No One Feels Sorry for You When You’re Living in Tuscany!

Suor Assunta 1Originally published in mothersalwayswrite.

When my family moved to Florence for a year, I had my new Italian life all planned – long afternoons gazing at masterpieces of Italian art at the famous Uffizi, leisurely evenings at a trattoria, sipping wine. In the mornings, I would work on the memoir I was writing (no distractions like back home!) while my husband taught at NYU’s Florence Campus, and our four-year old, Annelise, attended an Italian preschool. This was going to be so great!

Walking with Annelise to school that first morning, the gold Italian light shone softly on the ancient, shuttered buildings. We passed a man in a leather apron standing outside a shoe repair shop, a fragrant panneteria, and a pint-sized piazza that gave the neighborhood a charming small-town feeling. My spirits soared. What a great experience for all of us!

At home, I settled down in the breezy, light-filled living room to write. But suddenly noises exploded in the apartment overhead – pounding, crashing, hammering sounds that shook the whole building.   It felt like brain surgery without the anesthetic.

I hurried downstairs and to find Carlo, the super.

“How much longer will this noise last?” I asked in my broken Italian. (Actually “broken” implies it can be fixed; my Italian was more smashed.)

Fortunately, Carlo spoke a little English,

“Trouble,” he said, “difficule – aqua – water leak.”

“But how long will it take to fix it?”

Carlo held up a finger. “Oggi. Today.”

One day? I could handle that.

Little did I know the noise would never stop. Florence is in a chronic state of pounding, chiseling, pulverizing, and blasting. I remembered my conversations with Susan, NYU’s Florence real estate agent, before we arrived.

“I’m not a city person,” I explained. “We’d like to live in the countryside or a small town outside of Florence.”

“You don’t understand!” said Susan. “Florence isn’t really a city.   You’re thinking of New York. Florence is European. The pace of life is slow and gentle. You’ll love it.”

Susan had lied. Our apartment had 150 mopeds parked outside that sputtered and roared at all hours. Garbage trucks and street-cleaning machines churned away, trucks and buses zoomed past, and the ear-splitting European sirens reminded me of WWII movies about Nazi Germany. Back in the living room after talking to Carlo, I gritted my teeth and jammed earplugs made from toilet paper into my ears. I was going to finish this memoir.

But a week later, the noise was starting to get to me. To make matters worse, I was having hot flashes at night. This wasn’t the Florence I’d dreamed of and it wasn’t the self I’d dreamed of either – my new Italian self. I was my same old American self, tired and stressed out, and feeling like a bad mother with no energy for a bouncy four-year old. As for Annelise’s fabulous Italian adventure, all the kids at her school still sucked pacifiers, even the older ones. Annelise had given up her pacifier at three-months; now she spent afternoons wheeling herself around our apartment in her stroller, sucking her binky.

The next day, the toilet added to cacophony by making loud gurgling noises. I called Carlo, and soon I heard the plumber’s heavy boots thumping up the stairs. Quickly, I ran to my Italian dictionary and looked up the word for “repeat” so I could explain what was wrong with the toilet. When I told him, the plumber looked startled. I ran and checked my Italian dictionary again. Oh no! I told him the toilet was repenting.

The toilet may repent, but I don’t want to be there when it happens.

While the plumber was banging around in the bathroom, Annelise appeared, carrying a broom and a dustpan.

“Mommy, I swept the balcony all by myself!” she said proudly.

“What did you do with the dirt?”

“I threw it over the railing,” said Annelise airily.

I peered down at the white sheets billowing in the breeze.

From the courtyard below, a lady started yelling.

“Mio Dio, guarda le mie lenzuola pulite!”

At that moment, the plumber burst into an aria, and the telephone and doorbell rang at the same time.

I was trapped in the middle of a comic Italian opera.

I let Carlo in, and answered the phone.

It was Marguerite, wife of the rector of the American Church, whom I had met the week before.

“I know a cook who will take you for a ride,” she said, when I picked up.

Oh, what the heck, I thought. I’ll go for it. I could use any help at all, even if it meant getting taken to the cleaners by a crooked cook.

What Marguerite meant, it turned out, was that the Cooks, a family who lived around the corner, could give us a ride to the American Church on Sunday.

In the days that followed, I felt tired and disheartened. I cried when I couldn’t find thread to sew on a button, and sent desperate emails to friends back home.

“How can you not like Florence?” they responded. “It’s so beautiful.”

I didn’t need beautiful. I needed help – A surrogate mom, a crooked cook, a robot, anything!

