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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

How to break the rules

Hello -- broken any rules lately?

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun. ” — Katherine Hepburn

I ask, because I’m trying. To be clear, I’m attempting to obey the rules of storytelling. It’s the rules of society I’m trying to break -- more on this in a moment. First, about doubling-down on the rules of storytelling...

At this stage of researching and revising my book, one of Storytelling 101's lessons is to be clear about the story's "Rules of the World." Suppose you have the idea for a sci-fi fantasy. You can really have fun creating its Rules of the World. Imagine mapping out a fanciful country - what does it look like? Who is in charge? Does it have a special language?

For instance, think of the name Offred, the main character in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Her name has two parts, "Of" and "Fred" to indicate she's the handmaid "of Fred," her Commander. Once this is explained, we understand her friend, Ofglen, is the handmaid for a guy named Glen. Right away, this rule within Gilead, the book's fictitious setting, gives us creepy insight into the authority and relationships these women will navigate.

As readers, we get Rules of the World instantly because we all live under societal rules. Standards for "normal" behavior are steeped beneath our skin. Every society has them. We know intuitively that if an individual steps outside of her/his expected behavior there will be backlash. First, informal sanctions from peers. Worse, actual punishment by those in authority if the person deviates too far.

Yet, the gradual evolution of society goes on, in spite of this risk in confronting the status quo.

I remember in the early-1970's when it was taboo for women teachers to wear pants in the classroom. I was just a 12-year-old kid and I don't remember exactly why this memory sticks. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and the rule that dresses and skirts were the "right" way for women teachers to dress lagged the sticky reality of kindergartners crawling around on the floor. Mom's fellow teachers objected, "Kindergarteners are short!" They appealed to the all-male school board. Eventually their persistence paid off and the men okayed pantsuits.

Polyester knit. No bell bottoms.


In this case, the "dresses-only" cultural standard got relaxed because some teachers thought to object to it. In fact, my mom told me she was not part of any protest around the teacher dress code. It never occurred to her to change it. Women wore skirts and dresses. A simple expectation, right?

Rules of society are so ubiquitous we only notice them when they're missing, not when we’re obeying them.

So, how does this apply to revising my story? I've had a nagging worry that I need to be clearer about what societal rules my heroine Jo is living under in the late 19th century. Just like now, at the time of my book, in Paris and Holland where Jo lives, society is a patriarchy. Patriarchy is more than white European men getting first dibs on stuff. The patriarchal authority is interwoven into all aspects of living — dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing, etc. And enforcement of this power is embedded in relationships -- of men-to-women, men-to-men, women-to-women, parent-to-child. I figured if I can get this society more distinct in my mind, it will pack wallop into the yucky visceral mess Jo stirs up.

This is important because, as readers, we are lightening quick in spotting inconsistencies in the worlds of stories. And we don't need to be experts about a particular time in history to do it. Every society gives constant cues on what "right" behavior is, so I need to include these in my book. Jo can hack the system, but I better be sure to explain not just how, but why and what she's up against to do it.

To help me explore these rules I got in touch with a new friend, Sally, who is a PhD professor of women and gender studies. We met at a Starbucks on a blistering hot Saturday a few weeks ago. Our iced coffees grew warm as we talked for 2-1/2 hours. I'd sent questions to Sally in advance; she brought answers and more. Since our meeting I've spun out nine pages of notes on how and where I'll edit my manuscript. Here's an example of what these changes will be.

  • 19c societal rule: Girls are raised to have the aspiration to marry, care for children and run a household. Their upbringing emphasizes learning about domestic duties and ladylike skills such as conversational French, playing the piano and dancing.

  • Jo's bio facts: Because Jo is the youngest daughter, she's spared from household duties since her older sisters take care of them. This freedom also means her education goes much further and she ultimately earns the equivalence of a college degree in music. After that she travels to London to work in the British Library and then as a teacher at a boarding school before marrying her husband.

  • New insight: This unusual background gives me one reason why Jo would make the unconventional decision to try to sell Vincent van Gogh's artwork herself, even though art dealing is a men's-only club. Her deeper education and independent-earning experience as a single woman gives her a background different from her peers.

