Book Review: You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins

Normally I don’t review books that aren’t directly related to Louisa May Alcott. However, in a sense, You Are a Writer (So Start ACTING Like One) by Jeff Goins is related. Here’s why.

Beginnings

I started blogging because I was in love with Louisa May Alcott and I wanted to meet other enthusiasts. I wrote because it was a means of communicating that love. And in the process of communicating my love, I fell in love with the tool, her tool – writing.

What’s Jeff Goins got to do with Louisa?

Jeff Goins is a writer. He writes one of my favorite blogs, Jeff Goins, Writer and has taught me ways to improve this blog. But the most important thing he has done is help me say the following: I am a writer.

Making the admission

Getting to the point of admitting this fact was difficult. I felt like a poser. I wasn’t a writer. Heck, I couldn’t even call myself a reader until recently because I hadn’t read at all until two years ago.
And here I was writing about a prolific writer, an author who had written a timeless classic. I was putting myself out there commenting and analyzing when I had no credentials. I wasn’t a scholar. I wasn’t a reader. I wasn’t a writer.
Then I met Jeff Goins. And now, even though I’m still not a scholar, I am a reader, and I am a writer. And my love of Louisa which drives me each day to read, probe and question, makes me qualified to comment and analyze.
You, the readers, have been tremendously supportive with your comments and we’ve had lively discussions along the way. I look forward to many more.

Book review

This post is a roundabout way of reviewing Jeff Goin’s new book, You Are a Writer (So Start ACTING Like One).
  • Any book that drives me to my computer to write when I know it’s going to make me late for work is a treasure.
  • Any book that gets me to set my alarm to an earlier time so that I will not make myself late for work with my writing is a treasure.
  • Any book that stokes the fire is a treasure.
You Are a Writer is such a treasure.

The purpose of You Are a Writer

The premise of this book is that once you claim your vocation as a writer, you can choose where to go with your writing. First, you have to choose yourself.
He maintains the necessity to write for yourself, to write because you love it. If you love it, your passion will attract readers and eventually, publishers. It will give you the strength necessary to get your work out to the world.
His justification for writing for yourself? There are people out there waiting for your ideas.

A motivational book …

The first part of You Are a Writer is motivational. It stoked my fire so much that I spent three hours furiously making a record of my ideas. They came tumbling out of me as I drove to work such that I had to leave myself 8 voice messages to make sure I had a record of them. Then I spent 2 hours writing them down.

… and a practical book

The second part is practical. While Goins covers the traditional aspects of trying to get published (working with editors, making the pitch, etc.), he introduces new ideas that get you, the writer, behind the steering wheel. He gives examples from his own success to back up these ideas. The challenge is allowing yourself to think outside the box.

Proof that it works

Much of what Goins recommended are things I have done instinctively over the years as a blogger and former e-magazine publisher and I can testify from my own experience that they do work.

Universal application

The general thrust of these ideas have a universal application, applying to anything you want to achieve in this life, creative or not. It comes down to living authentically, tenaciously, passionately, persistently.

The verdict?

A book that can make me get up willingly at 5:30 every morning to read and write is a good book! 5 stars.
You Are a Writer is available in ebook format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit the website for more information.

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Need a reason to follow Louisa on Twitter? How about 5?


Molly Lieber in Katie Workum's Fruitlands. Photo: Christopher Duggan from Deborah Jowitt's Dance Beat http://www.artsjournal.com/dancebeat/2012/04/what-can-i-tell-you/

Not following Louisa May Alcott is My Passion on Twitter? You’re missing some great links to fascinating stories. Here’s a sample of today’s tweets:

  • 10-minute Podcast on Old-Fashioned Girl: “Louisa May Alcott and An Old-Fashioned Girl – Five American Women and Work” http://t.co/9qwfPjNB
  • One man’s personal journey through his family history produces Civil War book – his relative may have met Louisa at Union Hospital http://t.co/4fAZRlLL
  • Learning to be Jo March w/out the benefit of having read Little Women. Cool story! http://t.co/udtgD7MR
  • A dance performance based on Fruitlands? You bet! “The Flick of a Skirt Can Speak Louder Than Words” http://t.co/MBFaJm0A
  • More on the Fruitlands dance – very interesting! http://t.co/UGdqDZjU

