Friday, July 30, 2010

Our Kwaj kids

We lived on Kwajalein, a Marshall Island, for 19 months in 1977 and 1978 where life was slow, easy,  and filled to the brim with all kinds of beach and water activities. In those days I liked to get up early and after Bob left for work and while the boys were still sleeping I began keeping a journal. That writing resulted in my first published piece – an article about our life on the island for my company magazine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Kwaj Kids lately. Five of the children we knew on the island are now no longer with us.

Bob asked last night if there could have been something in the water, something in the air, something about that life style. Who knows? None of them died very soon after leaving the island – each was well on their way in adulthood. Perhaps the deaths of Mark, our son Paul, and Danielle were the most curious. I believe Mark’s death was drug related, Paul’s was a suicide, and Danielle’s was a suicide of sorts – she was a homeless alcoholic. Do these deaths stem from the carefree time they had while living on an island in the middle of the South Pacific? I doubt it. They all swam, played t-ball, partied on the beach, snorkeled, fished, picked up shells and beach glass on the sand around the island lagoon, went to free movies on Saturday afternoons, and rode their two-wheel bikes without having to look where they were going. (Even Ben at age 3 could ride a two-wheeler.) They all went to an excellent American school. After all, we lived on a military base and the U.S. Government provided the children with the best. 

I do know how much Paul missed the island once we returned home. Since Ben has no memories of his years or of his friends there, he never complained. Maybe had we stayed there Paul wouldn’t have had such difficulties and the stress that trigged his bipolar disorder, but I’ll never know about that either.  
In the last six months two more of our Kwaj kids died. Mitch died suddenly of cancer and Stephanie died five months later during a gall bladder surgery. Both were in their late 30s. Mitch and Stephanie had reconnected after 30 years and were engaged to be married. They were definitely star crossed lovers.

We plan to attend Stephanie’s memorial service tomorrow. Bob and her dad – and Mitch and Mark’s dads all worked on the same project while we were on island. Danielle’s dad was one of the island doctors. He and his wife were our good friends.

The attached photos are just examples of one of the fun Kwaj kid days. Paul appears on the far right on the photo on the right. The little guy in the center of the photo on the left is Ben. I don’t think the others I've mentioned above are in these photos.

Here’s the poem I wrote after Danielle died in 2007:

Remembering Danielle

I remember a wiry blonde girl,
about 5 years old
with big eyes wiser than her years.
She took my son, Ben,
by the hand and led him
to the rock-lined cliffs
at the lagoon’s edge
or to the park where
wasps hiding in trees
swarmed around them.
Screeching they ran to catch up
to their older brothers
all tan and freckled from the constant sun.
With them they stood
on the rocky cliff
lowering their baited hooks into
the warm Pacific,
and brought out little iridescent fish
in shades of blue and gold.

She left us this spring
like his older brother
many years before.
Both lost their souls
in that deep lagoon.
They never found such magic
anywhere else.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fun stuff

An Ode of English Plurals
by Eugenie A. Nidia

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England .
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and
get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English
should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns down,
in which you fill in a form by filling it out,  and
in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop?

Moving on - in the book revisions and in life

I’ve finally finished reading my memoir front to back. I’ve noted typos, repeats, inconsistencies, and most important of all places where the information is just plain outdated. I finished the current draft over two years ago and a lot of the information has changed –  I can honestly say I have moved on.

I have turned into a much stronger person in the last two years and I need to express that in the book. Now I feel confident that this book will be about how I survived not just a repetitive the “oh woe is me” mantra about how my son was mentally ill and died and I’ll never get over it kind of thing. 

So, fixing the typos is easy. Taking out the inconsistencies and repetition is also easy. Reworking where I am with this today and what I’m doing now is the hard part. That combined with the new material I’ve gotten from Bob and Ben and their present feelings will definitely strengthen my story. Just getting it in there will take a lot of time and thought.

Well, that’s what I’m here for – to do the work. I’ve cleared the decks just to do that. And I have plenty of time if I don’t dawdle and procrastinate. Well, I’m trained to meet deadlines. I’m trained to write-review, write-review. And, that’s the way I plan to work on this book. And most of all I love what I’m doing. I’m so excited to have this work to do.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A lot of editing going on

Last week I started reading my book chapter by chapter. I decided to do this using a hard copy and making comments with a red pen – a way that has always worked well for me when I was editing proposals. I’ve decided not to make any changes to my manuscript until I complete this first round of edits.

And much to my surprise I’ve found lots of things to edit. I’ve found typos and awkward sentences. Unbelievable! And after all the times I’ve looked at this document.

