The End (Not Yet)

“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”

–          Colloquialism

 

And I’m not singing.  Not yet.

On Monday, I finished the fifth draft of my new novel, “Rise From The River,” due out by Main Street Rag Publishing Company on March 1st.  Four readers were diligently reading the fourth draft while I worked on the fifth.  Two readers are done; one did nothing but sing my praises (he won’t be asked to be a reader again – there’s always something to find) and one found an age discrepancy.  I had two characters who were four years apart in age celebrating first communion together when they were both supposed to be eight.  Oops.  The two others are still working their way through.

The fifth draft didn’t take me long.  One day short of a month.  It helped that I had a week off from teaching when I was on book club tour with “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time,” and had a lot of time to sit in my hotel room and work.  The new draft also only grew by 26 words.  This is a sign to me that I’m just about done.  To some, it would be a sign that it is done, but…not quite yet.  If I’m still adding words, it means I haven’t finished saying what I have to say. When I was twenty pages away from the end, I also realized there was another scene I wanted to add.  The persnickety in me won’t allow me to just go back and add it in.  There’s that ripple effect to deal with – putting a scene in might throw another one just a bit out of whack. So it’s back to the beginning again on Monday (I always start new projects or new drafts on a Monday) and we go through it again. And again, at least a few more times. I also need to hear what the last two readers have to say.

It took me three years to write “The Home For Wayward Clocks”.  “Enlarged Hearts” took two, and “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time” took just over two.  And then there’s this book. Oh, this book.

The very first full draft of this book was completed in 2006. But the book actually began back in 1998.  I started it. I stopped.  I started it.  I stopped. It’s had several different metamorphoses, several starting points, several characters.  The only character who has remained constant is the main one, Rainey.

All novels are hard to write.  They are the ultimate marathon in the fiction writer’s world.  You have to live with these characters in your brain all the time. They don’t, or won’t, go away.  You take a shower, you think about them.  You drive to the grocery store, you think about them.  You go to sleep, you think about them.  You work, you live, you interact, you watch television, you read books, you walk your dog, you watch your son get married, you bury your mother…you think about them.

And in my case, I also write stories, I write poetry, I write other books…and I think about them.  This novel has never been far beneath my surface, although I’ve pushed it back down at least a dozen times.

And then, in March of 2013, I drew it out of my surface, fully into my heart, threw it on the screen, and began to work in earnest.  This time, I didn’t back down.  And let me tell you, this book has made me SWEAT.  The original first completed draft, written back in 2006, was 82,003 words.  The fifth draft, finished last Monday, weighed in at 118,451 words.  That’s a lot of growth.

Of all the emotions that we humans can feel, the one I have the hardest time with is anger. I don’t like anger.  I would rather feel sad than angry. Anger in my personal life makes me turn and walk away, find someplace quiet where I can sit and wait to feel calm and in control again. Even little anger – anger at an unfair speeding ticket, anger at a bill that is incorrect – is hard for me to deal with.  When I try to face off with whoever or whatever it is that is making me angry, I cry.  Which makes me angrier.  This is why, when there is a wrongful bill or something similar that has to be dealt with, especially on the phone, I let my husband do it.  When I most want to yell, I weep.

This book was born in 1998 out of anger.  Stillborn, really, because I kept snuffing out its life.  I kept walking away.  When I fully embraced this book in 2013, the anger was still there, and throughout the time I’ve worked on the book, the anger has grown.  Things in the news that relate to what I’m writing about left me thoroughly wrung out.  But this time, I didn’t walk away.  My writing muscles, much more matured than they were in 1998, are in control.  My anger feels channeled, not flinging in all directions.  Rather than encompassing the work, the anger fuels it.  It’s a solid hum that keeps me moving forward.

There’s a joy in knowing what I want to say. What I want to show.

So what’s different now, than in 1998?  Why am I able to write this book now?  Knowledgeable anger.  I think that’s the change.  When I started this book in 1998, it was a rant.  I was run over with rage.  What I wrote at that time was absolute emotion, to the point of being incomprehensible.  Just as I dissolve on the phone, I dissolved on the page, and all that was left was a mess that didn’t do anyone any good.

