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The Thorn Necklace
Healing Through Writing and the Creative Process
Foreword by Grant Faulkner
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- Hardcover $26.00 $34.00 CAD
- ebook $15.99 $20.99 CAD
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Francesca Lia Block is the bestselling author of more than twenty-five books, including the award-winning Weetzie Bat series. Her writing has been called “transcendent” by The New York Times, and her books have been included in “best of” lists compiled by Time magazine and NPR.
In this long-anticipated guide to the craft of writing, Block offers an intimate glimpse of an artist at work and a detailed guide to help readers channel their own experiences and creative energy. Sharing visceral insights and powerful exercises, she gently guides us down the write-to-heal path, revealing at each turn the intrinsic value of channeling our experiences onto the page.
Named for the painting by Frida Kahlo, who famously transformed her own personal suffering into art, The Thorn Necklace offers lessons on life, love, and the creative process.
Four Simple Words
“I AM A WRITER.”
They’re just four simple words. Yet many of us have difficulty saying them, no matter where we are on our creative journeys.
I know I did. In my early days as a writer, when people asked me what I did, I hesitated to tell them because I knew I’d have to endure an inevitable cross-examination. People asked me how many books I’d published. They asked me how I planned to make a living writing. Or they just said, “Oh,” and kept their thoughts to themselves. Few applauded the fact that I was devoting my life to my creativity.
Every writer has experienced such moments.
When these inevitable moments came for me, I would try to dodge my way out. I squirmed. I mumbled. I fled.
Writing was my religion, my foremost purpose in life, my consolation. But as the years passed and I didn’t have the successes that others deemed the qualifications of a “real” writer, I went into hiding. I wrote, but I lost the strength of my words. I wrote, but with a doubt that needled each sentence, a lack of self-confidence that clouded my imagination. My boldness evaporated. My verve started to become a distant memory. I lost my truth.
The path to holding onto your truth is charted in this book. If I had read The Thorn Necklace then, maybe I would have struggled less. I know I would have written more, and the more I write, the more satisfying my life becomes.
But somewhere within me, without even knowing it, I must have believed that “other people” were “real” writers. I understand this syndrome well now. As executive director of National Novel Writing Month, I talk to thousands of people each year about their creative lives, and I hear too many people diminish themselves as writers. They aren’t really writers, they say, because they aren’t pedigreed with MFAs, or they haven’t published a book, or they don’t go to cocktail parties with other writers in Brooklyn. They tell me they’re not creative types, or that they don’t have time to write in a busy life, or that they’ve been ridiculed for having the audacity to think they could write a novel.
But when you tell yourself such things, a gate falls down between your self and your creativity, and once that gate falls down, it can be a heavy thing to lift. It can be so heavy that you might give up.
If you don’t give up, if you keep that gate lifted high, your life becomes enriched in otherwise unimaginable ways. This is the beautiful lesson of Francesca Lia Block’s captivating study of the writing life, the book you are holding in your hands.
When we turn away from our creative souls, Francesca presages, we unwittingly harm ourselves. When we don’t lay claim to our creative impulse to share what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world around us, an agony festers from self-diminishment, and another thorn is added to the daily existence that encircles us.
You tell yourself that your story isn’t interesting enough to be written on paper. You tell yourself that other people will laugh at you. You tell yourself that you should be an adult and fix that squeaky front door or paint your living room or at least wash the dishes. You should be practical, filling your life with all kinds of “shoulds.”
Writing a story can feel like a trivial entertainment, a whimsical activity that shouldn’t have a significant place in a busy adult’s life. But that’s forgetting one thing. When you minimize your expression, you minimize who you are. When you tell yourself that your story isn’t important, you make it so.
The Thorn Necklace reminds me that we are born to be creators, so we need to approach each day with a creative mindset. When I had children, I loved watching the kids play at preschool. They created out of impulse, without thought, without any notion of whether the final product would be good or bad. Put a canvas in front of them and lay out some finger paints, and they would plunge in with gusto, not worrying about any mess because they reveled in the wonders of the colors. They painted with unfettered glee, unconcerned by anyone’s opinion because they were so immersed in the story they were telling.