Normally you can only see these links via Twitter – come and join us! And let’s tweet each other. :-) Louisa May Alcott is My Passion on Twitter

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Enter the head of a Pulizter-prize winning author for 1 minute

A brief and fascinating look into the head of John Matteson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (2007) as he answers a question about his way of writing and researching (I think he’s quite cute too – you’ll see why at the end. :-))

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Take 5 minutes to enjoy Little Women Wynona-style

I found this video via Suck My Alcott – Six snarky chicks who dig Louisa Maythe 1994 version of Little Women condensed into under 5 minutes (with music by Savage Garden – used to love those guys!).

It’s cool, raw and rainy today but for about 5 minutes, it got warm and cozy. Enjoy!

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What would Louisa think of this cat?

I think she would have laughed out loud, just like me. :-)


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Could Louisa have run the Boston Marathon?

I am so pleased to work in Wellesley, MA, the halfway mark of the prestigious 26 mile Boston Marathon. I’m watching the coverage live on the internet and I felt a lump in my throat watching the elite women runners speed past the huge crowds of cheering students from Wellesley College. Wouldn’t Louisa, a runner herself, have been proud! May she would have run the marathon too!

Top: elite women runner passing Wellesley College (boston.com); below from Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (alcottfilm.com)

UPDATE: JBee posted this cool link to a post called Day hike: Louisa May Alcott and walking to Boston – Louisa once walked from Concord to Boston and went to a party! Thanks JBee!


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Book Review: The Glory Cloak

By way of review (as mentioned in the previous post), The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien is an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.

Normally I would not go through and summarize what happened in the story, but because I want to explore the interesting theories that O’Brien had about Louisa, it is necessary to give you a point of reference. I will do my best to avoid spoilers.

Fast-paced

The Glory Cloak moves so quickly that I could have read it in one sitting if the time had presented itself. It was a blessing at the gym, seeing as I hadn’t worked out in three weeks. I was so engrossed in the story that I forgot all about my aches and pains!

The beginning

Storefront of Clara Barton's war office from http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/137429

The story begins with a 1997 discovery of Clara Barton’s office on the third floor of a building in Washington slated to be torn down. This is the office where Barton, with just a handful of volunteers, sought (successfully) to find and identify thousands of missing dead soldiers. This story, based on fact, is crucial to the plot.

Setting and the characters

Through her made-up characters (Susan Gray, John Sulie (based on the real life character of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches), Belle Poole, Liddy Getty), O’Brien takes the reader deep into the horror of a Civil War hospital inundated with wounded. She also takes us into the minds of her real characters, most especially Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton.

I have never read anything before on Clara so I cannot judge how realistic her portrayal was in the story. However, my interest was piqued and I plan on finding out more about her.

Bold theories

I do know Louisa fairly well and was intrigued with the  theories that O’Brien floated about her throughout the story. I am going to explore those theories in detail in a followup to this post.

The main character

Susan  Gray and her family visited the Alcotts for a week or two twice every year. Outspoken and spirited like her cousin, she and Louisa, ten years her senior, became close life-long friends. When Susan’s family was wiped out by a typhoid epidemic, she wrote to Louisa, asking to be taken in.

Susan delighted in Louisa’s brash and boyish ways. In one scene, the two girls are sitting in an apple tree; Louisa dares Susan to climb to a high branch and hang upside down by her knees. Eager to please though terrified at the thought, Susan complies and is secretly proud of herself for being so audacious.

It was this theme of the “dare” that would be repeated throughout the book.

What is the glory cloak?

The title of the book  refers to a special real-life cloak made for the Alcott girls for their theatricals. Louisa came to use it whenever she wrote (complete with a hat) and while stories abound as to how it came into her possession, it was Lizzie (aka Beth in this story) who bequeathed the robe to Louisa despite her own fondness of it:

“Beth laughed, removing the wrap. ‘Oh girls, it’s too much for me. Lou, you’re the only one who can wear this and do it justice. You have the flair for it.’

‘No –’ Lou began to protest.

