The Story Behind the Message

I first posted “The Story Behind the Message” in 2017 before my memoir was published. Now as I work on my second book, this post remains as relevant to me as ever.

Writing for me doesn’t get easier, Molly.

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Rearranging my bookcase, I came across a book with the following inscription:

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To Marianna–No, it’s not easy! But you can do it. All the best, Molly

This is the story behind the message:

I had been writing for as long as I can remember. I saved many of my stories in longhand on scraps of paper, on faded yellow legal pads, and typed up on an old manual typewriter with multiple errors (I flunked typing in high-school). All were unedited and unfinished.

In the early 90s when I lived in the Washington DC area, I started to take writing more seriously by attending classes and conferences. One of the workshops was sponsored by the Smithsonian. I can’t remember for the life of me the woman who conducted the class. What I do remember was the cross section of adults who sat on folded chairs in the cramped room three stories below ground level at the Dillon Ripley Center. At one session, the instructor had invited her friend who was visiting from out of state, the author Molly Giles.

Molly looked to be about my age. She had reddish blond hair and a warm, earthy persona. I immediately wanted to be her best friend. She described the office she rented so she could write undisturbed.

After the class, I stood along side of the table where Molly was autographing her latest book: Creek Walk and Other Stories (still in print). creek-walk-by-molly-gilesShe was poised with pen in hand ready to inscribe the book to me as I chatted on about how much I enjoyed her talk and how I thought writing was fun. She cocked an eyebrow at me as if I had just told her I still believed in the tooth fairy. Gently, she told me that writing could be difficult.

Now, over 20 years later, I have written many words, finished and published some stories. I completed a memoir and am investigating self-publishing venues. For me, writing is more arduous than exhilarating. My greatest strength is persistence.

How I wish I could meet with Molly over a mocha latte at some cozy coffee house. I know what she was trying to tell me so long ago. She was right.

No Edit Too Mundane

This is the week we spend our annual family vacation at the beach. While I have enjoyed the ocean and sand, I took some time to complete an assignment. One of my stories had been accepted by Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine, a digital journal. It could be published as soon as this Friday if I could make changes suggested by the editorial staff. And I did.

While most of the edits added clarity and a deeper texture to my story, one area of discussion initially seemed mundane. However, on reflection, I came to realize how important it is to add the actual time period of a story. In this case the mid ’80s.

Desk Phone

An intern who had the lead editing assignment probably was born into the cell phone era and never experienced a “desk” phone that, in most cases, was immovable from its position unless you added an additional cord.

vintage telephone cord

For example, in order to move about room, you had to add a long extension cord from the outlet in the wall to the base phone, then hold the base with one hand and with the other clutch the receiver to one’s ear. This way you could walk away from the desk and check for a report in the near-by file cabinet. (I won’t go into the fact we had hard copies of all our documents).

If you chose to add a long line from the phone base to the receiver so you didn’t have to carry the phone base with you, you would have to scurry back to the base phone to hang up.

Coiled phone extension

Plus that cord was coiled and most often became so tangled that you had to dangle the receiver until it spun and untangled. You had to plan ahead to add the cords. If, as the young intern suggested, you added an extension cord while talking to someone, the call would be disconnected.

This is probably more than you ever cared to know about old-fashioned phones. However, I learned a lesson that sometimes we know something so intimately that we assume all others share our experiences.

 

Check this site: Pulse Friday or next Friday to see if my story made it.

 

 

 

 

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Luther

I received my memoir manuscript from my editor this past week. Thankfully, she hadn’t any issues with structure. (I’m not counting the many grammatical errors she found that I thought I had addressed but still missed).

Since the last version of my book, I have changed the title, dropped five chapters, deepened some others, and added more about gerontological nursing.

Here is chapter 10 that I dumped. It repeats a lot of what is in the first chapter of the book.

I am writing about a time in the early 80s when I worked as a nurse practitioner in charge of a recently opened geriatric clinic housed in a one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor of a senior high-rise on the Westside of Chicago. I am new to the role and stumble with the unexpected. Mrs. R is an 80-year-old volunteer that serves as the clinic receptionist. Luther is the building custodian.

 

LUTHER

 

I heard heavy footfalls shuffle into the waiting room and Mrs. R’s shrill voice ask, “Why, whatever is wrong, Luther?”

I ran out of the exam room just in time to watch Luther, grimacing in pain, flop down in the chair next to Mrs. R’s desk. Sweat beaded on his nutmeg complexion. His overalls were dotted with blood. He gripped a towel that was wrapped around his upper arm.

“I was fixing a window. The glass cracked.” Luther’s words came in breathy bits. “Cut me.”

