Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine to writing (and reading) by Melissa Senate


I don’t have a Valentine this year. (Well, I do, but he’s four feet tall, and he’ll come home from 2nd grade today bearing an adorable cut-out red heart with gluey glitter spelling Mommy and his name.) I’ve been through many a Valentine’s Day without a significant other. When I was sixteen and secretly in love with the boy who wore a black leather jacket he’d spray-painted with the names of punk rock bands I’d never heard of. When I was twenty-nine and heart-broken over the serious boyfriend who didn’t want to marry me, after all. When I was thirty-four, and the equity analyst I quit smoking for (“I don’t know, Melissa, maybe I can’t see a future with you because you smoke”) ended up literally drawing me a diagram of where we overlapped and underlapped and why we couldn't possibly stay together. (We broke up an hour after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day 2000, after running the Y2K Midnight Run in Central Park, and then stopping in a diner for pancakes and coffee. He drew the diagram on the back of the paper place-mat. That was some spectacular break up—and ended up being one of the greatest things that could have happened. More on that later.)

I have had many a wonderful Valentine’s Day with a significant other. Many! But I’ll tell ya, if I’d known back then, even at the advanced age of thirty-four, that writing a novel—writing the novel I’d always wanted to write but never thought I could because of this lack or that—would be its own Valentine, would fill big and small holes in my heart in the most wonderful and mysterious ways, I would have started much sooner. I’d always known that reading accomplishes this. I found that out fast with the Ramona books when I was in 2nd grade and my parents split up, and Ramona’s life made me forget where I was. With Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at eleven when I had scary questions about faith and my body and my friendships that I didn’t feel comfortable asking my mother or older sister. With Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights at twelve that started a love and fascination with all things Bronte and set me on a path to studying literature and writing.

My list of life-changing books could go on and on—but a Valentine of a life-changing book came in the form of Bridget Jones’ Diary—which I was reading at age thirty-four during that place-mat diner break up. I don’t think I’ve ever had an A HA! moment quite like that before or since. Aside from helping me through my broken heart in ways no one but messy, honest Bridget could, I realized in chapter one of that touching, funny, true, voicey book that I could write the novel that had been poking at me for years and years. I’d abandoned all writing efforts in my early twenties because of discouragement from a writing teacher I’d admired, a literary author who I’d tried to emulate instead of developing my own voice, which I didn’t think was worthy, didn’t think was good enough. Chapter one, page one of Bridget Jones’ Diary—and it was as though someone handed me my future: I could write in my own voice, which was sometimes funny, sometimes wistful, sometimes light and sometimes serious, but always very me, always very commercial.

By July of that year, 2000, I had a complete manuscript. 92,000+ words of my very own. I wrote THE END on the last page without having smoked a single cigarette (the second biggest accomplishment of my life then). Take that and that, Place-Mat Jerk. Anyway. You know what they say about when one door closes. When life hands you lemons. Reader, I sold that manuscript.

I found my voice in more ways than one back then, and 10 novels later, I’m still finding it, as life is beautifully ever evolving. The publishing industry is ever evolving. I’m ever evolving. My latest novel, The Love Goddess' Cooking School, is very different from that first novel, See Jane Date, in so many ways--in tone, from experience, both in writing and living. But Bridget Jones Diary will forever be special to me, a Valentine I'll always treasure. In fact, writing itself is the only Valentine that can come close to those sweet cut-out hearts with their gluey glitter.

A very happy Valentine’s Day—in all its many and varied forms—to all of you! I’d love to hear about your "Valentine" books--the ones (or one) that had a big impact on your heart. Share in comments and a virtual little box of chocolates will magically appear in your hand!

Mini bio: Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her latest, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, which Library Journal says is “the perfect book to read this Valentine’s Day as it celebrates not just the possibility of romantic love, but all the kinds of love that fill a life well lived.” Melissa lives on the coast of Maine with her son and two witchy black cats.

23 comments:

  1. I just love this, Melissa - the break up that turned out to be a great thing, Bridget Jones's life lessons (she rocks, doesn't she?), writing as a valentine... Hope you have a wonderful day filled with chocolate and sweet kisses from your little boy! xoxo

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  2. What a thoughtful Valentine's Day post, Melissa! Can I pick an author instead of a book? Jodi Picoult always has the biggest impact on me regarding relationships--much to learn. Wishing you a happy Valentine's Day, and grand success with THE LOVE GODDESS' COOKING SCHOOL!

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  3. Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent. It's like the grandma of chick lit and is about a single Jewish girl in NYC looking for love (go figure). It's hysterical and made me want to write funny.

    Also the Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird.

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  4. Thank you for that post Melissa! and by the way, I enjoyed The Love Goddess' Cooking School very much!

