Book thoughts

I’ve been having this feeling again that I want to write a book about our life, since so many things have happened that I think would be helpful to other parents to know.  I have so many stories!  As I’m sure you all have, too.

So here’s a question:  what do you want most to know about?  What do you wish I’d share?

I know when I was a new mom to Avery the thing I wanted most to know was if we’d be okay.  And that’s easy to answer, now–we are okay.  We are even better than okay.  As Tom used to tell me a lot in the beginning, “Life is hard, but good.”

And I don’t really have anything I really wish I could know, now.  I know the future with Avery will be surprising, sometimes I’ll worry, sometimes I will laugh for reasons I never could have imagined, I am guaranteed to meet more fantastic people (Avery is a magnet for awesome people), so I don’t really know where this is all going.  Maybe I’ll write the book to find out!

Write with me!

One thing that being a parent has shown me, especially being Avery’s mom, is that often, what I need to do most, what I need to get much better at, is letting go of the way I think things should be.  The lesson: to watch as things unfold as they should.  To allow it to happen.  Even, to embrace it.

Tomorrow, I’m going to open my heart and mind to a new experience: NaNoWriMo.  For many many years, I was taught that writing was a serious pursuit.  That it should be undertaken mindfully; that to do it, you needed to study, and to be educated.  Which is true, of course, but only to a certain extent.  When I think about why I began writing, as an 8-year-old girl sitting on my bed in my pink bedroom with the matching nightstand/dresser/desk/hutch in white wood with gold trim, I hadn’t yet learned all that.  I wrote because it was fun.

Which is why I’m doing NaNo!  It’s the opposite of what I’d usually do.  It’s unexpected.  It’s challenging and a little bit scary.  And mostly, I think it’ll be fun.

Join me, if you like!  And if writing isn’t your thing, then pick something else!  Try something this month that you wouldn’t normally do.  That you think is too hard, or too scary.  Which might actually turn out to be NaNo afterall….

Wish me luck!

The sometimes strange synchronicity of life

Like most of my stories lately, this one is long and a little bit rambling. It involves fall and homeschool and books and reading and even, apples. So here we go:

A few days ago Bennett asked me where apples come from. To use one of Bennett’s very favorite expressions lately, Yike! Some homeschool! So I quickly set up a field trip to a neighbor’s apple orchard, where we could pick MacIntoshes and Golden Deliciouses and Braeburns in the fall sunshine.

The apples were all around; many of them were falling from the trees, hitting the ground with quiet thumps. It was an odd sound, disconcerting, but also a little comforting, too. A letting go, if you will. A stripping away of everything else but what is essential, to face the coming winter.

Later, in the night, when the kids were settled and the house was quiet, I picked up my reading, a book by Louise Erdrich called The Painted Drum (HarperCollins, 2005). And here is what I read:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

Tears filled my eyes, because it seemed as if the words were written directly for me; as if they lept off the page and became a voice whispering gently in my ear.

And I thought, I’m trying. I’m tasting as many apples as I can.

The long-overdue BlogHer post

Way back when I began this blog (which is a subject that came up at BlogHer, when DID I begin Pinwheels, and I didn’t have a ready answer for the question, maybe I should add my archives, to which I said, Who cares?) I thought it would be a good way to share experiences with other families, as a way of helping us all along this path of parenthood.

I still feel that to be true.

And that’s the reason I wanted to write about the NDSC Conference in Boston, and about the BlogHer Conference in San Francisco–for those of you wanted to attend but couldn’t, so you’d get an idea of what you might have felt or experienced if you’d been there; of course, the lens is mine and the filter is through my own experiences.

Which is why I’ve had a bit of difficulty writing about San Francisco.  It was the city of my childhood; the place of my growing-up years, and this is the first time I’ve been back.  And because of this, I was terribly distracted from my life as a special needs mom at BlogHer, and I was very much my 10-year-old self, revisiting (or trying to) places I thought I remembered. 

If I were a photographer, these are some of the photographs I’d have taken:  the pastel-colored houses stacked along a hillside as we drove into town, in my shared airport shuttle with the guys who called me “Montana!”; Hi guys, I made it back!

Or the musician with the beautiful, sad green eyes who played jazz trumpet in the square across from the hotel.  One evening, he played Chet Baker’s, “My Funny Valentine,” and I almost felt as if I were home.

