Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The History of Breathe, Part Two!

When last we left off, our unsung heroine, um, that would be me, was in Guatemala kneeling at the feet of famous authors while they filled her head with their infinite wisdom (“avoid taking the reader to the bathroom!”) on the banks of Lake Atitlan—the bellybutton of the planet—but she was also a tiny bit lighter, as she’d just lost one of her diamond earrings in the lake . . .

Okay, back up, back to first person, still in Guatemala where mornings found Eve and I donning our caps and goggles at the end of our dock, then swimming along the shore, around a punta and into the cove to Joyce’s dock where we hauled out and joined her in the sauna. One morning, I climbed onto her dock, yanked off my tight red cap, and one of my earrings plopped right in the lake. I just stood there, watching helplessly, as it sank into the clear, green abyss. The news spread via grapevine, like it does in the tropics, and by afternoon a bevy of brown-skinned boys were diving off said dock in search of gold, like some kind of historical role reversal of the conquistadors. I offered a reward, I think $100 (it still stands and I can’t wait to go and deliver it) as the slippery boys came up time and time again, naked and smiling, but empty handed. Since that time, the lake has risen some 15 feet and Joyce’s dock and her lovely recycled glass bottle-dotted sauna walls have been reclaimed by the caldera-filling waters. Since that time, I’ve been carrying the many lessons learned, never forgetting the feeling I had when Joyce’s eyeballs drilled me to my chair, never quite losing the echo of her voice in my brain, “I want to know, how have you changed?”
I returned home to RI from Guatemala to finish packing up our house, sell a bunch of things I still miss at our garage sale, load up the black panther, and wave adios to Andy, Micah, and Dunkin on their isthmus driving adventure, following soon thereafter by plane. We settled into our new lives in Costa Rica for the school year, 2008-9, where we walked the beach and swam daily. I started this blog as my New Years resolution and began working on my publishing platform, with one of my essays called “Noah’s Name” soon thereafter published in We Need Not Walk Alone, a bereavement magazine. Without friends, my YMCA/Starbucks routine, or TJMaxx to distract me, I sat my ass in a leather-strapped chair and I wrote. And I wrote. Some days I’d look up from my keyboard and half expect to see Noah come toddling across the tile floor to me, arms outstretched. Some days I’d see my kids off to school, sit down with a hot cup of coffee at our dining room table, and greet them seven hours later when they walked back in and said, “Mom, have you been sitting there in your pajamas all day?” And, mostly, I had.

I’d stretch and change into a bathing suit, then walk the beach with Christiana, puzzling out the story structure and plot while throwing coconuts into the warm, salty sea of Conchal for Dunkin, gone and missed now these past two years, to retrieve. We’d hike back home through the orange sunset-infused air and jump in our pool while flocks of parrots screamed their way to bed and bats emerged for the night, swooping the pool’s surface but always just missing us. After dinner, we’d take our quads to a nearby deserted beach where we’d stroll along the water’s edge, kicking bioluminescent sprays of warm sea water and watching sea turtles laying their eggs. I finished the manuscript again, this time calling it The Light of the Son, but it was still very, very long. Start over.
 We moved to the coast of Oregon where we built two yurts on a lovely piece of ground hugged by a creek and surrounded by national forest, just two miles from where Noah was run over. This was the last place on earth I wanted to live, but it’s also the place that holds my husband’s heart, his home, and it was time to make peace with it. We moved in without heat or running water for Christmas of 2009. I attended my second writing conference near Seattle and Wordstock in Portland and became the Willamette Writers Coastal Chapter Co-Chair, learning something about the craft of writing every month. By then I realized that my unspoken motto seemed to be, “Why write less when you can write more?” so I bit the economic bullet and hired an editor to help me “trim” my manuscript to a manageable size. I wore my colorful alpaca glittens and drank cups of coffee that winter in my yurt, writing all morning while Bella was at Kindergarten with the elk bugling outside and the salmon spawning in our creek. Then I’d pick her up and head for the pool, swimming lap after lap while puzzling out some story problem or amusing myself with potential names for my characters. And when school was over for the other kids in the afternoon, Christiana and I took long walks along the creek, brainstorming book titles.
In the Fall of 2010, I moved back to Costa Rica after attending my first Willamette Writers conference where I pitched to five agents face-to-face for the first time. I unpacked in our treehouse (recently featured on Househunters International), got the kids off to school, set my laptop up on yet another table, finished my revisions from my editor, then sent my ms off to the agents with a prayer. A few months later, we moved from the treehouse into the beach house in front of it, Casa Azul, where the surf sang us to sleep each night and I began homeschooling Bella. Life on the playa means walking twice a day, sunrise and sunset, and I left a lot of footprints in that sand. I met a greeting card writer at school and another writer during one sunset walk and we started a writing group called Tuesdays with Amy. We lounged, poolside, at the Langosta Beach Club, eating salmon paninis and drinking real sugar Cokes, trading literary agent contacts and trying to figure out how to get our manuscripts published. They also became two of my first five readers. I queried over 150 agents from my casa on the playa in between beach walks, swims, and teaching Bella much more about bide-riding and marine biology than math and also submitted my chapters to WeBook with good reviews. I also continued working on my platform, writing the Costa Rica section of Getting Out:  Your Guide to Leaving America, which was published the following year.

