Will the Real American Male Please Stand Up?

I’m married to a Brit – an international IT consultant who neither knows nor cares about SEC football. A guy who once debated in high school in England that classical music is better than pop (he lost the debate). A man who dances with two left feet. A non-drinker and non-smoker. When I began writing Summer Squall, he was apprehensive that I would base my male antagonist on him. “Never fear,” I assured him. I had a different type male in mind. Someone who excels in sports. A man who drinks bourbon while smoking a cigar and telling off-color jokes. A male who can charm the pants off a woman while lording his superiority over her at the same time. I wanted a Hemingway man.

You remember Papa, right? The egotist who exaggerated his heroic feats in the Great War. The guy who hunted sharks with a machine gun. The Great White Hunter who loved being photographed standing beside his kills. The aficionado of bull fighting. The writer who had no respect for any other writer (including his third wife). A person whose only comment on the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald was to call him “a poor son of a bitch,” conveniently forgetting that Fitzgerald was instrumental in getting Hemingway published. Hemingway’s image is so powerful that he is probably the one American author that even non-readers know, making their yearly pilgrimages to Key West to tour his house and see one of the six-digit cats. There’s even a martini named after him (made with pink grapefruit juice, of all things.)

American movies are full of this type male. He’s both Harry Bosch and Dirty Harry. He’s Rambo, Rocky Balboa, and probably any movie made by Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal or Sylvester Stallone. He’s the loner who despises any form of cowardliness, calling it unmanly. (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a perfect example of the Hemingway code at work.) Matthew Adams in a Washington Post article, “Ernest Hemingway: the Man Behind the Cultivated Image of Hyper-masculinity” calls him the “macho face of 20th century prose,” citing his habit of shadowboxing while walking down a street and luring friends into the ring with him in order to test their physical strength. Fearful of being considered gay, he cultivated a masculine image that boarded on parody, boasting once of shooting a dog in such a way that it would take all day to bleed to death.

In Mary V. Dearborn’s new book, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, the first one published in 15 years, she traces how the “golden young man” who seems carved by the gods down to his perfect white teeth became a loathsome human being who eventually gave in to his manic-depressive demons and killed himself at 7:00 am outside his home in Iowa while dressed in his “emperor robe.” “And,” Dearborn writes, “He told enormous whoppers.” As is often the case, she, like most of his biographers, traces his mental decent to the family dynamics in Oak Park, Illinois where a cold-natured mother and manic-depressive father ruled. (Those Daddy and Mommy issues have a way bringing down even the hardiness of men.)

How the male code is passed from one generation to the next brings me back to Summer Squall and my antagonist, who I named Mark – a man who hero-worshiped his father. I was inspired by Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” where a strong-willed male tries to force a vulnerable female to accept his world view. Changing the setting from a railway station in Spain to a marina in southwest Florida, I strove to examine the dynamics between what Hemingway called “the American” in his story and his female traveling companion, “the girl.” As I tightened the screw on Beth, my protagonist, I wanted Mark, my all-American hero, to become a “force de Jure” – equivalent to the violent weather that often visits the Gulf. I wanted readers to feel the tension as they eavesdrop on Mark and Beth.

Critics still debate the ending to “Hills Like White Elephants.” Does the American succeed in convincing the girl to do things his way, or does she choose a different path for her life? Readers of women’s fiction can probably predict the final choice my “girl” will make, but as I have her face challenge after challenge, I trust I have created an engaging read tracing her journey.

Back to my original question about the real American male. We are still a nation attracted to forceful men – guys who tell it like it is, who are suspicious of anyone remotely different from them, who see nothing wrong with women still being the butt of jokes and objects of unwelcome advances in the workplace. (And don’t get me started on equal pay.)

It’s 2020 and the Bro Culture is alive and well. But here’s an antidote that makes me smile. Over the Christmas holidays, a neighbor of mine took her grandchildren to Cleveland, Georgia, home of Babyland General Hospital where Cabbage Patch dolls can be adopted. She expected her granddaughter to adopt a doll but was surprised and delighted when both her grandsons wanted one too. There they were, fresh from the soccer pitch and baseball field, two boys who love sports and video games, breaking the male stereotype by choosing their dolls and naming them after two major league stars – Mike Trout of the LA Angels and Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings.

