Accolades (Part 2)

14 01 2011

Okay, okay. So my novels won awards in the Florida Writers Association 2010 literary competition. I have the awards with my name etched on them. It felt good when they called my name and people clapped. It felt good when I put them in my suitcase and carried them home. It felt good when I put them on my bookshelf.

But that was a few months ago now, and I hardly look at them any more. What have I done for me lately?

Well, today’s big story, my first, in The Huffington Post living section (lead article WITH a photo!) was a big one. And the Psychology Today article earlier this month was a big one, too. Last month I spoke to about 175 doctors, nurses and social workers as an invited speaker at a conference on Narrative Ethics. That was a really big deal. And today I have another internet radio appearance.

Life is good. But living is better.

I used to have a note posted on my computer when I worked in an office. It said,

“Are you living life or are you living A life?”

I kept it there for many years and looked at it many times…while I was working on a spreadsheet…or writing a press release…or on the telephone…or in a conversation with someone on the other side of my desk…or planning what I was going to do next.

It was a constant reminder to make every single day count, not just check it off on the to do list.

I am reminded of that today, celebrating my writing victories and thinking of how much I have to fit into the time before I walk the dogs at dusk.

This is my life. MY life. My LIFE. And it’s a good one.

What have YOU done for YOU lately?





Why I Wrote It

16 10 2010

I didn’t want to be an expert on death and dying.  I only set out to be a writer.  I wanted to write a book that people would think about.   And talk about.  A socially relevant message.

But now it’s me who’s talking about it.  A lot.

I guess I didn’t realize that’s what publicity is all about.  I thought I could just talk about writing it.

But people want to talk about It.

Dying.

Going all the way back to the beginning, when I told people what I was writing about, they wanted to talk.  In fact, at first people just wanted me to listen and not say much.  These were friends and neighbors wanting to tell their stories.  Stories of love and grief and loyalty and sadness.  I listened.  It helped.  I like helping people.

Those conversations, while difficult for the speakers, were encouraging as I wrote Finding Frances. They told me I was on the right track, that death and dying and medical technology were important subjects for our “Never say ‘dying’” culture.  Maybe people would want to read my book after all.

Once the book came out, I listened to more stories.  At this point people were relating to certain scenes in the book, certain dilemmas my fictional family faced.  I didn’t have to talk back.  My writing was enough.  My story didn’t belong to me anymore.  It belonged to the readers, and I was encouraged that they held it close to their hearts.

But then the publicity started.  Interviewers started asking me questions.

Why is this topic important?

What can people do to make their parents’ passing easier?

How did my family feel about my book?

Is Frances typical or atypical of her generation?  Of our culture?

For these answers, the book wasn’t enough.  I’d gathered a lot of research before I’d started writing, although those facts and figures don’t appear in my book.  Yet I find myself quoting them over and over as I talk to larger audiences, sounding like—an expert.

The fact is that a 2008 New England Journal of Medicine report said that only 16% of doctors tell their patients when they’re terminal, even if the patient asks for that information.  Instead, doctors offer hope in the form of more treatment.  The fact is that over 80% of terminally ill patients in a Dartmouth Atlas Project study did not want to be in the hospital or intensive care while they were dying.  Yet most of them were.  The fact is that almost 50% of intensive care patients were never asked their preferences on life-sustaining treatment even after 48 hours in the hospital.  The fact is that most patients receiving comfort (palliative) care in hospice do so for less than 2 weeks before dying despite the findings that a group of terminally ill lung cancer patients receiving comfort care lived almost 3 months longer than their counterparts who received aggressive treatment only.  The facts go on and on.

So despite my best efforts to be only passively involved in the reality of the subject matter, I am, more frequently, finding myself a spokesperson for more compassionate, more patient-centered care for the most ill.  Maybe I’m just talking to people who agree with me, but there seems to be a lot of consensus on that one.

I started the book because my mother asked me to.  She was in a hospital bed, dying, and I was standing on her left side, stroking her hair.  She knew her struggle to die peacefully was important because it had been so difficult to negotiate.

I finished the book and published it because I found by talking to other people that she was right.

And why am I on radio, on television and on the internet talking about Death with a capital “D?”  Sure, I want people to read my book.  I’d love to sell every last one that was printed.  But more than that, I believe in the message.  The facts of the situation—what people really seem to want at the time of their deaths—are so far removed from the way we practice and experience medical care.  And that keeps surprising me.

People talk to me about dying and I listen.  People ask me my opinion, and I tell them.  Whether you decide to read Finding Frances or not, I think more of us need to engage the conversation.





Accolades

2 09 2010

An interviewer with a popular internet fiction site asked a very good question:  Had I received any awards or peer honors for my recent book?  The answer was no, but–instead of wondering whether or not my answer would uncover me as a neophyte or, worse yet, a writer undeserving of such an award–I wondered whether winning an award would make my book any better, or make me feel any better about my book.

