Thursday, October 8, 2009

The stories behind the stories, Part I

Now that we have a signed agreement of sale on our Berks County property the process of letting go begins. It's been a long haul: 27 years I've lived on this farm, 12 of them without the man who chose it.

This has me feeling nostalgic.

Perhaps to avoid larger issues for the moment, I thought I might share some of my favorite memories of writing for The Morning Call from 1984-2002. The stories behind the stories, that never see print. My tenure spanned an important portion of my life in that I began writing as Kathryn Williams and ended writing as Kathryn Craft. In no particular order:

My first Nutcracker review. While previous reviews of the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley's production were of the "look how cute, how hard they worked" ilk, I criticized artistic director Alexi Ramov for his production's overly made up dancers, lackluster Waltz of the Flowers costumes, and the use of bumbling children as soldiers in the ballet's climactic fight scene. In a scathing 3-page letter addressed to me and my editor--and which a Ballet Guild insider told me he read aloud to his school-aged company--Ramov refuted all my points, and took me to task for criticizing children.

Since this was my first Nutcracker review, and Ramov had said that its lead sounded "like the first draft of a high school journalism student," and that "you seem to employ a destructive atmosphere to cover for a lack of dance credibility," I sent the review and the letter to the professor in Ohio who had mentored me through my masters program, Lana Kay Rosenberg, so I could get her opinion. She found it sad that Ramov's need to retaliate had won out over common sense. Then she added: "I actually find your reviews rather bland with your need to find something good in everything. I think it's actually better to dismiss something entirely than to give it space in a paper."

I learned early on to try to be true to myself in my reviews, since I was not likely to please anyone else.

The Edward Villella review. The most famous Balanchine dancer to ever visit the area was on his way to Lafayette College and I threw my back out that afternoon. I could barely breathe. But there was no substitute: if I didn't go, the event wouldn't be covered. And I hated to miss the opportunity to join a few other reporters in interviewing Villella before his talk. So I loaded up on ibuprofen and headed to the interview.

Was I glad I did. Villella brushed off the other reporters and seemed to hone in on me--for some reason it seemed vital to him that I, and I alone, receive his answers.

Then I figured out why. I had a tape recorder in my lap. He wasn't speaking to me so much as to the recorder, for posterity. The other reporters were taking notes. And later, in comparing our stories, I was the only one who had not altered his words.

The Gregory Hines interview. Gregory Hines was by far the biggest mainstream celebrity I interviewed during my tenure at the paper. His people required a letterhead fax to set up the interview, and I would never learn a contact phone number--he would call me. Well, near the appointed time, I started to get nervous, and so when the call came through I was...indisposed. Ron answered the phone and put his hand over the receiver. "Oh Kathryn, it's Gregory Hines calling. Should I tell him where you are?"

The barn call. I was trying to set up an interview with the artistic director of a New York City-based company and when the contact called me back I was in the barn mucking out the horse stalls. I tried to adopt my office persona as I answered the barn phone while wearing filthy jeans and squishy muck boots--you can't smell over the phone, right?--but my professionalism was ruined with one big cock-a-doodle-do. My New York City contact said, "Was that a rooster?"

The Mark Morris interview. Baryshnikov wasn't doing interviews, so when I was to cover the White Oak Dance Project, I had to approach Morris instead. His schedule was busy; if I wanted the interview I had to do it at 2 pm on a certain day. Trouble was, Ron was buying a new horse and we had already arranged to go pick it up in Syracuse, NY that day. Determined that I could do both, I purchased a suction cup microphone I could use on the receiver of a pay phone and as it got close to the appointed time we pulled off at a Holiday Inn in Cortland, NY. As I dialed Morris's number from the lobby phone I could see the horse in the parked trailer, lifting her tail and taking a dump onto the macadam in the hotel lot.

The interview did not go well. Not only was Morris reticent to the point that I had to wonder why he agreed to the interview, some of what he said on tape was obscured by a roaring sound. Seems 2-2:30 pm corresponded with the exact, unalterable point in the cleaning lady's schedule when she needed to vacuum the lobby.

Okay, I'm having fun with this! More in next week's post.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The illusion of control

Two recent situations helped me identify one of the vehicles I used to drive my life forward since Ron's death: the illusion of control.

What I was driving away from was the polar opposite of control. Suicide, like any other murder, is chaos. No matter how heavily foreshadowed: that full day standoff with a heavy police presence might have been a clue, right? No matter how many hours, waiting, waiting for word, fully realizing the only possible outcomes for Ron would be self-destruction or imprisonment. Still thinking: This. Can't. Be. Happening.

Then word came.

By then it had already occurred, that horrific moment in which all choice and all plans and all determination and all hope were ripped from my grasp. The violence was already over but its echo would live on.

The choices I made in response to Ron's actions were the control I had. Until recently I hadn't realized how reliant I'd become upon my need to make them.

But my choices were good enough, because as you may have read in the last post, we made it. Over the past twelve years, on this farm Ron and I lovingly renovated, on this farm where Ron killed himself, I raised my two sons to adulthood. I am now selling the farm and wrapping up this chapter of my life.

All that was fine and good until someone else grabbed the wheel.

Incident 1: The oil burner man
To ready the house for sale I made an early appointment to have our oil burner serviced for the heating season. When I heard the gravel popping out in the driveway I went out to meet the truck and let them know they should come in the office door. But the van had already turned around at the top of the driveway and come back to me.

"So you've been here before," I said. I didn't recognize the technician; in recent years someone else had been coming.

"Oh yeah, I've been here before," he said, looking around. Then he looked right at me. "Didn't you have a big suicide standoff here a while back? With all sorts of police cars showing up?"