He was one of the custodians in the building, a short, sinewy man with a generous smile and warm personality.

I moved on heavy legs toward Luther as if wading across a pool: slow and deliberate. Standing in front of him, I could smell his sweat mixed with the musty, sweet odor of blood. I hated the stench of blood. Trying to suppress my gag reflex, I grabbed his wrist and held his arm up over his head hoping that gravity would slow the bleeding.

“Where did you get cut?” I asked.

Luther pointed to the underside of his arm still covered with the towel. With my free hand I applied pressure. Soon I felt the wet, stickiness of his blood steep into my palm. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome hadn’t yet walked into my medical world, but the thought of what might be under the towel made me want to vomit.

No one else was in the office but Mrs. R and me. I didn’t want to tell her to dial 911 until I knew what I was dealing with. Still nauseated, I forced myself to concentrate on Luther’s injury.

“Do you think there are any pieces of glass in your arm?”

“The window didn’t shatter.” Luther’s voice was tense.

He was still sweating and breathing rapidly. His eyes darted around the room as if looking for a quick way out.

Maybe my own nervousness showed.

“Luther, concentrate on breathing more slowly. In. Out. In. Out.” I breathed along with him. “Good. That’s it.”

After a few minutes Luther stopped sweating and my nausea dissipated, but my arm trembled with fatigue holding Luther’s arm upward. The blood from the towel began to congeal. The bleeding probably stopped but I still needed to see the wound. Not something I was anxious to do.

“Okay, let’s put your arm down.”

Luther rested his arm in his lap. I put Luther’s other hand where mine had been.

“Press,” I instructed, “while I get some supplies to clean you up.”

I kept half an eye on Luther while I scrubbed his blood from my hands in the sink across from the waiting room. While his breathing had returned to normal, his eyes still darted about the room as if watching for some unexpected calamity.

I laid the supplies—a bottle each of iodine solution and sterile water, tape and several sterile gauze pads to replace the towel—on the edge of the Mrs. R’s desk and went back to snatch a tourniquet, quickly slipping it into my lab coat pocket, praying I didn’t need to use it.

Snapping on a pair of disposable gloves, I braced myself for the worst.

“Let me see what this cut looks like.”

With shaking hands, I slowly peeled the towel from his skin with my right hand. My other hand clutched two thick gauze pads that I would slap on the wound if it were still bleeding. Trickles of sweat from my brow dripped down my face and over my eyes blurring my vision. My imagination slowed me down. What was under the towel? Muscle and bone? Shards of glass? A gaping wound spewing blood? If that happened, I would need to apply the tourniquet and tell Mrs. R to call 911. I decided against alerting her ahead of time. Luther might pass out from the expectation.

Caked blood covered the wound. No fresh bleeding was evident. The muscles in the back of my neck softened.

“I cut an artery, right Miz Crane?” His eyes large with worry.

I tossed the bloody towel into the wastebasket by the desk and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand before I answered.

“I need to wash your arm so I can see better, but I don’t think you cut an artery.”

Luther exhaled slowly and his shoulders relaxed.

The laceration was about three inches long with even edges and deep enough to need stitches. I told Luther my assessment.

Mrs. R had fixed her gaze on Luther from the moment he arrived. I raised my voice to get her attention.

“Mrs. R, call Sam Levy and tell him to come up here right away. Thanks.”

Her body jerked as she snapped out of her trance.

“Why Sam?” Luther asked.

“Sam’s your boss. Your injury’s workman’s comp. He can drive you or pay for a cab to get you to the ER for stitches. And probably get a tetanus shot. Do you remember when you had one last?”

“No.”

While Luther and I waited for Sam, I reached over and poured some of the iodine solution onto the gauze squares and slapped it on the wound.

“Ow! Ow!” yelled Luther.

Blinking back tears, he searched the floor as if he were embarrassed to have yelled so loud. How dumb of me, I shouldn’t have used full strength iodine on the wound.

All I could say was “Sorry, Luther.”

After Luther and Sam left, I thought how easy it was for anyone to walk into the clinic and expect immediate service. Rather than acknowledge my own inadequacies, I blamed Karen Cranston who hired me. She should’ve told me I would be running an emergency room. I didn’t have the supplies or equipment to handle unexpected events. I didn’t acknowledge that even she couldn’t have predicted how the clinic would operate.

I was flying blind.

While Mrs. R looked on, I dragged the mop and bucket from the closet and washed the blood from the floor.