A robot –­ that was it! I invented a game where Annelise dialed a special telephone number to order a robot mommy. I would disappear around the corner of the kitchen, and come back, mechanized but cheerful. The game helped me get out of my own skin, at least psychologically, and Annelise loved calling the robot agency.

“Lucretia already got the speedy one,” I’d say. “We have to call earlier tomorrow.”

One afternoon when I was feeling especially cranky, Annelise asked to play the robot game.

“No, I’m too tired,” I snapped.

Suddenly my normally cheerful four-year old burst into noisy howls.

“I want my robot Mommy!”

Yikes. What had I done to this poor kid?

I decided to call a psychologist who, like John, had come to Florence for a semester to teach.   I had met her at a party at La Pietra, NYU’s 14th century villa, the night we arrived. Tracy, who also had a four-year old, was probably having a hard time too.   We’d commiserate and exchange stories. I’d realize I wasn’t alone, that I was just a regular mom, with universal mom-type problems.

I dialed her number and asked sympathetically how she was doing.

“Oh, Alexia and I are fine!” Tracy gushed. “We just got back from the Duomo and Alexia is making stained glass windows from colored paper.”

Great. Alexia was visiting the Duomo and making stained glass windows while my kid wheeled herself around the apartment in her stroller sucking a pacifier.

Now I really felt like a great mom.

Eventually, in March, we moved to an apartment in a villa outside of Florence, where Annelise fiesoleattended a preschool taught by a mischievous, fun-loving nun. And I discovered that the best writing I did in Italy was while walking; the journal I dictated on my portable recorder had a lilting, rolling gait, and the pictures of rural life I glimpsed on my walks in the hills were like paintings. But it would be a long time before I realized that, in spite of my steely determination finish my memoir and shut out the rest of the world that year, what I was really writing about was Florence, and being a mom when you’re too tired to do it, about hard times and new adventures, and of course what I knew all along – that no one feels sorry for you when you’re living in Tuscany.

 

 

Gradually, Naturally, Gracefully

Note:  This was first published on Mothers Always Write.

MAW-Brittany-2-1From the moment my husband, John, and I adopted our daughter, Annelise, I worried about how we would tell her that she was adopted. I wanted the realization to come gradually, naturally, gracefully. Of course, in the world of parenting, things rarely happen gradually, naturally, or gracefully. But reality has its own mysterious grace and rhythms, as I discovered one summer in Brittany, when Annelise was four.

The three of us had spent the year in Italy where John taught at NYU’s Florence campus, and Annelise attended an Italian preschool. (The kids spent most of their time racing around in little cars at dangerously high speeds–good practice for whizzing around Florence in their Vespas when they got to be teenagers.)

In May, when the school year was over, the university stopped paying rent on our Florence apartment. Since our house in Pennsylvania was rented through June, we needed someplace to go until then. Miraculously, we found a beach house to rent in Brittany for only $650 a month, off-season. And in Brittany, May and June are definitely off-season. It was freezing when we arrived in Le Pouldu Plage, a picturesque village in Brittany with fields of shining poppies and gabled roof-tops sloping down to the sea.

While in Florence, I had contracted a mysterious bladder condition. The Italian doctors had

Italian Teddy

Italian Teddy

prescribed bed rest, so I spent the first few days in our unheated beach house lying in bed reading Jane Austen while Annelise played with her favorite Italian teddy. When my bladder condition didn’t improve, I decided to consult a French gynecologist. The three of us piled into a taxi and rode to the nearby town of Quimperle. We’d been assured by the tourist office that the doctor spoke fluent English, but it turned out all she knew how to say was, “No kidding!” John’s French wasn’t bad but he lacked fluency in gynecological French ­(a dialect all its own).

While John and Annelise waited in an outer office, the doctor gave me a vaginal sonnogramme, muttering to herself in French as she watched the images on the monitor. Finally she printed them out, exclaiming enthusiastically over the pattern of colored dots. I had no idea what she was talking about, but whatever it was didn’t appear to be serious. At that point I just wanted to forget the whole thing and go home to Le Pouldu.

“We’re leaving now,” I said. I waved goodbye. “Merci.”

“No kidding!” she called back.

Later that afternoon, Annelise and I walked down to the beach. Annelise walked beside me, hugging her teddy. “Tell me the story about how Teddy wanted to belong to me, and he was worried another little girl or boy would buy him first,” she demanded.

I had been spinning this classic yarn endlessly, increasing her attachment to the winsome bear who really had, it seemed to me (a children’s author) been waiting and hoping to belong to her since she first glimpsed him in the toy store near Piazza San Marco. Just as John and I had once waited and hoped for Annelise.

“It is really true?” Annelise asked, when I finished recounting the teddy bear story.