His unexpected words hit me with the force of a shotgun blast. The twelve intervening years dissolved. I stammered as I searched for a response.

From the beginning I have been able to talk with some sense of detachment about the events of that day. But it was only in that moment I realized that I had initiated those conversations. Always. Luckily for me, few people, as much as they might be burning to know, actually walk up to you and say "So what's it like when your husband offs himself?"

His questions felt like an assault because the control was his, not mine. As I sputtered for response his reason for bringing it up became clearer: his brother, too, was involved with a suicide standoff around the same time. It, too, was covered in the local papers. Turns out he had serviced our heater for some 25 years; had even met Ron. He would soon retire, and we would soon leave the house. This was his last chance to connect, however clumsy the approach.

Incident 2: Marty leaves home
My younger son has not taken to campus life at Drexel. He has often returned home on weekends to see his friends here, and lives at home for the six months per year he is on co-op.

Now, with a move to Doylestown wavering on the horizon for us and a new co-op beginning for him, I don't know how much longer I can offer him a place to stay in this geographic area. I told him she should start exploring options. Then assumed he would deal with it when push came to shove.

Two weeks ago, while I was away at my writing retreat for women, Marty stayed at a friend's house while Dave handled a bunch of house showings. When I returned from the retreat, Marty was just returning home as well. He gave me a hug and I settled in for a nice catch-up chat. He began.

"Doug and Brad said I might as well just move in with them," he said. "So I guess I'll just grab some stuff and go."

And he left the room to pack. My first thought: Not yet!

I wasn't ready. Of course it was time for him to make this move. He's twenty. Plus I had told him to make it. But push hadn't yet come to shove. Meaning, of course, that I had not yet done the shoving.

As proud as I am of him for growing up to be the kind of responsible young man who would take this proactive step, I did not respond well to losing my illusion of control over the situation. After he left I curled up in a ball on the couch and cried for all of the illusions I had lost in this home.

"Surrender" is still a tough concept for me. But I'll keep working on it. Because for each unexpected twist life has been good enough to substitute something even greater than the thing I was hoping to cling to. Lost Ron, gained Dave. Marty freed me to pursue the next chapter of my life without undue worry over him. Even the oil burner man came bearing gifts: I could survive the intrusion of unbidden memory.

For Marty and the oil burner man: I wish for you the same grace as you face whatever twists occur in the next chapter of your lives.

About the photo: this is Dave's grandson Liam, born well after the mayhem in my side of the family. But that look! His innocence already fading: "I want to take the wheel, but will I get away with it?" All I can say is, it's a good thing we can't see too far down the road, or we'd never drive anywhere. Only innocence gives us the courage to begin anything. But it is surrender, ultimately, that helps us stay the course.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What he left behind

If you are returning to my blog after my summer hiatus, thank you for coming back! I couldn't seem to handle writing these posts while also clearing out our little farm to ready it for the real estate market. Some periods of my life require so much energy that I must defer the recording of them for later. Leaving this farm was one of them.

It's hard to believe: when Marty turned 20 this summer I completed my goal of raising my sons to adulthood here at this farm Ron had chosen. I am free to move on, to choose a home for the first time in my life, and Dave and I are free to finally make a home together. This place hasn't suited our lifestyle for some time. It's for riding horses and animal romping and playing outside. But our barn has stood empty and cobwebbed for more than 10 years. Of all the chickens and goats and ponies and horses and cats and dogs, the last of our many animals--my cockapoo Max--died almost three years ago, and most of my day is now spent in front of a computer or a manuscript. I am ready to leave.

That didn't mean the farm was ready for us to leave it, though. This summer Dave and I and several stalwart family helpers cleared its most neglected recesses of 12 tons of junk. Most of this came from six outbuildings, one of which is a cavernous Pennsylvania bank barn that can hold a sinful amount of crap. We hoisted and we carried and we swept and we blistered and at the end of each day we tore respirators black with dirt from our sweaty faces and we didn't stop until we'd filled a 12-yard dumpster. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Leaving this farm turned into an extreme sport and my actions tell the tale: I'm ready to start the next chapter of my life in a new setting. But it would seem I had one more character study to complete first. Because this summer, going through the detritus that had accumulated in the house and outbuildings, I think I got to know Ron a little better through what he left behind.

What Ron left behind
1. Scraps of wood. I finally got it, this summer. Ron loved to work with his hands as much as I love to write, and he felt about wood scraps the way I feel about books: you'd better keep a lot on hand just in case you'll ever need them again. We cleared out room after room piled high with scrap lumber, saving only a few piles of respectable looking oak planks to give away to friends. (I was almost as hard on my own collection: I gave away eight boxes of books to the library for its fundraising sale.)

2. Well organized bric-a-brac. Part of what fed Ron's sense of material wealth was amassing metal and wood shelving filled with hand-labeled boxes and jars holding everything from clips and U-bolts to old door hinges and plumbing supplies. I think he would have been happy owning a hardware store, because that's what several of our outbuildings look like. The man had inventory.

3. Receipts. Ron was not much of a writer so I was surprised to come upon a box chock full of notes he had stashed in one of the barn's storage rooms. The money fixation that eventually devoured him was foreshadowed in a painstaking accounting he'd kept of which bartenders made what tips on what dates, and how this was all divided. I'm sure the IRS would have loved to see those documents 20 years ago. Oops--they'll have to landfill dive to find them now.