In “The Books Issue” of Newsweek (August 9, 2010), there was an interview with Darin Strauss, a fiction writer who’d just released a memoir.  He said that readers of his fiction have never written to say the novels were helpful, but that his memoir had elicited feedback like, “I’m really glad this is in the world.”

I’ve received so many beautiful emails, letters and reviews about Finding Frances.  I’ve written reams about the book, but in the words of others, here is why I wrote it:

…a crack in the door opened and we sort of said without really saying that if we had an incurable disease we would want to leave this world just as Frances did, on our own terms.

It is clearly one of the most life changing books I have ever read. It leaves me with a lot of knowledge about dying, but even more knowledge about living.

…a lady was telling me about her dear friend, who was nearing the end of her journey, and had just entered the hospice situation.  And I hugged her, and we cried together a little bit.  And then I told her about “Finding Frances”.  You see, I had just finished it the night before.

…I have been with too many loved ones in their last stages of life.  You are right it is time that the act of dying should no longer be an embarrassing or inconvenient time.  More people need to talk about it so we realize that it is a natural part of life.

At first I wasn’t sure I liked the book….. it hit way too many nerves and the topic of death is not one we Irish (or half Irish as I am) discuss openly.

Every day, all around me, children of my friends are making “Frances decisions.”  …I put my copy in the library and now there’s a waiting list for it.   (from a 92-year-old woman in an assisted living community)

It was all right there on page 117.  You said it perfectly.   At my mother’s funeral I heard myself using your words.  They were so much better than my own.

 
Finding Frances is a novel that reminds me to treat my loved ones with respect and dignity when that time comes. (From an Amazon Top Reviewer)

I think that this is not really a book about dying but rather a book about living… This is a book we all should read and no one is too young or too old… (Another Amazon Top Reviewer)

My parents are gone, but I am now better prepared to help my children gain comfort and provide support when my time comes. Thank you.

It’s emotionally exhausting but with this topic, it has to be. It’s a heavy load and you can’t pick this book up and think you’re going to be able to get through it without a lot of deep thought.

At some point in giving birth to this book, someone said it was “socially significant.”  At first, I thought that was a big term and felt intimidated by it—how could I have done something significant for the world?

My story hasn’t changed the world, for certain.  But it has changed a few lives.  So even if no one else ever reads it, it was worth every hour, every cent and every tear.





ON EDITORS AND EYELASHES

29 08 2010

I attended a writers’ conference out in Portland, Oregon.   I spent three days learning how to be better at everything.  Agents taught me how to pitch better.  Editors taught me how to better structure my manuscript’s first fifty.  Successful writers taught me how to make better word choices, create better characters and do a better job outlining my plots.  And in the unlikely event that I hadn’t been adequately taking notes or listening, Barnes and Noble had a table there and sold paperback versions of How To Be Better At Everything.

At the end of the second day, I was energized, full of ideas.  I went back to my room, pulled out the old laptop, and started writing better.  All the advice was working!  I solved the problem with that expanse of dialogue.  I fixed the major “show don’t tell” violation on page 36.  But after an hour or so, I stumbled across a great big gap between my current manuscript and how I now envisioned it.  I was too tired to try to fix it—after days of sitting still, my energy was completely inadequate for the task.

So I did what I’ve always done at the end of a long day while working away from home—turned on the television and ordered room service.  Like the writing, it was very empowering at first.  I ordered a pizza.  (When you order a whole pizza for yourself, even if it’s a small one, you’re king of the world.)  Then I sat back, picked up the remote, fluffed the pillows, turned the box on, flipped the channels, settled on an old movie, and—

Heard someone tell me I have inadequate eyelashes.

Yes.  Like Claire Danes and Brooke Shields, I have inadequate eyelashes.

First I’m told I’m an inadequate writer, and now this.  Will I ever be fit to the task of living?  What with all my faults?

NOTE TO SELF

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

From “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson

but often attributed to Nelson Mandela

Oh, to be over-quoted that way!

There is always someone in this world telling us that we are inadequate.  As writers, we put ourselves out for criticism all the time.  No one has to tell us the ways in which we don’t measure up, but our editors and readers will anyway.  Writers choose to do something that requires a certain level of excellence and constant improvement.  With every paragraph, we have another chance.  Every novel is a blank slate.

Now all I need is more time, a quiet room and a brand-new tube of mascara.





WHY FICTION

19 06 2010

With the popularity of non-fiction, self-help and memoir, is there room for good old storytelling anymore?

There are many reasons to choose fiction over other genres.  When I started a book about my mother’s death, I assumed it would be in first person.  A memoir.  But after fifty pages, I realized I couldn’t write it that way.  The story in my mind was bigger than my mother and me.  It was about Death with a capital D.  I needed to include things that hadn’t actually happened and tie in things I discovered later but hadn’t known at the time.  I was going to create a book about Death, using the circumstances of my mother’s passing as the frame.  And that would make it fiction, of course.