“Well, I’m kind of making it up,” I admitted. “but it’s true you adopted Teddy.”

I used the word “adopted” intentionally. She’d heard references to her own adoption, but I sensed that the full implication had not yet come together in her mind. I also sensed it was ready to.

“I adopted him?” Annelise sounded surprised.

“Yes,” I said, “you brought him into your family and made him completely your own.”

Annelise hugged her bear as we walked along the beach, skirting the incoming tide.

“I love Teddy,” she said, “but he didn’t grow in my tummy like I did in yours.”

I stopped right there in the sand. This is it! I thought, the moment I’ve been waiting and worrying about for four years, falling right into my lap like a ripe plum. Gradually, naturally, gracefully. I took a deep breath. “Actually,” I said, “you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.”

Annelise gave me a shrewd look. “I was adopted?”

So she had been thinking about it.

I nodded. “You grew in your birth mother’s tummy, and then we got you right after you were born.”

“But you said I grew in your tummy!” said Annelise accusingly. Where did that come from? “Remember, you told me babies grow in their mommy’s tummies!”

“Most of the time it happens that way,” I explained, “but you grew in your birth mother’s tummy, and then after you were born you became our baby.”

Annelise looked curious. “Was there any part of me left for the other lady?” she asked.

“No, we took all of you, whole and complete.”

The questions kept coming as we climbed the grassy hillside to go home. “Were you happy? Did I cry a lot?”

“Yes, we were very happy, and you only cried when you were hungry.”

Splashing in the yellow bathtub that night, Annelise seemed especially ebullient. Perhaps the weight of pondering her origins had, for the moment, been lifted. Later she handed me a piece of paper that said, “I love you, Mommy,” printed with yellow marker.

“I hope this never fades,” I said to John. “I want to keep it forever.”

Annelise must have heard me because she took the paper and outlined the letters in black. “Don’t worry, Mommy” she said, handing it back to me, “this won’t fade now.”

I sighed contentedly. It had been one of those rare days when events seem to fall effortlessly into a theme and round to a perfect close. The sea-light was still coming in through the windows when I went upstairs to bed. I found Annelise settled on her bottom bunk with a brochure I’d picked up at the gynecologist’s office. She was lying on her stomach with her feet swinging in the air chattering to herself in Italian.

“What’s this, Mommy?” she asked, pointing to an illustration in the brochure. I looked over her shoulder. Above the article, which was in French, was a diagram of a woman’s fallopian tubes, ovaries, and womb. Oh geez. Why had I picked up that darn flyer anyway? The last thing I wanted right then was a bedtime story about the anatomy of a woman.

“That’s the inside of a lady,” I said dutifully.

“Really?” said Annelise, peering closely at the brochure. “Is she dead?”

“No, that’s a picture of what every woman looks like inside.”

By now I was sick of anatomy – mine and everyone else’s. There is such a thing as too much meaning and resonance, more than can fit comfortably into a single day. I kissed Annelise and started to edge out of the door. She looked up from the brochure.

“Mommy,” she said, “did you and daddy love me right away?”

I paused in the doorway.

Brittany3“Yes, we loved you immediately. You were wearing a pink dress and you were snoring.”

Later in bed, I thought about Annelise’s last question. It was true that she was wearing a pink dress when we got her from the adoption agency, and that she was snoring. What I hadn’t told her is that they took the pink dress back, and handed me a naked baby. I smiled to myself as I drifted off to sleep. Annelise didn’t have to know everything in a single day. Not even a day like this one.

 

 

 

I can’t have a baby because I have a 12:30 lunch meeting!

Baby-Boom-Diane-Keaton(Diane Keaton, Baby Boom)

Note: This post was published by Mothers Always Write

When I married my husband, John, I was thirty-three and he was fifty. He was teaching at NYU at the time, and I moved into his five-floor walk-up in Chelsea. This was not my dream home. The creaky wooden stairs were worn from a hundred years of use, the street outside was noisy, and the tiny bathtub was squeezed into a corner of the kitchen.

During my workday as an administrative assistant, I indulged in my lifelong fantasy of moving to the country and writing full-time, even though quitting my job would mean cutting our income in half. It would also mean extricating my husband from our Chelsea apartment, along with his library of 5,000 books. Then a miracle happened: our building went co-op. We managed to scrape together enough money for a down payment, lease out our apartment, and rent a small a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We were both happy to be out of the city, and John continued to teach at NYU, commuting three days a week.

It was June, the air was filled with the scent of wild roses, and I spent the long summer days in a many-windowed room, looking out over rolling fields and farmland, and writing. I had achieved my dream.images

Except for one thing. A baby. I had always wanted a baby. But having a baby at this juncture of my life felt like pushing my luck. We had little income, the farmhouse was tiny, and my husband was seventeen years older than I. And what if a baby meant I would have no time to write? I felt torn.

