More From The Writing Course

I haven’t posted any of my assignments lately, but here’s the latest. It was a very open assignment – 1,200 words of a story, however I wanted to do it and a choice of prompts. I picked the one ‘Where’s The Baby?’ and returned to my non-fiction interests. I’m a little uncertain about this one as I don’t think it is what the tutor has in mind, but well, we’ll see. Your thoughts extremely welcome, as ever!

The problem with biography is that there is never a way of uncovering the truth of a person’s life; instead, all we ever have are partial stories; well-lit official versions and candle-lit private versions, and in between them, glimpses of dark shapes under dustsheets in the shadows of a person’s life.

So here’s an official version of an intriguing story: Tamara Gorski, spoiled and cosseted daughter of a wealthy Polish family living in Moscow, marries Tadeusz de Lempicke, playboy lawyer. They live in St Petersburg in luxury appropriate to their class, but the Bolshevik revolution is coming to change their lives forever. Tamara’s family flee, in good time, but the Lempickes stay on because Tadeusz is wrapped up in politics. The secret police arrive in the middle of the night and take him away, a common story this one, although no less terrifying for that. But Tamara shows her mettle. Nourished on a rich diet of entitlement, she has the conviction of her family that everything can be bought, somehow, and she finds herself a corrupt official whom she pays with sexual favours. Tadeusz’s release is agreed, but there’s a delay. Tamara is packed off on the train to her extended family, awaiting her in Finnish exile. They move on to Denmark and finally France, where they settle in Paris. At some point, Tadeusz joins them, but he is a broken man, depressed and apathetic after his incarceration. From the depths of dislocation and genteel poverty, Tamara saves them again. In 1919, she begins art studies, by 1922 she is exhibiting and selling her work, by 1925 her style is refined, and by 1927 she is winning awards and painting the pictures that will sell to collectors like Madonna and Jack Nicholson by the end of the century for over a million dollars. It is a meteoric rise to fame and fortune by anyone’s standards.

But this is by no means the whole story. If we only heard this story, Tamara de Lempicke would be straightforwardly a heroine, a romantic hybrid between a female savior, a proto-feminist and an artistic genius. What complicates this admirable image is the presence of a small daughter, clinging cheerfully to her mother’s arm in a series of black and white photographs, as the two stroll down the promenade in Nice, a few months after the family’s arrival in France. There is nothing secret about these pictures; family history has opened up and found a place for little Kizette de Lempicke, who must be all of three years old. But Kizette would always be problematic when it came to Tamara creating her own legend. When Kizette was grown up, she was instructed to pass as Tamara’s sister, when she was little she was shunted around between relations and boarding schools. Kizette was ostensibly the sacrifice Tamara made to art. There was no place for a small child in her studio where she worked, or in the Parisian cafés where she smoked and drank the afternoons away, or at the wild socializing in the evenings, the crazy parties of les années folles that competed in outrageousness. When Tamara threw them, her trademark was to have naked serving girls acting as plates for the food. The bohemian life was not sympathetic to childcare, and if Tamara was going to be a famous artist, it was then, as now, not simply a question of painting pictures. Art was a lifestyle choice, not just something you did.

So, the official line of the unofficial history, is that Kizette was neglected in a good cause, while her mother took on the role of the family breadwinner and made art history on the side. But there’s still the problem of those photographs. If Kizette was a small child when they arrived in France, when was she born? Tamara de Lempicke made several adjustments to her age as she grew older, and with admirable foresight kept Kizette’s birth date a well-guarded secret. One possible version of Tamara’s story is that she fell pregnant in order to ensure marriage to Tadeusz. She had chased him since her mid-teens, turning up at a ball in a peasant girl’s costume with a flock of live geese in order to get his attention. There was no great incentive for the families on either side to marry them off, and we know for sure that Tamara was ruthless where her own desires were concerned. A potentially embarrassing pregnancy could certainly account for the abrupt haste with which they were married.

But where, then, was Kizette as a baby? Was she in the flat that night, when the secret police broke in and arrested her father? Was she starving alongside her mother as they tried to track him down in the conflict-torn city? Did she accompany her mother on the train ride that took them away from their homeland forever? If she was there, it is a very different story we would need to tell ourselves about Tamara’s battles in revolutionary St Petersburg, and one that might give her an air of nobility, one that might justify more convincingly her intense need to restore the family fortunes on the profits of her art. And yet there is not a single mention of Kizette during this period, and it seems much likelier that shortly after her birth, she was handed over to Tamara’s extended family, and cared for by her grandmother and a battalion of aunts. It seems much likelier that she escaped with them in the first wave of refugees; a sensible move that protected the little girl, but which makes a nonsense of Tamara’s later desertion of motherhood in the cause of art. If Tamara never really brought up Kizette until poverty and exile in Paris obliged her to do so, then her escape from domesticity into the decadent art world is not the act of a dedicated, unexpectedly talented mother, but the work of a selfish and self-preserving bohemian who ought never to have become a mother at all.

