Welcome Our Newest Guest Speaker to the YouNiversity, Eleanor Parker, author of A Decent Woman!
From November to February, the YouNiversity will welcome authors and artists to contribute pieces on their personal artistic journeys. Today we welcome Eleanor Parker , author of the upcoming novel A Decent Woman.
A Creative Journey – Nature, Nurture or Necessity?
“Creativity is a DNA imperative. It is impossible for us to not be creative. We make things by nature.” –James Navé
My favorite stories are those of intrepid souls with unshakable confidence, who pursue their dreams and passions despite crazy odds, challenges, obstacles, and inner demons. They do this while learning the ropes and the craft of what they set out to accomplish with little regard to the critics, naysayers, and the dreaded, internal censor. Hey, that sounds a lot like a writer. A writer continues on the creative path for years amidst a myriad of rejections from literary agents, a few disappointed readers, and book publishers they never hear back from. The writer digs deep into emotional, mental, and spiritual wells, while perfecting the craft of writing, discovering her voice, and finally accessing the dark place where a golden nugget hid from her until three in the morning. And at that exact moment, she ran out of coffee and cigarettes. Wait, wait a minute. That’s me. That happened to me. I drove to Sheetz in my pajamas, bought supplies, and wrote furiously until the sun came up. A writer, despite the odds, challenges, obstacles, and yes, lurking inner demons, toils night and day for years, and finally hits the right vein—the one that bleeds gold.
I’ve heard it said that real writers are re-writers, and I couldn’t agree more. In 2005, I wrote my debut novel, A Decent Woman, and trust me when I tell you this—the current version bears little resemblance to the original draft manuscript. It was necessary for me to experience life as a single woman, move across the Atlantic Ocean, cry a bit, and move to West Virginia in order to pursue my writing. And I had to meet my current editor, who I’d heard was a dream to work with. During our first telephone conversation, Ally told me she’d made writers and authors cry. I told her to bring it on; I could take it. She pushed me way beyond my comfort zone by challenging me to create better momentum, remove male POV, and change my ending. Of course this involved months of rewriting when I’d believed I was done, but I wasn’t deterred. Four months later, I still adore Ally; she was right. A Decent Woman comes out Spring 2015 with Booktrope Books. It is the book I was meant to write.
Yes, bleeding is involved in writing. The necessary sweat and tears will follow if you go deep with your story and into your character’s psyche, which to me is an absolute necessity in great storytelling. The gifted writer will lay open their fears, secrets, and the darker aspects of themselves while other writers open the door a creative crack to see what it feels like to stand exposed, naked, and vulnerable. Most people are frightened by the idea of vulnerability and shut the door with a definitive slam, while the adventurously-open, bull-headed seekers push the door open, shove past self-imposed limits, and defiantly walk through. Your story will remain inside, peeking from the darkness, waiting for you to deal with it…or not. For a brief moment, you had a taste, a glimpse of the essence of you and who you were meant to be—a writer. It is a choice; a crazy choice at times, I’ll give you that, but my world opened up when I decided to add writing to the painting life I’d led for over twenty five years. You know what makes me sad? Untold stories make me very sad and people who don’t pursue their passions in life. In my experience, no challenge has been as frightening as I’d originally thought, after I’d tackled whatever it was. Calling the IRS, however, does not fall under this category—they are freaking scary.
Please don’t wait until you retire, until the kids are grown or until you have enough money in the bank to live a creative life. All you need is grit, nerves of steel, staying power, fierce determination, and that necessary bit of delusion to become a writer. And, of course, you need a damn good story.
As writers, are we to satisfy our muse or worry about what readers think of our book, while we strive to appeal to the masses?
I say it depends on the writer, the writing style, genre, and the magnum opus. In each creative journey, whether it’s penning a novel, writing a song, growing a flower garden, or painting a masterpiece, we strive to express ourselves. As writers, we communicate who we are, what we believe in, and we offer our personal message to the world, and oh yes, we will be judged. You must have tough skin to be a writer, but please know this—we always more to give. I’ve learned that through a myriad of rewrites and the editing process with my debut novel. When I thought not a single thought more could fit in my head and I didn’t know how the hell I was going to get from point A to point B in my story, I did. And it was an awesome experience.