In spite of my ambivalence, I tried to get pregnant. When that didn’t work, we underwent fertility treatments for several years. Still no luck, so we registered with an adoption agency in Texas. All this time, my ambivalence continued to grow. The truth was, we weren’t getting any younger, or even much richer in spite of the fact that I had begun publishing children’s books. I had a husband I adored and the freedom to write full-time. Should I just appreciate the life I had, and forget about a baby?

My ambivalence resulted in endless debates in which I always took the opposing side to other person’s argument. My friend, Gwen, said my hair would instantly turn gray if I took on a baby at my age (by now I was in my forties); I argued with her fiercely; I wanted a baby. My therapist said I would be depressed like elderly nuns he’d treated if I didn’t have a baby; I insisted that a baby would ruin the life John and I had so carefully constructed. We kept arguing all the way to the elevator in his office building.

“If I have a baby, I won’t have time to write!” I said, as the elevator doors closed, shutting him from view.

“Just for a while!” I heard his voice calling down the elevator shaft.

John said he was fine either way, so I couldn’t argue with him. In the meantime, we waited.

After three long years, we got the call from the adoption agency; our daughter had been born. I took a plane to Texas to get her, feeling more terrified and ambivalent than ever.

What would happen to my writing once I became a mom? I remembered my stepmother, a lab technician who had chosen not to have children, asking, “Would you rather be changing diapers or discussing recombinant DNA?”

I had not inherited the science gene from my dad, so discussing recombinant DNA was probably not in my future. Still, I got the point. Would I rather be changing diapers, or sitting in a room reflecting on life, and transforming experience into stories?

The baby was two days old when I got her from the agency the day after my arrival. Back at the Residence Inn in Lubbock, I hurled myself into full-time baby care.

And agonized about whether I should back out. After all, there was an “opt out” clause in the contract I had signed.

I called my friend, Mary-Kate, who had recently become a mom.

“Mary-Kate, I don’t know if I should go through with this!” I cried. “It’s a lot of work and I won’t have time to write!”

“Pamie,” said Mary Kate, in her best no-nonsense voice, “if you don’t go through with this, you’ll spend the rest of your life in therapy, trying to figure out why you backed out.”

Whoa. That was a scary thought, almost scarier than just getting on with motherhood.

But the truth was, my perspective had already begun to shift. While I was busy agonizing, the world had gently rolled on its side, and love for the tiny baby in my arms came streaming out.

That was one thing I had not counted on.

But what about my writing? I had always been a writer, and now, after quitting my job, I finally I had time to write. I breathed words, and wrote stories and essays even as things were happening. But wait a minute, things were happening – all kinds of new experiences and emotions. Could I write about them in-between taking care of the baby?

So, with one shaved leg, wrinkled jeans, and a bruised face from answering the telephone in my eye, (not recommended), I put the baby in her car seat, called a cab and went to a computer store to rent a laptop. Back at the inn, with the baby sleeping beside me, I started to write . . . and write . . . and write.

I wrote about my Friday night “date” with the baby: A trip to the store for diapers with umbilical cord protection. How exciting was that?

I wrote about all the mothering advice (and mothering) I was getting from the staff at the inn.

“Don’t forget to eat. She won’t survive if you starve!”

“If she doesn’t sleep at night, put her in a closet during the day.”

(I never quite got that one.)

I wrote about John sending me flowers for my first Mother’s Day.

I wrote about the baby. She was so spunky, so full of life. “Come on, Mom, let’s get going!” she seemed to be saying.

New mothers: Do not answer the phone in your eye!

New mothers: Do not answer the phone in your eye!

Of course I had less time, and lots of interruptions. But I discovered something I never could have guessed beforehand. All my ambivalence had taken up a gigantic psychic footprint. I never realized how heavy it was, how burdensome, how time consuming. Now, instead of ambivalence, I had a beautiful baby daughter, and a rich new world of experience, humor, and love to write about.

 

 

 

9 Funniest Rejections of All Time

rejectionYou know what they say about comedy coming from deep pain. That’s I why I laugh at rejections. Below are my seven top funny rejections. Be on the look out for these standbys; they may show up in your “in box”!

  1. The rejection used to repair furniture

“When my office was moved yesterday, your enclosed manuscript emerged from underneath my desk. I am sorry.”

Hey, it’s okay to use my manuscript to prop up your desk!

  1. The rejection for something you did not even write

“Thanks so much for being kind enough to return the errant manuscript you received from us. We’re thinking perhaps one of your envelopes attached itself to the wrong manuscript.”