But for me, writing is about doing someone, maybe everyone, good.  It’s about bringing change and addressing issues and solving problems.  I couldn’t solve a problem when I was that overwrought with anger.  I couldn’t solve a problem when I had to walk away and be quiet in order to feel in control of my own self again.

And now, I know what I’m doing.  Besides feeling an emotion, I’ve supplied myself with knowledge.  There’s been research and discussions and questions and answers. It’s no longer just about the anger, it’s about seeing an issue in its totality, from all sides, and showing it with a new translucence so that others can see it from all sides too.

I know some would say to me that I must have been angry when I wrote Clocks and Lifetime too. After all, those books are about abuse, and abuse should make me angry.  Well, yes and no.  Those books were written out of a huge sense of concern and absolute amazement that such things could go on, and have gone on, and will go on unless we do something about it. Those books were written out of a sense of amazement that we could sit on this earth and live with each other and deny that we knew abuse was happening to our neighbor, our classmate, our brother, our friend.  Deny that we could have done anything about it.  And then we could point at the abuser and call him or her evil, which further removes us from our responsibility to each other.

What we claim we don’t know, we can’t do anything about.

So that’s why I wrote Clocks and Lifetime.  But this book…oh, this new book.  I’ve incorporated science.  And facts and figures.  Pros and cons.  And stark in-your-face reality.  Not Lifetime tv reality.  Not glossed-over politically correct verbiage.  No fun house mirrors, no twists on the truth.

Just the truth.

Draft Six starts on Monday.  With Draft Six, I am humming, and as I go through it, and the draft after, I know that hum will become progressively louder.  I’m filling my lungs this whole while.

And then I’m gonna sing.

Overflowing My Banks

“Death is no virgin; it has had many lovers.  Death is a slut.  It’s we the living who have yet to have our morbid cherries popped.”

–          Sam Howie, “Get Your Dead Ass Up”

 

I truly doubt that my friend from graduate school, Sam Howie, ever thought, Man, when I die, it’s going to bring Kathie Giorgio to her knees. Then again, I don’t think I ever thought that either.  We were friends.  We met at grad school.  I stepped on to campus, he asked me for my name, he recognized me from some stories I had published, and he told me I was going to rock the system.  I was terrified up until that moment.  Then I stayed. I rocked the system.

After grad school, we became long-distance Facebook friends.  I teased him when he got his AARP card application a few months before he turned fifty.  He teased me that I’d gotten mine first – I was three years older.  I cheered when his short story collection was published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company.  He cheered when MSR took my first novel…and then my collection…and then my second novel.  Sam was a light in my life, who always seemed to show up at just the right time.  We didn’t talk every day, we may have even gone weeks without thinking of the other.  But Sam always lit me up.

And then he died. On April 23. Not even a month ago.

A couple weeks before Sam died, he posted on Facebook that he was upset about something that was happening with his son. Sam was always sodden with love for his boy.  We sometimes compared our soddenness, his for his son, me for my four.  My youngest is close to his boy’s age.  I noted the post and told myself to make sure I said something to him later.  I’d been through divorce and shared custody; I had some understanding of what he was feeling.  But my life is busy and I never got around to it.  Then I noticed that Sam posted a thank-you to a friend, for stopping by and talking to him.  I was relieved, and reminded myself again to contact Sam.  And then, a few days later, I received a notice from my grad school that Sam was gone.  Passed away suddenly in his home.  That’s all I know.

I’m scared of what I don’t know.

It’s taken me until now to admit that I am in full-blown grief.

But it’s also taken me until now to realize that it’s not all just Sam.  Grief is interwoven into a jumble of things.

Earlier today, I emailed my publisher.  I asked him what would happen to Sam’s book, now that Sam was gone.  I honestly didn’t know.  He said, “Most of the time, when one of our authors dies, demand for the book dies as well. I keep whatever I have on hand for sale. After that—specific instructions aside (which I have never been given by any of the families of authors who have died) I let it drift off into oblivion.”

Oblivion.  I don’t know how Sam died.  In many ways, it already feels like he’s drifted off into oblivion.  But I don’t want him to. I don’t want his book to.

And in the end, I don’t want to drift off into oblivion either.

