The Talents I Got Didn’t Come With Fine-Motor Skills

I was always the kid with the limp.

I loved sports. I knew I’d never play them. What I would have given in my true youth for one day in an athlete’s body. To move like that. To run like that. To leave all challengers in the dust.

In high school, I was jealous–though never publicly–of the kids who could dunk, or pitch, or hit. Sure, those talents would fade with time and age, but they were so free, those kids. Not only that, they took their abilities so for granted. And they had cars. I’d never have a car. I didn’t  want to dunk as much as I wanted to drive down the road and buy a burger and a shake with a cute girl on my arm and then drive home, after a drive-in movie, late for  a curfew I knew I’d missed.

The talents I got didn’t come with fine-motor skills or hand-eye coordination. In fact, my talents’ Lyft left those things far behind. (I think it forgot to pick them up on the way to the airport or something.) My talent–singular, in a way, but amazing–was words. I could write and I could talk.

Talking gave me the ability to ask for help when I needed it. I often needed it (I often need it), though I never liked asking for it. Asking for help is weakness, I thought. Talking gave me the ability to show people who weren’t like me that I was like them enough to matter. That I should matter.

It was writing that showed me I did matter.

When a teacher would single out one of my stories and say, “Do you see, ladies and gentlemen? Do you see what Derek did there? Can you see why that’s good writing?” I beamed. Sure, the praise brought forth more than a few groans from my fellow students who couldn’t do what I did. Ironically, though, usually the groans came from the ones who could dunk or pitch or hit. But such praise also made some people re-evaluate how they saw me, and it was these people with whom I would want to communicate, anyway.

Writing, as a job, is more than difficult. I still want the praise from a teacher who’s no longer there to give it. The praise my brain is trained to expect, the praise for which it hungers. There’s no way to get it outside of reviews, and I may not get a review, or if I do it might not be the kindest thing ever written about me.

I am coming to terms with something tonight.

I write. There is a manuscript floating around out there that is the embodiment of my heart. Though fictional, it’s truer than anything that’s happened in my non-fiction life. I know people who, when one book doesn’t sell, they’ll simply write another. Have as many books ready as you can. Stuff them in drawers all around your house. When an agent finally comes calling, show them all. They will realize they’ve hit upon a treasure trove in you. I know people who can do that. I admire those people in much the same way as I used to admire the kids who could dunk and pitch and hit. But it needs to be okay–with me and for me–that I’m not one of them. My relationship with writing is analogous to my relationship with God. I have mine. You have yours (or not). And however we muddle through this existence, whatever we use our skill for, however we communicate with a higher power, or find our writer’s voices, that’s okay. No one way is better than another. They simply are, and they work for who they work for.

It’s interesting that I finally came to a point tonight where I could put that down for others to read. I’ve been trying to say it–if I’m honest with myself–for years.

 

 

 

Advertisements

I’m Not Gonna Tell Another Story About…

I’m not gonna tell another story about a girl on a train who is also gone and has also fallen from the sky and gotten a dragon tattoo, only to become the woman in the window in her agoraphobic middle-age.  It’s not that those stories aren’t interesting.  They’ve been told, though, and they’re not mine to tell. I definitely don’t want to tell tired rehashings of them. People will do exactly this, however, and the books will sell until the reading public realizes they’re being fed the same exact story for the tenth straight year.

What I want to tell is my story. Because in telling my story in a fictionalized form, I let my story live and become my story that is also your story, and the story of your neighbor, and so on. If I don’t tell my story, my life experience is lost to everyone but me, and what can be learned in such a loss other than sadness and regret? So tell your stories. Read original stories. Write the story or act the character or paint the painting you need to see in the world.

 

I Edit For Authors. I Write For Readers.

I’m a writer who loves to write. Yet writing can also be so frustrating as to cause one to stop writing for long periods.

How so? you ask.

If a writer is not clear on why they wrote a certain piece, why they let a certain sentiment float from their pen into an inky, judgmental world, this will come through in their writing and they–and their sentiment–are likely to be lost in this world, lost in the drone of so many voices saying so little, so many pages telling us not much.

There are so many stories I began writing whose main thesis never congealed into a cohesive narrative, and so they will never see the light of day, nor the dark of night. They will forever be known only to me, the writer who, in frustration, called a halt to them.