  1. The rejection for a fan letter sent to a favorite author

A friend of mine wrote a fan letter to author E.L. Konigsburg, and got it back from the publisher – rejected.

  1. The one-minute-per-book rejection

I once had ten picture book manuscripts rejected in ten minutes over the telephone – an all-time record!

  1. The disappearing book rejection

My friend, Jack, flew to Chicago to do a signing for his new book. When he arrived, he discovered the publisher had sent another author’s books by mistake. The title they sent? The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were.

  1. The-editor-changes-her-name rejection

Recently I got an email from an editor interested in acquiring a manuscript.

“I am so excited about your story!” she gushed. “Please make suggested revisions and send back right away.” She signed the email, “Warmly, Mags.” She remained “Mags” – until she turned down the revision. Then she became a very frosty “Margaret.”

  1. giftThe Holiday gift rejection

Editors like to clean out their desks before the holidays, so prepare for a special surprise.

  1. The writers-don’t-do-anything rejection

This rejection comes from astute readers at an author visit to an elementary school.

Child #1: Do you draw the pictures for your book?

Me: No.

Child #2: Do you glue the covers on?

Me: No.

Child # 3: Do you make all the copies yourself?

Me: Not exactly…

Child #4 (puzzled) What, exactly, do you do?

Me: !!!

  1. My favorite rejection

    Cheerfully delivering the fatal blow!

    Cheerfully delivering the fatal blow!

My favorite funny rejection came from my daughter, who was six at the time. She walked into my office holding a piece of paper. “Look, Mommy, I can read!” she said proudly.

“Dear Pamela,” she began, sounding out the words, “I am sorry to say I cannot evaluate any new manuscripts for the next six months . . .”

Laughing at rejections is good therapy and when you get an acceptance, you will definitely get the last laugh.

First Published on The Huffington Post

Color-Coding Story Elements to Weave a Narrative

colorsThere are several ways to weave together various elements of your narrative, whether fiction or non-fiction. Begin by asking yourself the following two questions (it may help to write down the answers).

Question #1. What is the main story you want to tell? In other words, what is the most important element of your story, what drives you to want to write this particular book? Once you have answered this, ask yourself:

Question #2. Is there a secondary narrative, or a subplot that you would like to include. This might be a love story, a parenting or a childhood story that relates to the main narrative. Let’s say, for instance, your mom was a doctor or health worker in the hospital where you are visiting a family member; you could contrast your current story with memories of a young child in the same setting. Alternatively, you may simply pause in the narrative periodically to reflect on what you went through, or outline strategies that helped you during this time.

Tip!Writing-Tips

When I was writing my memoir, I used colored markers to help identify various elements of my story. You can do it on the manuscript itself, but I’ll also use colors here to help illustrate these elements and how you might weave them together

a) main narrative

b) subplot or secondary narrative

c) takeaways, if you have any

Once you have established the various components, you have many ways to construct your narrative. Here are three:

  1. Alternate chapters of your main narrative with a subplot or writing (or other) takeaways.
  1. Weave bits of your subplot into your main narrative by making connections or transitions: For instance “the brilliant coral of the setting sun brought to mind the color of [my best friend’s] dress when I first met her.” Notice the transition from main narrative to subplot which in this case is the genesis of a friendship that relates to the primary narrative.
  1. Write your main narrative like a novel in the sense of suspense, pacing, and dialog. I’m not suggesting you invent anything, just that you make the writing highly readable. If you want, you can have a separate page at the end of each chapter highlighting specific strategies you used rather (for examples writing wisdom) and than incorporating them into the main narrative. This is a fairly straight-forward method, and may serve you well.  Good luck!  I wish I had discovered this method before I spent twenty-two years writing my memoir!

Note:   A version of this post was first published on womensmemoirs.com

7 Things that Make me Really Mad – Beginning with the Bass Clef

  1. The bass clef

bass clefFor a long time, I was mad at the bass clef. As a beginning piano player, I could see no reason for the bass clef other than to confuse me, which it did brilliantly, since the bass notes don’t look like their treble counterparts. Because the bass clef had been invented by cruel musicians in a distant past to confound me and thousands of other innocent people, I refused to memorize it. Snubbing the bass clef made learning the piano difficult until my piano teacher explained that the bass clef was not a separate from the treble clef; it was, in fact, a continuum!

  1. Nonconsensual operating system updates

I get pissed off at nonconsensual operating system updates on “smart” phones and computers. For months I studiously avoided updating the operating system on my cell phone, then I accidentally sat on it and bingo! It updated itself. Since then I’ve had nothing but grief.

