Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tacking on That Tough Skin

A week ago I took the next step in my writing journey. Through Twitter, I met some ladies who are part of a writing group that meets locally. I considered joining one before, even searched online, but hadn’t located one I thought would suit my needs. Or perhaps I wasn’t ready. Either way, this time when they invited me to come so we could check each other out, I committed.
            I tried not to think about things too much. I finished my current round of edits, printed my manuscript, query letter, and synopsis, and baked some killer pumpkin cookies with cream cheese icing (when in doubt, sweets never hurt, in my experience). Suddenly the evening arrived, and after a long day in hell…oops, I mean at my day job, I gathered the bits of my soul and set off into the unknown.
            I met everyone, and they seemed nice. We ate some minestrone soup and chatted about our goals and where we are currently, then got down to business. Since I’m the newbie, and they were sort of auditioning me, I went first. Let me say, I’ve never given my writing to anyone I didn’t know, except for college professors. The people who’ve read my novel liked it, but their opinions are colored by things like being related to me.
            I had been nervous before going, complained to my husband and my best friend about it. They tried to calm my nerves but, not being artists, they struggled to grasp the reason for my fears. Now, as I prepared to read Chapter One in a novel I’d been revising for months, my hands shook like a heroin addict two days sober, a fact I hoped they would attribute it to the coffee. My throat was dry and after the first few sentences the words stuck to my tonsils and had to be scraped off. I took off my cardigan in an attempt stem the flow of underarm sweat that threatened to bleed through my shirt. After reading about ten pages, then held my breath.
            They had nice things to say, assuring me that my writing wasn’t total crap, that my stories were worth telling. They also had some excellent advice on craft, an admitted weakness of mine and an area I am intent on improving. Their advice was sound, kind, intelligent, and timely. Two things amazed me. First, I didn’t die from embarrassment or anxiety. Second, they instantly put their finger on the problem I have struggled with for months. They only listened to ten pages, and were able to tell me how to make my beloved story work better. This is a subject for another blog, but reading and critiquing others can also immensely improve your own work. Turning your eye a different direction, looking for holes and craft issues instead of worrying about your story, benefits everyone.
            As artists, we are naturally sensitive people who crave rave reviews and positive reinforcement. It’s part of our makeup. Nathan Bransford blogged about it this week, it’s a good post that stirred up a hornet’s nest of comments. We want to defend our work, because as we write, little pieces of our souls break off and mix in with the prose. It’s hard when people stamp on them. If we don’t put our work out there for others, though, how will we improve? Art is inherently subjective. I love movies that make my husband want to claw his eyes out. I’ve seen art hanging in people’s homes that inspires me to vomit in their decorative urns. Different things appeal to different audiences. Everyone isn't going to love your writing. It will be enough if you can reach the people who do.
            So I challenge you, writerly people, to be brave and charge ahead. Let others help you improve, help you arrive at the point of reaching your audience. I hope I’m on my way, and I’m pleased as punch to have found a group of women whose opinions I respect. Go, find yours. You write a novel on your own, and it’s an intense, personal experience. Polishing that novel takes a village, just like raising a child.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"I have made but one mistake."

In relationships, timing is everything. At least, that’s what they say. It’s probably true. Just ask Berenice. In hindsight, falling in love with the Roman general (soon-to-be Emperor) just after he sacked your country and killed close to a million of your people was probably not the best idea.  But since when has that had anything to do with love?
            The Romans were the victors in 70 C.E. As the ones left standing, it was their job to write down what happened. Unfortunately, what that means is only their versions of events remain. Several contemporaries of Titus and Berenice told the story of their affair. None of them referred to it as ‘love.’ The Jews were not in vogue, given the fact they had just instigated a lengthy and expensive war. As I stated previously, the Herods weren’t exactly Jews, but they weren’t exactly Romans either. Berenice actually gave large sums of money and threw around a substantial amount of influence to get Vespasian the job of Emperor. Her motivations were questioned and good will turned against her in the months and years to come.