As I watched them, it was hard to think that they might not be equally as zealous and wildly creative as adults. I worried that they would experience a creative scar. Perhaps someone would tell them they weren’t artistic. Perhaps the more practical matters of life would tamp down their imaginative spark.
I’ve learned that you might stuff your story down to the bottom of your to-do list or try to abandon it on the side of a highway, but your story won’t go away. Your story needs to be told. As Francesca assures us, if you listen, it’s always whispering within you, if not crying for attention. It wants to be brought to life. It wants to breathe. It wants you to put your hands in the paints of your words and color the canvas.
We are storytellers because stories are the vehicles we navigate the world with. Writing a story is many things: a quest, a prayer, a hunger, a tantrum, a revolt, an escape that ironically leads you back to yourself. We need our stories because our stories connect us to other people. We need our stories because our stories connect us to ourselves. When you claim your creativity, when you say, “I am a writer,” it becomes a vital part of your identity. You’re not only braver on the page, you’re also braver in the rest of your life because you’re a change agent, a builder of new worlds.
As I read The Thorn Necklace, I thought about all of this. I thought about how every writer needs to constantly remind themselves of the value of their creativity not because of books published or awards received, but simply because they show up to conjure stories and string words together on the page. Block beautifully explores the urgent value of one’s creativity and how our stories can be transformative life-giving forces. If we don’t write our stories, how will we truly know who we are? How will we define the world? How will we touch the mysteries of life?
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” said Maya Angelou.
You don’t want to die with the anguish of an untold story in your heart. It’s time to say you’re a writer—and to write your story. With The Thorn Necklace, you’ll see how with every word you write on the page, you’re cultivating meaning. That’s important because our stories—Francesca’s, yours, and mine—are the candles that light up the darkness that life can become.
You Are an Artist!
MY FATHER HAD ALWAYS SUPPORTED MY CREATIVE ENDEAVORS, but I never knew how much until, weak with radiation treatments, his frail voice boomed through the earpiece of the dorm room telephone. “You are a writer!”
I stood clinging to the phone like a lifeline. Black-mascara tears streaked my face and my stomach hurt from the mounds of white rice and tofu I ate each night in the cafeteria and the copious amounts of liquor the dorm RAs had provided to their underage charges the night before. More tears poured from my eyes and trickled saltily into my mouth, but they were different this time. Gratitude. Relief. Possibility. In that moment, my father had given me what I wanted and needed more than almost anything else in the world.
A month earlier, my parents had driven me up to UC Berkeley. Dusty oleander bushes lined the I-5; we passed a cattle ranch that reeked with the stench of fear and death. But late summer sunshine lit the streets of Berkeley, melting through the leaves of box elders and copper beech trees over the campus and surrounding buildings. My room was on the eighth floor of the dorm. Months later someone would offer me LSD in that room and I would turn it down; considering my fragile state of mind, I knew the combination might be lethal. On the day of my arrival, I already felt a great sense of despair.
My mother helped me put posters on the wall above the narrow bed—Monet’s water lilies, David Bowie as Aladdin Sane, Frida Kahlo in her thorn necklace, The Sex Pistols, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and his lookalike, Picasso’s Blue Period Saltimbanque. They both squinted and pouted and showed off their cheekbones but the latter wore a wreath of roses and held a pipe with an effetely sensual turn of the wrist. All these images were intended as talismans against loneliness and the homesickness I’d suffered since childhood, even when I left my family for a single night.
We ate dinner at the Good Earth—sweet, fragrant tea with our “seventies health food” meal of brown rice, cashew chicken stir fry, and a salad with alfalfa sprouts. Since my father’s illness my mother had become increasingly health conscious, serving us whole grains and organic fruits and vegetables and cutting back on red meat and rich cheeses. I thought of this as the last meal, an end to the comforts of my mother’s cooking and my parents’ home. The food left a bitter taste in my mouth that lingered as I said goodbye.