 

 

PERSISTENCE

“It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again.”
-Yogi Berra

I should’ve guessed that writing “in spite of myself, I persisted and finished” my book last year would have guaranteed that I would be rewriting my book yet again.
As of today, I’ve revived it, adding what I had left out, and changed the title for the eighth time.
As I reread that post, I am humbled by the process of writing but still remain determined in completing, and getting the book published—hopefully this year.
I have made the same New Year’s resolution as last year—to keep up my persistence and determination in getting published. I’ll keep you posted.
Happy, Healthy, and Peaceful New Year to you all.

Nursing Stories

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In 2014, I finished my memoir.

In spite of myself, I persisted and finished.

Ten years ago, I left a full time nurse practitioner job and began to write in earnest. The book I just birthed is not the one I started then. It has been configured many times: moving chapters, changing tenses from past to present and back to past again, deleting some stories and adding others. I went through seven titles.

I recognize now that I did everything to prolong that actual moment when I would let the book go. But then 2014 came along. A busy year of interviewing realtors, decluttering our old home, making improvements to increase the potential for the house to sell. And sell it did—quickly.images-3

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I managed to keep writing, gave the manuscript to two more beta-readers and hired a line-by-line editor. And even settled on…

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WRITER IN RESIDENCE

Weymouth Center
Weymouth Center

I spent part of last week at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, North Carolina working on my memoir.

There was a sign on the door, DO NOT ENTER, WRITER IN RESIDENCE, which led to the hallway where I and another writer had accommodations. My room was the Paul Green room and the second was the Thomas Wolfe. None of the other quarters had plaques on the door or I would’ve searched for a female author designation. Virginia Woolf where were you?

At Weymouth I felt like a writer. I worked like a writer.

Typical day:

Breakfast* on the veranda. I watched birds dart by and listened to a deep guttural sound, more like an improperly functioning piece of heavy equipment, which I imagined might have been a frog. The sound came from a stagnant pond nearby. I didn’t feel the need to investigate.DSCN0737

Back to my room to write.

Paul Green room
Paul Green room

Lunch in the small kitchen solely for use by writers-in-residence.

In the afternoon, I worked until I got hungry.

Dinner at my desk.

After dinner I wandered into the library to connect to the Internet and check and send emails—okay, I did glance at emails on my I-phone while I worked. Hard habit to break.

North Carolina Hall of Fame James Brody Library
North Carolina Hall of Fame
James Brody Library

In the evening, with a glass of Merlot, I sat on the balcony, writing in my journal and watching the sky turn crimson and transform to a deep blue. When it grew too dark to see my notebook, I ambled back to my room to reenergize my gray cells with a New York Times fiction bestseller.

*I went grocery shopping on my first day, stocking the refrigerator in the writer’s kitchen with salads, soups, yogurt, granola, carrot slices, hummus and a bottle of red wine.

And what did I accomplish? I did address the issues raised by my beta-readers. I dropped the slow, plodding first chapters and incorporated sections as flashbacks throughout the book. And a fast paced chapter, which served as my first chapter a few revisions ago, became my first chapter once again. I came home with a new outline, clear areas for expansion and a goal to complete this version of my manuscript to give to my second round of readers by the middle of this month.

Thank you Weymouth Center.Weymouth Center

GET ON WITH LIFE

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. 

~C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958

This Tuesday I leave for a four-day stay at a writer’s center not far from my home. As an act of desperation, I will seclude myself with my manuscript and concentrate on incorporating changes that have been percolating in my brain but somehow never found their way to the memoir.

In an attempt to finally finish the book I had, naively, cut back on social activities, travel, and other commitments. Well, silly me. It only became easier to avoid writing knowing that I had less pressure. Days became weeks and now two and a half months after my beta readers returned the manuscripts, I have yet to act on their feedback.red pen editing

I have four days to edit the book. While I can’t predict I will accomplish my goal, I’m going to give it my best shot. The last thing I want is to be writing this book for the next ten years. I have to get on with my life.

Let you know how I did in my next post.

LOVE OF FOOD

As I continue editing my book (I’m a tiny bit behind schedule), I am adding more food references. Food has always had a hold on me. Growing up in both Italian and Polish traditions, the fabric of my childhood was knitted with gustatory delights. Food meant comfort and caring.

italian-familyOne repast I’ll never forget was the first time my husband-to-be visited my Italian Grandma’s second floor apartment in Jersey City. At our traditional Sunday mid-afternoon meal, italian-feastthe men ate first. After the men, the children were served. Lastly, the women sat, ate and then washed the dishes—a paternalist, ethnic ritual I rebelled against at the time, only now to look back with pure nostalgia.

