Home and Family in Literature and Life

roussel house

Do we ever really think about what first piques our interest in a particular subject? Whether it’s history or science or literature or society or food, we tend to generalize our initial interest in a topic or hobby – “it was in my early 20s” or “sometime in my youth” or “when I heard about it from a friend.” But do we really think through the very thing that truly led us to want to learn more, do more, and find more out about something that intrigued us? And do we stop to wonder why?

So you like military history; okay, what was it that first attracted you to it? Why? Was it because you have a personal connection to it, through your own experiences or via a family member or friend, or is it because of a particular incident in history that calls out to more strongly than others? Or say that you really got into sculpting. Is there a specific work or artist that inspired you? A reason you wanted to sit down and build something with your hands?

As I’ve spent the last two and a half years exploring what I want to do with my life and reflecting on my various interests and hobbies, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes and connections. I’ve especially noticed this when I think about my favorite books, authors, and stories over the years.

Jane Austen. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Louisa May Alcott. Ginny Dye. Jan Karon.

Okay, they are all women writers. And with the exception of Karon’s Mitford series, they all wrote in or write about times past; “period” literature, as some may call it. We’ve got the Edwardian era, Civil War and beyond, pioneer times, and turn of the century and WWI. But it’s more than that – a lot more than that, I’ve recently realized. In all of these authors works, there is one thing that stands out loud and clear, when I really think about it: the importance of home and family.

It’s kind of an aha moment; these are two of the most important things in my own life, and two of the things I most enjoy writing about myself. A coincidence? Likely not.

As Janeites know all too well, Austen’s novels aren’t exactly filled with adventure and crazy plot twists. She used everyday happenings and personal dramas from the family home and that of close neighbors and friends to create witty, romantic, and realistic stories of life in Regency England. Laura Ingalls Wilder shared the mundane and sometimes frightening details of prairie life, as her family moved from house to house to house, but always making it home. Montgomery’s series about a lovable red-headed, precocious orphan girl named Anne who was adopted by an elderly couple on Canada’s Prince Edward Island is all about family and home. Alcott’s Little Women is based on her own family and their struggles in the mid-1800s New England, and her other books all have a strong sense of family, centering on spirited, smart, and self-reliant young women. Karon’s series about a small-town pastor shows us the comical, joyful, and sometimes sad lives of Father Tim and his friends in the quaint town of Mitford. And Ginny Dye’s historical fiction series, The Bregdan Chronicles, features an entire cast of fiercely loyal, passionate, and ambitious family members and friends – black and white, former slaves and masters – that continue to call a Virginia plantation home base even after the Civil War has ended.

I’d be silly to not also notice that all of these authors’ works intrigue me because of their portrayals of resilient, independent, ambitious, and compassionate women, with a drive to do something more and be something more in their world (in the Mitford series, this comes through with Father Tim’s wife, Cynthia). While they are all extremely devoted to their families and to creating a sense of home, wherever they are, they also feel a calling to explore beyond their boundaries — both physical, and the ones placed on them by society because they are women.

In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet knows she must marry, but she is not about to settle for the first man that shows her attention or that her mother sends her way. It takes time of course, but ultimately she chooses a man that will make her happy as well as comfortable, and all the while, she’s pushing for her sisters and friends to make their own choices as well. In Little Women, Jo March leaves home and an opportunity to marry her best friend to become a writer, and ends up meeting an older man who challenges her mind as well as her heart. And in The Bregdan Chronicles, Carrie Cromwell fights convention and risks her life by first freeing her father’s slaves, then by attending a women’s medical college up north, leaving her husband, family, and friends behind (temporarily).

These themes, which often fight against one another as much as they work together, have come up often in my own life – especially so in the last couple of years. My intense desire to be independent, to explore the world around me, and to pursue my passions keeps my mind and my heart constantly churning, constantly looking for what’s next and how to get there. Yet at the same time, I’m pulled home, to my parents, to my family in Louisiana, to a stable and comforting environment that brings me joy and peace. I yearn for a companion and prefer structure and routine, yet feel I am meant to do more and be more – for myself, if not for anyone else. I don’t like feeling stuck, yet I stick to safe routines and lifestyles because it’s easier, or less intimidating. Finding the balance is what I keep coming back to – what IS the balance? What IS the combination of home and family and a life of adventure and exploration that I’m looking for, and how do I find it?

