Sunday, May 21, 2017, the Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave it's last performance. Sad times. I mean, not for elephants or other circus animals who spent their lives on the road performing, with all the attendant abuses of that life. Don't get me wrong. But circuses were, for along time an important part of American history and a lynch pin of the American entertainment scene. When the circus came to town it was a big deal, an chance to see exotic things in a world with no Youtube or Snapchat.
Circuses go Way back. The first circuses in America were mostly clown and equestrienne acts. By the 1830s and 40s there were dozens of circuses traveling American roads, rails and rivers (by steamboat!). Some were tiny "mud shows" while others had big tops and sideshow tents. P.T. Barnum got his start as a ticket taker and when he got his own circus he'd been in the business for decades. In the 1870s he combined his show with the Bailey Circus in the 1870s. And while Barnum is now probably the most famous circus man in American, he wasn't always. For awhile, in the 1840s and 50s Dan Rice reigned supreme,along with the Spalding& Rogers Circus. In fact Spalding and Rice had a long standing feud that Americans followed like we do celebrity affairs these days.
Dan Rice got his start as an animal trainer. His first act was Lord Byron, the Learned Pig. At one time or another he also had trick mules, a trained Rino, an albino camel and an elephant. When he got Excelsior in the 1850s he vaulted to the big time. That's an Excelsior poster at the top of this post, featuring the horse's biggest and most famous trick. He'd do this pose/statue thing while men carried him around the ring. The snow white Kentucky stallion could also climb stairs, count, do math and carry trick riders. Eventually Rice replaced Excelsior with Lallah Rookh, a freakishly talented elephant (she could walk a tight rope!). Lallah appears in my second Kate Warne novel, but Excelsior is a recurring character, appearing in all four of the novels I've written to date. So's Mr. Rice. Go read his Wikipedia article--what a character!
You see, because we don't know much about Kate's life before the Pinkertons I got to invent for her a circus past. In my imaginary world she ran away from the circus when she was 15, after her parents were killed in a blow down (that's when a circus tent collapses--it's a much feared circus calamity). Yeas later Dan Rice gives Excelsior to her. Did this happen in real life? Nope. Absolutely not. Is it a good story? Sure. Who wouldn't want to inherit a retired, super famous circus horse?
The thing is, with the passing of the Ringling Bros. circus so too passes a piece of American history. The trick mules, the performing rhinos, the tight walking elephants might be better off without circuses, but what about all the circus people, who lived a life outside the boundaries of respectable conformity? Is the country a better place for losing those folk and their way of life? I don't think so. Because there's too darn many people doing what's expected, what everyone else does, watching life instead of living it. So, go out there this week and be weird. Live like you've got a circus horse in the back yard.
Tap dancing and I have a love-hate relationship. It started long ago, when I was a wee thing, no more than six years old. Mom enrolled me in tap class. I thought it was great fun but apparently I bugged my teacher. When the other girls heel, toe, shuffled right, I shuffled left. If they turned one way, I went the other way. My failure to conform (which was probably just a small girl's inability to understand right and left) got me kicked out of class. A tap dance reject before I finished first grade! Oh, the pain. Oh, the horror. Wipe the tears from your eyes and stick with me. It gets easier. . . .
The thing is, I still think tap is cool. It's one of the few original American art forms, along with the blues and jazz. It shares with the blues and jazz it has its roots in Africa and in American slavery. The first "tap" dancer (the word wasn't applied to the dance until the 20th c.), William Henry Lane, danced his way to fame and fortune in the 1840s. He combined Irish clog dancing with African Gioba dancing, threw in some other stuff (there's whole books on this) and won over America with his explosive new dance style. He traveled the country in Minstrel shows, the first black performer to do so, and won more dance contests than anyone else. He was hugely famous and they named before you knew it there was an entire dance style called "Juba Dancing" and Lane became Master Juba. Unfortunately, Juba died of exhaustion and malnutrition (historians think) in the 1850s. This seemed immensely unfair so I revived him for my first novel, The Lincoln Special. I meant for Juba to be a supporting character, but he got bigger and bigger. By the time I got to the second novel in my Kate Warne series Juba was carrying the book. Metaphorically of course.
So I'm back to tap dancing. Only with words, not shoe (which is good because words respect non-conformity). Lately I've been tap dancing my way through this darn book launch. Friday I was trying to build a template for my email list and discovered I need a banner. Crap. Another darn thing to learn. SO this morning I made a banner. BY MYSELF. Is it the best banner ever? Probably not. Is it mine? All mine? Yep. Now I gotta tap dance back to the darn email template and figure that out. After I finish my this blog. Tap, tap, tap.
If you haven't already done so, please sign up for my email list. I swear I won't spam you with "buy my book" crap. I will send you weekly historical tidbits, and the occasional publishing update and offers of free stuff. Right now if you sign up for the email list you get a free link to the first chapter of The Lincoln Special.
Thanks for reading!