As I edit books and work with authors to fashion the best books we can, my chief thought is always, Does this sentence or that sentence serve the story? If it doesn’t, I recommend the sentence be excised. The most beautiful writing can’t save a sentence that, while beautiful in style, says essentially nothing of substance. All such sentences do say:  Look at me and the big words I know! Praise be to big-word knowers!

As well as being clear on what they’re writing, authors should be clear as to who they’re writing for.

Some authors write to be lauded by reviewers. They don’t want readers so much as to be talked about in the same breath as David Foster Wallace, Michael Cunningham, or the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The great irony of this fact is how Fitzgerald hungered for readers for his Gatsby. Readers he could not find until he’d left the world for good.

Other authors write for readers. They still want good reviews, don’t get me wrong, but they hope their good reviews come from the readers who take time out of their busy days and nights–their hectic lives–to carve out a place for their book. And hopefully said book will lodge forever in the reader’s memory, to be thought on and reread again and again.

I know I am firmly in the latter group. I edit for authors. I write for readers.

 

 

 

 

What Offends This “Disabled” Man

Watching The Great American Read on PBS, and seeing so many of my favorite books profiled, I am reminded why I love to read, and why I love to write.

I have cerebral palsy. And I am legally blind. Fun times! Truly, I choose to see these traits as two factors that add to my life, and not two obstacles that detract from it. You may choose to agree with me… or not. I don’t care. It’s my life, and I’ve learned over many years that, as the great Ricky Nelson once crooned, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

At a young age, this is the mentality I took into writing. I had two people to please: My elementary school teacher, whoever it happened to be that year, and my Papa Dick. (The identity of the latter never changed.) Beyond that, as long as I was happy with it, any story I wrote was good and useful to teach me more about the mechanics and the craft of writing.

Years passed apace. Much quicker than they appeared to go by as they were unfolding. Those years that seemed to go by me as might a lumbering truck on a logging road–I look back on them now and see race cars in the rear-view. Through these years, I began to write seriously, and with the hope–the faraway wish–that other people might read my words.

I never thought I’d finish a novel. Short stories were easy. You conceived the piece, wrote it, and it was there for you to gaze upon and marvel at within a few days or weeks.

Novels, on the other hand, were an undertaking. What did I have to say that merited such room, such expansion of word counts, such varied language as must be used in a novel to avoid too much repetition? A lack of variety?

I always enjoyed novels. But I could never escape into them as so many of my peers claimed to be able to do. There was something in my head that told me: As much as you want to be a baseball player, you can’t be. You’re Derek. Your legs and your eyes don’t work. Sorry. No fun in the athletic realm for you.

As much as you want to be a super hero, you can barely walk. And you’re reading a book where people fly? Sorry, kid. Not happening.

Mysteries are fun to read, sure. But do you really think you could write one? Mysteries require clues and red herrings and compelling evidence and twists thought up well before they find the page. Your eyes will barely let you watch television. And you would presume to be able to write a mystery on par with the greats? With Doyle and Christie? Not gonna happen.

There was one subject I was steeped in and had researched my whole life. Being a guy with palsy and bad eyes, and wondering why. What if I could write a story about that? Then I could turn my deficits, the things society sees as lacking in me, and make them character traits as opposed to character flaws.

But would anyone care to read such a book?

“You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I’m just gonna write the thing, and we’ll see what happens, I told myself.

Ten years later, my manuscript was ready. I was ready. Time to find an agent who’ll love my book the way I love it; completely and without reservation.

Every writer knows rejection. They know it hurts and it sometimes scars, but it is also an important part of the business of books. When any writer is first writing, as a kid, what matters is the storyMake the story good. By the time they’re an adult writing books for public consumption, what matters is, Will the thing sell?

I remain haunted, after many years, by one particular rejection note concerning my book, What Death Taught Terrence. It is the book I was always meant to write. The main character has palsy and bad eyes, as do I, and he wonders after the purpose of his life. He wonders why.

Rather than a generic form rejection, the kind all writers are used to (“We regret to inform you that we will not be looking to represent your novel. Our opinion is, of course, subjective. Keep searching to find your book’s perfect home. Good luck to you!”) what I got in this particular rejection note was an agent (or an agent’s assistant) who actually sat down and wrote to me, “Clearly, you’ve written this book for people with cerebral palsy.”

You will never find a surer way to offend this disabled man. I don’t remember the name of the person who wrote that note, but I definitely remember the sentiment it carried.