4. Booze. I was long aware of Ron's practice of washing out glass orange juice containers and bringing home booze leftover from the weddings he worked. This was all part of the trademark frugality he'd use to justify the extravagances he couldn't afford. I had given away so much booze after his death I guess I just didn't realize how much was still out there. About three dozen half-gallon bottles. All labeled, of course: scotch, gin, vodka, Benedictine, even grossly separated and rank smelling Bailey's Irish Cream. No whiskey, since that's what he drank. Some of the tops were corroded right through. I didn't know if it would be good for our septic system to put it all down the sink, so for lack of a better idea, I poured them all onto the driveway stones on a hot day and let the liquid evaporate. I'm pretty sure that any bird that caught a whiff of it--perhaps even God--caught a buzz that day.

5. A legacy of love. While our house hasn't yet found its next perfect occupant, we have gotten wonderful feedback from the people who've come to see it. My favorite: "It was a joy to show this property. The owners must have loved their home." I take my share of the credit, as my hands transformed each of the house's surfaces. But Ron was the crew leader, the one with the know-how back in the days before online tutorials. We were a good team when it came to the renovation, and I hope he knows what a great job he did. This farm will offer someone new just as wonderful a place to house their horses and raise a family as it did me. If you'd like to take a look at the fruit of our labors, click here.

6. A dream. I truly feel the weight of this, now. When Ron died he left behind his dream of raising his family on the farm we'd renovated--he killed himself just ten months after the final room was complete, when the boys were just 8 and 10. Of course his dream didn't die with him. I was still here to live it.

7. A hell of a mess. From the early biohazard cleanup to the financial and emotional and psychic cleanup to the final wood scrap dumping, we have been cleaning up after Ron for 12 years.

8. Which leaves for last the most obvious answer as to what Ron left behind: Jackson, Marty, and me.

With a nod to my friend and energetic blogger Jon Gibbs, I'll end with a question: after you are gone, what will people learn about you from what you left behind? Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear your answers.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

While I was underground

This is conference season, so for the past two months my blogging took a back seat to an intense round of edits on my novel. I thought if I could block everything else out and concentrate hard I could get it right, finally. And again I have rediscovered that the word "infinity" is the distance between "here" and "the end."

I take time to return to my blog today for a few reasons. One is fan demand (thanks, Janet!). Another is that I have just returned from seeing my son Jackson sing with the Westminster Choir at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. While he used his voice brilliantly, I lost mine altogether due to the spate of new allergens encountered in the low country. So if I want to communicate at all, it will be through writing. 

And, as usual, I am using my writing to to heal from painful chaos so I might make sense of my life.

Because I came home to some rather odd news. An independent editor I hired to help me with my novel wrote to say that while she was at BookExpo America she learned that THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY will be published by Algonquin Books in spring 2010. Good news, right? Publication is the result of a lot of hard work and through personal experience I can attest to the fact that it is the long awaited answer to the dream of its author: Heidi W. Durrow. 

Somehow, while I re-worked my own writing challenges with my head beneath the sand, I missed the announcement that the book had also won the 2008 Bellwether Prize, a cash and publication prize awarded to an author whose work promotes social change. Some of you may know that I had long considered submitting for this prize, since I believe the core issue of my novel—aberrant body image—is holding women in our country back and that change will only come one woman at a time as we learn to accept the gift of our own corporeal individuality. I have always hoped, through my novel, to help inspire that change.

By now I'm pretty sure we're all on the title page together here: the novel I'm referring to would be the novel I have been living and breathing for six years now, THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY. 

I remember when I first pitched my novel to an editor at a conference, four years ago. She said: "No matter what happens with this book, don't let anyone talk you into changing its name. It's brilliant."

Now, in deference to Durrow's publication success in the same genre, that's exactly what I must do. Even though titles are not copyrighted, common marketing sense dictates that I now leave behind the one sure thing that has guided me all these years, a concept so inextricably woven into the fabric of the story that ripping it free will leave a huge thematic hole. I must also give up the idea of submitting for the Bellwether, since although Durrow's theme of biracial identity is different than mine, her book is based on a girl who survives a fall from the top of a building. (If you read the interview at her website, you'll see that even though it was a different article, she was inspired to write it by something she read in the newspaper just as I was.)

I am left feeling that I woke up to find someone else living my life—and doing it more successfully than I could. Case in point: you can find the interview I would have given (with pertinent facts substituted of course) at Heidi's website. And the cover design is one I would have envisioned for my own book: the words of the title placed in a vertical column against a blue background, with a stylized stick figure falling below. 

While my head was in the sand, another author blew past me—and I was unaware that I was running a race. If you think it makes me feel any better that Durrow's original Bellwether submission title was LIGHT SKINNED-ED GIRL, and that the publisher no doubt influenced the title change, it does not. This beautifully archetypal title was not mine to own, yet I can't help but feel bereft. Even if I didn't have laryngitis, I wouldn't know what to say. I am having trouble looking at my husband in the eye because he has been so tremendously supportive of me and at present I just don't know what any of this means for the future of my own project.
I will rebound from this in time, because rebounding is what I do. But let me put the challenge ahead into perspective: I have, in the past, cried when a computer crash made me lose six hours of desktop publishing work. So it will take me a while to recover from six years of identifying my writing with a title that I couldn't have loved more if it had sprung from my own body.

At present, I am the Girl Who Fell. I can't believe the ride is over, and I am wondering how I'll ever make my way back up to that place where hope lives. Yet, like my protagonist, I will do it. Because that is not only the kind of story I want to tell, it is the kind of story I want to live. 

I have received so much incredible support from my writing friends in the development of THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, for which I am incredibly grateful. I'm sure we'll have some great conversations about how Penelope Sparrow will rise again under a title that I hope to learn to love. But for now, thanks to my laryngitis, I have a great excuse not to talk about it until I re-orient to the reality of my new circumstances.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Scene and Sequel

Because I am a huge fan of delayed gratification, the two days of The Write Stuff conference put on by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group is my favorite time of year. I love Christmas, too, but I only put a few weeks of preparation into it. I work on aspects of this conference for an entire year, so when it comes I watch it unreel in a dizzying blur.