Here's another editing note:

  • 19c societal rule: Boys must separate their identity from their mother's in order to be masculine. One way this was done is to have boys leave home to go to a boarding school at a young age.

  • What I wrote in the first draft: Because young Vincent, Jo's son, is being raised by a single mother, the need for him to go to boarding school is keenly critical. He must overcome the stigma of having no male role model growing up in order to be a "man" and successful in life. So, Jo is desperate to find the money for his boarding-school tuition.

  • New insight: Later, young Vincent rejects following in his mother's footsteps as an art dealer, but instead chooses to become an engineer. He leans towards an analytical career far removed from the art he was surrounded by in his youth. Originally, I'd interpreted this as Jo generously encouraging her son to choose work that was true to himself. Now I wonder whether she encouraged him to help solidify his separation from her so that his masculinity is beyond question. In so doing, she protects his ability to succeed in life with an occupation separate from his mother's.

Notice these two examples are less about the external action of plot and more about digging into the internal motivation of Jo and young Vincent. This is where story happens -- not what is going on, but why.

This past week I decided to list out the characters in my book. First of all, I found out there are 47 - who knew?! 28 men and 19 women. I'd no idea. Secondly, I started discovering right away that peering through the gender lens is bringing each individual into sharper relief for me. Each one must serve a purpose in the story. Each one is in various stages of accepting or objecting to the rules.

And you know this means they're in various stages of accepting or objecting to Jo.

A girl's gotta know who her friends are.


How I'm Writing the Book

Held another "Jumpstart Your Art" workshop. I held a second workshop last week thanks to my good friend Diane who organized the gathering. Eleven artists-in-the-making committed their lunch hour to explore ideas on how to make room for pursuing art in a jam-packed life. I start the workshop with quoting the No.1 Regret of the Dying: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." To be true to oneself can be to express the art that calls to you. In this workshop we had writing, painting, music and photography represented.

Went to Hear Actress Jane Fonda. My friend Joyce and I just attended "An Evening with Jane Fonda" in Kansas City. We packed up our one-night bags and cruise-controlled west on interstate 70 to catch her at the beautiful shell-like Kaufmann Center a few weeks ago. Jane’s just wrapped the fourth season of her hit Grace and Frankie Netflix show (co-starring Lily Tomlin) and her website shows she’s now doing a brief speaking tour across the country.

Jane told a bunch of great stories, especially about the movie On Golden Pond. Her father, Henry Fonda, had been told he was dying so the movie was really important to Jane. It would give her a last chance to act with him. One day the phone rings. Jane answers it. "Jane? It's Katherine Hepburn. I need to be in your movie!" Jane had never met the venerable actress, and she'd heard she could be tough on set. Jane travels to Ms. Hepburn's Manhattan apartment to meet with her about the role. Ms. Hepburn asks her, "Are you going to do your own back flip?" (If you haven't seen the movie, Jane's character has to do one into a lake.) As Jane explained it, she'd already decided no, absolutely not, and had hired a double. "Yes," she replies to Ms. Hepburn.

The day of the back-flip shooting -- after months of practice, first with a harness on a mat with a gymnastics instructor, then a pool, lots of bruises -- there's Jane on the dock. Camera crew is all set. There has to be one take (too much delay to dry hair and a dry bathing suit to do it all over again). One. Two. She does it! As Jane comes out of the water sputtering, Katherine Hepburn steps out from behind a bush, shaking both fists in the air, "You did it! You did it!"

I love that image.

Personal Stuff Our new grandson's arrival date is getting closer! When Husband and I get the phone call that he's arrived, we'll toss clothes into bags and the cat in the kennel. Our neighbors will know we're gone by skid-marks on the street. Stay tuned for photos!

I started this blog by saying I'm working on breaking societal rules. What I mean is that this research has challenged me to be more conscious of unconsciously accepting limitations. To take calm charge of my own thoughts. To question. To keep moving.

Or, in the words of Katherine Hepburn,

“As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.”

Call if you break a rule and need bail money,

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