            You might remember a woman named Cleopatra. According to Roman history, Cleopatra was a deceitful, conniving, power hungry, foreign woman whose female wiles nearly destroyed the moral fiber of Rome forever. Sound exaggerated? It always has to me. Disease, pirates, bandits, inbreeding, internal power struggles, and hundreds of armies were no match for the solid foundations of Rome, but one woman…she was going to ruin everything? It may sound silly, but the Romans in 70 C.E. were weaned on those stories of Cleopatra, and they harbored an inherent and intense dislike of foreign (especially Eastern) women. The attitude spilled over to Berenice.
            Shortly after Titus returned to Rome, Berenice and her brother followed. She lived with Titus in the Emperor’s palace, and by all accounts acted as his wife in every way. Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXV) even goes so far as to say she had been promised marriage by 75 C.E.  Several writers (aka, historians) of the time noted their relationship, and all agree it dissolved when Titus caved to political pressure and sent her away. Berenice returned one more time, perhaps at his request, when he assumed the throne after the death of his father in 79 C.E. She stayed only a few short months before he was again forced to send her back to Judea. His image and his effectiveness suffered due to her presence, forcing his hand.
Berenice was unpopular for all the same reasons as Cleopatra. In addition to long standing rumors she and her brother practiced an incestuous relationship, she was cast in the role of the power hungry woman who would stop at nothing to marry Titus and rule over Rome. Politicians, playwrights, philosophers, and cynics publicly slandered her character. It would have been nearly impossible for Titus and to recover and polish her image. Titus died unexpectedly in 81 C.E. after ruling for only two years. He is remembered, along with his father, as one of the most well liked Emperors in Rome’s history. His short two-year rule was dotted with major events. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii. A massive fire burned a large portion of the city, including important landmarks. He completed and opened the Coliseum, a project begun by Vespasian. He did his best, stayed cool in the face of adversity, put the people first, and knew how to kick back and relax. Berenice disappeared from the historical record after Titus dismissed her for the last time.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest Berenice was after Titus for any reason other than love. There is also nothing to suggest she wasn’t after him for his power and influence, like the Romans believed. Precious little information remains regarding Berenice at all. She was powerful in her own right, a fact attested to by her contemporaries. That a woman was mentioned in official record at all (especially by the always misogynistic Paul) is proof she was both influential and respected. So were the (all male) historians leery of her because she was a beautiful, powerful woman, or were their suspicions founded in fact? As a female, I know one thing. For all his admirable traits, Titus was the last man in the world Berenice should have fallen for. Historically, she was devoted to her people, and loving him was an egregious betrayal. Also, being rejected not once, but twice, smacks of real love. Especially for a proud and powerful woman used to having her own way. She had plenty of money, comforts, and influence in Judea. I just can’t see her going to him a second time for any other reason than actually needing to be by his side. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a power-money-prestige hungry woman myself, so perhaps you think I just don’t understand her. For some reason, though, I have always felt as though I do.
Titus’ last words were allegedly, “I have made but one mistake.” The historians (all men, remember?) believed he regretted allowing his younger brother to live after an ill-conceived assassination attempt. The romantic in me, the woman in me, wants to believe he referred to Berenice. That the only regret he had was giving in to the pressure, for choosing his country over true love. He wasn’t the first person to do so. He certainly wasn’t the last, either. After all, his actions seem to point toward real feelings as well. He knew how his advisors and the public felt about her. Why ask her to come back a second time? For what other reason than he needed her, missed her? It’s the never-gets-old-ill-fated-lovers tale. Romeo and Juliet. Heathcliff and Catherine. More recently, Edward and Bella (except they got the happy ending). Why does that story never get old? My guess is because most people can relate to it. If timing is everything, most of us have experienced a relationship that would have been amazing…five years earlier. Ten years later. If he wasn’t the Emperor of Rome. If he wasn’t undead. If his family didn’t hate mine. If he wasn’t a dense asshole (oops, how did that one get in there?).