And yet those black and white photos from Nice celebrate this strange, unconventional mother-daughter relationship as much as they damn it. In the pictures, Tamara and Kizette are clearly swinging hands, the little girl skips and on their faces are genuine, carefree smiles. This is loving connection. The absence of baby Kizette in Tamara’s life history, or at least in the one that she fabricated for public consumption, is awkward because it works to unravel the other stories that she built up about herself. But when it comes to understanding mothers, I wonder to what extent we allow certain acceptable stories to take precedence over the improvisations of reality. Perhaps one of the most tenacious stories in our culture is that women must put motherhood first, above all other demands and concerns; that no woman is sympathetic unless she can be humbled by love for a child. Is the story that we need to tell here one about Tamara de Lempicke’s selfishness and dishonesty, or does it really concern culture’s stubborn inflexibility in its beliefs as to what a mother should be? Perhaps little Kizette’s smile tells us all we need to know.

18 thoughts on “More From The Writing Course

  1. Wow sounds like quite a book. Much more interesting than the drivel I just finished. I’m guessing she sent Kizette out of the country early on for her safety and it’s not a given that the pretense of being sisters hurt the child if she felt loved.

  2. Blogging friends – I’ll share the whole process with you this time. I’ll copy below the feedback from the tutor – she’s been getting tougher with me over the course and probably this is the harshest feedback yet. I admit I winced a bit when I read it, but I’m sure she’s right and I need to do what she says for next week anyhow! I’m not quite sure how I’ll do it yet, not least because I don’t know the end of Kizette’s story, no one does. Your thoughts on my homework are very welcome also!

    ‘Firstly, there is an awful lot of information in this thousand words – it reads like an amphetmaines-driven Saturday arts feature in the Daily Mail. There is no light and shade and no counterpoint encouraging the reader to stop, draw breath, and consider the facts that are being presented.

    Secondly, it is all conjecture and as you have concentrated on a single thought – what is the truth about Kizette’s age and upbringing? – it becomes rather circular with the same question being posed again and again against changing settings.

    Thirdly, the style is necessarily ‘telling’. There are no scenes either real or imagined to break up the flow, no sense of the people being active, sentient, beings although there are many opportunities for exploring Tamara’s character in particular – the sexual favours, the nudes at the parties, the photograph itself.

    For Assignment 8, which is an editing exercise, I would like you to do the following:
    Rewrite the piece so we get a sense of Tamara Lempicke: I didn’t understand, for example, why she was not straightforwardly a heroine, a romantic hyrbrid, a proto-feminist and an artistic genius. Does lying about your child’s age cancel out everything else? What is the point you are making?

    Reconsider style and content. The narration/narrator is flawed. Clearly there must be an outcome here that colours the information: was the adult Kizette happy/settled or unhappy/unsettled? By withholding that knowledge from the reader, the reader is unable to gauge the reliability of your account.

    Tell the story concentrating on two or three pivotal moments that you can explore and expand upon so the story comes to life, giving the narrative voice the opportunity to demonstrate pitch.

    Tell it in 700 words.’

  3. Lilian – thank you!🙂

    Emily – you’re quite right. I wrote this in a longer, story format several weeks ago, but then took it down because I wasn’t happy with it. So your memory is excellent!

    Honeypiehorse – thank you for the encouraging words! I think you’re quite right that Kizette went with the extended family for safety. I’m thinking about attachment theory and whilst I can see that it is right in so many ways, I also wonder about the flexibility within it that people don’t talk about. Our culture tends to crank up pressure in all directions, rather than take a sensible approach, and I’m intrigued, as ever, by what might be sensible!

  4. Wow, your tutor is good! I did find myself wondering about Kizette and how she turned out and what she might have to say about her mother. If I knew that, it would make a big difference on what I thought about Tamara and how sympathetic I felt toward her. Good work! I look forward to reading what you come up with for the next assignment!