Beth was firm. “It’s your cloak, It’s your glory cloak. You will do wonderful things wearing it, I am sure of it.’ “

It continued to be Louisa’s costume of choice whenever she would disappear into her vortex of writing.

Grown-up challenges

Bonnets from 1866

Susan came to live with the Alcotts shortly after Lizzie had died. Louisa was establishing herself as the breadwinner of the family through her writing, and Susan, wishing also for purpose, used her talents as a hat maker in the local shop in downtown Concord.

Susan noticed immediately how duty-bound and somber her cousin had become. Scarred and yet motivated by all she had lost, Louisa was bound and determined to be the Alcott breadwinner and even tried to discourage Susan from working in the local shop, claiming that the Alcotts were “above” being merchants.

As the Civil War began to rev up, Louisa and Susan became restless, eager to become a real part of the action. Hearing that nurses were needed, they volunteered and set off together on their grand adventure to Washington, D.C. (known as Washington City at the time). They had no idea what they were getting into.

Reality hits home

Civil War union hospital SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress

Both sheltered and prim, Susan and Louisa see a much broader view of the world at the Union Hospital. Here O’Brien introduces several colorful characters including the worldly Liddy Getty and the unscrupulous assistant head nurse, Belle Poole.

The Glory Cloak uses Louisa’s Hospital Sketches and greatly expands upon the descriptions of pain, horror and death. Details are gruesome – there is no romanticizing here, especially when the wounded begin streaming in from the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg.

It is here that we meet the focal point of the  novel, John Sulie.

Love interest

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"
historicaldigression.com

O’Brien describes John as Alcott described him: large, manly, exceedingly handsome. But while Louisa’s description in Hospital Sketches  is that of a noble saint, O’Brien’s Sulie is rougher, mysterious and very well-read. Louisa is immediately attracted to him and the feeling is mutual. It begins with discussions of  Milton and Whitman (Walt Whitman even makes a cameo appearance) and soon the chemistry between the two is obvious.

However, Louisa is not the only one attracted to Sulie – so is Susan. John Sulie becomes a major test to their friendship.

Changed

Eventually Louisa is sent home nearly dying of typhoid and Sulie disappears. Both she and Susan are greatly changed by their “grand adventure” and the deep sorrow that came of it. Louisa loses herself in her writing and Susan seeks greater purpose. Enter (again) Clara Barton.

The next grand adventure

Clara Barton during the Civil War from a detail of a Mathew Brady photo

Clara Barton has achieved a noble reputation for her nursing of the wounded in the field. Now she is obsessed with finding all the missing soldiers.

Susan offers to help but this time Louisa does not follow her cousin. Instead she goes to Europe as a companion to invalid Emma Weld (based on Anna Weld). Duty supersedes adventure for Louisa.

Clara and Susan, along Liddy Getty and Tom Cassidy, a soldier Susan had nursed who was sweet on her, work to answer thousands of letters from distraught families looking for their husbands and sons. Enter again John Sulie who holds the answer.

What follows is a breathtaking series of events (some tragic) that test the mettle of Susan’s friendship with Louisa. These events also demonstrate the amazing strength of one woman, Clara Barton, and the astonishing things she was able to accomplish.

And the verdict is …

I loved this book! I haven’t lost myself in a story this much since reading Gone with The Wind. The Glory Cloak is not nearly so epic, but it is powerful. I am so glad I had read Gone with the Wind because The Glory Cloak gives a decidedly northern point of view on the war. I found myself thinking of the southern side as presented through Scarlett O’Hara while reading O’Brien’s take.

The historical details are fascinating, especially the many references to personal feminine life such as hygiene and the change of life. I had always wondered how women in the 19th century dealt with these issues – now I have an idea.

Using Susan to get to Louisa

The Alcott family in front of Orchard House, from http://www.louisamayalcott.org

Susan Gray proved to be a terrific vehicle for getting in the heart, mind and soul of Louisa as well as other members of the Alcott family. It’s obvious which members of the family O’Brien found most interesting. Younger sister May was very Amy-like, yet still quite likable. Lizzie was hardly mentioned as if O’Brien didn’t know what to do with her. Anna played a small role but was beautifully presented.