  1. People who make dumb remarks in the presence of genius

I get annoyed at people at museums who contemplate Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or the original letters of Jane Austen and make stupid comments. Actually, I get mad at people who say anything in the presence of overwhelming magnificence. I was very fortunate at the Uffizi in Florence to find myself alone in a room with The Birth of Venus and I swear I didn’t say a word.

­4. Cultural clichés

Tired wisdom, like “live in the moment” and “don’t look back!” is echoed ubiquitously. Everyone seems to have a grudge against the past, which after all, was the present until a moment ago.   And, unlike the present, the past is amenable to revision, a highly laudable trait.

  1. The Mozart card – when you don’t get it

I’m still mad that my brother always hoarded all Mozart cards when we played Composers. I always got stuck with Rossini who was not nearly as cute.

  1. People who do not appreciate primal terror

I get annoyed with people who say my arachnophobia is the result of a traumatic childhood experience; trust me, it’s primal. There are a certain number people who carry the fear-of-spiders gene from prehistoric man, who was smart enough to understand that some spiders were life-threatening. And speaking of genes…

  1. Myselfgene

I’m mad at myself because I didn’t get the merging traffic gene – a recent evolutionary development. I can’t merge and there’s not a single thing I can do about it.

First publishing on The Huffington Post

I’m jealous of Princess Kate – but not for the reasons you might think!

Kates-Hat-150x150I have a confession to make. I’m horribly jealous of Princess Kate but not for it’s not because she’s wealthy, or because the royal family owns several yummy country estates (one of which will be Kate and William’s country home). Nor is it because Kate can do anything she wants (princesses never can). It’s not even because of her hats. No, I’m jealous of Princess Kate because she has access to armies of super-attentive physicians, day and night. (As Woody Allen said, the best thing about being a celebrity is having doctors call you back on the weekend.) And that’s just the beginning! The Queen’s own gynecologist postponed his retirement to deliver Kate and William’s first baby, Prince George. What doctor would do that for a commoner?

I was thinking about this yesterday while sitting in the orthopedic doctor’s office, waiting for the doctor to come into the exam room. I broke my foot last summer while talking on a recorded line with my health insurance company. (They later claimed they lost that particular recording – not that I was going to sue them or anything.) Now I was afraid I’d re-fractured my foot exercising a little too zealously on the treadmill.

The longer I sat on that exam table, waiting, the more steamed up I got about not being a princess or even a Hollywood celebrity. When I arrived for my appointment, I had been hustled into the x-ray room even before I got a chance to be examined by the new doctor – hardly the protocol for royalty or even sub-royalty. I’m terrified of doctors and medical tests and being hurried along by a brusque impersonal technician was particularly unnerving. What a difference it would make, I thought, as I shifted my weight on the crinkly white paper, if doctors and their staffs treated me like they would Princess Kate, ministering to every tiny pain (I imagined), and every flash of panic. In fact, if I wanted, I could have the whole British commonwealth panicking along with me. How cozy would that be?

Princess-Annelise-150x150

Annelise liked donning a princess costume-but she didn’t want the job!

If only my daughter, Annelise, had listened to me! In 1997, when she was three I advised her to marry Prince William when she grew up. Then at least I’d have some royal privileges. But Annelise had just looked at me with her big three-year-old eyes and replied stoutly, “I don’t want that job.”

What a stubborn child, thinking of (and for) herself instead of her mom!

At this point in my ruminations, the door opened and the doctor breezed in.

“You sure had a bad break last year,” he said, holding the new x-rays up to the light. “But your foot is fine now.”

“Really?” I said, in surprise. “You mean I didn’t break it again?”

The doctor shook his head. “It’s fine. You’re fine!” He studied me for a moment. Then he sat down in the chair beside the exam table.

“You know,” he said, “You should enjoy life more and not worry so much.”

I nodded.   “I’m a warrior worrier,” I admitted. “It’s an honored family tradition.”

The doctor chuckled. “What kind of work do you do?”

I told him I was a writer. Then I opened my purse and handed him a bookmark for my new book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties.

When he looked at the bookmark, the doctor’s eyes lit up. “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it,” he said, quoting from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, a quote I knew and remembered well.

Amanda Root in Persuasion

Amanda Root in Persuasion

For the next fifteen minutes or so we talked about love, suffering – and Jane Austen. For that brief time I felt like a princess, being treated by the Queen’s physician.

When the doctor stood up to go, he shook my hand.

“Write a story about this,” he said, “and God bless you.”

 

A version of this post was first published on womensmemoirs.com

Dear Pamela: Help! I’m hung up on what to leave in and what to leave out of my memoir!