On a day like today, when I have a chance to pause to take stock, I'm reminded of the terms author Jack Bickham uses to describe plot: "scene" and "sequel." The action happens in scene: a soldier runs up to a ditch, lobs a hand grenade, and runs back to safety behind a rock. That soldier reflects on his action in a sequel: Where did these guys come from? I thought we'd killed them all back at the river. I need to talk to Jonesy, bad, but the radio is back at the plane...

If the final weeks of conference prep are one unrelenting scene, today is my sequel. I want to take a moment to reflect on the fruits of my labor and of many fellow laborers led by conference chair Dianna Sinovic.

In this year's mesmerizing keynote speech, author and DeSales University creative writing prof Juilene Osborne-McKnight tapped her background as a professional storyteller to remind us that the stories that connect us are the reason for all that we do. To hammer her point home, I'd like to set down some of the stories that characterized this conference for me.

• After 9 years of attending and volunteering for this conference, I participated as a Page Cuts panelist for the first time, using experience gleaned from my role as editor at to critique first page submissions from attendees. No story is good without an obstacle, so here it is: I had to do so without having eaten in the past eight hours. I wasn't the only one. Despite a break of almost an hour, and a restaurant less than half full, the hotel was unable to deliver our meals before we had to go to the Page Cuts room. I thought I had saved time by ordering a sandwich, but at least those who ordered entrees got their salads! Despite the hypoglycemia, I enjoyed applying all I've learned to help along a new batch of writers. After which I made a beeline for the crudites at the welcome reception.

• I had the chance to meet three different women I've gotten to know through my online writing consulting business. I first met them through their words and ideas; now I've met them in the flesh. Ever since I started writing for a newspaper 27 years ago, where I mostly met people by phone, I've envisioned people by their voices. I do the same now with people I meet in print, through their writers' voices. And you know what? Not one of these women looked a thing like I pictured them. A fun surprise.

• One of our conferees flew in from Texas so she could meet her favorite author, Maria V. Snyder, whom I had engaged in my role as program co-chair. In my role as Page Cuts coordinator I had randomly assigned this conferee to the room where Maria was a Page Cuts panelist. This woman was able to have her first page critiqued by her favorite author, and I played an unwitting role.

• I stood in the hallway at one point beside a conferee who asked a woman next to me where she was from. The answer I overheard: "Gouverneur, New York." I spun around. "You're kidding me! I know where Gouverneur is and I know how to spell it, too!" To which she replied: "Most of the people who live there don't know how to spell it!" Gouverneur is a village of about 4,000 near our summer home in northern New York; my grandmother was a school teacher there early in the 2oth century. This woman found out about our conference online, drove the 5-1/2 hours to get to it, and had a great time—and during the book fair, sat to talk with my husband Dave and I, who are almost neighbors to her during the summer.

• One of the last conversations I had before heading out the door was with my new friend, conferee Jon Gibbs, whom I'd met at last year's pre-conference workshop. We were tossed into proximity again this year: during an exercise at this year's workshop we exchanged papers, and later that night he was in my Page Cuts room. At conference end Jon was telling me what a superlative conference he'd had: all of the Page Cuts panelists had something good to say about his page; the agent panelist in that room approached him the next day, gave him her card, and said she'd like to see the whole manuscript; an agent to whom he'd pitched a different project wanted to see the whole thing; and then during the book fair he found out he'd won the fiction flash contest and got to read it aloud. When after that he also won a door prize he deferred, embarrassed by and a bit fearful of the confluence of riches.

Following a tradition we've had for a few years now, Dave and I treated ourselves to dinner out on the way home from the conference—this time at Bonefish at the Lehigh Valley Mall—and brought along our conference folders. We always attend separate sessions so we can compare notes after, and we like to do it while all is fresh in our minds. We sat at a "first come, first served" area in the bar across from another couple, who was fascinated by what we were doing. Their son is a writer, currently in England on a fellowship. We all ended up having a great time. 

Thanks for sharing my sequel. For all of these reasons and more, I am eager to once again enter "scene" mode and get to work on next year's conference.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blessed Detachment

Back since I rededicated myself to my own projects last December, I have written almost every single day. When thinking about the question "What makes you a writer," the topic of the concluding panel for this June's Philadelphia Writers' Conference, I'm pretty sure behavior like that qualifies a person. 

But lately I've been experiencing a whole new level of immersion: at night, when I dream, I am not only a character in the dream, but also the recorder of the dream. 

I literally dream of being a writer.

The sensation reminds me of standing in one of the bathrooms at my friend Ellen's house that had two sinks across from one another with mirrors above them. Standing at one you see yourself in the mirror before you, plus watch yourself looking at yourself in the mirror behind you, which reflects a smaller and slightly offset version of the first picture...on and on. Counting the reflections would drive you batty.

Granted, I've been doing a lot of writing. In the past eight weeks I've experienced one of the most productive writing periods of my life. I've been working on one of my own projects each morning—either writing my memoir about moving on after Ron's suicide or rewriting my novel about a dancer who survives a suicide attempt. In the afternoons I've been writing about my editing clients' writing. In between, when I can find a few moments, I've been writing commentary on assignments submitted by the writers who took my eight-week writing tutorial, "Develop a Confident Writer's Voice." Somehow, three weeks ago, I even squeezed in a blog entry. Then at night, apparently not able to cut myself a break and simply live my dreams, I dream about recording them as well. 