This proves how important it is to let something alone for a good amount of time before trying to edit it. It’s important to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. I used to tell engineers that when I trained them in proposal writing. Unfortunately on proposals, which are deadline constrained, there is not a lot of time between the writing and editing stages, but here on my manuscript I had the luxury of several months in between. It is almost as if I am reading the document for the first time.

I’m also finding repetition and inconsistencies. – not surprising at all to me. And I’m actively looking for places to insert the new material necessary to my story. 

Besides the redlines I plan to use the storyboarding tool that I used for so many years on proposals. I have a long hall next to my office and I plan to set up large cork-like boards against the hall walls so I can pin up all the pages of the document. That way I can see it all at once and better spot redundancies and places that need cutting, moving, and expanding. But, I must wait until after Ben’s wedding before putting up the storyboards. Best to keep my walls pristine until that’s over.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My long journey to here

So, after two years of querying 68 agents and five small presses I finally have a contract with Lucky Press, LLC to publish my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On.

I can honestly say that I began writing pieces of this book as early as 1995 in a creative writing class at UCLA and in a Writing About Your Lives workshop at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. At the outset, I planned to write about Paul and his illness and how he survived it – so hopeful I was that he would survive. But, I always worried that he would not approve of his story in print and out for the world to see. Well, I needn’t have worried. He didn’t survive. And it was I who had to survive his many attacks of mania and depression and finally his suicide death. The story then became about how I and my husband and surviving son came through this painful episode in our lives.  I won’t go into any more of the details here about what’s in the book. You can read it once it’s out – Mother’s Day next year. How fitting. A book about a mother’s love out on Mother’s Day!

After Paul died in 1999 I enrolled in Jack Grapes (Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective) method writing class; attended many writing and poetry workshops at Esalen with Ellen Bass, Richard Jones, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar, and memoir writing workshops at UCLA with Maureen Murdock and Barbara Abercrombie – all with the intent of writing myself out of my grief. I also journaled regularly. I still do. And slowly but surely I had material for a book. In 2002 I met a young woman – a former literary agent – who read my poetry and some of my prose and suggested I organize my book based on the sequence of my poems, and for a while she gave me advice and writing prompts – all useful to the content of my book. When I finally had a book together with each chapter starting with a poem, I hired an editor referred by Murdock, a writing teacher at Antioch and UCLA, Lollie Rogana, who first read and gave me comments chapter by chapter. Then once I integrated her comments she read the book again back to back.

By this time it was 2008, and I began the search for an agent. I was told the only way I could get the book published was through an agent. And, as luck would have it the very first agent I queried asked to see my entire manuscript. Alas, after three months she sent me a rejection note – the first of many for the next two years. Most agents sent me a form letter with the usual “not for my list” comment. The majority didn’t have the courtesy to answer at all. A few wrote encouraging notes, and others said, ”I don’t want to deal with such pain,” or “our past experience has been that very few books of this nature can make it through a publishing committee unless there is someone famous involved.”

The few small presses I contacted were just as discouraging – one said, “the subject matter is too hard to sell.” Another wrote,  “Not a huge chance I’ll want to publish it. I’ve received lots of submissions written by mothers or spouses of deceased people, mostly written to honor the deceased it seems, and they are almost never strong enough to warrant publication.”

But I persevered. I also decided to write a novel – something I have never even thought about doing before. Last winter I enrolled in a How to Write Your First Novel workshop at UCLA led by Jessica Barksdale Inclan and got totally engrossed. So much so that I already have about 70 pages. That is on hold now. I’ve much too much to do to get my memoir ready for publication. As Jessica said, the novel will wait. However, I truly feel that concentrating on something else helped gather interest in my memoir. It’s like turning to something else in the face of writer’s block. It works every time.

And, while I’m working on the book I’ll keep posting about my progress and process, about my friend Marlene McPherson, a wonderful author herself, who graciously read my book in the last few weeks and has given me brilliant notes on how to best revise it, and about my publisher, Janice Phelps Williams, who founded Lucky Press, LLC in 2000. I am so fortunate to have found her. Her vision for my book exactly matches my own.

Also, please note the names of the folks I’ve mentioned above. They are all wonderful teachers and mentors. They have all had a hand in this journey and its successful outcome.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A publishing contract - oh, my!

I now have a contract with Lucky Press, LLC to publish my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. Our plan is to have it on the shelves by Mother’s Day 2011.

Before I get into all the details on how Lucky Press and I connected, I want to tell you a bit about my wonderful publisher, Janice Phelps Williams and her publishing company.