I wandered around China Town, too, and happy memories came back to me of things I thought I’d forgotten, like rice cakes and jasmine tea and though I was unscucessful, I searched and searched for a restaurant that used to serve meals in booths with sliding embroidered curtains. 

Instead, I witnessed a dragon dance in the alleyway, which I took as a sign of good fortune.  And I remembered that I’ve always loved the smooth, green glow of jade.  I bought my little boys kites from an import shop, and I got Tom a big-bellied, smiling Buddha, because really, who couldn’t use a little extra luck in life?

And I met friends, new and old, who all have written about this weekend already.  I am so, so fortunate to have these kinds of women in my life.

It sounds like a nice tourist trip, no?  Or maybe a trip down memory lane?

Yes, and yes.

Which is why it’s been difficult for me to know what to say here, at Pinwheels.  But I’ve finally got it.  Like many things in life, sometimes the passage of time lets the silt settle, and what you’re left with is the moments that resonate as truths, to you.  Here are mine:

Lisa Stone, speaking about the importance of blogging.  She’s a Montana gal and she related to me the story of waiting on her front stoop, as a girl, for the mailman to deliver the most recent copy of Seventeen Magazine.  What freedom, when it arrived!  For a few moments, her life was updated, and she was in touch with the currents of the world.  To which I replied, “I understand!  On the ranch, we get mail once a week, on Thursdays.  I don’t know what I would do without the Internet.”

Then there was the closing address, which featured popular bloggers Heather B. Armstrong and Stephanie Klein.  There were some truths about the writing life, but mostly, it was a discussion of the trappings of fame and celebrity, which is something I’ve never known. 

Instead, what stayed with me were the words of moderator Elisa Camahort Page.  She said something to the effect of, I blog because I can.  I can never know what my grandmother was thinking, as a young woman and a Holocaust survivor, but I can leave my own words, for others to discover.

It meant so much to me:  I don’t think this blog will mean fame, or fortune.  But it is my hope that it will be a record of our times; and it will be my voice, for my family and my children’s children, some day.  So that they will know how much I loved them, and how I tried to show it.

My fellow panelists wrote about it here and here and here and here.

Thanks to HappyKatie for the liveblog, and to the ladies at BlogHer for putting together such a powerful and clear sign that blogging matters, and that it’s here to stay.

San Francisco, here I come!

On Friday, I’ll be signing books with Vicki Forman from 2-2:30 at the BlogHer Bookstore & Internet Cafe, which is across from Registration in the Westin’s Georgian Room–if you’ll be there too, stop by and say hi!

Then Saturday, I’m part of the afternoon Break-Out Session #2 from 1:45-3 called, “MommyBlogging: Blogging About Our Children with Special Needs.” The whole weekend is filled with sessions that I’d love to attend–and there are at least 3 I’m sad to miss that occur right as we’re giving our presentation. I don’t suppose I can ask everyone to “hold that thought” as I dash about from room to room?

Ah, well. Life is about choices, and I feel very honored to be on a panel with such distinguished bloggers. I’ve just about recovered from my speechless-speech incident in Boston, and by Saturday, I’ll be ready to go.

Try this!


Susan and Janice of 5 Minutes for Mom have launched several new sister sites, including one called 5 Minutes for Special Needs. Tammy of Praying for Parker is the site’s fearless leader, and regular writers include Kim of Ramblings of the Bearded One, Tom at Narrow Ridge, and many other names you might recognize. I’ll be contiributing a monthly column called “5 Minutes for Special Needs Books” and this month, I looked at More Than A Mom. (Go here for a chance to win a copy of the book.)

A conversation about writing with Vicki Forman

Suzanne Kamata’s new book, Love You to Pieces:  Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press) was released this month.  It’s a collection of poems, short stories, essays and excerpts from larger works–some of the writing has been published and widely read elsewhere; some has appeared only in smaller presses; some appears in print for the first time.

Love you to Pieces takes its title from the words of Clare Dunsford’s son J.P. in her essay, “Speaking of Love/Reading My Son.” The collection is organized by chronological age of the children in the stories, beginning with an essay by Vicki Forman.  Vicki took the time to answer some questions about her essay, and writing in general, here:

“Coming to Samsara” is an essay that looks at the premature birth of your fraternal twins, and the events that flow from that experience, which is also the subject of your forthcoming memoir, This Lovely Life (Houghton-Mifflin, 2009).  Which came first, the essay or the memoir?