I looked forward to the solace of a poetry class but my professor was not easily impressed. As we sat in the classroom in Wheeler Hall, a stately building with Doric columns lining its façade and echoing, arched hallways within, he talked about the poetry of Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and H.D., and taught us the importance of using a symbolic image to express emotion rather than trying to describe the emotion itself. My teacher sang the praises of my lyrical, spectacled and freckled neighbor in her mod mini and pointed patent leather flats, but when my turn came he looked at me sternly.
“There’s nothing like a noun,” he told me. “Get rid of all those adjectives. They show you don’t trust your reader.”
His words weren’t that harsh but my skin was thin (literally; I’ve always been prone to sunburns, freckles, moles, and acne) and my homesick nerves were flayed with fear about losing my father.
My professor was right about the adjectives and nouns. It was one of the best things I learned from him (even though I often still break the rule). But what my father told me afterward mattered more.
You are a writer.
I’ve written to transform pain, to save my mind from its incessant loopings, to save my life.
I believe what he said in that moment, and my parents’ encouragement of my creativity since my birth, made it possible for me to become a successful artist.
At twenty-seven I published my first book and have continued to put out about a book a year (young adult, adult fiction, short stories, poetry, memoir, erotica) for three decades. I was able to quit my jobs in a clothing store and an art gallery and support myself exclusively through my art for many years. I’ve been translated into Japanese, German, Italian, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, and Turkish, and I’ve won a number of awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association for my magical realist LA family saga.
My limited stint as a journalist allowed me to hang out with Tori Amos for a weekend in the English countryside, interview Perry Farrell, and have an intimate chat with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on a nearly deserted UCLA campus (he even offered me his jacket against the cold). The screenplay I wrote based on my first book got me meetings with David Lynch at his home in the Hollywood Hills and Juno Temple at a Silver Lake café (I brought her a bouquet of pink lilies as tall as she is), interest from Tim Burton’s company and actor/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and an option from Fox Searchlight and Steven Spielberg, who walked up at an Amblin party and told me my book, about a bleach blond punk pixie flowerchild looking for love in 1980s Los Angeles with her gay best friend, was like a contemporary Rebel Without a Cause.
Glamorous young screenwriters and directors and Pulitzer prize–winning authors have worked on film adaptations of my books. A theater company in Chicago produced two plays from my work. I participated in an all-night shoot of a short based on my “Bluebeard” retelling at a pink mansion in the Oakland hills.
Women and men have tattooed my words on their bodies; named themselves, their pets, and their bands after my characters; met their best friends through my books; and devoted websites and blogs to my writing. One couple told me they read a passage from one of my books to each other at their wedding. Their sunflower-faced young children had accompanied them to my bookstore appearance, and their precocious nine-year-old daughter read the wedding passage aloud for the audience.
“You’re our muse,” the couple said. “We met online looking for someone to go to punk shows with and both listed your books as an influence.”
In spite of my own personal struggles with sustaining love relationships, fans have told me that my stories helped shape their romantic ideals and set them on successful quests to find their own “Secret Agent Lovers.” Pierced-nosed waitresses at restaurants recognize my name on the credit card and tell me they moved to LA because of how I wrote about it in my books.
When I reach out to my devoted, loyal online community of fans and friends, I receive immediate responses from around the world. Models, fashion designers, photographers, graphic artists, actors, filmmakers, musicians, and other writers have offered me their services, thanking me for inspiring them.
They come to my home with their pink hair and rhinestones and platform shoes, their angel wings and purses full of puppies. They help me with odd jobs and bring me gifts—perfumes, chapbooks, zines, crystals, flowers, music mixes, and homemade jewelry with mystical properties. Tarot readings and love spells are performed.
A restaurant in Seattle created an entire menu based on my stories. I’ve even gotten to experience my childhood dream of working in fashion when my name briefly appeared on the labels of Wildfox, a well-known clothing line, and I also helped design, produce, and market a small line of my own.
MY LIFE AS a writer has been a grimoire, a kind of magic book. And all this is greatly due to my parents’ encouragement.