O’Brien’s contempt for Bronson was palpable – the man could do nothing right! I found her presentation of Abba to be quite curious at first and couldn’t really figure out what she thought of her until I reached the end of the book.

Getting to know Clara

If historical fiction is meant to tempt us to find out more then O’Brien did her job well. Clara Barton was very interesting to me. The second half of the book focused on her and what a powerhouse she was! She lived the life of an autonomous, fiercely independent spinster woman with nobility and power. All I can say is, “Wow!”

Lessons

I appreciated that O’Brien could be provocative without openly poking the reader with jabs (which is what I am finding with Geraldine Brooks’ March). The Glory Cloak showed this newbie writer just how bold one must be to write convincing historical fiction, especially if that fiction is based upon real-life, well-loved characters. O’Brien’s theories were backed up with thoughtful, well-executed and believable scenarios.  She reinforced what I’ve long suspected, that one must dig very deep and set the imagination free to succeed at writing something that will carry the reader away and touch the heart. Writing is not for the fainthearted!

In a future post I will share some of O’Brien’s theories regarding Louisa. They changed forever the way I look Louisa and Hospital Sketches.


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Louisa has primed my pump and changed my life

I happened to stumble upon a great find: The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.

A life-changing book

Everyone has read books that have changed their life in some way. The Glory Cloak is one of those that I can count as life-changing. It was the right book to read at this time in my life. Besides giving me a new interpretation of Louisa’s life through the main character, Susan Gray, it also showed me plainly what it takes to write a good historical novel.

Personal history

It has taken me all of my life (56 years) to admit that I am a writer. Writing has lain dormant in me for so many of those years. As a child I read voraciously and wrote little books. I found my first biography of Louisa in The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and read it so many times that the book is tattered and worn.

Turning away …

Discouragement from a 7th grade English teacher plus adolescence plus a new passion for the guitar steered me away from reading and writing for most of my life (with the exception of songwriting). Every five years or so I would tackle a new biography about Louisa, lose myself in it, and then move on. That’s all the reading I did. Until now.

Coming upon the second anniversary of my mother’s death (April 22), I have been lately reflecting on how much reading and writing about Louisa has meant to me. When my mother died, a large part of me went with her. My passion for music which had been dying anyway, was gone.

… and coming home

Adrift after several years of helping to care for my mother, I came upon two books that my husband had bought for me several months earlier. He knew of my love for Louisa. Those two books were The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"
historicaldigression.com

Reisen’s book led me to Hospital Sketches, the first book of Louisa’s that I had ever read. The chapter known as “A Night” where she wrote so poignantly of the death of John the Virginian blacksmith, was a like a balm on my grief. Louisa wrote with such understanding about death, both emotionally and spiritually. After all, she was still grieving the loss of her sister, Lizzie, and her long-time friend, Henry David Thoreau. Her grief spoke to me.

Stoking the fire

It was then that I decided I wanted an outlet for all that I was feeling about Louisa and her writing, and this blog was born. Each day as I read, wrote and immersed myself deeper into her life, her work and her contemporaries, I discovered a fire that I thought had long ago been extinguished. Every now and then I would feel a wind under me, lifting me up as I would write. Research and taking notes became a passionate endeavor. That “lifting up” became more and more frequent such that now I long for those Saturday and Sunday mornings when I can at last lay aside work and family, hole up in my sacred space, and write.

A mission

I began to develop theories about Louisa. One in particular, her relationship with her younger sister Lizzie, has become a mission. Lizzie, the “shadow sister” often overlooked and dismissed. How many times have I heard that “no one would ever want to be  Beth!” Yet there are many, many Beths in this world and I believe I am one of them. When I see historical fiction about Louisa where Lizzie is referred to as “Beth”, I know the writer is dismissing her. Beth was Louisa’s glorification of Lizzie but she was not a real flesh-and-blood person; Lizzie was. I feel called to be a voice for Lizzie.

Not for the fainthearted!

The Glory Cloak has shown me a way to achieve this purpose. It first has taught me that you cannot call yourself a writer if you are fainthearted. It may seem like writing is a “safe” thing to do – after all, you are all by yourself, lost inside of your own world that no one else can enter … what’s risky about that?