VF:  The essay is actually the very first piece of writing I completed after the birth of my twins.  I remember sitting down at my kitchen table, ready to tell the story, or at least the start of the story, taking a deep breath and hoping against all hope that I could write something true and meaningful and not overly subject to self-pity. I also remember that the piece came out more or less all at once–something that rarely happens with me, since I am such a plodding writer who relies so heavily on revision to make something work.  When the time came to write the book, I knew that the essay was probably also the beginning of the book, so I put it right there at the front.   My task then became teasing out the essay, which is only about eight manuscript pages, into the first chapter of the book, which is more than four times as long.  Proof that essays do indeed succeed best when they are mightily compact.

What were the challenges of writing the essay, versus the challenges of the book?

VF:  With the essay, I’d never written about this subject matter before (death, disability), and I’d honestly never written anything so personal.  When it was done, I felt both exposed and empowered, and then the real challenges began, to wit:  convincing others that there was an audience for this material.  When I placed the essay (with my great friend and editor Andrew Tonkovich at the Santa Monica Review), I was greatly relieved not only because it had found a home, but also because that freed me up to keep writing, and , more specifically, to begin the book.

Writing the book, the challenges were similar to writing the essay in terms of subject matter and the personal nature of the story.  However, with the expanded landscape of the book came, naturally, additional challenges.  First, while the essay is metaphysical in nature, I wasn’t interested in writing a book that was purely spiritual.  There are many spiritual aspects to the book, but there is also a good dose of science, medicine, politics, and ethics.  I knew that I wanted the book to have that scope, and while the book would have had tremendous value solely as a spiritual journey, my story and the story of our family also encompassed those other elements and I knew I wanted and needed to include them. 

Second, with the book I rediscovered a principle I once read and often teach my students, to wit:  in writing a book one must find a way to be extremely generous with the reader.  The essay was eight pages of what interested me (Buddhism, Springsteen, grief, reincarnation) and my playing around with how to connect them.  The book had to include what would interest the reader–as well as me.  Before I began, and all along the way, I thought long and hard about what others would want to see and know about our story.  I also gave the manuscript in draft form to a superlative reader who helped me see what else had to be included.  Sometimes these weren’t elements I would have opted to include, sometimes they were, but they were always necessary.  For example, my friend wanted me to write more about my own religious background and upbringing (which is the story of a mongrel) and even though I found myself less interested in the material, I made myself do it and now I see she was right.  It’s a necessary inclusion.

Finally, writing a book is hard.  No getting around that.  An essay is over in a month or so; a book can take years to get out the door.

This Lovely Life recently won the Bakeless Prize for nonfiction.  How does it feel?

VF:  To quote my favorite songwriter Glen Hansard, “Brilliant!”  I’m stunned and thrilled.  I didn’t think anyone won book contests.  When I was a kid, my mother once won a jar of mayonnaise from the supermarket.  This feels like mayonnaise, but much much better.

In all seriousness–winning a book prize is the kind of break a writer dreams about.  I am very grateful to the Bakeless folks, and to the judge, Tom Bissell, a writer whose work I have been happy to discover. 

You are a writer and a teacher of writing, too.  What advice do you have for beginning writers?

VF:  Work hard and then expect to work harder.  Be patient and persistent.  It’s not only or always about talent–I’ve seen many talented writers give up and fall by the wayside.  It’s about keeping at it.  

What are the most common mistakes you see in beginning writing?

VF:  A lack of specificity.  I am like a broken record when it comes to this:  be specific, be concrete.  Abstractions don’t keep a reader’s interest.  Then there is also the counter-error, which is the overabundance of detail.  Details are necessary, but they must also feel purposeful.  Selection is key.  There’s more, but those are the main lessons I try to remember in my own writing and hope to impart to students.

What do you wish everyone knew about writing?

VF:  I wish everyone who wrote understood how important it is to be honest and authentic as a writer and how that honesty begins with some pretty direct engagement with one’s self.  I read Dorothy Allison once say that when she feels herself getting close to what is uncomfortable, that’s when she knows she’s on the right track.  I would like to be able to give a writer that instinct in pill form. It’s one of the hardest things to learn, and the hardest thing to teach, but if you can do it, your work will soar.

How do you find time to write, and what is your process?