For now, I’ll keep reading and continue learning. Perhaps some of the answers will come from the authors and characters that I’ve loved for so many years.

Have you noticed any themes in your favorite books from over the years that go deeper than genre? Are they relevant to your own life?

Whom do you love? Virtue vs. villainy in literature


In last weekend’s New York Times book review, Bookends asked, “Can a virtuous character be interesting?” Two writers, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory, present their case for which type of literary character makes for more interesting reading: a good person, or a villainous one?

Mallon begins his argument for the “villain” with classic examples: Scarlett over Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Becky over Amelia in Vanity Fair, and perhaps the most fundamental and obvious example of all, Lucifer over God in Paradise Lost. He also references the recent controversy over Atticus Finch’s true colors illuminated in Harper Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman (I blogged on that here), and how Atticus may be an exception to the rule that we love to hate the bad guys, and that reading about flawed and even evil characters is more wholly satisfying than reading about do-gooders. Without the bad guys, Mallon says, we lose the opportunity to appreciate the virtue in the good guys – and in some cases, like in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, we lose the entire essence of the play, and the larger lessons and messages that come with it.

Meanwhile, Gregory believes that being good isn’t taking the easy way out – and suggests that leading a fully virtuous life is actually harder than we realize; in other words, it’s nothing to sneeze at:

“…being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people.”

These days, in a world of dramatic and scripted reality TV, Don Draper, and Walter White, it can be easy to fall into, well, how easy it is to be dark and twisty. Let’s face it; even on Downton Abbey, we point to Lady Mary and call her a “mean girl,” but we secretly love her stinging barbs about her sister Edith or the fact that she isn’t quite the good girl that the eldest daughter of an earl is supposed to be. We loved how wholesome and sweet Peggy Olson was in the first season or two of Mad Men, but thoroughly enjoyed her evolution into a smart, strategic, sassy, and put together professional, who could hold her own in an office full of men, yet struggled with family, love, and friendships.

When I consider some of my favorite books over the years, I find that I have equally enjoyed stories of virtuous characters and those with flaws. For instance, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park tends to get dismissed because so many readers think her heroine, Fanny Price, is boring and too much of a goody-goody. Yet I put Mansfield Park near the top of my Austen list for that very reason: I applaud Fanny’s efforts to consistently be good and fight against temptations in a house full of them. Fanny may not be proud of her poor origins, and she may not fit in with her aunt’s household, but she ultimately comes to own who she is – including such rare and snubbed traits like loyalty, honesty, prudence, and tenderness – and it serves her well in the end. We may at first laugh with the Crawford siblings as they push for a life of leisure and lechery, and roll our eyes at some of the stiff interactions between Fanny and Edmund, but truly, secretly, we yearn for the immense respect and love that grows between the two cousins because they are so ardent in their desire to be good and do good.

In Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway doesn’t seem like the most exciting guy around — all the drama surrounds his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, and of course, Nick’s neighbor, the titular character of Jay Gatsby. Secret affairs, huge house parties, and driving at high speeds? Sounds fun…for a minute. But the disastrous effects of a life led by lies and money show us that perhaps it’s better to hang with Nick after all.

While we may believe that fictional do-gooders are boring and the villains are more exciting; does it translate to what we want and who we want to be in real life? I think not. Countless examples abound in literature of characters we connect with, despite or because of their flawed nature – perhaps it’s because, deep down, we are rooting for them to evolve and make good, which Gregory might call the true dark side. Despite the ongoing demand for reality shows, celebrity gossip, and continual opportunities for schadenfreude in this “everything is filmed or tweeted” culture, when it comes down to it, we want to inspire and be inspired, with a focus on integrity, wisdom, loyalty, and kindness. Perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus is not the exception to the rule – maybe he is the rule, and Lee helped us to realize that when she showed us the truth in Watchman.

Many readers escape to fiction because it’s more satisfying than reality. Yet there’s a reason why society is also enamored with the likes of Mother Teresa, Malala, MLK, or Oskar Schindler– we desperately want good to triumph over evil, and we really do like happy endings. So maybe we can take cues from the good literary characters and attempt to apply their approach to our own lives; it might make for a more fascinating story after all.