I'm tired this morning. I couldn't get to sleep last night. Instead I laid in bed with my head whirling around, images and words competing with that high whining buzz that is the soundtrack for sleeplessness. And I did it to myself.
I've written thousands and thousands of words for articles, newspaper columns book reviews, encyclopedia entries and monographs (books). Writing doesn't freak me out. Then what's my problem, you ask. It's this self publishing thing. You see, for my entire writing career every word I ever wrote was handled by someone else after I wrote it. Heck, I barely had to edit a document. Just write it and send it a publisher or editor. And now I've decided to be my own publishing company. It's thrilling. Thrillingly terrifying. Like walking through a dark wood, chased by a mean witch, worried about Lions, Tigers and Bears. Oh My!
I spent yesterday afternoon working on my self-publishing check list. Start a limited liability corporation? Check. It's Writing Wench Press. Create author pages at Goodreads, Facebook, Amazon and Pinterest? Check. Hire cover designer? Check. Edit manuscript one more time? Check. Find reviews? Where? Format novel? Huh? Buy ISBNs and bar codes? Nope! (Seems terribly real). There's more. My checklist is 7 pages long.Some of it I understand, some of it I don't. It's scary.
Then why do it? Because my whole life I've handed over my words, my ideas to a publisher and I've had little control over what happens next and been paid the tiniest of money. I'm tired of writing stuff people don't really read and I'm tired of not having control and I'm tired of working hard for tiny money. I don't care about money very much. I have everything I need and I like my job. I know people with more money than me. They don't seem any happier for it. Quite the opposite in fact. Mostly, I made a promise to myself a couple of years ago to re-invent myself. To become a better version of me, one truer to who I am and less responsive to what other people expect. Part of that pledge was a promise to myself to keep learning new things.
Learning new things, trying new things, going new places, it's all terrifying. But it's in those spaces where I've taken chances (like leaving Bozeman and moving to So. Cal) that I've found who I'm supposed to be. So I push on. Like Dorothy and her friends. There was a lion in the woods and he scared Dorothy and the Tin Man. Then it turned out he wasn't so scary. So they sang a song and skipped away from the fear. That's what I'm going to do. And the poppies? Well they're in front of me somewhere, but like Dorothy, I'll fall down and then get up again. As many times as it takes to get where I need to go.
I think women my age are good at this.I know some astounding women and they inspire me very day. I think women are better at reinvention than men (I could be wrong though) because we have to be. Are you a re-inventor? Do you find things you're afraid of and then do them anyway? Why don't you share a little in the comments below. Spread the Love!
I'm "home' in Bozeman this week (I went to college here for more years than I'm willing to admit--the Bozone sucks you in), moving my daughter out of the dorms and into her first apartment. The thing about Bozeman is it's easy to forget how funky and odd it is, particularly when I live in So. Cal. now, with all the delight and horror of that place. Yesterday, after a two day drive north, I checked into my weird motel (it's totally retro!) and took the dog for a walk. Dandelions were EVERYWHERE, yellow flowers pushed up in shaggy lawns, boldly declaring, "Order is for Losers!" This Dandelion profusion would not stand in any middle-class neighborhood in So. Cal, nor even in my hometown Helena, Montana, where lawns are carefully edged, mowed and sprayed for 'weeds.' But in Bozeman the dandelions run amok, more profuse than wool socks and Birkenstocks (and that's saying something).
Bozeman is a Granola Town. And I love it. It's genuine and quirky and unabashedly weird (Yesterday I saw a fence made out of old skis, and two purple houses). It is also a universe unto itself. If you live here you think its "normal," this profusion of dandelions and granola-heads and purple houses. In that sense Bozeman is not unlike a novel. A good novel. One that takes you away and makes you believe.
See what I did there? I used two incomplete sentences in a row and the world did not explode. Neither did my head. For it was in Bozeman, back in the 80s, where I first learned to really write. To write clearly and cleanly and in a scholarly manner that would say, "Look at how smart I am." Grad School made it worse, until I got so I could hardly stand my own writing. Complete, compound sentences, don't dangle the participles and for goddess sake, cite everything. Oh, and don't forget the stick up the nether regions while we're at it. For stiffening. Bring on the yawns.
Fiction writing aims to reproduce some version of reality. Reality is messy. People do not talk or think in complete sentences and universes may not be adequately described in footnotes.To invent is to invoke the imagination. The imagination is like a lawn full of dandelions, ebullient and gloriously resistant to bland conformity.
In many ways my series of novels about Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective are a response to the un-dandelion-like nature of traditional historical writing. The past has a billion weird stories in it, some of which I discovered when writing The Lincoln Special. Did you know, for example, that pro-slavery Senators planned to kidnap their own president, James Buchanon, just before Lincoln's inauguration and blame it on Lincoln so as to derail his presidency? Talk about dandelions! But if I were writing "real history" I'd have trouble writing about that plot because it was secret and secret things are hard to prove, hard to footnote, hard to line up in orderly, scholarly rows. But in a novel? Lay on the dandelions, strap on the Birkenstocks and write it baby!