I have dreamed about searching for the right word as I try to set the dream down. I have dreamed about writing my blog—and of course wake up with the words dissolved. I have actually forced a break within the dream scene to explore aspects of it further—for untapped "pockets of story," as I suggest my students do with their work. Last night, for example, I dream I am married to this young black man. I know nothing about him; perhaps it is an arranged marriage. In a moment of emotional honesty more easily found between strangers than between mates who have expectations of one another, he shares with me that he is in a huge amount of debt—one of the unspoken problems that plagued Ron. Within the dream scene, my internal monologue: "Damn, why didn't I check for that before marrying this time?"

Then, still dreaming, I pull back and watch myself writing about it. Who is this black man, why did I marry him, and will this end in tragedy? In my dream, I watch my pen...and discover the man is rock-turned-country star Darius Rucker. He has serious earning potential. Debt or no, we'll be just fine.

I think these dreams reflect the most healing aspect of active writing, a paradox true for us all yet the awareness of which is sharpened with daily effort: in the stories of our lives, we can be both protagonist and author. Like my protagonist Penelope Sparrow, choreographing in front of a mirror—she feels the dance and watches it at the same time, a process that allows both full sensory immersion and the detachment necessary for editing one's choices.

This past week was crazy busy. One son coming and going on spring break, shaking the house with a cough not yet healed from walking pneumonia as we dealt with his car issues; the other getting in a flurry of activity before ending his co-op and heading back to Drexel; my Dad needing an emergency heart procedure which required my mother canceling elective surgery; the discovery of a heart problem in my mother requiring tests; and then, on the first day of spring, the birth of my younger brother's precious baby daughter, a miracle in itself if you knew all he'd been through in his life. Not many thought he'd live to see this day. The circle of life swirls and blows around me and I am at its eye, writing.

And all week, for the first time in the eleven years since his suicide, I've been experiencing a miracle of my own. By virtue of blessed detachment, my memory has been bringing up images of Ron's handsome face, smiling at me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Music to a Writer's Ears

On Saturday I had the joy of attending my son's junior recital at Westminster Choir College. Hearing him sing is to witness a marvel of genetics: where did that glorious baritone come from? His father could not sing "Happy Birthday" in any recognizable fashion and at this point in my life my warble is as thin as a reed. That voice of his is both a gift and a calling and my son seems to be making the most of it. Good for him.

Watching the whole of his body and the entirety of his being work to produce those sounds, I was reminded once again of how much we as writers have to learn from other art forms. The following may have been advice from Jackson's vocal coaches through his high school years, but to me, they are thinly veiled writing tips.

"Singing is powered by the breath, but don't give it all away. Take a deep breath and try to hold it in as long as possible while still using it to power the voice. Singing is a little bit 'yes,' a little bit 'no.'"
Sounds like a plot primer: did Dan Brown study at Westminster?

"You are trying too hard on the high notes. Maybe that's because you haven't found your true voice yet. You have a voice that's all your own—when you get to the high notes, trust that it will be there."
Where was this teacher during my first three attempts to draft the climax of my novel?

"Arching the soft palate is a technique that keeps the air from escaping through the nose while singing. But you don't want to arch it so high that you paralyze the tongue, as when yawning."
The genesis of stilted prose—and its soporific effect—revealed.

Despite the fact that he was recovering from walking pneumonia, Jackson's recital went very well, and his teacher, Zehava Gal, was full of praise for him. That's quite an accomplishment...let's just say she's not known as a pussycat. The critique she wrote, which my son forwarded to me, was very specific to Saturday's performance yet also spoke of the basics of sound artistic practice in any medium.

"There was not a wasted moment on crap such as 'listen to my big voice' or 'how do I look/how do I sound.' You showed style, class, elegance, beautiful voice, total engagement and conviction. You were in the now.... When you do that we (the audience) are totally engaged, we are moved to tears, we are totally into the performance with you."

"You were sick—but you handled it... There are times that the technique, which I punch into your system, is the ONLY thing to rely and count on. It worked, it always worked—everything is technique!"

"Clean delivery is always very strong. We did not hear an EGO singing—we heard the creative child within you. Keep working on self discovery. It's in the text and the music, all there."

"What's good about you is that you are listening and open to receiving knowledge. You want more. You do not waste time on frustration. You just work."

"You are the proof that hard work, intelligence, knowing what you want and working towards it, is the ONLY way!"

Each of these sayings is loaded with artistic wisdom, and for that reason I am so glad that Zehava is Jackson's voice teacher. But my favorite little gem consisted of the four little words tacked onto another thought about two-thirds of the way through this mountain of praise:

"Your diction was very good, we heard every word. You can do more."

Beyond Technique
Zehava's words are an effective cross-genre reminder that good technique and humility and hard work are the key to success, but she didn't stop there, for she knows that the mark of a true artist is a willingness to give of himself. In her words:

"Everything had a creative idea behind it—that is exactly what makes you unique. It's yours! Always think of the whole picture and its inner relations. I immediately understood that certain words had a personal meaning to you. That is the key for success."

A snippet of "personal meaning" from his recital can be found in the opening of Jackson's final song, Leonard Bernstein's "There's a Law About Men," from the opera Trouble in Tahiti: "There's a law about men; there are men who can make it and men who cannot."

Hearing this, of course I thought of Jackson's father's suicide. Ron was one of the men who could not make it. The most traumatic ordeal of my life, I have devoted countless hours over the past eleven years to examining it from all sides: in therapy, in conversation, in writing a novel about transcending the urge to self-destruct, in writing a memoir about moving past it, and I blog here about my ongoing healing process. But never for a minute do I believe that it happened to me alone, or that I was the only one to suffer. A desktop publishing client I had at the time had nightmares for weeks after reading about the standoff in the newspaper. My sons had front row seats as the drama unfolded. Jackson may have been only ten at the time, but he got it: there are men who can make it and men who cannot.