Giving voice

Patricia O’Brien has taught me otherwise, showing me that provocative theories can be floated if they are backed up by a well-developed, gripping story. Characters like Lizzie, despite the lack of hard facts, can be fleshed out. Any character can have a voice.

Tools

O’Brien has shown me the tools she used to dig deeper, expanding and setting free, her imagination. I only know the generalities now and will need to work hard to get to the particulars, but The Glory Cloak assures me that it can be done.

Perched for a flying leap

from welovebirds.org

Historical fiction requires risk-taking with fan fiction being especially risky. How many millions of Little Women fans are out there? And how many of those fans have dug as deeply as I have, obsessed with the life of the author? I met about fifty of those types of fans in Concord several weeks ago at the Little Women panel discussion I attended. I felt right at home and very intimidated, all at the same time. It was exhilarating. It strengthened my resolve with regards to my own little mission.

Oil for the engine

The wonderful thing about writing is that all it takes to get the engine started again is a good book. Between work, Lent and Easter, I totally fell out of my writing routine. I’m so thankful I found a book as compelling as The Glory Cloak. It swept me away and in some ways, left me feeling sad. But it was the oil that primed this engine that was surely sputtering!

Getting into the book

In the next post I will get into more particulars about the book, and in the final post, I will get into the theories which O’Brien explored. Thanks to those theories, I see Louisa through a new lens, only adding to the richness of her life.

Thank you

Thank you for indulging me! One of the things I’ve failed to mention is how much is has meant for me to enjoy such great company on this journey. Through this blog I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of you, whether it be in person, on the phone or by email, Twitter and/or your own blogs and books. I feel privileged to be a part of such a special community. The writers, teachers, students of all ages and fans I have met have been most generous. You are a bighearted and welcoming group!


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Special kudos to one of our readers!

The Union Leader out of Manchester, NH ran an article on April 1st highlighting one of their own. I’m proud to say she is one of ours too! Jennifer Bernard, whose pictures you’ve seen on this blog, was honored by the Concord Free Library of having her photo of Orchard House included in their special tribute to the historic museum celebrating its centennial. Read below for details.

NH photographer’s picture of Alcott’s house in exhibit

By Nancy Bean Foster
Sunday News Correspondent

CONCORD, Mass. – The work of a Mont Vernon photographer will be part of an exhibit at the Concord Free Public library celebrating the centennial of the famous Orchard House, the setting for Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

Beginning today, the Concord Free Public library will host an exhibit highlighting the history of the house and the rich history that took place within the four walls of the Alcott home, a pan of historical Concord’s landscape since the l600s.

Included in the exhibit, according to curator Constance Manoli-Skocay, will be a sampling of the artifacts unearthed during the 2001-02 archaeological dig of the property, a chronology of the house that explores the two centuries of the home before the A1cotts moved in, and a look at Concord in 1912 when the Orchard House became a museum – the first private home in the country to do so.

The exhibit will also feature an original photograph taken of the Orchard House by Jennifer R. Bernard of Mont Vernon, who has found an endless amount of inspiration for her artwork at the Alcott family home.

Bernard, who has photographed the Orchard House using models to portray Alcott and her sisters – the little women she so fondly wrote about in 1868 – said she brought some of her images captured on silver film to the library last April. From those pictures, Manoli-Skocay selected the one that will be featured in the exhibit.

“I am unbelievably honored to have my work chosen for this exhibit,” said Bernard, who started photographing the Orchard House in 2008.

“Little Women” holds a special place in Bernard’s heart because the book speaks to the bonding between siblings, the love for their parents and the sadness that comes when the siblings leave home.”

“It’s a true New England story,” she said, “but it’s also a women’s story.”

Bernard said “Little Women” brings to mind images of her own grandmother, who lived at the same time as Alcott, surrounded by her sisters in an old New England home. And there are also the memories she shares with other women of her generation who grew up watching June Allyson … and of course, Elizabeth Taylor, in their roles as the Alcott sisters in the movie version of ‘”Little Women.”

“It’s just a story we can relate to,” said Bernard. “I love it.” Bernard’s photograph of the Orchard House will be displayed in the library along with Daniel Chester French’s statues of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott until July 1. For more information, go to concordlibrary.org.


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