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  -Anne Frank

Who do you prefer to read about – good or bad characters? What are some of your favorite examples?

Go Set a Watchman: Time To Reevaluate Our Heroes — and Our Conscience?

Go Set a Watchman

As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?

Upon finishing the book, two things were very clear to me: 1) yes, this definitely had the markings of a first draft that was then reworked and revised into what became TKAM, a novel that many call the greatest American novel of all time; and 2) adult Scout’s revelations about herself and her father quite closely mirror those of Americans during the Civil Rights Era – and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all the more today. If what they say is true, that Lee’s publisher thought her first draft of Watchman was too harsh and too real for those times and that’s why she vigorously edited it for a softer landing, one would think that in reading Watchman now, we would be ready and welcoming, rushing to give ourselves pats on the back for overcoming racial tension and accepting the federal government’s interference into our lives for the purpose of equality. But based on some reactions, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There’s no need to spend a lot of time discussing the stylistic merits of Watchman. I plan to reread TKAM to remind myself of that masterpiece, but I do think Watchman misses the mark in a few spots. Filler and backstory take up too much time, and some of the extended flashbacks don’t seem to serve a purpose to the larger plot, which doesn’t start to get moving until late in the story. Then all of a sudden, there’s an explosion of dialogue, lots of yelling, and a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The entire book takes place over the course of three days: a short amount of time to have a second coming-of-age journey and major life revelation. Despite all this, Lee’s distinctive details shine through, and old characters come to life again, even those who only appear in flashbacks, like Dill or Jem.

So what’s the real fuss about? Watchman comes during a pivotal time for Americans, while we are still absorbing months of seemingly unending racial unrest and injustice. At its heart, Watchman is about reevaluating our heroes – whether they are parents, police, politicians, explorers, innovators, sports champions, or characters on the page and screen. TKAM is written from the point of view of 5-year-old Scout who adores her father with the rest of us; she’s blind to his faults, and blind to the world beyond Maycomb, perhaps even beyond her own front yard. Watchmen shows us Atticus Finch and the world from the eyes of an adult; Scout goes by Jean Louise, and she’s no longer innocent, naïve, or completely enamored with her father and her hometown.

Jean Louise’s experience isn’t anything new. Haven’t we all experienced a second coming-of-age at some point, in which we realize that the people that we once perceived as perfect in nature and in principle are actually flawed and susceptible to change? The people who make us laugh, who inspire us to be great and to go the distance, who make our world a bit brighter (and perhaps more rose-colored) – many of them eventually let us down as they fall victim to human foible and or give in to pressures from society and themselves, for better or worse, right or wrong. Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and the Founding Fathers; all revered for their strength, wit, leadership, ideas, or courage, and yet all examples of (and in some instances, certainly not excusable) the capriciousness of the human spirit. Atticus Finch, to our dismay, now falls into that category, but are we truly surprised?

Humans love to watch people rise and fall, but they often deny their involvement in the process, even if that means turning a blind eye or a deaf ear, only to be indignant after the fact. We have always searched for individuals we can prop up on pedestals engraved with titles of our choosing: hero, warrior, champion, leader, genius, changemaker. And yet, we are unwilling to recognize that these labels are only a part of what makes them who they are, and that they are vulnerable to displaying their other, not so well-liked attributes just as easily as we are. So when it does happen, we are shocked, or perhaps outraged. But are we more upset that our hero messed up or that our carefully tended ideals have been tarnished by the realities of life? Or is it, like in Scout’s case, realizing that we won’t always believe the same things as the ones we loved and learned from? Is it not realistic that a younger Atticus Finch could defend a black man and promote racial equality, yet grow jaded and even prejudiced over the course of 20 years as he faces tremendous change in his life? While we may hope that everyone always changes for the better, we must recognize that it is hardly representative of what actually happens. A week’s worth of news is example enough: just when we feel we have taken a step forward as society, embracing tenets of love and tolerance and progress, we take two steps back and are inundated with rape and murder, hate and treachery.