  5. Oh my goodness, that’s quite the follow-up assignment you’ve got there! I liked your piece a lot. I wonder if the tutor really got it that the whole point was to explore the questions you pose? It’s not a piece about “what really happened” but about the sense we make of uncertain facts, right? But perhaps you can give a sense of the outcome (if there is one we know) and still keep the focus on the questions the story raises. I’m very curious to hear more about how the editing process goes, if you care to share! Revision is a fascinating process, as is what happens when a person really responds to someone’s suggestions.

  6. Well, your tutor certainly doesn’t pull any punches, does she? Of course, if she did she wouldn’t be very helpful in the long run. I thought is was a mighty fine story; she saw it as a vessel that could contain so much more. I guess that’s why I’m not a lit tutor. I would so love to take this kind of writing course. You make a very interesting observation about our ideals of self-less motherhood. Speaking only for myself, although it is true that my greatest source of satisfaction is my children and how they have blossomed, it is also true that I never found a way to put them first without abandoning a part of myself. It’s a precarious edge we walk.

  7. I think you’ve got a great tutor there, Litlove, who isn’t missing a trick. That is sharp and specific feedback. I don’t doubt it smarted at first, particularly because she doesn’t say what else the piece is, and that is beautifully written. But her job isn’t to tell you something you already know – you can write – it’s to help you think about your competencies and approach your deficiencies differently. So please don’t be remotely disheartened by her breathtaking candour, dear Litlove – her feedback is such a show of confidence in your obvious ability. The story itself is utterly fascinating, and like others I was desperate for Kizette’s own perspective on her mother – it’s hugely frustrating to think it is not available.

  8. The content is fascinating, and your writing always has a characteristic style. My objection is that it’s not a story, or even part of a story …it reads more like the pitch for a film project … kind of breathlessly rushed, and making too many points rather than focusing on one thing.

    Now I’ll go back and read the comments.

    I loved this line: Nourished on a rich diet of entitlement,

    That’s a breakfast I’d like to sit down to someday.🙂

  9. I liked your piece and your questioning a lot, but I was going to say something along the lines of your tutor. The first paragraph seems really rushed and stressed-out, because you want to pack as much information as possible before tackling the issue you really care about. That’s where your problem lies, because we readers get to feel your constraint of a certain number of words, while it shouldn’t be *our* problem. The rest of the text is fine to me, because then you allow yourself to make longer sentences and spin feelings around characters. Perhaps I’m interfering here, but if you were to write it again, perhaps you should try to see if all the information you give in this first paragraph is absolutely necessary or can be implied elsewhere in another way, or try to make it less rushed, by making longer sentences and allowing more adjectives or visual details. It’s *only* a matter of technique, because really, the story behing your article is great!

  10. Interesting feedback and I think she does have a point about giving more of a sense of that Tamara de Lempicke was actually like. But that’s a tough ask. Will be interested to read your revised version.

    I enjoyed the first version too but perhaps it did have a bit too much information? If that’s the style you’re going for then it works, but I suppose it’s always helpful to get a really good reader’s response. Maybe she was overwhelmed by all the information and the questions, and so wanted more of a sense of the heroine to provide some balance and grounding.

  11. Late to the feast, but delicious, and how frustrating not to know. There must be a novel here, but I know you are working on non-fiction. I can see the real urge of this piece in that final paragraph, that seems to be where you are in this. I’ve little to add to the excellent comments from your tutor and everyone else. I do think you are desperately keen to tell us so much in the space as a good teacher should, but perhaps we could manage with fewer little ingredients and a stronger central flavour.

  12. Wow. What a riveting tale. I, too, loved your description of Tamara as being “nourished on a rich diet of entitlement.” That says it all. There is so much to chew on here: is no woman sympathetic unless “humbled by love for a child”? What might have happened to Kizette? I’m as curious as everyone else. So perhaps Kizette is your “dark shape under the dustsheet” and you should let her out? Have her tell the story? Only a thought; there is so much here, that whatever you do will be a fascinating read…Good luck (but have fun with it).

  13. I also think the tutor knows how to give feedback – those are great suggestions and I look forward to reading the altered shorter piece. I always think it’s a nice challenge to take one piece and re-write it with different intentions. Now having said all that, your writing is always a joy to read so even this first offering was lovely.

  14. I really like your story, but after reading the tutor’s suggestions, I’ll be curious (if you share with us again) how different it will be after editing. There is a lot of information (though de Lempicke is such an interesting subject I could certainly happily hear more), but it might be even better if there was a tighter focus. The subject of motherhood is so tricky, and women who are less than perfect mothers are really demonized, aren’t they. I wonder how attitudes have changed over time, but that’s the subject for an entirely different post! Good luck on the editing!

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