Once a writer decides on a topic, the next, and arguably the most important step, is to decide who will tell the story:  a narrator, the author or a character.  The decision depends on the genre and topic.  Death is a difficult subject.  When I was researching my novel, I found all kinds of non-fiction on dying, but not much fiction.  The non-fiction, while it had a base of sales, was not what you would call popular reading.  Many people find it hard to talk or read about death.  This was another reason I knew my story had to be fiction; I needed to make the topic accessible.

Fiction opens the door for interpretation over judgment.  It allows us to talk about taboo subjects in code, removing any stigma because it’s a private conversation.  A hypothetical situation isn’t threatening at all—we can toss it in the air without worrying about it falling and crashing into our reality.  We can juggle it with imaginary people without incurring the danger of empathy.

Until two years ago, I’d never been to a cocktail party where people stood around talking about dying.  It’s just not polite.  But it happens all the time now when people ask me what my new book is about.  Suddenly, it’s okay to talk about.  My fictionalized Frances has become somewhat of a hero in my social circle.  No one thinks of her as my mother.  They relate to the questions I pose in the story instead of relating to the woman and her decision.  It’s easy for people to open up and compare their feelings to hers since she doesn’t really exist.

Once people identified me as a person who can talk about a difficult topic, many of them trusted me with personal stories about losing a loved one.  Each story is different, but the guilt, sadness and confusion are not unique.  So my book about dying, I decided, had to include multiple points of view.  It needed to include the stages of grief, which are experienced differently by different people.  It had to include perspectives from different religions, times and cultures.  And it wouldn’t be complete unless it exposed family roles and structure, and the unique history each child has with a parent.  I couldn’t write all that as memoir because it would have limited the story to my own experience, which while it was important to me and probably to some readers, may not have provided the hook necessary to draw in a broader reader base.  My goal was to engage as many people as possible in a conversation about dying in the twenty-first century.

In my mind, memoir is about the author, but fiction is about the reader.  Memoir, by definition, is limited to the author’s experience and own feelings.  This can be enlightening and thought-provoking, but it exists on one dimension.  Fiction, on the other hand, can create an experience the reader can almost touch, one that becomes their own.





MY BOOK, MY BABY

29 04 2010

I was crouching down, reaching into my black bag, when Cheri said, “How can you just give your book out to strangers like this?  Isn’t your book like one of your children?”  I stood up and laughed nervously.  I’d only been a member of the book club for a few months, and they were strangers, just like she said.  Yet there I was, eight copies of my manuscript in the crook of my arm like I was carrying a baby, and I was ready to hand them over.  I shifted them over to my hip and headed back across the room to the group.  She was right, my books are like my children.  But just like children, at some point you’ve just got to let them go into the world.  Not everyone will like them, and that will hurt.  But I know they’ve got some good in them and I hope they’ll find a spot to flourish.

When I sent The O’Malley Trilogy out into the world, I knew it wasn’t my best work. It still had braces on and a few big pimples.  But it was just as I’d envisioned it, and it was a really good feeling.

My struggle giving birth to my second book was different.  At first, Finding Frances was a sort of memoir of my mother’s dying.  I don’t read many memoirs, but I could tell the one I was writing was really bad.  My mother wouldn’t even have wanted to read it.  At a loss, I put it away for a few months.

I tried again.  I wrote about my mother sitting at the kitchen window drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette.  A sob, like a black hole, began deep in my gut and sucked everything into it—my breath, my throat, my strength, and finally all of my thoughts—until nothing was left but tears flying in all directions.  This book was going to be harder to write than I thought.

I wrote a hundred pages before I realized I hated the whole thing.  I’d been raising it all wrong.  I hated the characters.  I hated the point of view.  I hated the tone and the lazy word choices.  I hated that I’d been writing in Times Roman.  But I loved Frances and I still wanted to tell her story.  My brother, who loved my first book, said he couldn’t read more than 40 pages of what I’d written.  He hated that all the characters seemed like they were taking too much Prozac.  I’d been trying to take the easy way out.  But how could I tell the story without involving my family?  After all, they were all working through their own grief.  I couldn’t bear adding weight to their hearts.  A book about our experience would put it all on my terms.  That wouldn’t be fair.  No, this baby wasn’t related to them.  After a few months of trying to engineer a solution, it finally dawned on me.  I could develop the characters around the issues.  So I created them and adopted them, and finally I could call them my own.

In April of 2010, with a gentle push and not a lot of fanfare, Finding Frances hit the market.

The book is growing on its own now.  As the months go by, I’ve learned that my story has stopped being mine.  Every time someone reads it, it becomes their story. When I hear about the difference it’s made in some people’s lives, I am amazed, proud, and sometimes overwhelmed.  At first I said that if the story could help just one person facing “the issues” of death and dying, then it would have been worth the time.  At this point, hundreds have read it and many, many have taken the time to tell me about the peace they now feel.

Parenting has its rewards.