I write for myself. I’m not a commercial writer, and I don’t like being put in a box, so my target audience is anyone over fifteen who reads and anyone over one hundred who can still read. I’m told I write lovely prose and I’m not preachy in the messages of my books, but some books will inevitably irritate some readers; there’s not much an author can do because art is subjective. What appeals to me might make you cringe. We can’t please everyone all the time, so I don’t try. I write for myself and hope my stories will resonate with readers.
Is creativity born of nature, nurture or is it born of necessity?
I was a blonde, green-eyed baby, born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to a United States Army GI of Polish/Russian ancestry and a Puerto Rican mother who spoke perfect English with a beautiful Spanish accent. Growing up, I was known as “la rubia”, the blonde, and had two nicknames. I was known as Nuni to my American family and Pupita by my Puerto Rican family, and thus began my dual life on the island of Puerto Rico and wherever the Army sent my father. I spoke Spanish with my mother and English with my father, who didn’t speak Spanish, but sang, “Besame Mucho”, with operatic flair when he had a few drinks, which always made my mother and us kids laugh.
When I was two, the Army sent us to Paris, France, where my younger sister was born two years later.
I attended an école maternelle, a nursery school, where I learned French, hated the mandatory nap time, and it was there that I was introduced to painting. My mother kept that painting and all the Mother’s Day cards I made for her in the drawer of her bedside table until she passed away in 1992. My earliest memory is when we lived in France after my sister was born. My young neighbors, two American brothers, placed me in a cardboard box at the top of our old, wooden staircase, and pushed the box. My mother told me I didn’t cry when I landed at the bottom of the stairs. Instead, I laughed and begged to shoot down the stairs again. At four years of age, I was an adventurer, a painter, and a world traveler.
France was a happy time for my family, but all my treasured childhood memories took place in Puerto Rico at my grandparent’s house at Calle A, Urbanización Santa Maria in Ponce. Their Spanish-style home was always was my refuge and the happiest place on the planet for me as a kid.
Other childhood memories are from pasadías, day trips, to the beach at Caña Gorda, where we enjoyed Sunday lunch set in heavy calderos, pots, inside the trunk of my uncle’s Chevrolet. In other family photographs, I’m the kid with heavy doses of sun block cream on my nose and a tee shirt to cover my pale skin while I sat in the shade of a palm tree for sun breaks. My grandparent’s coffee farm in the mountains of Jayuya was the setting of decades of wonderful, magical memories and incidentally, the farm is the setting of the sequel to A Decent Woman, called Mistress of Coffee. All the grandkids took turns riding la llegua, an old mare, led around the farm by the farm overseer named Gógo, who had the patience of a saint. On rainy days, my cousins and I played school and the girls ran a beauty shop. On sunny days, we listened to the radio, danced to 45 records on my small record player, and explored the mountains.
Also at the farm, I experienced my first life reality check at the age of ten. My grandmother owned a long, black hair piece that my cousins and I fought over, which we’d attach to our hair with bobby pins. I still remember the hurt and confusion I felt when my sister cried it was her turn to wear it, and wishing to end the argument, my mother told me, “No te pega. It doesn’t match your hair. Let your sister wear it; she has dark brown hair.” Although I spoke Spanish fluently, I was born on the island, and was Puerto Rican in my heart of hearts—I was still “la rubia” of the family. My mother was a sweet, kind woman, but nonetheless, her comment stung my young cheeks. I suddenly felt out of place. I ran to give the queja, complaint, to my grandmother, who wisely told me that no matter what my hair color was, I was Puerto Rican. She also gently reminded me not to forget my blonde and blue-eyed father was American; I had two heritages.
