Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

P is for Profile

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PEvery now and again I have to find write a bio for something. I hate it. Well, I used to hate it. But each time I had to write a bio, I turned it into a blog post and tagged it as bio. (That’s on the obscure blog of Dinky Thoughts). Then when I needed to write a bio for something new, I’d go through what I’d written already. Of course it gets easier each time you do it.

Now it’s time to write group profiles and book summaries, which is just as annoying to write and wordsmith. This is what I spent the morning crafting for our Create Space page, our Amazon author page, and our Goodreads profile.

Here’s today’s extended version:

In Mamas Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grit, twenty-four moms (and one dad) share stories from their lives as writers and parents.

Essays range from finding one’s calling as a writer through adopting a toddler; a tribute to a dying wife; an account of a premature birth; raising a transgender child; the joys of sharing a favorite childhood book. In a concluding interview, authors share funny and heartfelt responses to questions such as: “How does a busy parent make time for writing?” “Why do you write, and where?” “What writing books inspire you?” and “What holds you back from writing?”

With a foreword by Kate Hopper, author of Ready For Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers.

If you are a mother who dreams about writing, here’s all the inspiration you need…

 –Rachel Sarah, author of Single Mom Seeking

The Write On Mamas follow a simple but effective formula: meet regularly to write together, read the work aloud, and repeat. It has worked for them for years, and now their anthology gathers the very best of all that writing. These writers dig deep and don’t shy away from tough subjects, but their essays sparkle with humor and energy, too. From gauzy preemies in the NICU to a grown son, brooding with piercings and dreadlocks; from dreams of being writers (or mothers, or mermaids) to dreams of just one good nap—it’s all here, and it makes a great read. 

–Caroline Grant, editor-in-chief of Literary Mama and associate director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation

Here’s a book full of promise:  You, too, can raise children and stories in the same family!  These courageous writers glean wisdom from their dual creative endeavors and offer it to us with honesty, humor, and grace.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, author of Hannah, Delivered

Even for the most enthusiastic among us, motherhood can be rife with insecurity and isolation. How perfect, then, that these mamas (and papa!) have come together through their writing, supporting each other through the creative process and the baring of their hearts. I wish every mom could be a part of a community like this to remind her that she is not alone.

–Nancy Rose, author of Raise the Child You’ve Got—Not the One You Want

Mamas Write examines the things that drive us to the page both as readers and writers. […] But these essays are about much more than why mamas write. These writers are grappling with universals: love, acceptance, disappointment, grief.

–From the Foreword by Kate Hopper

J is for “Janine Learns”

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JI thought we were finished with the anthology when the first deadline passed last July and we had 15 solid essays. But the book was way too short. And since many of the essays dealt with heavy subjects such as breast cancer, death, infant hospital stays, disabilities, our slim volume was also pretty dark. We needed more essays—lighter ones. Part of me thought, “It’s our first book. It’s ok if it isn’t perfect.” But I also felt like that since we knew what we needed to fix, we had a responsibility to fix it. As much as I wanted to be done, I kept working. We reached out to members of the group who hadn’t contributed yet and asked them for the sort of essays that would round out our anthology. Three of us (Joanne Hartman, Mary Hill and myself) volunteered to read the manuscript and work with the authors on another round of revisions.

In December we had our final 29 essays and a foreword (thanks to author and writing teacher Kate Hopper). Again, I hoped that we were done and ready to go to print.

The book was more balanced now, but it still felt like something was missing, as if we only had the first two acts of a three-act play. I wanted to pretend that it was ok as-is, but I knew we had to fill in the missing act. Since the broad topic of our anthology addressed how writing affects our parenting and vice versa, the editorial team wrote an addendum with writing advice from our moms. I sent questionnaires out to our members asking, “How do you make time for writing?” and “What holds you back?”

Even though I was loath to make more work for myself, it was so gratifying to address the problems as we found them. In late January we sent our book to a copy editor (Cary Tennis). Then we began the task of drafting a press release, contacting media outlets (thank goodness WoM member Teri Stevens is a marketing director!), scheduling dates in our book tour, filing for copyright, promoting the anthology on Facebook.

I think this book will mean something different to each contributor. For me it’s what happens when you keep working and don’t stop until you’ve done your best.

We’re just days away from having our book on Amazon but if you can’t wait, you can buy it here off of Create Space:

https://www.createspace.com/4651885

H is for Hidden Treasures

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HLast Thursday the boys and I went to Napa to pick up the postcards for our book launches. You’ve seen them—the gorgeous cover with the witty subtitle. The postcards are fab (you might see them at a bookstore near you! If you are near Diesel in Oakland, Book Passage in Corte Madera or Bookmine in Napa.)

“You know,” my friend Teri said. (Teri is our PR magician. She also has twins. And she wrote this killer essay for the anthology that is featured in the North Bay Bohemian this week.) “Down the block and across the street is a firefighters museum.”

This is the part where I talk about how great this firefighters museum is—the old fire trucks they had, all from the Napa fleet. How there are two trucks that kids can climb on. That they have the old fashioned bell on a rope.

Then this should be the paragraph where I talk about the nice curator who let us use the bathroom (or maybe that paragraph should be cut) and gave the boys coloring sheets of fire trucks.

The final paragraph might wax nostalgic about the smell of the museum, the yellowed papers that were type-written. The old-fashioned fire extinguishers. The way the notices reminded you of a time when fires ate entire towns, when water was not so easily transported.

Or maybe I end with the boys in the car on the drive home, Wagner carefully holding his coloring sheet with his thumb and forefinger, and with his other hand, tracing the outline of the fire chief’s car before the rumble of the engine coaxes him to sleep.

F is for Foreword

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FThey say that for every promotional tweet you send, you have to send nine boring ones that aren’t about self-promotion.