Would anyone ever say to Lee Child, for example, “Jack Reacher is white. Clearly you’ve written this book for white people”? Would they say to the great Mr. King, “You’ve written Misery to scare writers exclusively”? No. But somehow it’s okay to marginalize a book written by a disabled man simply because the person marginalizing it failed to understand it?  That’s how I took that particular incident, anyway.

I would hope our world is better than that.

The world in which I wish to be a published author whose words affect the people who read them–that world is better. And, if it isn’t yet, it will be.

I don’t want to please everyone with my words. But, while pleasing myself with them, Dear Reader, I sincerely hope they will get to you one day and make you question the world we inhabit. And maybe, just maybe, they will make you feel a little bit better and make this life a little bit easier to live.

 

What Do I Write? (A Prayer For My Book)

What do I write,

Specifically now?

What do I write?

It’s important,

Somehow.

“Would you classify me as “literary”?”

“No, your work is commercial,

And that’s good.”

You have the potential to sell more books

Than a literary writer would.

 

But I don’t write to sell books,

Or even to make bread.

I write books in the hope they’ll be read.

 

I write to say something;

And, if nothing comes, I stay quiet.

You may not understand what I write,

But I stand by it.

 

When the years have stretched

Impossibly out

Into the unknown future,

Let there remain no doubt

That I took the talent given to me

And wrote about a man

Who loved to sail the sea.

I showed people who never knew him

That fame

Isn’t about the world knowing your name.

It’s about cherishing your family.

 

I wrote about the shackles

That rest on my legs

And make painful my nights

And, sometimes,

Wreck my days

Before they begin.

 

I wrote about my eyes,

And how little they see.

And about the looks I get,

The stares I get,

When I’m out to eat,

And how little

The people who look and stare–

How little they see

Of the real me.

 

I wrote about hardship I know well

Because others should know it,

And of it  I’m here to tell.

 

If you don’t know how to take my prose,

How to react to the literature

That out of a life’s experience arose,

That is okay.

Your confusion does not bring me dismay.

What would?

If no one read the pages I grayed.

I can’t tell you

If it’ll change your life,

Or if you’ll hate it.

But the whole of what I wrote

Prays you won’t forsake it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Doorstep…

I sit here today on the doorstep of my 36th year. That number is a little bit awe-inspiring, a little bit frightening, a little bit exciting, and a lot strange to me. I am the same guy who, as a boy, watched the Mariners triumph over the Yankees in 1995 in the now-imploded Kingdome. Edgar Martinez’s double, featuring Ken Griffey J.r.’s mad dash from first all the way home, and the boy I was using my father’s frame for leverage to leap high in the air as the play unfolded; this scene feels like it might have happened yesterday.

That boy was the same boy who, at twelve, just a year prior to The Double, opined about how much I wanted to be grown-up. I’d do things different if I were a grown-up. Now I look back and think how wonderful twelve felt. Very little pain. No worries. Everyone I love(d) still alive and healthy, and eager to see what I would write next, where I would go next, what I would do with this life of mine.

Thirty-six is an odd age. Life is far from over (knock on wood), but enough of it has accrued behind you to look back on it. In a manner somewhat similar to the plot of my forthcoming novel, What Death Taught Terrence. The how and when of its forthcomingness are as yet unknown, but if anyone would like to fill me in on them I’m all ears!

I’ve heard so many stories of my birth I can practically reconstruct it. The Seattle Supersonics (who are they?) were in the playoffs on my Mom’s hospital-room T.V. She told my dad to turn it off; the stress of the game was giving her contractions. Then I came into the world in a Seattle early-evening on May 11th, 1982. A harrowing birth, to say the least, a doctor who should not have been in his profession, or should have left it many years before, essentially gave me cerebral palsy. Hippocratic oath broken. Harm forever done.

My first solid memory is of my grandfather teaching me a song. Written to the tune of Winter Wonderland, it was really just a verse from a longer barroom ditty:

“Kenbok’s here, can’t ya smeell him. Millie thinks we should expel him. His feet in the air, his butt in the chair, sippin’ on a little glass o’ beer!”

The first song I ever learned. One of the memories I treasure.

The next memory is of my surgery. I go into it in-depth in my book, so I won’t do so here. It’s enough to tell you I found out what pain was that day at four years old, and I’ve never forgotten. The silver lining: Getting to spend many defining days at Disneyland following the surgery and its many yearly follow-up appointments. Mickey Mouse is the man!