Pamela Jane headshotDear Pamela:

“Here’s my problem. My memoir is a series of vignettes. How do I know when I have “enough.” I think of another story and decide to add it. Then I read one I’ve included and wonder if I should delete it. Is this the way to go? I’m sure it isn’t but I truly don’t know what to do as I move forward.” –-Hung Up

Dear Hung-up:

This is the essential problem with all memoirs – what to leave in, and what to leave out. But the good news is, you are in excellent company! Annie Dillard, author of An American Childhood noted that “The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out…”

This is an especially difficult decision to make during the euphoria of early drafts, when everything you write seems evocative and relevant. But most likely your vignettes are related by theme even if you are not aware of the connections.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

—Think of your stories as stars shining in the night sky, making a constellation, a shape, a pattern. What connects one star (story) to another? In other words, what is the theme of your memoir, what is it really about? The answer to this question will clarify what stories contribute to your narrative, and which are random or unrelated episodes.ImageGen.ashx

—If there is a chapter or story you can’t bear to let go of, take a long look at it and ask yourself if it might fit in from a different angle? For instance, if your story is about how you ran away from home on your tricycle when you were four, yet you can’t bear not including the story of the cat you rescued later, maybe the cat was also a runaway. Now the two stories are connected. Part of being creative is finding the odd angle or connection no one else has thought of.

Hung Up, although William Faulkner said that in writing you must “kill your darlings,” I have found you only have to kill the darlings who don’t contribute to your theme, or move your narrative forward. All your other darlings can stay!

Note:  This post was originally published on womensmemoirs.com

Dear Pamela: Worries that offering a memoir class at my church will bring up too many strong emotions

Pamela Jane headshotI will be posting every month from my new writing advice column, “Dear Pamela,” from womensmemiors.com.  I will be answering questions about all aspects of writing, specifically memoir writing, from character development (yes memoirs do have characters, including you, the narrator!) to agent submissions.  Below is a question-and-answer from the May post:

Dear Pamela,

“I am co-creating a memoir-writing class at our church. When this was first proposed, someone said we shouldn’t do it because writing a memoir might call up too many strong emotions from someone, presumably with difficulties in their lives, like childhood abuse or an abusive marriage or loss of a child.

We are going ahead with the project, but how would you respond to such an objection, and, more importantly, how to help attendees with such challenges? I’ve always thought that writing was one of the best ways to re-address and help heal such challenges from the distance of time and perspective.” — Carol at Church

Dear Carol at Church,

Thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking question. I’m pleased to hear you are going ahead with the class!

As I’m sure you know, many memoirs are filled with (or contrasted by) joy and laughter, as well as poignancy or sadness, and not everyone in your class will want to write about the darker episodes in their lives. Each person has a choice to write about what she or he wants to in the way she or he wants to, emphasizing some events while diminishing others in order to set the mood and shape the narrative.

This brings up an important aspect of memoir writing. Shaping a story from life offers the writer the opportunity to find meaning in apparently random events, which is deeply healing, and goes beyond simply recording what happened. In this way you truly are, as you wrote helping to “heal challenges from the distance of time and perspective.” When our stories entertain, enlighten or help others, the reward is even greater.

Of course a memoir class is not therapy, and, though unlikely, it is possible that memories will surface that the writer has difficulty handling. In that event the student can be referred to a pastor or therapist.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tipsmemoir

—It might be helpful at your first meeting to ask each person to articulate why he or she wants to write a memoir. While some may appreciate the opportunity to create a legacy of family histories, others may want to explore life lessons, or relate funny anecdotes, or explore what went wrong in the past in order to better face the future.

—Next, ask each person if the content of the memoir is intended to be a private story, or one meant to be shared with families, friends, or the public, and whether she or he is comfortable with the subject of the story. Have each person imagine doing a book signing or giving a talk on the memoir. Does she or he feel at ease discussing the book, taking questions, or hearing similar stories from others?

—Whether or not stories are intended to be private, I suggest that you ask the other students to keep them confidential, whether in or out of church. It’s important for everyone in the group to trust each other and to feel safe in the context of the class.

—If the class has already started and you haven’t done something like this, I suggest you discuss these issues at the next class.

gold-glittering-stars-dust-trail-background-star-bokeh-black-61169879Carol at Church, by offering a memoir-writing class, you are providing a rare and wonderful opportunity to explore memories, regale others with tales of adventure or suspense, and, most of all, hit that gold vein of meaning that – light or dark – deepens our experience, and provides courage and consolation to ourselves and others.

I hope this is helpful, Carol!