Reading Go Set a Watchman does not have to destroy a long-held image of a favorite character (and by the way, he’s just a character, not a real person), nor does it have to alter our view of Harper Lee, who for many years was known as a one-hit wonder. Watchman has given us a chance to look behind the scenes at what it takes to write a brilliant and enduring work of fiction. TKAM can still stand on its own, whether or not you read Watchman and whether you love it or hate it. But more importantly, Watchman also invites us to take a closer look within ourselves to discover what we believe and stand for as individuals, who we look up to and stand by and why, and how we can find a way to meld those two together to bravely go forward in this world.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think?

It’s all in the details

don note
When I was in elementary school, my parents would check my homework each night. Math problems, language arts, all of it. They’d point out errors (before there was a thing called typos) and make me go back and fix it, until I had a clean assignment to turn in. While it would sometimes frustrate me, it taught me early on the importance of attention to detail. At that time, I was rushing through things quickly because it wasn’t much of a challenge, and I just wanted to be done with my homework so I could read. My dad impressed upon me as early as age six that sloppy work doesn’t cut it, whether it was in my homework assignment, while completing a chore, or playing sports. It definitely made an impact – I am a self-acknowledged neat freak, I once organized my CDs and books by genre and artist/author, and I have a solid membership in the grammar snob squad.

In my very first semester of college at Miami University, I learned another important lesson about details from my English professor. For each book we read, Don had us write our analyses in the form of a letter to him. “Dear Don,” each one would begin, and then we’d outline our thoughts on stories from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James, Wharton, and more, weaving in our own experiences with love, loss, travel, and friendship. Don would write us back with little Post-its and margin notes, filled with bits of wisdom and words of affirmation or understanding. “Me, too!” or “I agree!” were common. But the best ones were his gentle critiques and prompts to get us to show more and tell less, to use real examples, and to dig deeper. “Do you have a story, Jenna?” he’d write. Or “I need more details!” My foundation was all there, and I got the concepts, but I was too vague in my examples and not detailed enough in my descriptions. Don knew my writing could have more to it, and he pushed me to explore it.

I continued to look for the details as a reporter on my school paper, and then in my newspaper internships throughout college. Once I began work in digital communications for nonprofits and foundations in 2007, my writing took a different turn. While I had to be accurate with stats and program information, I was frequently told that shorter is better, and so long-form stories about the people these organizations supported went out in favor of 200-word blog posts and soon, 140-character tweets. General descriptions and umbrella messaging took precedent over exact details and deep dive storytelling to appeal to multiple audiences and drive actions and donations. On the side, I continued to write in my personal blog, alternating between specifics and big concepts about self-reflection and growth.

In recent months, I’ve picked up storytelling again as I pursue a more focused freelance writing career. While I adore reading fiction, I’ve always preferred nonfiction or historical fiction to creative writing, which is why I so loved my days at newspapers. As I’m interviewing people for their stories, I’m put back into a place where the details matter: ages, names, physical traits, quirks, interests. There is no fudging here or creating a character upon which someone is based. These are real people, with real stories. As I get back into this pattern, I’m applying it to my work with nonprofit clients when they want stories, and ultimately, I truly believe the details that make a person who they are resonates with donors more than anything else.

I recently sent Don an essay I wrote for submission to a travel writing contest. The subject was near and dear to me: illustrating a strong sense of place in my hometown in Louisiana. In the 12 years since I had his class, Don has never ceased to be a friend and mentor, encouraging me to keep writing and even convincing me to attend and participate in the International Hemingway Conference next summer. When Don sent back his thoughts on my piece, I had to smile. He really liked my work, and said it was “evocative.” But what came next was even better: “If I were to suggest anything to make it even more effective, it would be to be more specific in a couple of key places. But, Jenna, I almost always want more specifics! I’m especially enamored of proper nouns. And dialogue.”

It was so like Don to ask for more detail – and I needed the reminder. He pointed out a few places that could use specifics, and when I added them in, he was right of course. The story really was better for all of its tiny little details.

Just think of all the things you read each day or shows or movies you watch, or music you listen to. Or think about your own experiences and memories. While the theme or the action or the beat may provide for a great foundation, it’s the specifics that bring it all to life – the colors, tastes, sounds, or the words. When we care about the details, it makes our work and our stories more complete, more real, and more impactful.