Yet I am heartened by his song choice. As an artist he did not back away from sharing a piece of his difficult past through his choice of lyric, nor did he shy away from the message of hope at song's end. In discussing the types of men in his song Bernstein noted the attributes of the kind of man who becomes a winner, and in choosing to close his recital with these words about such a man Jackson revealed his own resiliency:

"You can throw all your weight against them,
All your fire, snow, and hail and darkest disaster against them,
They'll respond with a grin and they will always win."

Responding to suicide with a grin sounds crass, admittedly. But viewed through the lens of time, it was the courage to allow the return of our smiles and hope and faith that allowed us to heal. With these words, Jackson's recital ended on a note of triumph: technique and voice and style and a point of view born of experience had converged to create a powerful message. And when that happens—for writer or vocalist—it feels like a win.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

22 Essential Things

I am trying to be a good modern networker and get into this Facebook thing. Frankly, while I love interpersonal conversation and even public speaking, I'm having trouble with the "public chatting" aspect. The only thing I've liked about it so far is reading my friends' lists of 25 Random Things. I find the randomness amusing and the vicarious experience thrilling and I love to try to locate the unexpressed thread that ties this person's life together. Even the mode of expression tells a lot: I've seen lists peter out in the teens and run past 25; single-word entries and little stories; right-brained entries numbered haphazardly and left-brained entries cross-referenced. Each feels like a gift of self.

Not everyone accepts gifts as graciously. A friend just forwarded me an e-mail from a "humorist" who has 25 reasons not to read them, and finds such lists to be a flagrant form of self-aggrandizement. This person is clearly not a student of the human condition. Perhaps this person's willful personality was indulged in childhood, and now has little empathy for those a little more broken who enjoy the game of grasping for self. In addition I'd guess this person has worked in the same job for a couple of decades and has never suffered the type of identity-rattling trauma that leaves you desperate to cry out: See me. I am here.

Near the end of my first marriage, when my husband would not seek help for either his alcohol problem or our ailing relationship, I sought out therapy on my own. The second week I came home with the assignment answer to the question: "What defines who you are?" 

I hardly knew how to begin. For so long I had wrapped myself around my children's and husband's needs. Yet a self had been starting to emerge; it was the cracking of my outgrown facade that had led me to therapy to begin with. Once I started writing I had trouble stopping: I came up with 22 essential aspects of self. Take any one away, I determined, and I would not be the same person. I was surprised by this evidence of my maturing dimensionality. Reading the list made me own these aspects and grow in personal power.

I soon realized, sadly, that of these 22 essential attributes, Ron either failed to support, ignored, or actively abused 15 of them. This is the power of listing: it led quickly to my decision to divorce, to Ron's first suicide threat and hospitalization, and to his death six weeks later. Yet it also gave me the will to survive the guilt traps Ron's actions had laid. For someone with an artistic bent, self is not something that can be denied forever. 

Listing can be powerful medicine; it's the most healing writing I've done in my life. It can pierce through the way we think things are to reach the way things are. Such a weapon should not be wielded by the weak of heart. Perhaps the humorist was right to step aside.

Now that I know who I am and have adjusted my life's activities accordingly, I enjoy a purposeful, happy, and confident life. Some people misread this confidence as egocentrism. I'm pretty sure that humorist would. Like the Facebook lists, the humorist probably wouldn't have much use for me. And get this for self-aggrandizement: I blog AND I'm writing a memoir.

Others like me who want to keep growing and adapting and reinventing ourselves enjoy re-interviewing for the job of self every few years. Want to try? Write a new resume, write the story of your life, re-connect with old friends, or touch back with your therapist. Or make it easy, and share a list of 25 random things with your friends to see where your thoughts take you.

I'll gladly read your lists, and celebrate the person you continue to become.

Because I am here. And I see you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Origami Memories

I knew that writing a memoir would be a healing experience. The notion of fashioning chaotic detail into a beginning, middle and end sounded soothing already.  Plus there's the forward thrust: a memoir is a survival story, after all. But I have already journaled the story of my first husband's choice to shoot himself and my choice to stay and raise our sons on the same farm where he committed this act, and I have told it verbally time and again through the past 11 years. Is there added magic in writing a book about it?

There is for me. To show what the writing has been like for me, I must switch to the present tense; it is an ongoing process.


Ron's suicide feels as though I've been pushed from an airplane. I'd first boarded this plane to reach a destination; I had never intended to bail. Just as Ron's death is not entirely without foreshadowing, neither is my exit. I have heard the whisper: "I might soon push you out that door." But even though I know it might happen I have no idea what it will be like until I am falling and the air rushing past extracts all that was "me." 

I hit hard and plunge into a deep river. My first thought: I am alive! Second thought: I can do this, I know how to swim. But I can't find the surface; I am submerged and surrounded by bubbles and I can't tell which way is up. The only thing I can think to do is kick fiercely. I finally break through to the surface, where at last I can draw huge gulps of life-sustaining air. I tread with my legs and scream my story for all to hear, over and over, it's all I can do. "I am here!" The river is icy cold but at this point I don't even feel it, I'm numb, and while I can now tell up from down I cannot see the shore. The current tugs at me. What I've been through is bad enough, what if there's a waterfall ahead? I don't know where I'm heading but I set off anyway, across the current, intuiting that swimming is exactly what I should be doing.