In the summer of 2011, I moved back to the yurts, went back to the WW conference and pitched 8 more agents, went to Wordstock again, and my co-chair gave me a full ms critique. I revised again. My WeBook advanced to Round 2, I queried another 20 agents, and I paid for another partial ms critique, revising with ratchets and levers and other scene and sequel techniques and changing the name to East Meets West. I also joined SheWrites and an essay I wrote in Guatemala called “Yoga Matt” was accepted for a travel humor anthology—Moose on the Loose. I continued swimming laps and walking the beach watching seals while thinking of character development and agonizing over theme.
In the summer of 2012, I went back to the WW conference for the third time, pitched to 7 agents, then moved back to RI, where I read about the new SheWrites Press, sent in my $25 and chapters, and was accepted as a Track 2 Writer in September. But with two more kids now in college (not selected for the free SW Passion Project) and still hoping to hear something positive from the agents I pitched, I hemmed and hawed. 

I joined the Providence Writers Group (now Guild!) and spent another nine months submitting and revising my book in its entirety with their excellent advice and fiction-writing feedback. Then I submitted to the WW agents again, still hoping. I guest blogged a piece called “Sea Turtles and Moon Baths” in Polliwog on Safari, published an essay called “Summer Fun Made by Mr. Richardson” on the Wayne in Focus website, wrote the new website content and several success stories for the Coastal Resources Center, and authored articles on scallops and quahogs and a book review on narwhals for 41N magazine. And remember those six pages about salmon? Well, they became an essay called “Dam It” which was just published in a literary journal called Gold Man Review.

All in all, I’ve sent over 200 queries and pitched 20 agents, fielded over 120 rejections, attended 2 workshops, 3 conferences, and have worked with 5 editors (3 partial, 2 full). I’ve been in three writing groups and have had 15 readers of my full ms including 3 agents. I’ve spent a lot of time and even more money getting to this point. I spent the past winter and spring working and trying to save some money for publishing, which didn’t go so well, but in July we received an unexpected payment on an outstanding debt owed to us. The opportunity to publish with SWP was at hand. I received my edited ms at the end of tail end of July but was still working and enjoying summer so I tabled it until the kids were back in school. The day after Labor Day I was laid off, which wasn’t exactly in the spirit of the holiday, and I spent the rest of September revising my ms full-time. Again. In the middle of August, Andy’s cousin was preparing to head out on the highway for the Sturgis Rally Harley trip of a lifetime with her husband, sister and brother-in-law when she felt ill. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and instead of seeing Mt. Rushmore, she was confined to her death bed where she exhaled her final breath only two months later. She wasn’t much older than me. And if that’s not incentive enough for any one of us to get up off our chair-shaped asses and start moving in our intended directions, I don’t know what is.

I signed with SheWrites press on September 28 to publish my memoir, Breathe, and a week or so later I received my draft tip sheet from my publisher, Brooke Warner, with my publication date—May 14, 2014. May 14 is the day that Jonah died and was born. In addition to that, an excerpt from Breathe recounting that same day was one of 80 pieces recently selected out of 600 submissions for an anthology called “Three Minus One” which is also forthcoming in the spring to accompany a movie, “Return To Zero.” I am sincerely hopeful that at last I will be given another chance to successfully birth something on that date. And that many people will love it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The History of Breathe, Part One

Well, I've done it again. I've been recalcitrant in my blogging duties and have finally written a new blog post but I'm afraid it will greatly exceed your patience to read. So, I'll post it in two parts. Here, at long last, is The History of Breathe, Part One.
Next Spring will mark seven years since I began writing my memoir, now called Breathe. For two or three decades now, even before this story began, people have asked me when I was going to write a book. This was often in response to them receiving, of all things, my annual holiday letter which arrived anytime between Christmas and Easter. And interspersed among these votes of confidence was the voice of my mother, sighing and saying, “You’re such a gifted writer, it’s a shame you never did anything with it.” 

“Hey,” I’d counter, scribbling yet another note to one of my kids teachers, I write every day!” 