Say “Hello” and Change Your Life Story

Photo credit: Jen Collins

I have always been a people person. While I cherish my alone time and am happy to amuse myself and relax, I usually thrive in an environment that requires me to meet new people, ask questions, and get personal. Perhaps that’s why being a writer was always top of mind for me; I recognized early on that everyone has a story to tell. Choosing journalism in college was a no brainer: it gave me a chance to pound the pavement and then write about what I learned.

Making conversation with the person in line next to me at the coffee shop or grocery store? No problem. Showing up at a wedding/party/event and knowing only the host? Perhaps intimidating at first, but nothing that can’t be handled. While I’m never going into the telemarketing business (I have my limits), I give a lot of credit to the act of simply starting a conversation with someone that’s near you, whether physically or virtually. In fact, many of my relationships and experiences have been started with something as little as saying “Hello” to the person next to me. I have countless examples of how my life was influenced or impacted in this way; you never know where it will lead you.

At least once a week, I visit a coffee shop that’s near the library where I volunteer. At one point, I realized an elderly man and a younger man were there working behind laptops every time I went in. It seemed like the younger guy (probably around my age) was helping the older man with a project. I was immediately curious. Who were these guys? Why were they always at the coffee shop, no matter when I stopped in? I was determined to find out, and while some people might think it brash, it’s what I do. So one day about a month ago, I went over to them and said, “Hello, I may sound a little nosy, but I see you here all the time. What are you up to?” The older man, whom I learned is Mo, smiled and told me about an online platform they were creating to help communities connect with each other in times of emergency. Then he said, “What are you doing here?” Now, every time I go to the coffee shop, I get an update from Mo on his project; I get the sense he looks forward to our little mini meetings as much as I do. Who knows where it will lead?

In the same coffee shop, I observed a woman’s laptop background was all Elvis. I asked her about it, and next thing you know, we had a half hour discussion about the book she was writing on the King of Rock and Roll, and how you don’t hear singers like Sinatra and Presley anymore. Next time I see her there, I’m going to get an update from her, too. And the same goes for another elderly man who sat down next to me one day when I was writing and started telling me about the book he’d published and some of the jobs he’d held in his lifetime. He, too, said that he can’t help but talk to people when he sees them; it’s just what he likes to do. I was happy to oblige him for a few minutes.

So I got to thinking about some of the other people that have played a role in my own story because of a chance meeting or what started as a simple introduction. Here are a few that are top of mind, and I’ve also included a few from friends who shared their own experiences.

  • A nice lady started talking to me on the plane on one of my many trips down to Louisiana as a child. Mrs. Mercedes and I became pen pals for years until she passed away.
  • When I posted this question on Facebook, my friend of 18 years, Molly, said of our own friendship, “Gym class!” As I told her, “And the rest was history!”
  • A sweet young woman named Brooke started chatting with me in the bathroom of my residence hall sophomore year at college. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and although we haven’t seen each other in years, we talk on the phone every couple of months.
  • Another friend named Molly came across a crowded DC bar at a networking happy hour and introduced herself after seeing my nametag. I’ve since attended her wedding and celebrated the birth of her baby.
  • I followed up with a guy who spoke at a college journalism conference when I moved to DC and he connected me with the person that would become my first boss.
  • Two people that I admire very much and look to as mentors and inspirations are in my life because I met one at a conference happy hour (Matt) and because I emailed the other after reading her blog (Sloane).
  • I exchanged polite background information and email addresses with a woman next to me at the library volunteer orientation last summer. Now, Linda and I see each other weekly and text like high school girls.
  • My friend Michael says he met a good friend in 2005 at a conference when he had to “rescue her from a creepy old guy that was half drunk.” She’s in NYC, he’s in Portland now, but they still remain in touch today.
  • Former coworker Karin says “False fire alert at the university residence. Both in our PJs outside at 20 degrees. Hubby and I, 15 years ago.”

I could go on and on of course. There are also many instances of starting conversations with someone on Twitter and those interactions leading to in-person meetings and friendships or pen pals (Leslie, I’m looking at you!). But you get the idea. Say “hello” to someone today and they may become a part of your story forever.

Got an example to add? I’d love to hear how a “Hello” turned into a significant relationship or opportunity – how did your story combine with someone else’s?

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