    Romantic book from the past? GONE WITH THE WIND. I remember taking it to junior high school and reading it hidden in a textbook because I just HAD to finish.

    I had one of those placemat boyfriends too for a while. He didn't draw a map, but he told me he thought we could have a "nice enough" life. I'm so grateful to have a man who loves our life together now!

    Happy Valentine's Day all...

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  5. Wonderful post. That break-up story, yikes! But also, yay!

    One of my favorite "love" books is Susan Isaacs' SHINING THROUGH. Humor, history, danger, romance, all in one book.

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  6. What an amazing story Melissa and how ironic that as novelists we work so hard to create interesting tales and always, real life trumps them. It is true that God works in mysterious ways and our job is to see it through to the next chapter.

    Happy Valentines Day to a wonderful writer who along the way discovered the true meaning of love and passion.

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  7. What a story, Melissa! I think there's a place mat man lurking in everyone's past.

    A big Valentine book for me was The Accidental Tourist. After reading it, I inhaled every Anne Tyler book I could lay hands on. I re-read her books periodically, when I get that craving to burrow into Anne Tyler world again.

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  8. I love your post, and I hope you and your son have a wonderful day. Oh how I miss those glittery hearts and the mess, and each little card that had to be signed and given out.
    I read a lot of books when I was young, and yet at 51 I can't remember the first book of love that touched me. The Bridges of Madison County was one I read after I was married that really touched me, love found and sacrificed....I couldn't imagine it.

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  9. Melissa, I love this post!! First of all, my valentine is my little boy, too. And second, you made me recall all of the awful exes that are (thankfully) in my past. What a perfect post for Valentine's Day.

    As for books, there are just so, so many! I read your book See Jane Date on vacation when I was a miserable NYC lawyer and it definitely opened my eyes to the types of books that were out there. It was just like you said: hey wait, there are funny, smart books with a voice I can relate to!? A big game changer for me.

    I recently read How to be Single by Liz Tuccillo and it was so, so great. It was so open and honest about what it's like to be single and it was funny, to boot!

    Happy Valentine's Day! I hope your big red heart is extra gluey and glittery!!

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  10. ♥ Thanks so much for these wonderful comments! I've read all the Valentine books mentioned except for How To Be Single--Brenda, I'll definitely check it out. I've heard so much about it.

    Hope everyone's Valentine's Day is going great and that there's chocolate involved.

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  11. Beautiful post, Melissa...and Bridget Jones was one of my THIS-is-why-I-want-to-write books, too. Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Breathing Room was another. Wishing you and your son a fabulous Valentine's Day! :)

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  12. Melissa, what a fab post! Oh, man, Placemat Diagram Guy is too much! Seriously, a character right out of a novel. So glad Bridget Jones inspired you to write! And thank goodness for all those Mr. Wrongs in our lives that give us stories to tell! ;-) I agree with LJ, THE LOVE GODDESS' COOKING SCHOOL is a perfect Valentine's Day read. Hope you have a wonderful day with your adorable son!

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  13. I remember reading SEE JANE DATE when it came out. I knew you only as an editor, and I picked it up, thinking: Melissa Senate writes? Then I read it said, "Wow, yeah! Melissa Senate writes!"

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  14. Melissa, I wholeheartedly agree that Love Goddess is a perfect Valentine's book. And I think lil Valentines are so precious. TinyHulk said, "have you hidden my bag full of candy?" I said yes even though I still need to run out and get one! lol

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  15. Melissa, love your post!

    For me, one those "aha" moments came with Emily Giffin's "Something Borrowed." There were so many things in that book that shouldn't have worked: long passages of backstory, a not-so-sympathetic heroine, a slightly wimpy hero. But her voice sold it. I gobbled it up in one sitting!

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  16. Romantic books from my past: The Memoirs of Cleopatra, by Margaret George, which is probably my favorite historical novel of the last two decades.

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  17. What a heartfelt and genuine post, Melissa! I loved it! I remember reading See Jane Date back when I was trying to get a date. :) Happy Valentine's Day to you and your adorable son!

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  18. I love this! I think it would be impossible to write a book without it having SOME part of yourself in it. In that regard, a writer's work MUST be ever evolving. I look forward to reading your work.

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  19. Valentine kisses to everyone! Thank you for these amazing comments--seriously, it's like getting a hug.

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  20. Great post! Keep up the good work with your books. I know I'm not alone in loving "The Love Goddess' Cooking School." :)
    I love BJD too. I then saw the movie a week after this guy blew me off for another girl. Bridget empowered me to realize that I could do better than him when she made her whole speech to Daniel about how she'd rather have a job wiping Saddam Hussein's arse than spend another moment with him. Gotta love Bridget!

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  21. It is pleasure to read Melissa senate's article. I love her writing and how she chose topic for writing is amazing. This is useful site as everybody knows so visit it regularly.

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