The river is so wide I am swimming for years, but each stroke is purposeful and my body is growing strong and I have a new sense of who I am. I am one who swims.

Eventually the water is shallow enough that I can touch bottom. It feels strange to once again stand on my feet, although I know I am not yet healed; full immersion in this water is still necessary to hold me up. But I find others here, in the shallows, including a new mate who doesn't care that my hair is slick with river scum and that I still take to shivering. I can enjoy his company while understanding the journey is still mine to complete. Through the water I continue, sometimes swimming, sometimes slogging on foot, occasionally tossing in a playful dive. I am closing in on shore.

Now that I've reached the edge I am sometimes able to leave the water for days at a time. As much as I'd love to forget about the river I sense a danger in doing so, so I am never far from the shore. I will always return to wade in, or at least dip a toe.

After years of flirting with the water's edge it is time to write. For this I must go down to the river and sit on its bottom, immersing myself in the shallows. Here I recall the cold wet slap of experience at the same time the rhythmic lapping of the water against my legs soothes me. I feel the pull of the water and must remind myself: I am alive, I am strong, and I am free. To create this memoir I need only sit here for a few hours each day, I can dip in for another swim if I need a deeper taste or I can leave altogether; I am well acquainted with this shore and can do as I please. What I choose to do is to set the story I know so well onto paper. 

The first-this-then-that of it soon drains me; I've been here before. I don't want to tell again in the same way, I want to write-and-build, create something new. I start to pull my narrative apart and create little scenes. Honing them requires that I take a few steps back to see a bigger picture (I could not have done this while swimming). I fold the story this way and that, its surfaces creating new pairings, new pairings suggesting new meanings. As I perfect each scene I inch out of the water until I am standing at the very edge of the river, almost detached from that part of my experience. How freeing! I need not bore my reader with my journal entries, or drag her to the middle of the river to drown in my experience. My story is pliable; I can hold it in my hand and work it to create depth and breadth until its scenes build something new and just as true. Like an origami boat fashioned from the pages of my story it will be independent of me. And when it's finished, I'll be able to take this new rendering down to the river and set it afloat, where I can send it out to others.

Only then, having wrought all possible meaning out of my unintended nosedive, will I be free to stand, choose a new direction, and walk away.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Whole World in My Hands

I hadn't intended to get an ultrasound, but my fertility doctor was in an impish mood and the equipment was free.

After a few minutes of sliding the doppler around my belly he said, "There we go, see that?" and the nurse smiled and nodded. "Well Kathryn, do you want to know whether it's a boy or girl?"


Ron and I had talked about it; it didn't feel natural to us to know. We would be surprised, as were most of the women who came before me in time.

We drove home. Over the next 24 hours, though, it started to bug me: I was 30 and impatient and someone else knew more about my baby than I did. Something seemed wrong with that.

So the next day I got in my car and drove the 40 minutes back up to the doctor's office. The waiting room was empty and when the smell of pizza hit me I almost turned around to make sure I'd walked into the right pace. But even fertility doctors need to eat lunch. The staff was in the office behind the little glass doors gathered around an open pizza box, chatting happily with grease on their fingers and faces. I startled them when I knocked on the window.

I slid open the window and pushed my ultrasound photo toward Dr. Lang. "I can't stand it. I have to know." He smiled; he knew I'd break.

After he pointed out the gender evidence I managed to thank him and leave the office with some dignity before completely breaking down in the hallway. I mean, I collapsed onto a bench and sobbed. It wasn't that I didn't want a boy; a boy would be wonderful! But now that I knew, I'd suffered a loss: my child could no longer be both boy and girl.

Sweet anticipation. I've been thinking about this lately. We hear a lot about people in our society who suffer from an inability to delay gratification—they want something, and they want it now. One imagines holiday gatherings across America that last all of five minutes, with wrappings ripped open and cast aside en masse so that the contents can be revealed.

Not me. My favorite moments in life are just before the knowing. The moment when the mail could offer a contract instead of a rejection. The moment just before you taste, when it is still possible this is the best meal you've ever cooked in your life. The moment just after you answer the phone and that same sweet baby, fully male and fully grown, just might be calling to say he got the lead in the musical or straight A's instead of "my bumper fell off" or "I lost my iPhone." The instant right before you walk through the door that may or may not change your life.

If this makes me sound like a hopeless dreamer, I've given the wrong impression. I want to live in the real world. I treasure the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty. I want to be there for my kids when they suffer setbacks, and am grateful they have a clear gender identity. I can handle the fact that every single meal will not be the best I've ever tasted.

But I am sensitive to the joy in moments that are pregnant with possibility, in which many potential outcomes co-exist. In those moments, which are among the sweetest in my life, I've got the whole world in my hands.

So now that I've laid the appropriate groundwork, I'm going to...

[Who knows? Only in retrospect will my actions be limited by fact. Until then, the sky's the limit!]

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Grease Cup

Dave and I were talking the other day about the grease cup that we used to keep in the back of the refrigerator. On the outside it may have said Prego or Alpo or Campbell's Soup, but on the inside it was a congealed mixture of hamburger fat and bacon grease. If it had been there long enough, awaiting further contributions, it sported a fuzzy blue coat of mold on top. In a perverted sort of way I guess it represented health: whatever fats had solidified in the cup had not been consumed. Why didn't we dispose of them down the drain while they were still in their liquid form? Because over time the fats clog up pipes—even ones much bigger than human arteries.

Until we were talking about it, I hadn't realized how long it had been since I kept a grease cup in the fridge. Probably not since my meat-and-potatoes-crazed first husband was alive. That would make it more than eleven years now. These days our diet is much more lean.

