Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing to Heal

One way I’m coping with breast cancer—and the side effect of chemo brain, which causes forgetfulness and muddy thinking—is to write.  

I’ve been encouraged to journal and have received several journals as gifts (like the one on the left) from friends, but I haven’t used them yet. I’m not ready to record all the day-to-day events about my illness. It feels too raw. Plus the journals are so pretty, I’m saving them for happier times.

What I am doing is writing when I have energy and the mood strikes. Mostly I write on my laptop, but I also scribble notes in raggedy notebooks.  

A short story I began in January started as a romantic mystery to read at critique group for a Valentine’s love story challenge was titled “Time Will Tell.” Around the same time, I was invited to submit to Mysteries of the Ozarks (Vol V), a project of the Ozarks Writers Inc. I reworked and lengthened the story to highlight the mystery aspect, and the story was accepted just before my diagnosis. A few weeks later, I was asked to help with editing and proofreading the anthology. I agreed because when I first started chemo treatments I was having trouble sleeping and welcomed doing something productive. In addition to that, I was asked to become a member of the OWI board. It has been a positive experience in every way.

In February, I rewrote and expanded my essay, “Remembering Miss Tobin,” which was among the top ten finalist in 2014 Erma Bombeck human interest competition, but never published. I revised and renamed the new essay, “Miss Tobin’s Special Gifts,” and submitted it to Whispering Prairie Press for their KC Voices magazine. Earlier this month I received an e-mail that the editor “loved” my essay asked for permission to use it. Of course, I accepted.

Earlier this month, I pulled out an old essay about the day my husband became a US citizen. The expanded version corrected mistakes in the original and included the night we met at a USO dance. I wasn’t able to attend my critique group to read the story, so my good friend Alice printed it off and read it for me then called and relayed everyone’s comments. Using many of their suggestions, I cut the original version from around 1,000 words to 750, changed the title, and the end result resulted in a tighter and I think better story. It’s a long shot, but I submitted it to Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind Of America. I won’t know until June if "A Good Day for A New Citizen" is accepted. If I don’t hear by then I’ll know it isn’t a good fit, but I’ll remain hopeful.

Last week, my mind wandered to my childhood neighborhood in North St. Louis and a memory of an unusual boy who lived down the alley. He was a few years older than the rest of the boys on our block, who never invited him to play, so he usually stood and watched the rest of us have fun. I felt sorry for him, but he also made me feel uneasy, the way he stared and watched the rest of us. That memory resulted in a short story about a lonely writer/blogger/teacher who spies on his coworkers and students and uses what he learns about them to get ahead. It’s an odd piece and I’m not sure what will become of it, but it might eventually find a home.

More than a month ago, I started on an essay about losing my hair, but I’m not quite ready to finish that one yet.

I’ve put my novel aside for the time being, but who knows maybe if I get a burst of inspiration I’ll pick it up again. Now that I finished the “red devil” chemo sessions, have started on “chemo light” treatments, and will start physical rehab next week to get my strength back, I might get inspired.

How about you? Have you ever written to heal—from an illness, grief, personal tragedy, or for any other reason? If so, has writing helped?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

With A Lot of Help From my Friends

A week ago last Tuesday, my friends showered me with love, words of encouragement,  prayers, and surprise gifts. Their generosity and thoughtfulness brought tears to my eyes and reminded me of the Beatle's melody, "I'll get by with a little help my friends," but for me it has been a lot of help from my friends!

When my sister Kathleen and I pulled into the parking lot of the Rendezvous Café I commented that Jack's truck wasn't there and said I hoped he wasn't sick. Jack is always at critique group, so I guess I should've known something was amiss.

Inside the restaurant, I got welcoming hugs from our always-smiling server, Kim, and fantastic cook, Sharon, who came out of the kitchen to greet me. Stephanie, the owner of Rendezvous, also gave me a welcoming hug. I was brought to tears at their moving gestures. But it couldn't compare with what awaited me when I entered our meeting room.
Kathleen, Linda, Pat, Lynn, Alice,
Donna, Tricia, Sarah, Jane, and Marcia
The back room of the Rendezvous Café was decorated with pink balloons and gifts, and many were dressed in pink. (I wore blue). The cake with the light pink breast cancer logo was lovely -- and delicious.

A little birdie later on told me Alice was the ringleader, with help from my sister Kathleen, who drove me to Rendezvous Café. And several others helped Alice plan the party.