Grandma and my aunts, Ann, Jennie, Pam and Anna and their sister-in-law Chris, served. That day, I sat with the men beside Ernie, American hot-dog and hamburger aficionado, at the table in the cramped, hot kitchen. There wasn’t a dining room. He had seconds of the bean soup and the pasta with tomato sauce and slathered butter on Grandma’s freshly baked bread. He had an awakening when the meat course arrived. crusty-italian-bread_1I remember Uncle Mickey commenting on Ernie’s voracious appetite. Salad and cheese followed. Ernie’s intake dwindled.

After espresso, my uncles left to smoke cigars in the front parlor. Ernie staggered behind them as Grandma smiled with delight over how much he had eaten. A good appetite was paramount to sainthood.

My book covers a time in the early ‘80s when I worked as a nurse practitioner in a clinic on the west side of Chicago. I could walk to a Polish deli for the foods of my childhood on my mother’s side: kielbasa, kielbasapierogi and babka. (A good appetite at a Polish table also ranked next to godliness.)

I found a hole-in-the-wall Mexican Restaurant. There I fell in love with a soup crammed with a hunk of corn and a whole chicken breast. Mexican Chicken SoupIn that blue-collar neighborhood, I often stopped at a take-out stand specializing in greasy fries and Chicago red hots. All part of my immersion into community nursing. I was eating my way into appreciation of my clientele’s way of life.

Now as I write, I’m relishing the memories.

OUT OF THE DRAWER

Stephen King, On Writing, suggests after your book is written put it away.  Don’t look at it, or think about it for six weeks, or more. Then pull it out of the drawer and read it all in one sitting, if possible.

So after the designated time frame, while the crowds shopped on Black Friday, I curled up on the flowered loveseat in my bedroom. I tried to resist making edits. I wanted to concentrate on the story flow, the characters, any bumps in continuity but I couldn’t help noting typos and grammatical errors.

After five and a half hours, excluding potty breaks, lunch and long minutes walking out the kinks in my legs and back, I read 213 pages, doubled-spaced, with one inch margins all around, of the memoir I have labored over for the past ten years.

But this memoir isn’t the same book I started ten years ago. It has narrowed in scope and deepened in detail and is now ready for a final editing before I ship it off to my beta readers—probably the beginning of the New Year.

The end is in sight!

WHAT DOES PEA SOUP HAVE TO DO WITH WRITING?

sight
touch
taste

It’s a soup day. Well, okay, it’s 76 degrees outside on this August morning in Chapel Hill but it’s dark and dreary. The sound of the rain hitting the roof makes me think of soup. Thoughts of the warm aroma of Grandma’s bean soup and the sweet, earthy taste of Mom’s chicken soup, made with the bits of the carcass we modern cooks toss away, stir up memories. Soup comforts. Soup soothes the soul. Soup awakens the senses.

Lately I have been enmeshed in editing my book. And I’m losing ground in meeting my self-imposed deadlines. I should be writing but I’m making split pea soup instead. Both efforts are not entirely unrelated. Rather than searching for inclusion of the five senses in my story, now I actualize the experience.

hearing
smell

I finger the firm half-moon peas searching for hitchhiking stones. The thick broth bubbles noisily on the stove. Its steam fills the kitchen with an earthy aroma. I lift a spoon-full of green soup dotted with specks of orange carrot. The velvety rich liquid satisfies my hunger and need for comfort. And reenergizes me to return to my edits.

SELECTIVE STUBBORNESS

The first chapter of my book opens with my grandmother telling me in her fractured English I shouldn’t be a nurse. Her garlicky breath still resonates in my olfactory recollection. This chapter has been critiqued once in a master class at an annual writer’s conference and work-shopped at least twice in writing groups.

So when I read Benjamin Percy’s essay,  “Where’s Papa Going with that Axe?”On Opening with Dialogue in Glimmer Train, I felt broadsided with good advice I didn’t want to hear.  He makes a convincing case for NOT opening with dialogue.

Then I came across Michah Nathan in the same Glimmer Train bulletin 67  who had this to say:

“Good writers develop a style that works for them. They write, they fail, and they write again. The trick is prying apart the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and seeing how it all works. Good writers intuitively know this. They certainly don’t need me getting in the way.

So in honor of that self-immolating preamble, I give you the only useful advice I can muster: cultivate selective stubbornness.” (Read more)

I have a friend who once told me she wasn’t implementing most of the suggestions she solicited and paid for from a literary professor at a prestigious university. At the time, I thought her crazy. Her well-written book has been published. Her voice runs consistently through each chapter.

I’m not sure if I will move the dialogue from the beginning of my first chapter. Maybe not. Editing is not just applying skills and craft but following an inner faith that your story will be told in your unique voice.

It ain’t easy.