Journal, Publishing/Editing, Writing

Lessons Learned from Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z_coverI picked up Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald at Logan Airport an hour before my folks and I flew off to Long Beach, CA. I was originally looking to pick up a copy of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, but they didn’t have copies yet. I’ll have to track that down… But Z had been on my to-read list since I saw it recommended in the New York Times Book Review.

Let’s lay it out plain: I’ve read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, but not since high school, and while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t permanently imprint itself on my adolescent soul. I knew Fitzgerald was something of a struggling artist, in that while he hit upon some great fame in his time, Gatsby wasn’t received as well as he’d hoped, and I vaguely remembered that he’d also had something of a drinking problem. I knew he and his wife, Zelda, had a tumultuous relationship. But that’s pretty much the entirety of my knowledge of the Fitzgeralds.

I picked up this book looking to find a relaxing beach read, something I could jump in and out of with ease, preferably before bed, all the while checking a to-read book off my list. What I got instead, was a thrill-ride, a few bouts of yelling at characters, and some insight into the triumphs and pitfalls of writing life.

This is a fictionalized version of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s lives together, but Therese Anne Fowler made it so real. The characters are both deeply flawed, but also deeply admirable even as they succumb to their various pitfalls. Scott’s alcoholism, procrastination, control issues, and immutable self-doubt makes you both want to hug him and choke him simultaneously. Zelda’s crumbling sanity, her entrapment in a world not yet ready for women’s total independence from their husbands, and her thwarted ambitions (less from her own production than from the interference of those who “know best”), is soul-crushing and sublime. There were chapters where I was ready to jump into the pages and sucker-punch Scott. There were chapters where I just leaned back and thought, “To hell with it: destroy yourselves. See how that works out for you.”

The glimpses of other celebrities from the time, too, adds to the realization of how small the publishing world really was back in those days, and in some ways, still is today. Sure, there are a lot more authors trying to make their waves in the oceans of publication, but when I go to conventions, I almost always run into people I know, or people who know the people I know. Connections are everywhere, as they were even back in the 1920s. Generations of writers who mature and begin publishing around the same times grow up into these cliques of “famous people who knew each other” (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien hung out?! WHAT?!) as if their talent magically brought them together, when really they’ve all just been struggling at the craft together, sometimes for years.

Anyway, that’s the general gist of the story. What struck me, really, was the way Fowler demonstrated Scott’s creative challenges: the procrastination, the partying and alcoholism, the deep desire to aid new writers while neglecting his own work, the poor reviews or lackluster sales, the ego (and immolating self-doubt), and the anguish all of those caused him. In my mind, I guess I’d always imagined Fitzgerald as this chill, hip writer in Hollywood with a bunch of short stories and novels under his belt, despite being a bit of a party hound. This version of his life showed a far more conflicted individual, wrought with the same crippling self-doubt I see both in myself and in so many writers I’ve encountered. I see the urge to skip out on writing for the day, the excuses, and the anguish that follows weeks, months, and years of not producing, which can so easily wear us down. I see, too, that necessary ego–the voice that pushes you on, tells you “you’ve got this,” that you just might be one of the few who “makes it,” maybe even does better than just “making it,” and pushes right on to being considered one of those “famous people who knew each other.”

This novel portrays a Scott that is anxious, dogged, indebted, and his own worst critic. It shows him as a man of great ambition and a great many personal hurdles to overcome. He wants so badly to be considered great, wants so much to find the validation that his work means something, that his name will linger through the centuries among the best of the best. He wants it so much, it actually hurts to read about it at times, because who hasn’t felt that way, at least occasionally? But his own ambition and sense of ineptitude eat him alive.

Simultaneously, Zelda’s story is one I thankfully don’t have much personal experience with. When my husband came to join us over the weekend in Long Beach for my sister’s wedding, I probably hugged him a little extra tight, because I was just so damned grateful that he’s so supportive and loving. No one would argue Zelda and Scott didn’t have a passionate romance, or even that they didn’t love each other right to the end, but it was a tough era for being a married woman with her own ambitions and hopes and dreams. I remember reading The Feminine Mystique a few years ago, and Betty Friedan’s description of what psychologists in the 1950s called “housewife syndrome” felt oh so familiar when reading about the frustrations Zelda encountered. Publishing under her husband’s name because it would make more money, but then having that accomplishment treated as if it were only because of his name that the stories were worth anything; her painting exhibit titled in reviews as “a wife’s artwork”; or her obsessive bid to be a professional ballerina because it was the only thing that made her feel worthwhile being thwarted by assertions from her husband and doctors that she should find all her contentment and happiness in the home, being a wife and mother (even though they had a nanny who took care of their daughter, and Scott was out and/or drunk a good chunk of the time)–it was exhausting and heartbreaking to read. Ladies, we’ve come a long way.