From the LP website: “Lucky Press, LLC is a traditional, independent publishing company located in the beautiful Appalachian foothills of Athens, Ohio…. its original aim to publish books about ‘characters, real or imagined, who overcome adversity or experience adventure,’ ”

So, I feel that Lucky Press is a perfect match for my book.

From the minute she read my query letter Janice understood exactly why I wanted to tell the story of my oldest son’s bipolar disease, his suicide, and how I and my husband, Bob, and son, Ben, survived. My goal is to tell people that it is possible to survive the loss of a child and how I did it. And Janice got it immediately. She said in her first response to me, “ …it is important that other people going through these experiences can read about similar stories, can find a way through sorrow that seems impossible to endure….”

Janice gave me some great notes after her first read through of my manuscript. Later my friend (and writer), Marlene read the book with Janice’s notes in mind and came up with some brilliant suggestions. My job right now is to take these notes and weave them into a revised manuscript ready for Janice by the first of January 2011. I have a lot of work to do between now and then.

I plan to write here about this process and how it’s progressing until the book is in print. I’ll also write about how we’re marketing it. Actually my assignment right now is to develop a pre-publication marketing plan that will complement the one Lucky Press is developing. There are so many avenues out there – especially through social networks – that  my book can’t help but be successful. Right?!?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My writing life so far

I’m in my third week of my writing life and it’s really looking good so far. And I think I owe that to my sense of organization and management. I’ve organized my life so that I leave a good amount of time for writing every day, and I manage my writing time so that I get my daily products done.

My days go like this. I get up early – not as early as I did when I was working full time, but still early. I go to the gym. I come home and have breakfast and a cup of tea and then shower and get dressed. And then I go to my office and stay there until I feel my writing work for the day is finished.

One of the things I’ve decreed so that I can stay on this routine is that I will not schedule more than one meeting/lunch date a day so as not to interfere with my writing time. I have plenty of days ahead of me so why bunch too many activities up?

However, I want to impress upon you that I’m not all work and no play. I’m still completely engrossed in my exercise program, and I’ve added a one-hour tennis class a week as well. Also, I’m reading and catching up on TV shows I’ve missed for about the last seven seasons. I just finished watching the first season of “Damages,” and I must say it is brilliant – edge of your seat brilliant. Now I realize how much I’ve missed by not watching much TV in the last several years that I was working. I’m also going to the grocery store and cooking again. Enough with the going out to dinner stuff.

So, my writing life so far is going well. Plus it’s paying off. Another poem will be published soon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

One day in Chicago

I left my house the morning of July 2 at 4:30 to arrive at the airport for a 6 am flight to Chicago for Rhoda Gordon’s funeral, and I returned home at 11 that same night. Call that crazy, but it worked for me. I just didn’t want to call this a trip. I didn’t want to bother with a suitcase or sleep in another strange bed after our recent five-week trip, so going to Chicago and coming back the same day made sense to me. And, I’m glad I did it. 

My cousin Mike was visibly moved to have my sister and me there. He is very bereft of family. And when he told me how much it meant to him as we kissed goodbye, I reminded him that he needed to have his family there with him at a time like this. 

And of course the highlights of the trip were being with my sister and her husband and having lunch with my other cousins who live nearby. I even had the delight in reading an interesting account of a murder trial in "The New Yorker," something I might have passed up had I not had the long stretches of flying time that day. 

So what did I learn?
·      Rhoda, four days my senior, probably died of an aneurism
·      Rhoda was a pillar of her synagogue, choir, and ostomy community
·      Rhoda was a very brave woman to have survived two cancers -- one of them necessitating the ostomy
·      Rhoda was very much loved by those who knew her
·      And even though I knew her for over 50 years – she and Mike were married 49+ years and I met her before they were married -- I certainly didn’t know her very well. Probably the best and most talkative time I ever had with her was when I saw her in May. I am so glad we had that time together.
·      Rhoda's twin sons are now about 45 years old and still single. She would have loved to have seen them finally married and settled.

We also visited my mother and father's family plots at the same cemetery where we just buried Rhoda. My grandmother Shula, aunt Bertha, uncle Phil from my mother's side are buried there. My grandfather and grandmother Isadore and Myrtle; aunt and uncle David and Ann, and cousins Abe and Ruth are there from my father's side. Coincidentally this was the first time I had been there since 1979 when I went to Mike’s father's funeral.

While we were in Mike’s house after the funeral I admired two of his mother’s sculptures. Aunt Ann, my dad's sister, created them in 1929. I remember seeing them many times while I was growing up in Chicago. Perhaps she was the source of the artistic talent in my family.