The next memory that comes to mind, that I can see so clear in my mind’s eye as to want to jump right back into it, is the first meeting between my best friend, Luke, and me. At eight years old. It started as a not-all-that-fun summer day in a summer daycare that–for an unathletic kid who couldn’t run, couldn’t throw, could barely stand without feeling pain that might bring him down–was something close to torture.

Oh, and no one there would play with me, either.

I literally stood in the middle of the room and said, “Will somebody please play with me?”

“I’ll play with you,” Luke said. Friendship cemented.

Luke liked the Mariners. So I liked the Mariners. He was the first to tell me about the film Field Of Dreams, when we were eleven. I went home and watched that movie eleven times in one night. (It’s a fairly short movie, and I had nothing to do in the weekend-morning, so I could do that.) I traveled with he and his family across the country, watching baseball games as we went, to the Baseball Hall Of Fame And Museum in Cooperstown, New York. We were fifteen and probably didn’t understand the monumental undertaking that planning such a trip was, and without the help of something still in its infancy; the Internet.

At seventeen, I gave a girl my first kiss. She didn’t deserve it.

Yet that short-lived relationship–we were officially together five days, though afterwards she wanted to white-wash it; don’t worry, unnamed person who knows who they are; I wanted to forget it, too–taught me so much. Mainly: Always be yourself. Don’t change for another person, thinking you’re bettering yourself. Change because it works for you, and if the person you’re with loves you, they’ll understand and support you. I never needed to wear a pair of jeans or a trendy pair of shoes to prove to a girl I was worth dating. Can I go back and tell myself that? It’ll save me about a year of needless heartache.

The next memory that comes to mind is of a relationship that lasted much longer–about four years–and which I am grateful for because of what it taught me. But it, too, would never have worked. I see that now. Too many compromises. (Compromises are fine, if both participants in a relationship are willing to give a little; if only one gives and the other takes, that’s not compromise. That’s being taken advantage of.) I still retain love and appreciation for her family, so I won’t give any names or identifying characteristics. I am grateful to know now what not to do later because of what happened between us.

About five years before I entered that doomed relationship, my grandfather, there for me for the first twenty years of my life without fail, succumbed to the lung cancer he’d fought valiantly. I won’t say much about that here. Again, it’s in the book, and hopefully you’ll read about it that way. But that loss, that first he-loves-you-but-he-can’t-come-back-to-you that I’d ever experienced… it changed me forever. I like to think I was already an empathetic person, thanks to my palsy, but watching Papa Dick go increased my empathy quotient ten-fold. Before he went, when it was becoming clear such an exit was imminent, I wrote Papa a collection of poetry, Prose From A Grandson To A Senior Fellow. It was the last book he’d ever read and remains a solid part of the legacy I know I will leave someday.

Truthfully, following Papa’s passing, there was a sizable chunk of time lost to anger. To indifference. To what-will-become-of-me-anyway? But I think I needed that time of reflection. It gave me both the time and the fuel to write my novel. And it let me ruminate on what I wanted out of this life.

I spent a long time as an on-line dater. I was always the one writing the e-mail. And I never mentioned anything about my palsy, or the bad eyes that accompanied it, in my profile. I always gave the women that little nugget to chew on in my second e-mail, if they responded to my first. I met some pretty great people in this way, but I didn’t feel the kind of meshing that told me, This is the one.

Then, about two years ago, an e-mail came in that I’d never forget. She liked my profile. She liked the idea of visiting museums, as did I. She loved Disney, as did/do I, and specifically Disneyland. “I think we could have fun together,” she said in one of the e-mail’s last lines.

We have ever since. I treasure her, and my family loves her, too.

I have no idea where life will take me from here. Well, I have maybe a rough sketch, but that’s all. But whatever happens, however my book gets to you, dear reader, however my career moves forward, I will take on the challenges placed before me knowing that I do so with the support of my loved ones and that, at the end of the day–whatever someone may think of my palsy, my bad eyes, or the way I walk, my family is my safety and my love. I thank all of you who know me personally, because you are that family. Be you a family member or a friend I haven’t talked to in years, you changed me by simply being in my life and coloring it.

 

 

 

 

One Of These Days, I’ll Be A Publisher: My Mission Statement

One of these days, I’ll be a publisher.