I think I’m going to see what happens if you reverse that ratio.

OH! The anthology! The child I wanted to leave at the fire station but ended up letting it live rent-free in the garage. Today’s tidbit is about the Foreword, since foreword starts with “F.”

I thought it would be a great idea to write about the foreword for today’s letter until I realized that there isn’t much to write. I mean, I can tell you who wrote it (Kate Hopper.) And I can tell you that she edited our pieces and helped us find the deeper stories within our essays. And that she’s the perfect person for this job because her other job (besides being a wonderful writer) is helping women (mothers) tell their stories. Who better to write the foreword to our stories?

But once I started writing I realized that there’s not much you can say about a foreword. It basically just tells you nice stuff about the book and the people who wrote it and then tells you that you should read it and find out for yourself. Kate’s foreword is no exception. So what should I say?

That Kate said some nice stuff about us and wants you read our book?

Ohhhhhhhhh… this is going to be a long month.

D is for Don’t Do It Yourself

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DIt takes about 36 seconds’ worth of research to realize that self-publishing is not DIY publishing. It can be, just like you could calk your own bathroom or bake your own wedding cake. But if quality matters, you might want some professional help.

We outsourced a lot of the work on Mamas Write, starting with the editing.

Originally we tried peer editing our own essays. We’re smart cookies, right? We broke into four groups of five writers and each group was in charge of editing its participants’ essays. It didn’t work out so well.

For starters, not everyone has the time to read and respond to four essays while revising her own. And not everyone is comfortable in the editor’s chair. And we didn’t yet have a theme. Well, we thought we did—why we write—but that’s such a broad question and we (read: me) was just discovering that broad answers are hard to write and they aren’t so interesting to read. Oh, wait. Should that be “(read: I)?” See what I mean about editing? It’s hard!

So we got ourselves a professional developmental editor. I know I talk so much about Kate Hopper it looks as if I get special brownie points for doing so. (I don’t —not yet, anyway.)

I’m not sure what it was like for other people to send their work off to a person they’d never met and then receive feedback on how to make their pieces stronger (although many of us had met Kate before). I won’t presume to speak about anyone else’s process, but I can talk about the results—tighter, brighter prose from what was already pretty good. Like wiping the fingerprints off a mirror. You can still see your reflection in a smudgy mirror, but cleaner is better.

Kate was just the first pro we hired. We also outsourced copyediting (who among us has the time to read The Chicago Manual of Style?), graphic design (although WoM and professional photographer Allison Tierney took our cover photo), layout and probably something else that I’ve forgotten because it’s not my job to remember.

Was it worth it? We think so, but don’t you want to judge for yourself by purchasing your own copy? (See, if I had a professional PR person, she could tell me if those last two lines will be effective or not).

C is for Cover

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CThe good thing about working in a group is that if you suck at something like, say, graphic design, chances are there are other people in your group who don’t suck [at graphic design]. And then if you need something like, say, a book cover you can go to those other people and ask them to do it.

For last year’s A-Z challenge, I took a bunch of pictures of letters. I have small kids, so naturally our house is littered with alphabets. There are letters on blocks and bath toys and benches. So I’ll take out my camera and take some pictures of letters, what’s the big deal?

If you actually go to our writing group’s page you will see gorgeous photos of letters made from flower petals and dripped cappuccino on the back deck. The colors are vibrant. Each letter is like its own little masterpiece.

There are not my photos. They are Allison Tierney’s photos. My photos are blurry and lousy and I won’t waste more thought trying to describe my incompetence in a thoughtful and witty way. Just know that I suck at it. (That’s why my “photos” for this year’s challenge are just letters in different fonts.)

Which is why I had nothing to do with our cover. Although I did threaten to put something together (which, I found, is a powerful motivator in getting someone else to do it.)

Didn’t Allison do a beautiful job?

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photo credit: Mary Allison Tierney

How Best Friends with College Rivalries Say Thank You

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Last year when we had our Indiegogo campaign, I wrote “Generous Souls” posts for each person I knew who donated. Here’s the post I wrote to thank Andrea Torres, my best friend and first writing partner from 7th grade, for her generous donation last year.

So when we launched our campaign this year and Andrea matched last year’s gift before I even put the word out, I thought, “I need to write another post to thank Andrea. Luckily I have so many good Andrea stories!”

But by the time I sat down to write, the Big Game had already been played. You know which “Big Game”—it’s the one best characterized by this picture

And this video.

 

You know—the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending… exciting, thrilling game in the history of college football. The one where California wins the Big Game over Stanford.

Only this year we didn’t win. More like we got crushed. And not just crushed. Our hearts and spleens and livers and kidneys were pulled out through our pores and strained and made into paleo-smoothies with genetically modified strawberries (because all smoothies taste better with strawberries and let’s face it, all strawberries are genetically modified these days) and then the Stanford team fed their strawberry-organ-meat smoothies to their ruthless fans who gulped them up with fury and frenzy. It was horrible.

(At least, that’s what I gathered from reading my Facebook feed. I haven’t watched a college football game since the third trimester of my first pregnancy–that’s seven years ago for those of you keeping track at home.)

So even though Andrea is a generous soul and she made all the family vacations from my teenaged years tolerable because she came along and she let my little sister store all her stuff in her house when my sister studied abroad for a semester. And even though she hosted our family and let us drink the fancy micro-brews she left in the fridge when my sister graduated from college and even though she’s actually thinking of flying out for the Write On Mamas book launch party and even though I didn’t even remember that the game was happening this past weekend.

Still. Once a Bear, always a Bear.

And maybe Andrea’s Stanford degree is her only character flaw, but this time of year, that’s enough.

(But that shouldn’t stop you from donating to our campaign! We’d still appreciate your help and your contribution. Even if you went to Stanford.)