That isn't the only change that's occurred in the past decade, of course. At the time of their father's suicide my sons called me "Mommy" and held my hand to cross the street; now they are both in college, making their own way in the world. Acting on what I felt to be a true calling, I've written two novels. Over and over. I've started an editing business. I have healed enough to write a memoir about moving on after Ron's death, inspiring me to transcend my anger enough to dare to remember that I was once crazy in love with him. Eleven years ago I thought a 2-mile walk a few times per week was quite the accomplishment; now I walk over 3 miles most days, even in this frigid weather (I'm going for my walk as soon as the thermometer rises above 17). I anted up and remarried, gambling that my unfulfilled relationship dreams might still come true—and won the pot. I traveled abroad for the first time, and looked back to wonder how on earth it was I lived in Bechtelsville PA for a quarter of a century.

I may not have moved, but I have not been stagnant. The grease cup memory reminds me that my life has been in constant forward motion. My life may not be perfect, but I am making better, more healthful choices. That progress can be hard to see on a daily basis; the liquid nature of "the present" won't allow contextual evaluation. Stepping back and looking at a larger chunk of years, though, is like putting the grease cup in the fridge—it's easier to see what's accumulated once your accomplishments have solidified with time. 

I'll have to come up with a new metaphor for examining my next decade, though. The grease cup, like many of my poorer and thankfully outgrown lifestyle choices, is something I'm glad to leave behind.

Friday, January 2, 2009

What to give up this New Year

That's it, I am spread too thin. As I look out over the stretch of time the New Year affords, I think I need to give something up.

My writing? This is a huge time-guzzler and brings in little money, so its worth must be reconsidered, with my husband poised to retire in two months. And in this economy, why bother, anyway? Publishers are further consolidating, bookstores are either closing or dumping inventory, conferences are finding it harder than ever to attract editors and agents seeking new projects. Even established mid-list authors are struggling to get books published. It would seem the world does not, at present, need any "new" published authors. And who needs all that rejection? 
On the other hand, I haven't changed—I'm still a deeply introspective person who needs to shape words and ideas on paper to make meaning of life, and a creative who gets all fired up doing so. Plus, when I'm not dedicated to my writing, I gain weight, as if the scale is indicating that my whole life is weighing on me too heavily. And if I keep writing I might even create an advantage: if the tough economy discourages writers more faint of heart from pursuing publication, and I keep getting better and better during this dry spell, and continue to network and build my audience through public readings, I'll be poised to reap the rewards when things pick up again. And hey—if submissions go down, agents and editors will remember my name more easily!


My editing? Sometimes it seems the editing projects I take on usurp the creative energy I need in reserve for my own writing. Do I want my clients' projects to see publication more than I do my own? I have to admit, sometimes the notion excites me just as much. Should it? 
Yet I have never felt in competition with other writers, because my philosophy is one of abundance: those who are truly called to writing, and are willing to perfect their work to the best of their ability, will see publication. I am perfectly suited to being an editor: I'm a natural teacher, I'm critical and analytical by nature, I enjoy playing the role of cheerleader to developing talent, and I love to read deeply. Each manilla envelope that arrives feels like a gift. 

My volunteerism? I was drawn to membership at my current church because of the way their special music program enhanced the worship service—a program that ended with our former pastor's exit, since his wife led it. 
Now I book the special music, creating performance opportunities for the incredibly talented high school musicians in the Boyertown area, and allowing me to keep up with their progress. I support our pie-baking fundraisers so that I can roll out dough elbow to elbow with vibrant senior citizens who share the most amazing stories. My work with the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group and the Philadelphia Writers Conference has given me valuable contacts that enhance both my writing and editing lives, as well as cherished friendships. I run a monthly book group so I can share my love of reading and support the publishing industry [see our book club's micro reviews, a new feature, at right]. Why would I give any of that up?

My exercise/journaling/healthy cooking? Granted, these take longer and longer as I get older. My metabolism is harder to rev, at 52 early arthritis has slowed my handwriting, and "creative distraction" (not all my writing is done at the computer) contributes to more dropped items, both from my grocery list and in my kitchen. 
But I certainly can't afford to give these up! Without a healthy mind/body/spirit, I have less to contribute to life in every way.
So do I give up...

Life as I know it? I often daydream of getting a job in corporate America. Not because I think a woman stands a chance of corporate initiation at age 52, or because I could for one moment survive in that catty, often demeaning environment, where true creative challenge and doing one's very best are valued less than bottom-line driven subservience and doing "good enough," but because I think it would be so cool to have someone say "I think your time is worth $65K per year plus benefits" (the kind of offer my advanced degree should engender, according to my younger son). I haven't had such a job since I walked out of a health club franchise in 1981, after learning I was the only idiot who actually believed in health and physical fitness—the owner and his managers used the business as a front for dealing drugs. Since then I have owned two sole proprietorships, running them from my home office, and not one dime has come in that I haven't earned through my own marketing efforts. 
But while the self-discipline can wear on me, I do enjoy the flexibility of being self-employed, which allows me to honor both my biorhythms and creative whimsy, and until two years ago allowed me to raise my children the way I saw fit (the memory of which reminds me of what it really meant to be "stretched thin").
You may think I've decided nothing can go—but you'd be wrong. For this one year, I'm going to try something new: I'm going to give up questioning whether the life I've built is the right one for me. I resolve to daydream about my writing projects and marketing efforts, not corporate America. I plan to revel in the way my life as it is currently constructed allows me to give of my talents, earn money and express myself—and once and for all, forgive myself for downsizing my material needs to accommodate that. My guess is, if I give up all that questioning, I'll have a lot more energy for the rich palette of activities that bring such meaning and joy to my life.