I am in La Crosse, Wisconsin, right now.  On Tuesday, I appeared at a book club in Eau Claire; on Wednesday, I appeared at a book club in La Crosse. Tomorrow, I am appearing at a reading/signing at a book store here.  Tonight, I went to dinner at Perkins. I sat in my booth, ate eggs that were soft-fried when I ordered scrambled, and I read Sam’s book, a short story collection called “Rapture Practice”.  I read the above passage and had to stop for a moment. And then I cued in on a conversation taking place in the booth in front of me.

Three women sat there, ranging in age from early fifties to mid-sixties.  They laughed a lot during their dinner and it made me smile.  Then one of them said, “We need to come up with a book for book club.”

She went on to say, “Mary told me she read this book that she just couldn’t put down, but she could never ever recommend it.”

“Why?” Woman 2 asked.

“Because,” Woman 1 said, “it was dark. Twisted. You know.”

“Oh,” Woman 3 said, her voice deepening with certainty. “Real.”

“Yes,” Woman 1 said.

Then they went on to talk about a book on slavery, and one of them said that she felt that, really, the part where slaves were brought over stuffed into the bottom of boats, held there with chains, was really the worst.  “Once they were let out of the boats, their lives really were better here than where they came from.”

Agreement all around.

I had to leave the restaurant.

The book club in Eau Claire was amazing, a group of sharp, intelligent women, over thirty of them.  They asked me intelligent questions, engaged me in passionate dialogue, hit on so many chords in “The Home For Wayward Clocks” and “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time”.  And then they called me a “social issues writer.”  A “social activist writer.”

I could have cried.  To them, I wasn’t dark.  I wasn’t twisted.  I wasn’t even disturbing.  They got it.  I felt like they all looked at me and called my name.

I felt like they told me I was going to rock this system.

But these women in Perkins – well.  These women in Perkins. A few weeks ago, someone told me about an article that claimed the woman who wrote “Fifty Shades of Gray” made 50 million dollars in 2013.  I have been horrified (and grieving) ever since.  Enough people were reading Fifty Shades to give this woman 50 million dollars. Fifty million for a book that glorified women’s submission, that made a controlling, abusive relationship “romantic,” that told women that it was a good thing to have a man tell you what to do, what to wear, what to say, who to see, both in and out of the bedroom.  I’d read that women’s book clubs read this book.  Mother/daughter book clubs read this book.  Mothers looked at daughters and said, “This is romantic!”

The women in Perkins would do this book in their book club, and they wouldn’t find it dark. They wouldn’t find it twisted.

I do.

Is it a coincidence that at a time when there are articles in the news every day about women being thrown out of influential jobs in editing and journalism, women are comprising less and less of the publishing industry, phrases like “authentic rape” are being tossed around in our government, and women’s rights to their own bodies are being challenged, that this book was pulled out of a self-publishing dungeon and glorified?  At a time when women should be gathering their strength and shouting at the top of their lungs, they are instead reading Fifty Shades and talking about how slavery gave “the blacks” a wonderful new life in our country?

The book is being read.  There are new definitions of rape on women every day in the news. And I am grieving.

But…the book club in Eau Claire.  There is hope.  On Wednesday, I went to the book club in La Crosse.  This is a book club that has done every one of my books.  And as I listened to their questions and welcomed their comments, I felt hope rise again.

Even as I grieve.

While staying in Eau Claire and La Crosse, I’ve been working on my new novel, “Rise From The River”.  Here in La Crosse, the Mississippi River is at flood stage.  I can hear it from my hotel room when I open the window.  And this afternoon, I took a break from writing and went in search of the river.

I have a favorite park here.  It’s called Pettibone Park.  When I drove there today, most of it was barricaded because it was under water.  But I was still able to get to a mostly submerged beach.

I parked in the lot and as I crossed the street to the river, I heard a strong buzzing sound.  And then something flew by me, so close, I felt the air move.  I saw a white head and a phenomenal wing span.

I was nearly bowled over by a bald eagle.

He flew in front of me and landed on a tree branch.  I am scared of birds, and this was a big bird, but I wanted to get closer.  As I moved toward the tree, he preened, and then he held still while I took pictures.  And then he took off.  I was so entranced, I couldn’t even aim my camera for a photo of him in flight.  I could only look.