Of course, I was very fortunate; not everyone has this kind of support. Even parents, mentors, or friends with the most loving intentions have their reasons to dissuade a budding creative from his or her dream.
Will she make enough money? Will he be disappointed? Heartbroken? Less conscious reasons to discourage a loved one might include a parent or teacher’s own history of frustration and fear.
My Secret Man was praised by a teacher for his writing skills around the same time in his childhood as a teacher noticed mine, but when he went home and told his father that he wanted to be a writer, he was met with: “Prepare to go hungry.” He’s been valiantly fighting these words ever since.
FOR THE LAST ten years, I’ve been focusing on giving others what my father gave me. Not only am I interested in teaching about plot, character, setting, style, and voice in a supportive but challenging way, but more importantly I want to be the mentor who shouts, “You are a writer! Write! Read! Work hard! Don’t despair! Never give up! You have something of value to share with the world!”
Life might be hard, but art? This we can do. Together.
With desire, hard work, and commitment I believe you can be successful at expressing yourself and telling your story. All you need is a little support.
As humans, maybe that’s all any of us need.
Personally, I’ve survived anorexia, anxiety, depression, two miscarriages, divorce, the near loss of my home, the death of both parents from cancer, and the loss of half the vision in one eye, all with the help of my writing and the community it has given me.
In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice Flaherty coins the term “hypergraphia” and discusses the healing power of writing, how telling one’s story was the only thing besides massage that helped Holocaust survivors.
Hypergraphists cover surfaces with tiny letters, cryptic messages from our darkest internal catacombs. My friend, memoirist Samantha Dunn, told me she saw Joyce Carol Oates crawling spider-like into her limo after an event, reaching for her laptop and hunkering down over it to spin her web as the driver pulled away. How could Oates have written Blonde for instance—her masterpiece novel about Marilyn Monroe, told in a rule-breaking plethora of perspectives—without such obsessive outpourings?
For Alice Flaherty, the hypergraphia began with stillborn twins. Seemingly nonsensical scrawlings of grief eventually became The Midnight Disease. In the same way, I’ve written to transform pain, to save my mind from its incessant loopings, to save my life.
IN THIS BOOK, I’ll show you how to use your pain, or just daily stress, to feed your art; how to tune into the wisdom of that inner muse and mentor; ignore your critic until the time is right; create order from chaos; live simply but expressively; fructify; persevere; trust; face your shadow; find magic; create art for those you love rather than as a commodity for a larger, faceless and judgmental audience; and maybe even change the world! I’ll show you that if you have the burning life-or-death desire, or even the curious wish, to express yourself creatively, it is possible.
You can do it. And I can help.
Besides using anecdotes from my life and examples from the work of other writers, I’ll give you alternating chapters of writing exercises based on a series of twelve interrelated questions that I’ve developed over three decades, and that can be applied to fiction, memoir, screenplays, and even poetry.
Life might be hard, but art? This we can do. Together.
Find a Mentor
MY FATHER WAS A MENTOR, NOT A HEROIN ADDICT.
I say this because my father, Irving Alexander Block, like the father of my most well-known fictional character Weetzie, was a lovable, playful, highly creative charmer who worked as a screenwriter, art director, and special effects man. But Weetzie’s father died of an overdose, dreaming of poppies, and my father couldn’t even manage a glass of red wine or a hit of a joint without falling asleep. Even coffee was soon replaced by a bitter, granular caffeine-free substitute with an unappetizing name! If he was addicted to anything, it might have been bread and chocolate, and painting. And my mother, whom he painted obsessively.
His oils and watercolors didn’t just depict the pink amaryllis lilies and purple and white irises; the lemons, avocados, plums, and peaches that my mother grew in her garden; the musical instruments, candlesticks, ceramic bowls, and ancient iridescent Egyptian tear catchers that she arranged for him. These paintings were, I think, more portraits of his muse-wife.
He had studied fine art in New York and worked in the tradition of masters like Zurbaran and Morandi; 1970s celebrities such as the famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the football player turned actor/poet Bernie Casey, and the throaty-voiced actress Lee Grant bought his paintings from a chic, mid-century modern gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, and my dad’s work hung in the Hirshhorn Museum. The paint is richly textured, complexly layered, and, even years after its initial application, seems to glow from within.
