I’m so delighted today to host fellow Marly Rusoff author Jonathan Odell, whose first novel has been reimagined and rereleased as Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. The Minneapolis Star Tribune calls the novel “an important story beautifully told,” and goes on the say, “It is why we read novels. You will care about these characters — and emerge more aware and empathetic because of them.” Jonathan, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and became involved in the civil rights movement in college, is also the author of The Healing, and … well, I’ll let you read his post about the rest. Enjoy! – Meg
Jonathan Odell: On writing the novel that is now Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League
I came to writing late in life. I was 45 before I wrote my first page of fiction. It took that long to overcome the only career advice my father ever gave me as a young boy. “Son,” he said, “if you find a job you only hate 95% of you’ve got a damned good job.”
Being born into your typical emotionally repressed, God-fearing, fundamentalist, shame-filled, dirt-poor Mississippi family, this made perfect sense to me. We don’t trust joy where I come from. Joy is a trap, a devious ruse to divert your attention from the disaster that’s forever nipping at your heals. Joy tempts you into lowering your guard. My father was an expert at joy management. And he taught me well.
As a child I watched him as he had gritted his teeth, rolled up his sleeves, worked like a fiend during the day, and brooded at night, and slowly became a self-made success. So, I went into business like my dad, made a lot of money like my dad, hated my life like my dad, and then one day I had an epiphany. “Hey,” I thought. “I’m not my dad!” It was a stunning revelation. Some call a moment like this a BGO-a blinding glimpse of the obvious-something that’s been in front of you all along, but you’ve never been able to see it through all the stuff you were taught to believe. It may have been obvious, but transformational nonetheless.
Somebody wise told me once that to find joy, first you have to let go of everything in your life that stifles joy, everything that hurts. That was easy. Everything hurt. So, I chucked my business, sold the house, sent my partner running off in terror, and gave away the dog. I moved into a two-room apartment.
I felt better. “But now what should I do?” I wondered.
About that time I saw Joseph Campbell on PBS telling Bill Moyers that he should “follow his bliss.” That sounds important, I thought. I wrote it down in my journal and underlined bliss twice.
But what the hell was bliss, anyway? I thought back over my work career. Were there any close encounters with what one could call bliss? Not that I could remember. How about college? Any bliss sightings or even near misses? No, not sober. High school? Junior high? Sheesh, elementary school? Nothing? Not one experience of unbridled delight, the feeling that, “this is what I was born to do with my life?” No unitive moment with the cosmos? Joseph Campbell would think me pathetic.
It took a few months of wandering aimlessly in the jungles of Costa Rica, but finally I had another BGO. Stories! I once loved stories. Bible stories I heard in Sunday school and the cowboy stories I saw at the Strand Theater on Saturday afternoon; and how much fun they were to act out scene by scene for my mother. And I remembered how awe stuck I was the day that I discovered that those squiggly black markings in my first grade reader were alive with stories! That’s where stories lived! It was a real Helen Keller experience.
That had to be it! My own personal bliss.
“I’ll write a novel!” I thought excitedly, without the slightest notion of how naïve that would sound to most people. Not realizing that 98% of the people born after John Bunyan wrote Pilgrims’ Progress had had that very same thought but with nothing ever coming of it.
Luckily I was just that naïve. I had never taken a single writing class, even attempted a short story, and since college had limited my reading to books on management and leadership development. You know, practical stuff.
Today, I can honestly say, that as a beginning novelist, naiveté was my greatest strength. Because I sure couldn’t write. If some well-meaning life consultant had sat me down and told me the truth, what it would take for me to write a novel and then the odds of ever getting it published, I’d have given up before I started.
So, naively, I figured I had enough money put aside to follow my bliss for at least five years, maybe ten. Little did I know, that ten years was nearly how long it would take to get the first novel published.
Because I was starting late, I didn’t have time to begin at the beginning, by reading all the classics, getting my MFA, interning at Coffee House Press, and hanging out at author readings every night. I had to jump in the middle. I only had the time to find the things that worked—for me. I didn’t want to get sidetracked by the all the professional credentialing, and trappings of the cultural aesthetic of it all, honing my facility to joust intelligibly with the local literati about the virtues of postmodern literature or the impending death of the novel. I just wanted to write. On the job training was my only option.
Of course I still get intimidated by authors who have been preparing for their writing careers since they wrote their first short story at age three. But that’s not my reality. I have to avoid situations that make me feeling shameful about lost opportunities. Wallowing in feelings of unworthiness can really cut down on your creative time. You can’t love your characters and hate yourself at the same time. And anyway, your characters don’t know that you’re an imposter unless you tell them.
The good news is that I’m finding there are more and more people like me, some older. People with a story they want to write even though they haven’t “earned the right” to write. Searching for those fabled Golden Rules of Writing that everyone must have learned while we were out living the non-literary life.
Here’s the good news and the bad news-there are no rules. Except for this one: Rule Number One: Rules only work for those who make them. But of course, if you have reached my age, you probably know that already. If you are young, take it as fair warning. It will save you a lot of angst.
Eventually you’ll come up with your own guiding principles, your personal writing touchstones that keep bringing you back to the center, to your bliss, to the reason why you want to write to begin with. We all have to find out own North Star. It took me 8 years of writing badly to find mine.
So here’s to you, my fellow latecomers to the literary party! Enjoy the journey. It’s ok to skip the beginning and jump ahead to the good part. – Jonathan