I love the story of Titus and Berenice because it’s real. Even through the gauzy curtain dotted with sparse details, I can feel their pain. I believe it was real, their love. I can’t wait to keep writing so more people will know them and feel the exquisite anguish that must have been theirs. For poor Titus, whom I have always liked, but mostly for Berenice. After all, she’s had her mouth sewn shut on the subject for two thousand years. I can’t wait to rip those ugly black stitches out of her lips and give her a voice, a story, and the chance to finally tell her side.

(Look for a peek at my version of Titus and Berenice's beginnings in my next post)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Setting the Stage

           While deeply immersed in piles of research, I am overcome with resentment. Armed with my fury at the unfairness of it all, I scribbled down a defense of Berenice, a woman who is a historical character as well as one of the main characters in the novel I am currently writing. Since it is a subject I am passionate about, my scribbles went on for ages, and the piece refuses to fit into a proper blog-length. So I decided to break it into chunks, using this one to set the historical stage for my upcoming rabid, vociferous, defense of Berenice’s character.
            69 C.E. – Rome is engaged in a war with the Jews. It is not the first, or the last, but it will be the most bloody. A man called Vespasian is the general in charge, and is slowly fighting his way through Judea to the capital, Jerusalem. Back in Rome, the elite families that have been ruling for centuries, the Julio-Claudians, have run out of legitimate heirs. This leaves the job of Emperor up for grabs and the city in an uproar.
            Vespasian is from a family called the Flavians, part of the ‘new’ elite, one of many ‘common’ families that have risen in power and influence over the past four generations. The elite class is in desperate need of unpolluted blood, and families like the Flavians are going to be the answer. 69 C.E. will be known as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors,’ as different generals and their armies to attempt coup after coup. In the end, Vespasian is the one left standing, and he travels from the front in Jerusalem back to Rome in late 69 to assume power. He leaves his eldest son, Titus, in charge of finishing what he has begun.
            The rulers of Judea, appointed by Rome, are the Herodians. In 69 C.E., the King is Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great. He is not married, and he and his sister Berenice rule equally as King and Queen. This fact is attested to by numerous writers, including New Testament writer Paul. The Herodians were not terribly popular among the Jewish people because of their close association with the Romans. Both Berenice and Agrippa cared deeply for their people, however, and tried without success to get them to relent in their opposition of Rome. There were too many zealots, too many who urged their countrymen to fight, to not pay taxes, to never give in. On one occasion Berenice nearly lost her life to a mob outside of Jerusalem when she traveled there to try and speak out against the violence and rebellion.
            70 C.E. - No one could influence the Jews to stop in their fight against their perceived oppressors and occupiers and they went to war with Rome. Which, as we all know, is an ill-advised course of action. Titus stopped the import of food into Jerusalem, starving the millions trapped inside the walled city during Passover. When his army finally attacked, the people were weak. The Romans, fired up from days of waiting, let the bloodlust take over and killed approximately a million men, women, and children in a few hours. Berenice cropped her hair and dressed as though in mourning while she watched the wholesale slaughter of her countrymen.
            The Jewish Temple was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Allegedly, Titus gave orders that the Temple be left intact, but lost control of his men and it too was destroyed in the heat of the moment. The war was over in a matter of days, both the city and the spirit of its people temporarily disabled. Titus swept through Judea, enjoying his spoils and annihilating smaller pockets of resistance before returning to Rome in triumph.
            My work in progress takes place partially during these years, and both Titus and Berenice are integral characters in my story. Sometime, somehow, during this year of upheaval, blood, death, and betrayal, Titus and Berenice managed to fall in love with each other. In my next post I will explore both the facts and popular gossip surrounding their affair, as well as the possibility that love can overcome us, even in a time of unimaginable hate.
(Photo is a bust of Titus)