This is a great book, and I do think aspiring writers ought to check it out, if only to see what early fame and too much self-doubt can do to someone in this career. It’s not a relaxing read. From their whirlwind courtship to the New York parties, to Paris and the fighting and mutual destruction, it’ll keep you on your toes. But it also made me want to write. I finished this book and felt like I had a year’s worth of creative energy backlogged inside me. I couldn’t wait to get home and dive in, get things out there, get working. There are a few other things that I think contributed to this, not the least of which is the impending June deadline for the Little Guy, but I’ve been raring to go ever since, and these last two weeks have been more productive than the last couple of months combined.

Maybe a bit of the Roaring 20’s rubbed off on me, too.

Journal

Blog Post 2: Return of the Son of Blog Post

End of February, beginning March were a little crazy here at Chez Slater. For one, the ol’ body decided to do epic Pokemon battle with me, and chose PREGNANCY, attacking first with Round Ligament Pain (65% effective), then following with periodic Braxton-Hicks pseudo-contractions (85% effective) and a Disrupted Sleep attack (100% effective). Thankfully, the RLP attack is pretty short-lived, and it seems already to have gotten a ton better as I get adjusted to the new body structure. The Braxton-Hicks contractions are rare, still, but damn if they don’t shake you up a bit. Apparently a lot of women who get them during this time of their pregnancy find them totally painless. Me? Yeah, not that lucky. I’ve done pretty well breathing through them and all, but they’re no fun. 

The Disrupted Sleep Attack is actually resolving itself too (thank GOODNESS). For a while there, I’d get pretty intense deep-hip pain if I slept on one side for more than forty minutes at a time. I tried various pillow structures, etc., but really, the only thing that helped was sleeping on the opposite side for a while. *That* was made challenging by wrenching my back one night (which set off the first of my experiences with Braxton-Hicks, joy joy), which meant for a couple of weeks there in February, I would get up and move to either the opposite side of the bed or the daybed in the living room to switch sides, since rolling over normally really aggravated the back. The back finally healed up, but rolling over every half-hour to forty minutes (almost like clockwork–I timed it one night with a stopwatch out of curiosity) was still majorly disruptive. However, for the last two weeks, the hip pain has seemed less and less noticeable, so I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it’ll just go away. I think it’s probably hormone related, because I vaguely remember having something similar for a few weeks or months back in early high school, and my mother says she gets it from time to time as she goes through the later stages of menopause. Here’s to hoping it goes away and I can sleep like a log again!

That said, the disrupted sleep did mean that at least one of those weekend nights I was uncomfortable enough that I ended up thinking (and subsequently writing) an entire short story at 2 AM in the morning, finishing it about 3:30, and going back to bed. I also got to watch the arc of the Moon’s movements through the sky, and how it changed over two weeks, which was fascinating, actually. At least the cats seem to have learned how to deal with my tossing and turning and don’t pester me too much to get under the covers anymore, which is lovely in its own way. ^_^

Okay, but enough about the P word. This last month also saw my little sister get married in Long Beach, CA, which we’ve only just returned from as of yesterday. For the most part, I did pretty well, I think, at keeping up and at the same time not totally wearing myself out. The wedding on the Queen Mary was beautiful–I was a bridesmaid (or matron, as the case may be)–my sister looked absolutely angelic, and we’re so glad to add Eric and his family to ours and vice versa! We also ate a ridiculous lot of good food, like Korean BBQ which we cooked right at the table (sooooo tasty!), and big breakfast buffets, and a large Vietnamese dinner at this wonderful restaurant tucked away in San Gabriel. Also got in a lot of walking, which was good. And of course, I had to go on the Queen Mary Haunted Encounters tour, where the guide tells you all the ghost stories about the ship, because ghosts. It was a lot of fun. I’m a bit tired today from all the travel yesterday (red-eye flights while pregnant do totally suck. Blech.), but a little napping and getting back into a routine seems to be helping. 

I also got some exciting news yesterday, but I’ll hold off on details as things aren’t officially settled and I don’t want to reveal anything that hasn’t been announced yet. But needless to say, it’s a major positive shot in the arm, and I’m thrilled about it! 

I’ve got some other things on the mind that I may blog about over the next week or so, particularly a look at Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which I read in a whirlwind over the CA trip. It’s one of those fiction books that speaks very strongly to the writer in me, just as Martin Eden by Jack London did or Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, and I think I’ve learned a few things about my writer-self. It’s a lovely book, by the way, but not at all relaxing. From the wild parties of the 20’s, to marital turmoil and psychiatric episodes in the 30’s and 40’s, it’s an intense love story mixed with a lot of disappointment, desperation, frustration, alcoholism, and anger. There were times I was literally talking back to the book’s characters aloud because I was so worked up at the various indignities and crushing low-blows that inevitably occurred between Zelda and Scott (and others). That said: I could barely put it down. Well worth the read. But I’ll talk more in detail about that later. 

In the meantime, I’m hopefully back for a while until B-Day in June, when I’ll probably go radio silent for at least a number of weeks (or month+). We’ll see when we get there!