VF:  For This Lovely Life, I drafted the entire manuscript in bed, with various props spread out around me:  medical records, key inspiring books, etc. etc.  Since then, I have read of many writers, including Collette, who liked to write in bed.  It strikes me as a very secure place from which to let one’s mind travel, the most important ingredient for a draft, which, as a teacher once told me, is where you put on your “crazy hat.”

When it came time to revise, I packed up my computer and my sack lunch and took myself every day to my local public library where there were no distractions.  I believe in writing every day, for as many hours as the day gives you.  The very first pages of the book happened in the dark at five am, because my kids were still home at the time.  It was all I had and I made it work.

As for the question of time, I wish you could hear me laughing right now!  When I’m teaching, my writing life tends to take a pretty distant back seat.  I continue to write a monthly column at Literary Mama and otherwise plot future projects in my head.  That often includes reading and mulling things over, what my friend Bonni Goldberg calls “percolating.”  I percolate a lot. 

When I’m not teaching, I try to make the very most of the time, and use uninterrupted days or weeks to make headway on longer projects, which require a bigger head of steam to get going and stay going.

What projects are you working on now?

VF:  After spending so much time in the world of nonfiction and true stories, I’m ready to lose myself a bit to fiction, and invention.  I have a political novel I started several years ago, one that is set in Los Angeles and has the requisite natural disasters to go along with it (fires, earthquakes, etc.)  Being a non-native to Southern California, I’ve always wanted to write a book set here, and so here I go.  Hopefully I won’t be lambasted for inaccuracies or writing like a fellow traveler.  In any event, I miss writing fiction, and I’m eager to dive in.

Vicki Forman teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in the Seneca Review and the Santa Monica Review, as well as the anthologies, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child With Special Needs, This Day: Dairies From American Women, The Spirit of Pregnancy and Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two children, one of whom is multiply-disabled. You can contact her at vickiforman(@)gmail.com or visit her blog.

(And I have one copy of Love you to Pieces to share!  If you’re interested, leave your name in the comments and I’ll choose a winner at random.)

UPDATED TO ADD: We have a winner! #15, Mom-NOS, your choice: a jar of mayonnaise or a copy of LYTP…

6 impossible things

The White Queen from Alice in Wonderland has a line that goes like this: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Which is exactly how I feel most days; and sometimes, not only do I believe 6 impossible things, 6 impossible things happen to me, too.

These are my most recent 6:  I’m going to Boston in July for the NDSC Conference, where Kathy Soper and I will give a presentation called “New Parent’s Survival Guide”; Penguin has agreed to provide 100 free copies of my book for me to give away at the conference; a week later, I’m going to San Franscisco for BlogHer ’08, to speak on a panel with esteemed bloggers such as Susan Etlinger, Shannon Des Roces Rosa aka Squid Rosenberg, Kristina Chew, and Vicki Forman (go here for a contest with many prizes, including an all-expense trip to BlogHer ’08); my one year anniversary came and went at ParentDish–I’ve written 102 posts and more than 64,000 words there; my author books finally arrived; and Avery said “hot cocoa.”

Amazing.  Thank you for being a part of it, my blogging friends.

The Baby Bonding Book for Dads

My friend Jennifer Margulis and her husband James di Properzio have written a beautiful gift book I wished we’d had 9 years ago, when Carter was born. Tom and I were both newborn parents then, equally invested in our lives together and in the life of our wrinkled, prune-faced new baby, but I had my stack of books to help guide me, and Tom had, well, hmmm. He had a funny, joke-type book about fatherhood by Bill Cosby, and another humorous book by Paul Reiser. If you were to go by this selection alone, you might think a father’s only job was to keep the laughs rolling.

Thankfully times have changed, and The Baby Bonding Book for Dads: Building a Closer Connection with Your Baby (Willow Creek Press), is a reflection of these changes. In it, newborn dads are treated to thoughtful, helpful, accurate information, as well as stunning black and white images of men and their babies (the photographs are by Christopher Briscoe).

It was only after reading this book did I realize that I missed these images: ones that aren’t often seen in parenting publications or even online, but ones that are an integral part of family life. Fathers holding babies. Fathers holding mothers holding babies. Lots of fathers.

I’d like to share a copy of this book. If you’re interested, leave your name in the comments and I’ll select a winner at random.

UPDATED TO ADD:  We have a winner!  It’s #8, Karen.  Congratulations!  Email me at jennifer (at) jennifergrafgroneberg (dot) com with your address and I’ll get it sent out in the mail.