Kathleen, Pat, Kim, Alice,
Donna, Jane, Tricia, and Marcia
I shed tears of joy when I saw the women gathered there. Besides our usual critique group ladies (Alice, Pat, Jane, Sarah, and Marcia), Linda, Tricia, and Lynn were there! I was told the guys were banished for the day. ;)

Others who couldn't come but sent gifts and/or cards were Berta, Sioux, Barbara, and Mary. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning opening the many thoughtful cards and presents.

Words can't express the gratitude in my heart for the kind gestures, generous gifts, and works of encouragement and support my friends have shown me throughout my breast cancer journey.

Without a doubt, I know that I'll get by with (more than) a little help from my friends! 

Monday, March 20, 2017

RIP - Rock In Peace, Chuck Berry

I was saddened, but not totally surprised, to hear the news that St. Louis legendary music icon Chuck Berry passed away on Saturday. Chuck Berry was 90 when he died in St. Charles County, Missouri, the same county where I live—about fifteen miles from my home.

It’s strange how the death of one person can trigger memories that have been packed away for decades. Although I never met Chuck Berry in person, his music and presence touched my soul and influenced my childhood.

Just about everyone in my North St. Louis neighborhood of the 1950s and 1960s knew about Chuck Berry and his music, including my mom.

Mom loved music, and she loved to dance. Her tastes ranged from the Country music of Johnny Cash, the soulful melodies of Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, and the rock and roll of Elvis, Chubby Checker—and, of course, St. Louis songwriter and musical icon Chuck Berry.

My dad was a germaphobe, so it wasn’t surprising that Mom was an immaculate housekeeper. Music was Mom’s constant companion every day when she cleaned our house—make that rented flat—because my folks never owned a house back then.  

Once a week, to the sounds of whatever was playing the radio, Mom would wash and wax the floors. After the wax dried, she got out Dad’s old Army blanket and my siblings and I took turns riding the blanket like a sled as Mom pulled us around in her butts-on-the-blanket buffer.

In our cozy 1950s kitchen, Mom kicked up her heels and taught my sisters and me how to dance her version of the Charleston and Jitterbug to Chuck Berry’s songs such as: “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and of course, “Rock and Roll Music.”

So, rock in peace, Chuck Berry.

Thank you for bringing your gift of music to the world and a little bit of soul to my family.

Lastly, thank you for sparking this memory of dancing in the kitchen with my mom.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Dave Barry on Writing, Editing, Publishing, and Judging the Erma Bombeck Contest

This past weekend I caught an in-depth interview with C-SPAN's Book TV, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Dave Barry, one of our nation's premiere humor writers.

As usual, Dave was funny and entertaining, but he also offered some helpful advice about writing, editing, publishing, and judging.

Listed below are some notes I jotted down to share.

On Writing:

* Little decisions make writing better, not the big stuff.

* Don’t quit, even if you’re not gifted.

* It’s a process that takes work and practice.

* He likes writing books more than columns.

* He writes every day, although maybe a couple days he won’t.

On Research:

* Wikipedia is a valuable, but highly inaccurate. Cheap and easy and fast and general.

* To nail down a fact, confirm with some other site.

On Editing:

* Dave knows what’s funny

* Depends on his respect for editor’s advice, generally doesn't do major rewrites.

* As long as you’re laughing, He's OK. Does it work? Does it make people laugh?

On Publishing:

There are two ways to get published and reviewed.

Self-publish  - he doesn't think is the way to go. Easy to do, pay money to do it, but almost impossible to get distributed and reviewed. Basically no quality control over content. Some may be successful, but not from his experience. 

Traditionally Way - Get an agent, might want rewrites, they get it to the publisher. If publisher decides they have a sales staff and promotional people and get a review.

On Judging:

Someone called into the show and mentioned he was going to judge the Erma Bombeck Contest, which got my attention because I know what a thrill it was for my essay to win that contest in 2012.

Dave knew Erma. She was one of those funny writers and funny persons.

Dave said he hates judging because he wants to be nice even if he doesn’t like it.

In the end, it comes down to what he finds amusing.


You can watch Dave's complete interview by clicking here.

Monday, March 6, 2017

When PC Language Creeps into Historical Fiction

When I heard the historical fiction novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was about to be published, my sister and I hurried to the library and put our names on the reserve list.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set during the American Civil War in 1862 at the time President Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. According to historical accounts, after Willie's death, Lincoln visited his son's gravesite on several occasions and held his son's body in his arms.

Any parent who has lost a child (no matter what the child's age) understands the deep and dark sorrow President Lincoln must've experienced, so I was curious how that was handled.  I was also interested in the historical aspect of the story.

After the library called that the book was in, my sister and I picked up our copies. That was two days before my first chemo treatment, so I've been reading a few pages at a time when I'm feeling up to it.

