharncliffe (1779 – 1856)

Lady Wharncliffe was a prolific artist whose works include drawings and paintings. At the age of about 20, she married James Stuart-Wortley, 1st Baron Wharncliffe. The couple had four children. Many of her works are in the Tate Collection, and her letters are preserved in Britain’s National Archives at Kew.

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