From an early age, I painted pictures with a brush and with words. When I was ten, I painted my first portrait of a woman with the only palette I had at my disposal—my mother’s eye shadow set, using the tiny sponge with a plastic handle as my brush because crayons and colored pencils didn’t do it for me. Asking my parents for a proper watercolor set and brushes didn’t occur to me until I was a teenager, when I understood why I hadn’t asked—no one in my family drew or painted past the mandatory art classes in elementary and junior high school. My family looked upon art as a hobby, no more than a frivolous pursuit and past time. In high school, my parents realized I wasn’t going to stop drawing and writing when I asked for pastels, art and writing paper, and a good pen. My mother bought a new eye shadow set.
Back in the United States for the new school year, I looked like the American children at the Catholic school I attended. We wore blue and white plaid uniforms, sold statues of the Virgin Mary to raise money for our school, and we attended Mass every Friday with the nuns giving us death stares if we spoke or laughed in the church pews. I grew close to my cousins in Massachusetts during family visits and learned about my Polish-Russian ancestry. The common threads in both families are love and loyalty of family. I drew constantly, read Nancy Drew books voraciously, and was again uprooted for another tour in Puerto Rico, seamlessly adapting to wherever I lived. Back and forth we went across the Atlantic Ocean during my father’s tour in Vietnam and our summer visits.
I longed to paint and draw every day, but that wasn’t to happen until I married an Army officer and my beautiful children were born. I drew models from fashion magazines, copied several paintings by the Masters, and wrote poetry, all kept in an art satchel that I kept under my bed. Then, as the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”. I was ready and my teacher appeared in the form of a fantastic watercolor artist and woman, Elaine Hahn. I studied and exhibited with Elaine for three years until my beloved mother died unexpectedly at age 57, which happens to be my age today. After my mother’s passing, our next duty station was Brussels, Belgium–a huge turning point in my creative life.
Living overseas granted me the time and opportunity to stay home with my children and paint again. I became one of the founding members of the art group, Art Perspectives International, and exhibited several times a year during our thirteen year tour. It was during this time that I was given Julia Cameron’s seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, and my world opened up. I facilitated five creativity workshops in my home for artists, writers, singers, actors, and poets, who in turn, pushed me to write poetry again. As I offered my time, encouragement, and support to the creative folks who walked through my door for many years, I, in turn, was helped.
In 2005, I wrote a tribute in honor of my Puerto Rican grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. My husband read it and asked me to write an outline of my grandmother’s life. Afterward he said, “You have a book to write.” I spent the next six months writing A Decent Woman, and traveled to Puerto Rico several times to interview older family members, healers, psychics, and mediums. I did my research on the island and from my desk in Brussels. I had found my niche! I was ecstatically happy, but a year later, after twenty-seven years together, my husband left our home. The following summer, I moved out of our rental house in Brussels and closed the door on our French home. I moved back to the United States with my kids who were attending US universities, and went back to school while I worked as a Spanish language social worker in Northern Virginia. I loved my clients, but I was unsettled. By that time, I’d moved four times in four years, searching for the life that would remind me of France and Puerto Rico—of happier days.
In 2010, I knew it was imperative to give up my day job to write and paint full-time. How did I know? The timing was right, I disliked the city, and my sanity depended on it. We’d sold our wonderful French house and with my half of the proceeds I bought a house in West Virginia, where I could afford to live a creative life. My adult children, now working and living in Northern Virginia, were shocked and thought it might be time to have me committed, but I held strong. My gut screamed, “Do it.” By trial and error, paying attention, taking risks, making sacrifices, and being extremely stubborn, positive-minded, and delusional at times, I jumped off the cliff and landed in my creative life.
I unpacked the novel I’d written in 2005, read this very well traveled manuscript, and realized the story no longer fit me. The story about my grandparent’s lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico was no longer the story I wanted to tell. It was the story of Ana, my grandmother’s Afro-Caribbean midwife, who’d attended the births of two aunts, an uncle, and my mother, that I was passionate about. Ana had been a minor character in the original story, but she was the nugget of gold. When I tapped into Ana, she told me her story through whispers, nudges, and clear dialogue I heard in my head. I began rewriting and reworking the story with all I’d experienced, lived, and researched. It is time to birth A Decent Woman and introduce her to you in Spring 2015.
Did I find my idyllic, creative life in West Virginia? Not really, but it was a soft place to land. I still dream of France and Puerto Rico.