John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year I planned a great little Christmas at home. I shopped, found the right recipes and was looking forward to a special meal. We were invited to my sister-in-law’s house on Christmas, supposedly for a cocktail and apps and to be with family so the kids could open their prezzies. We were to arrive around noon and hopefully be home by 3 pm, planning to eat our dinner around 5 pm. We arrived, had a fun visit and were just getting ready to leave when my sister-in-law appeared from the kitchen with a huge tray in her hands: a ham. Total huge dinner. Long story short, we stayed, had dinner and went home to a fridge full of food that had to wait. How can we not get sabotaged again? Gee, unless you hate your sister-in-law, I’d view this as a total victory. You get to have dinner with other people cooking, serving and cleaning up. There are a few holidays where it’s especially comforting to be around other people and not alone. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the prime examples of that. After Christmas dinner out, you can enjoy your own food at home as well as the real treat of all holiday dinners… leftovers.
I’m not a retro woman or anything, but we’re in a sloppy universe, particularly the guys. The guys dress like they just rolled out of bed. They wear bowling shirts at the theater; they wear Julian Edelman jerseys at Symphony Hall. What’s next, Big Papi T-shirts to get married in? Why do I think we’re out of control in our behavior and our dress? Am I nuts? Well, I don’t have enough information to tell if you’re nuts or not. But your rant is totally legitimate. I recently saw Hamilton, a work of brilliance. But at intermission, I stood up and checked the audience, including the upper balconies and the boxes. I was the only man in the theater in a suit and tie. Lowering of standards? Absolutely. But I think I know how to turn it to your advantage.
Years ago, I had a friend who was slightly deranged in good ways. He never played sports in high school; he rode horses. No one in my high school rode horses. There were rumors that he slept with his eyes open. The boys called him “Freaky Frank,” but he was way ahead of his time in the clothes department. My odd friend, in those dress-up days, wore jeans and plaid flannel shirts and tennis sneakers to travel in planes. In the 1960s, flying was a dress-up adventure. Women wore suits and dresses and heels. And hats. Men wore suits and ties. (And until JFK emerged…hats.) Flying was a special event. In the 1970s, flying to Los Angeles, a prime roast would be wheeled to your seat and individually carved for you (admittedly, in first class). Freaky Frank was the first person I knew who would wear ripped khakis and T-shirts to fly. He didn’t care what other people thought. Today, it would be called “branding.”
You sound like you’re a woman with taste and style, and today that means you’ll stand out in a crowd. And if any guy wants to win your affection, he’d better be a little different to get your attention. Maybe even wear a bow tie.
I want to write novels when I get out of graduate school, but I’m reading a lot about what seems like a kind of censorship today. If you write fiction, you’re making up your own world, your own characters, and anything goes. You can write fairytales, or Westerns, or sci-fi, or love stories. But there seem to be critics all over the place who say, “If you’re a man, you cannot write about women. If you’re Caucasian, you cannot imagine the Asian experience. You can’t write about the Irish if you’re not Irish…” Is the world going totally mad, with the thought police from Orwell finding outrage under every rock? What kind of writing future can I have? Well, my first advice to you is, if you want to be a novelist, get a teaching job so you’ll have a base salary and health care. Or, like most writers with a dream, you can wait tables or drive for Uber. It’s not going to be easy, and the world of fiction is particularly hard. A majority of the book buyers today are women, so it may be tough to crack fiction or “novels of manners” if you’re a man. Not true if you write nonfiction, sci-fi or mysteries.
I remember years ago when William Styron, who was about as liberal and politically caring as a person could be, wrote the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. It was a white man writing about black history and imagining what it was to be a slave. He was bitter and hurt by the criticism and the reviews. He also won a Pulitzer for it. Your job as a novelist is to write what you want to write, to let it flow, to grip it and rip it. If you think about what certain witch hunters think about what you write, then you’re not a writer.