Oh, lovely.  I’ve never seen a bald eagle before, except in zoos. There was so much strength in those wings, in those eyes.

I turned toward the river and it was indeed flooding.  Trees stood in water.  A park I was able to drive around last year was shrunk to the size of this teeny beach.  But the river was quiet.  There were no waves crashing, like at the ocean.  She whispered as she took her ground.  I took off my shoes and socks and waded in, even though it was freezing. I didn’t feel in any danger.  The river was quiet; a bald eagle stopped just short of smacking me silly.  I was safe.

As I looked at the river, I thought, She’s encroaching her banks.  And then I thought, HER banks.  These are hers to encroach.

And somehow that turned me back to my own new book, a book with River in the title.  And I thought, I’M encroaching banks.  And they are mine to encroach.

I want to eat quietly away at the banks where women read about submission and call it romantic.

Well, maybe not so quietly.  But you know, sometimes you need to learn from a river.

And so I grieve.  I grieve the loss of a friend who lit me up more times than I can count.  I grieve the apparent stepping backwards in feminism in our country, not just being cut down by men, but by women who are buying into something we’ve already learned the hard way is wrong.  I grieve a publishing industry that glorifies the raping of women, by clothing it in “romance”, and having the craftiness of using a book written by a woman.  I grieve the loss of reading intelligence in our country.

But when I find it, I rejoice in it.  And I always seem to find it.  Again and again. Or it finds me.

Even as I grieve, I find hope.  Tomorrow, when I wake up, I will sit back down at this desk and I will keep on working on my River book.  I will listen to the Mississippi. Today, I saw a combination of incredible strength (the eagle) and sincere steadfastness (the river).  I hear the women in Eau Claire.  I am a social issues writer.  I am a social activist writer.  I have banks to encroach.

And Sam.  Oh, Sam.  I am so sorry I didn’t post, I didn’t email you, I didn’t bring you the light as you so often brought me.  I am hanging on to your book with a grip so tight, my wrists ache.  You said to me, “You’re going to rock this system.”

And I will. With your light behind me. With your strength and sincere steadfastness.  And in your memory.

When Will The Story End?

You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard.  When was writing ever your profession?  It’s never been anything but your religion.  Never.  Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?  But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked.  You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died.  You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished.  You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it.  You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished.  I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. 

Were most of your stars out?  Were you busy writing your heart out?”

–          J.D. Salinger, from “Seymour: An Introduction” 

 

Every now and then, I hit a rough stretch, and this is definitely one of them.  It started a couple weeks ago, when at a doctor’s visit, the nurse didn’t ask me for the date of my last period.  Instead, she looked at me and said, “You’re postmenopausal, right?”

Ouch.

This was followed quickly by a flare-up of fibromyalgia.  Everything hurt, everything raged. In particular, my back went into spasms so harsh, they took my breath and my voice away.  Even my collarbone hurt.  I didn’t know collarbones could hurt.

Then in fast succession, I found out the following:

1)      My ex-husband was in the hospital, being treated for gangrene. He is my age.

2)      A good friend’s husband died in his sleep. He was my age.

3)      A good friend from grad school died suddenly.  He was three years younger than I am.

I suddenly felt immersed in my own mortality, surrounded by encroaching old age and illness, and inevitable death. Instead of seeing death as a shadow far away on the horizon, barely visible between mountain peaks, pushed away by a protective ocean, death came to perch on my shoulder, a bizarre combination of Poe’s raven and a shrieking seagull.

The passing of my grad school friend was particularly difficult.  Sam was the first person to talk to me when I set foot on Vermont College’s campus.  He started a year before me.  He asked me my name, and when I told him, he recognized me from reading several of my stories published in literary magazines.  He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You are going to rock this system.”

The people who rescue you during times of great fear are always held dear.  All I wanted to do that day was get back on a plane and go home.  But Sam’s words kept me there. And I will forever be grateful.  He was right, by the way.  I did rock the system.

This past Monday, the day I found out about his death, I sat down at my desk to start on Draft 5 of my new novel.  But as I stared at my screen, I just kept thinking, What’s the point?  What if I don’t live through the end of this book?  Why put such hard work into something when maybe I should be outside, smelling the roses (which are still nonexistent in a winter-stuck Wisconsin), or maybe I should be talking and laughing with my 13-year old daughter, or visiting my older kids, or playing with my grandchild.

