Hazel McHaffie

The Help

Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift

 

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Prejudice and perspective

Before I forget, I must tell you that, after my post last week, I’ve had some lovely correspondence with Mr Stuck-in-a-Book, and this weekend (15 January if you want to check it out) he posted his ‘official’ response to my reply to his critique. A very gracious one it was too. And indeed, our whole exchange of thoughts has been a most delightful and unusual experience; critics so rarely engage with authors directly.

Perspectives, points of view, personal experiences – we don’t stop often enough to appreciate those of others, do we? I think the world would be a kinder place if we did.

Which brings me to my book of the week. We’re so accustomed to the freedoms of a twenty-first century multicultural Britain, that it’s hard for us to enter a world where blacks and whites are divided by huge barriers; where discrimination is the order of the day; where unspeakably dreadful things happen to those who infringe the rules governing segregation.
No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em. First thing a white lady do is fire you … then a week after you lost your job, you get this little yellow envelope stuck to your screen door. Paper inside say NOTICE OF EVICTION … If you got a note on your car, they gone repossess it. If you got a parking ticket you ain’t paid, you going to jail …

The HelpBut the author Kathryn Stockett grew up in the 60s in the care of a black maid. She wished that she’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for a white family. But Demetrie died when Kathryn was sixteen; she could only imagine the answer. The Help is her own response to that wondering.

It’s an incredibly moving and challenging read, full of humour as well as shocking injustice. And I found it hard to put down.

The backdrop is Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s – the assassination of President Kennedy, the rallying cry of Martin Luther King Jr. Everywhere there is incongruity, perhaps nowhere more stark than in the domestic world. It’s the norm for white mothers to hire black women to care for their children, to teach them good behaviour and instill sound morals. And yet, these ‘helps’ are not allowed to sit at the same table, use the same toilet, or share the same libraries. Capricious dominance, seething unrest, fearful retribution abound.

Three compelling women tell the story.

Aibileen, is taking care of her seventeenth white child, Mae Mobley Leefolt. Her own only son Treelore has recently been run over by a tractor trailer and killed at the age of twenty-four while working on a wet loading dock, but there is no latitude given for personal grieving. Aibileen has the wisdom of ages, the courage of a pioneer, and a wonderfully distinctive voice.
I wait on white ladies who walk right out the bedroom wearing nothing but they personality, but Miss Leefolt don’t do like that.

Minny, is a clever woman, a brilliant cook who struggles to teach her empty-headed employer, Celia Rae Foote, the elements of good housekeeping. Her own domestic life is turbulent but her Mama has drummed the rules into her. Seven of them.
Rule Number One. You keep your nose out of your White Lady’s problems.
Rule Number Two. Don’t you ever let that White Lady find you sitting on her toilet.
Rule Number Three. When you’re cooking white people’s food, you taste it with a different spoon.
Rule Number Four. You use the same cup, same fork, same plate every day and you keep it in a separate cupboard.
Rule Number Five. You eat in the kitchen.
Rule Number Six. You don’t hit on her children.
Rule Number Seven. No sass-mouthing.

Only Miss Celia doesn’t know these rules. She’s fighting her own boundaries. And Minny’s temperament isn’t suited to a life of subservience. Her patience is sorely tried by ‘the Fool’. Her unruly tongue has already cost her several jobs, and the shadow of the ‘Terrible Awful’ haunts her daily. As a character she’s less lovable than Aibileen, but her voice too is unforgettable.
I ironed everything short a the wrinkles on my face.’
I saw the way my mama acted when Miss Woodra brought her home, all Yes Ma’aming, No Ma’aming, I sure do thank you Ma’aming. Why I got to be like that? I know how to stand up to people.

Miss Skeeter is five feet eleven, plain and a rebel white woman. Her ambition is to write, but what about? Somehow ‘hints and tips on domestic cleaning’ doesn’t hit the spot. The daring plan she conceives leads both her and the two maids into serious trouble. And brings astonishing revelations.
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realise, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.’

Each is in search of a truth. Now they are bound together in a most irregular way. No one would believe they were friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But what a powerful story they have to tell.

This is a captivating read, funny, appalling and intensely moving. What a fabulous book for my first one of 2011.

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