The structure of the novel is creative and unconventional. The story is told mostly in dialogue through the eyes of the ghosts and without quotation marks. The speaker attributions appear on the lines beneath the dialogue passages.

Because of the novel's unusual structure, my sister told me she couldn't get into the story.  I suggested she try reading just the dialogue and narrative and ignore the attributions centered below. She tried, but last I heard she quit reading.

Yesterday I came across a tweet that George Saunders has written an article "What Writers Really Do When They Write" in The Guardian, so I checked it out.

In the article, Saunders discusses the mysterious process of writing. He writes about revising one's work, moving from the general to the specific--"revising up to the reader" and respecting the reader. As a writer, that's advice I can use. As a reader, that's what I expect from an author.

Last night I picked up Lincoln In the Bardo again, determined to charge ahead so I can return the book by its due date (today). Since there is a waiting list at the library I can't renew the book. I guess I could keep it longer and pay a fine, but that wouldn't be fair to the other readers on the reserve list, so I'm determined to return the book today.

Back to the novel: I was willing to suspend my disbelief that ghosts in a graveyard hold conversations. I even overlooked the unusual structure and lack of quotation marks.

I made it as far as page 73, when I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Not because of the ghosts talking, but because of what one of them said.

On page 73 my mind whipped from the story to the words on the page.

I wondered if, in 1862, a man (a ghost actually) would use politically correct language that is commonplace today.

The ghost in question uses the term "his or her choice." Somehow, "his or her" doesn't sound right to me for a novel set in 1862. Wouldn't a man in that era simply use the term "his choice" even if women were involved?

So, here I am this morning, wanting to finish the novel because of the reasons stated above, but knowing that rather than getting lost in the story as a reader, I will be looking for more PC creep.

Perhaps, after I return the novel, I'll try finishing it at a later date.

Or maybe I'll just give up the ghost.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Beating the Beast

Some of my friends already know what's been going on with me lately, but for those who don't, I thought I'd post about why I'll be taking a break from blogging.

Last month I went in for a mammogram, and a few days later I got "the call." It was definitely not one I expected. No one in my family has ever had breast cancer, so I thought I was immune. Shows how wrong I was. Several additional tests confirmed the diagnosis.

Last week I had my first chemo treatment, and it threw me for a loop. I'm not going to go into all the details of my treatment plan, but I've quickly learned that Cancer and Chemo aren't for Sissies!

I've found peace and comfort from family and friends and church members who are providing physical and moral sustenance and praying for me every day.  I'm also encouraged by the kindness of strangers who are including me in their prayers. Every kindness and prayer I've received has been a grace-filled blessing.

Today was a rough day, but this evening I'm feeling strong enough to blog. I'm not posting this for pity so please don't feel like you have to leave a comment, but if you're inclined to prayer, that would be a welcome gift!

I hope to get back to writing and blogging from time to time when I'm feeling better and beat this beast!

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Changing Face of Libraries

My, how libraries have changed over the years! What used to be quiet places to check out books and read in silence, are now hubs for socialization and a variety of activities.

My local St. Charles City-County Library (Spencer Road Branch) has something going on just about every day of the week. Knitting lessons, author talks, tax preparation classes, and healthy living seminars are a few events held on a regular basis. With a few clicks of a mouse, card holders can reserve the latest books, e-books, CDs, or DVDs or sign up for classes or events.

At the Spencer Road Branch Library last fall my sister and I attended a breast cancer awareness dinner co-sponsored by the library and a local hospital. The event included medical professionals and inspiring talks from survivors. Vendors, handouts, and a light meal were also available.

The following month we participated in an eight-week class for senior citizens on better balance co-sponsored by OASIS. We learned how to prevent falls, were shown how to safely preform exercises, provided healthy snacks, and were given workbooks to refer to after class completion.

At the end of 2016, my sister, one of my critique group friends, and I attended a “Book Buzz” presentation by a library marketing representative from Penguin Random House. Not only did the library provide snacks, the publisher gave each attendee a cool tote bag that read "Can't I'm Booked." Inside each bag was a free book. My free book was a copy of Always by Sarah Jio, which is on my to-be-read list.

During the slide show presentation, the publisher's representative highlighted books to be released in the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017. Along with displaying copies of dozens of book covers, he gave a description of each book. One element I was interested in hearing about was the print run of the books, which generally is an indication that a book  will be in high demand. After hearing about so many fascinating books, immediately after the presentation my sister and I hurried to the check-out counter to add our names on the reserve list for books that were especially appealing. 

Although libraries have changed from the time I received my first buff-colored library card when I was in grade school,  one thing has remained constant in my life, my love for libraries and books will never go out of style.