How to Start

“Whatever the story is about, it is something that is of interest to human beings because it amplifies some aspect of what it means to be living.” I lifted this sentence off of a website for writers (were I more adept at this, I’d provide the link here – one day!) and simple as it is, I find it a helpful beacon as I swim around trying to re-start my book.

Beginnings: how can I hook you, reader? What is my story? Why did I write it? What do I want the reader to take away from it?  Why am I so stumped on these questions when they are so fundamental and I have hundreds of pages of ‘book’?Are the answers in what I have written already? Or are they still to be answered? My brilliant sister gently guides me with these questions. For weeks I have been juggling different parts of already written chapters — to start here? or here? cutting and pasting in the hope that the new combination will make my story sing.  But it doesn’t yet. Not yet.

What began as an exorcism of anger and grief became a hopeful testimony of love and determination that my daughter’s life be better than mine, and that my life, be better than before.  And it is.  I could leave it at that, but after working in the book business for more than a decade, I might as well shoot for those dusty shelves myself.  And perhaps one day my tale will serve as someone else’s beacon of light.

Yesterday we spent the day cleaning up outside, working in our shirt sleeves, pausing to drink tea and eat lunch in the sun.  Glorious!  Four crocus in bloom – a set of purple on one side of the garden and yellow on the other.  By the time the sun retreated below the tree line, the yellow ones had tightened up into torpedos against the cold of night. There is a lot of work to be done – we beat a quick retreat indoors from winter. Broken birdhouses, flower pots, garden furniture and tools, half-done projects are strewn about, abandoned to the winter elements.

Yesterday, we raked leaves – a job we do not do in the autumn, preferring to mow them up into shreds for mulch. At least that’s our reasoning. But there are bags worth of leaves out there still, and my compost pile is full.  We cut back the butterfly bushes to  stubs and made trips to the dump. Our neighbors do this before winter sets in, but by the end of summer, we preferred to spend our free time kayaking and then, we just lost heart.  Closing down our favorite season makes us sad.  Now, fired up for spring just around the corner and glad to be in the sun, we attack these tasks with joy.

Also in the spirit of clean-up, I am back to my book for rewrites based on the good advice of a venerable agent. It’s been months since I’ve immersed myself in this story – my story – and while I feel inspired to make it stronger, I am also dragging my feet, reluctant to recollect those dark days again, like a return to winter. Perhaps I can pretend I am revising fiction – but then – what a different story I would tell.

More Snow and Some Good Books

Dashed hopes of an early spring as we get walloped by another snow storm. Good thing I have my wall of ‘books-to-be read’ in place – a dam against the winter doldrums. Thanks to my sister for alerting me to Claire Keegan’s short story in last week’s New Yorker. She warned me that I would not be able to read it with dry eyes and of course, she was right. I’m talking sobs.  The next day I searched for more Keegan at the bookstore (yes, it’s nice to work in the proverbial candyshop!) and scooped up a collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields.  Not a sentence that doesn’t sing. Her writing is powerfully poignant without being manipulative. Familiar characters for anyone who grew up with an emotionally unavailable father. Publishers will have to go back and print more of her books because there were none available to order when I checked – lucky I found one on the shelf. If you’d like to read the story:…/100215fi_fiction_keegan

Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich’s newest book also held me in an emotional headlock for the two days. I have so far to go as a writer – whew – each of Erdrich’s sentences are perfect and not one to spare.  An almost frightening thread of passions (love and hate) runs through the book, woven through gorgeous images of a frigid, winter.  But there is no reprieve when the thaw comes. Such smart and poetic writing and a compelling, painful story – very close to the bone.  Although I felt an all-too-familiar sense of dread throughout the telling of this doomed marriage, I could not tear myself away.

I am also reading an Advance Reader Copy of a book due out in March: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous.  A young American woman goes to Japan to teach English not long after her father commits suicide. It reads a bit like a memoir – or maybe I think that just because I read everything with a comparative eye to my own book and wondering how to tell the story, weighing the pros and cons of telling a tale in fiction vs. non-fiction.  Watrous tells a good story.  She brilliantly captures the life of an expatriate in Japan and what a perfect setting for the shocking and strange, sad limbo land of being a survivor of a loved one’s suicide. Read this and you’ll fall in love with each of the strange and wonderful characters in this tiny Japanese village where the main character – Marina – finds for herself and brings to others, healing and hope.  A good read that I’ll look forward to hand-selling in the store.

What next?  I guess I could get back to the WordPress for Dummies book to try and figure out how to make this site a little more interesting…zzzzzzzzz.

Sleep, perchance to… sleep? And a rambling about books.