To supplement the money he made as a painter, my father worked for years as a professor of art history and film, and his hippy students were always coming over for dinners my mother made—vegetarian lasagna; chile rellenos; brisket with sweet potatoes, carrots, and raisins; salmon steaks with dill and sour cream. We ate at a long picnic-style scarred-oak, candle-wax-coated table in a room embellished with wooden carvings out of an Eastern European fairy tale.
My father had bought the house, with the pink oleander bushes in front and the eucalyptus trees in back, at the Valley-side base of Laurel Canyon, with cash; he never owned a credit card. This was the rather grounded but bohemian world where I grew up and learned to be an artist under my father’s tutelage.
MY DAD DIDN’T have a heroin problem—he was stable and responsible—but, like many of the fathers in my books, he did have a dark side.
Before he met my mother, my father traveled; maybe he was looking for her, although they both ended up in Hollywood (even, perhaps, side by side eating ice cream sundaes at Schwab’s Pharmacy where Lana Turner had been discovered, though my mother was only a little girl at the time).
On a trip to Mexico, as my father walked along the crowded streets, something fell out of the paper bag he carried and began to roll away. A human skull. He needed it for a model, to sketch, to understand the shape beneath the skin, perhaps to help him understand his own mortality. The passersby looked bewildered as he attempted to grab the thing and put it back in the bag. I often think of this image as symbolic of at least one part of my father: blackly comic, at the mercy of death and art.
He always seemed acutely conscious of his own temporal nature and this awareness somehow touched me by osmosis; even when he was in perfect health, I often worried about his impending death. In third grade, I asked a classmate if she ever felt this way about her own father, who was a few years older than some of the other dads, though younger than mine. Her bewildered response made me realize that my fears were not “normal,” but it didn’t dispel them. After all, my father was twenty-two years my mother’s senior, easily old enough to be her parent and my grandfather.
On Halloween, he created a “haunted house” in his studio. The infamous skull was part of the tableau, along with a plastic skeleton that he used in his anatomy class, a plaster model of an arm and hand, and a transparent cherub mask that he’d found in a warehouse of old movie props where he went, in spite of my mother’s qualms, to sketch nude models once a week.
Other skeletons shadow-danced in my father’s closet. For example, no one in our home ever mentioned his first wife, a woman with, oddly, a name similar to mine and, less oddly, to his dead mother’s—a woman who, I managed to discover, had been dark-haired like me, beautiful like my mom, and quite mad.
One of the two pictures I have of him as a child shows my father wearing frilly white pants and scowling in the shadow of a stern woman in a white Victorian dress. His mother, Frida, or “Fanny,” died of tuberculosis soon after. Though three loving, blue-eyed, seamstress sisters raised him (the other picture shows a laughing, curly-haired elf in a white nightgown, clearly the object of the sister-photographer’s great affection), my father never fully recovered from his mother’s death, and his severe father, owl-eyed and unsmiling in his photographs, provided an angry and discouraging foil for a budding, brooding young artist.
My father carried on the traditions of his heritage by reading prayers and poetry.
My father rarely mentioned his early career in the studios, except to tell me that Forbidden Planet, the 1956 sci-fi classic he co-wrote with partner Allen Adler, was based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest; that he traveled to Paris to work in the art department on an animated puppet version of Alice in Wonderland; and that my father once saw Marilyn Monroe on a set.
The reason for all this reticence? My father became a victim of McCarthyism, based on his attendance at socialist meetings. (He would later insist on public medicine and school for me, though I longed to attend the private school where boys grew their hair long and wore tie-dye, girls eschewed makeup, and yearbook pictures weren’t studio portraits but casual arty snapshots of kids lounging on the lawn.) His name was removed from many of his projects, and, after being lauded by the likes of George Lucas—who said Forbidden Planet had a huge influence on his work—only reinstated years later.