In the end, I took a deep breath and forged ahead.  Draft 5 is underway.

But another thing happened too.  There is an article being passed around the Facebook hive about a woman who published several books of chicklit, then didn’t have her contract renewed.  She decided to go to grad school, earn her MFA, and write “serious fiction.” She graduated and started shopping her serious novel.  No one wanted it.  So then she rewrote it with a chicklit style and she walked away with five different offers from agents. Throughout the article, she maligned the literary genre, saying that to write it, you have to give up any idea of plot, you have to give up your personality, your sentences have to be unadorned and plain, and you can’t be funny. The comments following the article were vitriolic, calling those who write literary fiction snobs and academics that don’t have a clue what readers really want.

I write literary fiction. My books and stories have plot, and plenty of it.  My work has personality, my sentences are lyrical, and sometimes, when it calls for it, I can be really funny.  While I have my degrees, I don’t consider myself an academic.  It’s sort of like being a non-practicing Catholic, except I am a non-practicing academic. I have the background and experience of an academic, but I don’t teach in a university setting. I own my own creative writing studio, AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, very deliberately named so that all writers of all genres will feel welcome there.

But when I read that article, all I could think was if this is what people truly believe about literary fiction, is anybody reading it?

That left me staring at the screen for a bit too.  I write to be read.  Am I?

So, a rough stretch.

Throughout the writing life, we all get hit with some pretty hard and negative questions, which can lead to the blank stares:

1)      Writers are rarely able to support themselves with their writing.  So why am I working so hard at this?

2)      This book (story, poem, memoir) might not ever be published. Why am I making this effort?

3)      My book (story, poem, memoir )is published, but is anyone reading it? 

And a new question for me:

4)      Will I be like my friends and just suddenly keel over and be gone, before I have the chance to finish this book? If I die before I finish this book, how much time will I have wasted?  How much time do I have left?

Oh, yeah. Rough week. How much time do I have left?  I’m working on a novel which still needs several more drafts, and I have at least three more novels already in my head, plus another short story collection.  Will I have the time to give birth to them all?

So I tried to answer all of these questions, most of which I already had answers to, but I just needed to be reminded.

1)      Because I love it.

2)      Because I love it.

3)      Yes, people are reading my work.  Think about it.

With question 3, I made myself remember the following:

The 5-star review of “Learning To Tell A (Life)Time” on Goodreads: My wife gave me the book and just said “read it.” I hadn’t heard of the author (though now I’m going to get her other books), but I decided to start it late one night just to see what I thought. I ended up spending the next day (luckily I didn’t have to work) reading. I couldn’t help it.

I remembered presenting my short story collection, “Enlarged Hearts,” at the Wisconsin Book Festival.  Afterwards, I was approached by a woman who hugged me, then burst into tears.  She said her sister committed suicide, and through the story I’d read, she now understood why and she had closure.

I remembered going to visit a book club in Indiana who read “The Home For Wayward Clocks”.  They met in a private room in a restaurant.  When I walked in, they looked up, all twenty-something of them, and then they gave me a standing ovation.  They presented me with a broken clock (just the type that James would have loved) and a bottle of wine.

That brought me to tears all over again. Yes, I am being read.

So I love it, I love it, I have readers.  But now there’s that awful fourth question. I know that I have less time in front of me than I have behind me.  I’m fifty-three years old; chances are good that I won’t live to be 106.  Will my time and energy be wasted if I keep writing this book and before it’s finished, I die?

Is it wasting time if you die doing what you most love?  Fully immersed in the life you chose to lead?

And those questions brought me to my favorite writing quote of all time, which I included at the top of this post.  I asked myself the same questions Seymour Glass asked his brother, Buddy.

“When I die, will all my stars be out?  Will I be writing my heart out?”

Yes.  Because, as I answered questions 1 and 2, I love it.  And it’s not a waste of time to do what you love the most, what makes you feel at peace in this world, what makes you feel like you belong and you are giving back.

My stars will be out.  I have so much more to say.