Sometimes I wake in the dark, early hours wanting to write about something. Go on, get up and write, I urge myself.  The bed is so warm and the air so frigid, I never do. In the light of morning, I have no recollection of what inspired me in the dark. Not surprising really, since these days, I never remember so much as a flash of a dream. Nights are delicious, nourishing voids.

Not that I don’t miss crazy escapades of the remembered subconscious, waking with a sense of  having had adventures -but only a little. In years past, I suffered so many sleepless nights worrying, that I savour this gift of solid sleep, these nights, slumped on the couch by 9:00 PM.

Most nights, I try and read before conking out completely, curled up under the quilt – what luxury.  The stacks of books-to-be-read continue to grow into teetering towers around the house.  Advanced Readers Copies picked up from work are on every table and stacked on shelves of already full bookcases.  Currently, I am hooked on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – a best seller that many friends and readers I share tastes with, have raved about.  I am half-way through and while crime thrillers are not my  usual reading taste, and the violence makes me wince, I  know I’ll need to read his next one too. Not exactly bedtime reading but I can’t put it down.  And still, no dreams (or nightmares!).

Borrowed from the store (a great benefit of my job) is Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD – a refreshingly, rare from an MD, holistic take on proactively dealing with this sucky disease. War of the cells and what we can do to stack the odds in our favor. Things we know, but I for one, need reminding of –  like layoff the white stuff – sugar, flour. Exercise. And drink red wine! Being positive and having friends – recently this attitude has taken a beating (by Barbara Ehrenreich of Nickled and Dimed fame for example)but I know what kind of person I prefer to be around and unless you’re really funny in your bleakness, I’ll choose the positive attitude any day.  Back to this book -it is interesting because the author is in this battle himself, and has survived past ‘the odds’ – something he poignantly addresses. This is the book I dip into between driving my teenager to and fro.

I even checked a book out of the library the other day – Pretty Birds a novel by NPR’s weekend edition, Scott Simon published in 2005, is my downstairs book.  I don’t know how I missed reading this since it is about Sarajevo during the war and I compulsively read anything on that time and place – whether fiction or non-fiction. The first few chapters of my memoir are set in Bosnia during the war so I can’t help reading other people’s work with a comparative eye. Of course, my story is more about the war of addiction and Sarajevo is the fitting (and true backdrop) for launching my story. I’ve only read a chapter but it’s already compelling.

Recent temperatures have been arctic and I long for spring – but I realize that when it comes, my reading time will shrink with the demand and draw of the garden and sun.  Maybe winter is not so terrible after all.

Brave New World

Authors regularly call me wanting to set up a signing at the store. Unless you’re a psychic or television personality, you better tell your friends and family to come out and support you.  Tell no one and that’s who will be there.  Even acclaimed authors who you’d expect to have an audience can tell you about events spent reading to one passerby and the homeless guy dozing in a chair.  My suggestion to authors is go to your target audience rather than expect them to find you. Wrote a book about WWII?  Speak at a veteran’s group. Gardening? Meet with gardening groups. Rotary Club, Senior groups, schools – are always looking for good speakers and will give you an opportunity to get the word and your book out.  That’s what I’ll be doing.

Recently, a generous, smart woman in the publishing industry gave me the same advice I usually give to others  – only she was referring to the cyber world.  The internet provides a whole new opportunity to build an audience, find readers before you even publish your book.  And in fact, you improve your chances of landing a publisher if you manage to capture an audience.  Times are tough everywhere, and publishers want to know that the book they’re getting behind has readers at the ready.

It was as if a light bulb went off in my head.  I have been slow to embrace this new media of blogs and twittering but after a week of exploration in this brave new world, imagining the possibilities – I’m sold.  It’s an exciting new world available right now on this snowed in Sunday morning when everyone else in my immediate world, is still sleeping!  So here I go, ready to launch out into this new dimension. Bear with me as I get the hang of it and thanks for spreading the word.

My memoir, Light Between Shadows, is about how love and a life were destroyed by drug addiction.  I needed to write the book for me but I know that my story is not unique. I hope to chip away at the secrets and shame associated with addiction and suicide.  We need to talk about this stuff, help each other through the dark days. We are not the only ones. Show me a family that doesn’t have an addict, an alcoholic, mental illness.  My community – friends, neighbors, co-workers, family all helped me survive those days of living with an active addict and the aftermath of suicide. I hope I can do that for others who are navigating the world that was once mine.  We are not alone.

Life is different now – the shadows are mostly gone and each day feels like a gift.  I marvel at the difference between then and now: ‘then’ makes the ‘now’ all the more precious. I watch my bright and beautiful daughter move through her world, wisely and with joy and am grateful. I wake each morning next to the rediscovered love in my life and can’t believe how lucky I am.  Now is a different story than the one I told in my book, but only because I lived it. I don’t forget that – ever.


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