World events affected my father profoundly. When Robert Kennedy was shot, my dad heard it on the radio while painting a still life. He slapped a streak of black across the canvas, obscuring the flowers underneath. The news depressed him but he watched it every night, lying in the dark staring at the black and white storm on the TV screen. I often joined him, just to be close, but his rigid posture and impassive face, that had been so cheerful at breakfast, worried me. Was he internalizing, in some way, all the pain he witnessed?
Other aspects of my father’s personality mitigated his dark nature: his great warmth and humor.
Yes, he had me walk through his haunted studio, but he also dressed up as Santa Claus, in red pajamas and with a beard made of shaving cream, and the Easter Bunny, in white pajamas and a pillowcase mask with ears. One picture of Easter-Irving shows him poised on our backyard hillside, among the passion flower vines with their seedy fruits, holding a basket of strawberry-sized wooden rabbits, chicks made of silk tassels, hand-dyed eggs, and fresh daffodils, that had been delivered to our doorstep by our Viennese friends Hans and Lisl Hacker who had escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and lived in a house in the Hollywood Hills full of bags of this Easter paraphernalia and boxes of good luck pigs that they set out every New Year’s Eve. My father looks uncannily lagomorphic emerging from the morning mist.
Born Jewish, he also carried on the traditions of his heritage by reading prayers and poetry at holiday dinners and sneaking sips of wine on Passover to make me think that the angel Elijah had visited. (I began resting one fingertip on the goblet in order to catch my father in the act and he soon, to my dismay, gave up this practice.)
"In the midst of untangling her own deep-seated vulnerabilities and dreams, the incandescent Francesca Lia Block shares the twelve questions that help shape her words; they will become essential for every writer in search of a light in the literary wilderness."
--Jade Chang, author of the New York Times bestseller The Wangs vs. the World
"Francesca Lia Block turns her unique punk-fairie style in a new direction in this fast-paced memoir of hope, disaster, magic, and sheer raw talent, mated with a down-to-earth approach to writing. This double dose of Block, as teacher and writer, is a combination sure to enchant and inform."
--Janet Fitch, bestselling author of White Oleander and The Revolution of Marina M.
"The best art begins with the worst pain. In The Thorn Necklace, Francesca Lia Block shepherds us through the process that transforms wounds into words. The transformation's an alchemical one. The prima materia of daily living becomes the base metal of the soul's gold. By turns personal, masterfully intimate, and practical, this book is a must for any writer who aims to get at the heart of all matters: the heart.
--Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of the New York Times bestseller Hausfrau
"A moving memoir and a wildly helpful guide to fiction writing. Francesca Lia Block demystifies the creative process in a way that makes the world feel magical."
--Chris Baty, author of No Plot? No Problem! and Ready, Set, Novel and founder of National Novel Writing Month
"Francesca's work stares unblinkingly into the face of human complexity, of suffering as well as love and joy. She's a master (mistress?) of the craft."
--Samantha Dunn Camp, author of Failing Paris
"Francesca Lia Block helped to set the foundation for what the magical (or shall I say magickal?) realism genre is today."
--The San Francisco Examiner
"Francesca Lia Block writes about the real Los Angeles better than anyone since Raymond Chandler."
--The New York Times
"[Block] is the sorceress of iridescent language."
- "In this lyrical and haunting meditation on the craft of writing, Block...cracks open her psyche and lays it bare in the hopes of inspiring other storytellers-to-be. Wise and inspiring, this is a must-read for artists of all stripes."—Booklist **starred review**
- "The Thorn Necklace is a 'grimoire,' a meditation on turning agony into art, at the same time that it functions as a guide to being creative. Block viscerally shows how she has taken the setbacks of her own life ...and transformed them into literature that has ultimately inspired and sustained her readers....Mesmerizing."—Los Angeles Review of Books
- "Weaves memoir with lessons on the craft of writing to create a unique and visceral guide to creativity"—Bitch
- "Block blends examples from her own life with analyses of famous works of literature to help writers deliver a successful story."—Writer magazine
- On Sale
- May 1, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Seal Press