Note:  This post was originally published on womensmemoirs.com

Marketing for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People: 5 Tips

candlesMy friend Debbie teases me about the stacks of self-help books I’ve collected over the years. I admit that many of them have proved to be less than helpful, but for me finding one new book to add to my self-help library – one that changes the way I think and see myself and the world – is worth the search.

One of those finds is The Highly Sensitive Person by psychologist Elaine N. Aron. Dr. Aron defines a highly sensitive person (HSP) as someone who is more aware than others of subtleties in her environment, and also more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. (Though in this article I use the terms “HSP” and “introvert” interchangeably, in truth only about 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts; 30% are extroverts.) If you are unusually sensitive to loud noise and bright lights, for instance, or to comments overheard while touring a museum, you may be highly sensitive. (My husband turns on the dining room light so bright it looks like he’s preparing to operate rather than sit down to dinner. I don’t like light bulbs brighter than 25 watts; candles are even better.) A complex inner life is another HSP characteristic.

Being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean you are more understanding or empathic ­than others – it simply relates to how you process stimuli. In fact when you are feeling overwhelmed, you are probably anything but kind and understanding. To find out where you fall on the highly-sensitive continuum, you can take Dr. Aron’s self-test here.

So how does marketing work for an HSP? When a friend of mine got a new computer a while back, he protested that he didn’t need the Excel spreadsheet software or the Skype app; he “just wanted to type.” I know exactly how he feels. It reminds me of a call I got from a cable TV company recently.

“How would you like 150 more cable channels?” the sales rep asked brightly.

I just want to type!

I just want to type!

“Actually,” I replied, “I’m looking for fewer channels.”

There was total silence on the other end of the line.

5 Marketing Tips for Writers

It may be hard for extroverts or non-HSPs to realize that some people really do want less. For me, marketing my book falls under the “I can completely do without this” category, but it is part of today’s writing and publishing world. So here are five marketing tips especially for HSPs:

  1. Don’t try to out-market your non-HSP colleague

There will always be better networkers, smarter marketers, or those naturally gifted at promotion. Their ideas can inspire you (or drive you crazy). Hopefully, it’s the former, but either way don’t set yourself up for frustration and disappointment by implementing an impossibly ambitious marketing campaign. Instead …

  1. Decide what you will do

It’s helpful to decide ahead of time how much and what kind of marketing you want and would enjoy doing.   I love public speaking. To me it feels cozy and intimate; it’s just the two of us – me and the audience. If you don’t enjoy live interviews or public speaking, you can send out postcards, e-newsletters, or organize a blog tour, where various blogs feature your book.

  1. Give yourself some “inward” time
Take a virtual vacation

Take a virtual vacation

Just because you’re in a marketing phase doesn’t mean you can’t take a little introverted vacation. Stagger your “in” and “out” times so you don’t become disheartened or discouraged with the demands of marketing. Children’s author Deborah Heiligman has a note on the wall of her office that says, “Long view, light touch.”  With marketing I tend to do just the opposite – hurl myself into a promotion campaign as if there’s no tomorrow, then crash. Deb’s strategy is much more intelligent.

  1. Team up with your non-HSP friend or colleague

Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of original and creative marketing ideas. In fact, as an HSP, you probably have more ideas than you have time or inclination for. So let your more stimuli-loving friend chat up editors at a conference, while you do on-line market research. The introverted-extroverted or HSP-non-HSP collaboration is an ideal partnership.

  1. Slow down when you’re feeling overwhelmed

When you start to feel pressured or flustered, resist the urge to speed up. Not only will you maintain your balance (literally – I tripped and broke my foot last year hurrying to get some information while talking on the telephone) but when you slow down, you’ll actually accomplish more.

Understanding the HSP trait has helped me tremendously. For example, when my family and I moved to Florence, Italy, for a year, I spent the first scorching August days on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of our apartment. If I hadn’t just read The Highly Sensitive Person, I might have concluded I was crazy and forced myself to hurry out and start soaking up the culture and beauty of Florence. But because of Elaine Aron’s book, I understood that I was exhausted and overwhelmed from the intense effort of preparing to leave home for a year. The floor-scrubbing phase, though short-lived, was therapeutic and even pleasurable. Physical work, done in a quiet place, “knits up the raveled sleave of care,” as Shakespeare wrote about sleep.

I’ve found over the years that for your book to do well, a little luck or magic has to kick in – magicsomething, in other words, that is completely out of your hands. Accept this, take time to consider your marketing plan and, most importantly, enjoy the ride!

Are you an introvert or an HSP? If so, what are your marketing strategies? Please leave us a comment; we’d love to hear from you. Non-HSPs are welcome too!

Note: a version of this post was first published by womensmemoirs.com