Even if Papa Hemingway is rolling over in his grave, I suspect their fathers are proud of them. (Not to mention that one of their daddies still has his Spike doll from 1986.) And as to my Brit who sings like an Irish tenor and tells the funniest jokes and has my back always, I’ll take him any day over some of the jocks I’ve known. (Although it would be nice if he showed some interest in my Tennessee Volunteers.)

 

What’s Your Story? Tips on Memoir Writing

Everyone has a story to tell. A favorite childhood memory, a screw-up on a first job, an amazing trip, a memorable family gathering, a cherished pet.

Recently, I had the privilege of holding a book launch party for Summer Squall for some 50 women who belong to book clubs where I live. In addition to telling the backstory of my novel (which I will do in a later post), I shared tips on memoir writing, using Quicksand: A Cautionary Love Story as an example. Here are the points I made in case you too want to pen your story. If you would like to watch my presentation, click here.

  1. Know the genre.
    Memoir and autobiography are often used interchangeably, yet incorrectly. The difference is that memoir writing is not simply a chronology of your life but rather a sub-genre. A memoir focuses on a specific event at a specific time, while an autobiography spans the entire life of a person including such details as childhood, family history, education and profession.
  2. Read memoirs – lots of memoirs.
    At one time, celebrities were the only people who wrote memoirs, but a lot has changed. Reading memoirs is a great way to familiarize yourself with the rhythm of this type story and to grow comfortable with the first-person pronoun.
    Here’s a list of some of my favorites.
    – The Glass Castle – Jenette Walls
    – Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
    – The Liar’s Club – Mary Karr
    – Rocket Boys – Homer Hickam
    – Marley & Me – John Grogan
    – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
    For the New York Times list of the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years, click here.
  3. Collect your primary source materials.
    Because the events of my story occurred long before email and texting, I had a plethora of materials – letters, calendars, cards, photos, trinkets, music. So collect anything and everything that can assist you in your deep dive back into your past.
  4. Narrow the focus of your story.
    While Quicksand covers ten years of my life, your memoir might be limited to just one day. In many ways, a limited time frame can improve the impact of your story. Think like a cook: a sauce reduction thickens and strengthens the flavors of the sauce. Same is true in writing.
  5. Focus on 3 primary elements: the event(s), emotion(s), the impact.
    When you choose an event for your memoir, think about how the event affected you and what you learned from it. As you identify the feelings you experienced, remember every writers’ mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, show yourself in actions that demonstrate the emotion. Body language is always a good place to start.
  6. Break down your story into scenes and get to writing!
    Don’t worry over the perfect beginning to your story. Simply choose a starting point and begin. In most cases, start with some type of conflict. You can always interweave a backstory into the narrative later. While John Updike’s short story “A&P” isn’t a memoir, it reads like one and illustrates just how short an event can be, plus it illustrates the power of a great first sentence: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits!”
    Here’s a link to the story.
  7. Find your voice
    Without a doubt, this is hardest element of memoir writing – the relationship between the author (you) and the character (you again). I was in tears trying to find just the right voice and didn’t discover it until some five chapters into my narrative. Once I did, I rewrote the beginning, using a prologue to set up the memoir. For the remainder of the chapters, I used a conversational voice, envisioning my audience sitting in the room nodding and listening.
  8. Study the craft of writing.
    I attended numerous workshops and seminars offered through universities and local writing groups. If that isn’t an option for you, there are numerous books available through Amazon. One of my favorites is Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham. I’m also fond of books by K.M Weiland and am using her workbook Outlining Your Novel as I begin my third book. In writing Quicksand, I connected with Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with my Sister, at a writing convention. She became my writing coach.
  9. Expect to make multiple drafts.
    I hate to tell you, but much of what you write will land in the trash bin. That’s part of the process. Don’t even name your memoir at this point. Simply call it “Draft 1” and get going. With both of my books, I went through four drafts. Yes, that took some time, but the results were worth it.
  10. Search outBeta” Readers.
    You want honest and helpful feedback on your writing, but this does not necessarily come from friends and relatives. As you begin your writing journey, you’ll meet others along the way. Exchange drafts with them. One of my readers had served time for a Ponzi scheme, which helped me greatly with scenes involving courtroom protocol. Join online writing groups. It’s another great way to get beta readers. Prepare specific questions for them to address. This helps guide their reading.

Yes, writing is a daunting. But if you have a story within you, then write it. You will be so proud of the results. I know I was.