After the events in this story had transpired in real time, I started answering, “well, first I have to figure out how many of my family members I want to alienate.” And then I lost them all anyway. By then I’d given birth to Bella, at age 42, and this book, which I referred to as Naptime, began.
Bella Grace is born!
While the other four kids were at school and Bella slept in the afternoons, on most days I resisted the temptation to crawl in beside her, forcing my ass into my office chair instead to finally start writing this book. I figured I needed the old college deadline so I set myself the goal of having it done to mark the tenth anniversary of Noah’s, death on August 10, 1997. Yes, one year plus a few months to wrap things up sounded completely attainable as I sat down to begin. (If you haven’t written a book, this may seem perfectly attainable; if you have, you’re probably smirking about now.) By then it had been about ten years since the story timeline started—the opening scene being Noah’s birth on May 18, 1996—and it was Easter 2006, which seemed like a good time for resurrections.  
Noah Patrick
The first thing I realized was that I had to start at the end. The final scenes of the story recount our medical malpractice trial so my first task was to transcribe the trial because, lucky me, our courtroom had the technological innovation of videotape vs. stenographer. For many months, during naptime, I sat in front of our VCR with my notebooks and pens and wrote, word for word, every testimony from seven full days in court. My kids would come home from school to find me seated in front of the TV, stopping, rewinding, and starting the seven VCR tapes over and over again, until I was finished. By then, it had been four years since the trial, so this exercise served as a good refresher. And when I’d pressed the stop button for the last, blessed time, I still had to transfer them from my notebooks to my computer. 

That done, I searched through cupboards, closets, and storage bins in the basement until I’d found all the baby books, photo albums, calendars, journals, sympathy cards, newspaper clippings, church bulletins, bills, receipts, and birth, death and medical records from the five-year span of story time, researching and reliving those events over and over until they, too, were fresh in my head and in my heart. And I learned the absolute truth of the saying:  the heart remembers what the mind forgets. One of the many things I unearthed in the process were notes I’d taken from a Compassionate Friends conference for bereaved parents that Andy and I had attended in 1999 where I’d asked a well-known grief writer, “how long should you wait to write your story?” And because I can’t remember even my own phone number, for five years by then I’d felt like I was running behind because I remembered her answering, “five.” But when I found my notes, I discovered she’d really answered me by saying, “You should wait five years to tell it, but ten years to write it!” So, I was right on track.

In November of 2006, the same year I began writing, Andy and I went on a sailing trip with friends to Martinique. On November 13, I sat on the deck after my 45th birthday dinner under a starlit night with the Caribbean caressing our catamaran. My friend told me I could make a birthday wish. I was still nervous about saying I was writing a memoir, hadn’t told anyone yet, what if I didn’t finish it?, but the night cradled me its warm, magical spell so I said, “My wish for my birthday is to publish the book I’m writing.” They were silent at first, so I figured I’d better have a back-up plan, adding, “and to see a sea turtle.” Then we all toasted my birthday wishes those seven years ago and the next day while we were snorkeling, I swam ahead of the group and there, just in front of me, I saw a beautiful hawksbill turtle breaststroking along. As I screamed through my snorkel, the turtle turned its head and looked at me with a round, soulful eye and I felt my birthday blessing, happy that I’d added a wish that could be so quickly granted. My other wish, as you know, took much longer. But I was happy to have the encouragement of this ancient reptile whose ancestors had been swimming in the sea for over 250 million years and whenever I grew frustrated, I’d imagine my birthday turtle patting my hand with its flipper and saying “all in good time, my dear, all in good time.” 

One year later, I had still only just begun to fathom the mountain I’d set out to climb as we celebrated the tenth anniversary of Noah’s death in August of 2007 by hiking in the White Mountains, climbing Mt. Carter and staying overnight in a hut with Hannah, Christiana, and Micah instead.  We brought a sprinkling of his ashes and buried them at the peak, making it just a teeny bit higher.

In the past seven years, I’ve solidified our familial reputation for being late for everything, telling my kids, “Just a minute, I need to finish this sentence,” my fingers flying across the keyboard before hitting “save” and speeding them off to one soccer game or another wondering what on earth we were having for dinner. In the time that I’ve been writing this memoir, we’ve moved from Rhode Island to Costa Rica and from Costa Rica to the Oregon coast, then back to Costa Rica for another year, back to Oregon for yet another, and last year we returned to Rhode Island.  When I started writing, my oldest daughter, Hannah, was a junior in high school looking at colleges and I was still nursing Bella, who was two. Hannah graduated from Georgetown two years ago with degrees in Physics and Portuguese and Bella, now nine, has never known a time in her life when I haven’t been working on this book. In this time, she’s been weaned and potty trained, lost her first baby tooth and grown X number of her permanent ones, learned to walk, skip, swing, swim, dance and ride a bike, and she’s learned to speak in both English and Spanish.  .

After completing my crash course in stenography and historical research, when I finally sat down to begin writing the story off the top of my head, what came swimming out of my fingertips were six pages about salmon. And when I got to “the end” for the first time, the manuscript was over 500 pages long, raw and uncut, was entitled Shoveling Sand, and contained not one scene or sentence of dialogue, except what I’d transcribed from the trial. I was beginning to understand that I needed help learning to craft a story. I wrote to Ann Hood and in July 2008 I went to my first writing conference in Guatemala, at her recommendation, where she told me, “This story needs to be told and you need to tell it,” and Joyce Maynard said, “You sound angry; start over.”  
Joyce and Ann