To publish my book(s), sure (if need be), so that when I write them they’ll be assured a place to go, a shelf to sit on, that hands, bags, buses, trains, and planes will carry them far beyond my four walls.

But also so that I may find and bring to the world other people whose words sing to me. In this endeavor, I shall endeavor to work by a mission statement, which reads as follows:

Mission Statement:

  1.  I will work with friendly people, and only friendly people, because the world doesn’t provide enough antacids not to. If I lose out on a book because someone is unfriendly, I’ve gained a year of life by never having to hassle with them.
  2.  A good writer knows pain and does not wish to inflict it, though they may wish to illuminate it.
  3. A writer is appreciative of good reviews but never loses sight of their humanity, which allows them to tell stories. Writers are imperfect people who know how to communicate to others this imperfection so that readers may see it in themselves or someone they know and be made stronger, smarter, or any number of adjectives by the experience of reading and discovering.
  4.  Writers need to write, genre be damned. If a book is good, who cares where it fits? All that matters is that it fits somewhere on a shelf so that it may later be taken down from there and enjoyed.
  5.  Make sure each book speaks to your soul. Your soul is a reader’s soul and will know more about what feels right than any focus group.
  6. But hone in on those readers you know to be your audience. They are your most important focus group, whether they know it or not, and they will steer you right; readers want to read good books and rid themselves of the opposite.
  7. Remind every author you work with to trust themselves while editing. They’ve got the blueprint for a great book. Editing will make it greater… if they trust the process.
  8. Fight for the books you believe in.
  9. If a book doesn’t reach the audience you intended, trust that it reached those it was meant to and move on proudly.
  10. Last but not least, never forget that reading–however or whyever one may read; for escape, for love, for thrills, for chills, to learn, to turn the page in your life–reading is there to befriend, soothe, and bolster. It increases confidence, critical thinking, and encourages emotional honesty. If you can find books that will do this, you will have found the right books.

My Heart Is In Everything I Do!

Maybe you’re like me.

My heart is in everything I do. Whether that means being a sibling, a son, a boyfriend. A baseball fan, a football fan, a lover of great theater and art. As a writer, my heart is in everything I write. If it’s not–or if I find out in mid-composition it’s not–I won’t write it.

Why continue something whose only end is sure doom?

Doom, in what sense? you may be asking. For a writer, doom is incompletion.

Writers write to be read. We work every passage so that everything we want to communicate is there on the page to read and comprehend. Most of the time, after I’ve finished drafting something new, it’s still not all there yet, what I wanted to say, and I need an editor or a compassionate reader to tell me so.

“I meant to say this!” I’ll scream. “That’s how it reads in my head.”

“Well,” says the reader, in a tone much softer than my own, “that’s not how it reads on the page.” And, as a writer, how it reads on the page is all that matters.

 

Why am I going on about this today? The answer, like most answers beyond the most elementary, is simple yet complicated.

Simple in that I have done the complicated part. I have written the novel that speaks my truth better than any memoir ever could. Through drafting, it now speaks louder and clearer than ever. My heart is in every page, paragraph, passage, punctuation mark.

Complicated in that, in order to reach readers in the way I want, I must convince someone who doesn’t know me and who–as yet–has no vested interest in my success to take a chance on me, to give themselves over to the possibility that this relative unknown might actually know what he’s doing.

My novel would sit firmly and happily on the shelf next to the books of  Richard Paul Evans (his Christmas Box was an inspiration for a kid in the fifth grade) and Mitch Albom. His first best-seller, Tuesdays With Morrie, is a book I treasure, and Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven showed me that Heaven could be discussed without its having to be “religious”.

Also on this shelf would be the beautiful memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Or the newest of this crop, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. (That being said, my book’s genre has always been something of a quandary. Is it inspirational? I hope so. Is it the kind of book you’d want to read in your book club? I deeply believe so.)

No, I don’t know what it’s like to die as the previous two authors do. Because, thankfully, I haven’t had to experience that eventuality yet. But I’d like to think that being born with the cerebral palsy I have, living with it, and experiencing life in the “I want to do everything but know that some things are off-limits to me, and that’s just the way it is” way I must has given me a perspective with which readers will identify.

My main character, Terrence McDonald, must learn two lessons in the afterlife, those lessons gleaned from the life he’s just left. What are these lessons, and why is his learning them a must?

I hope you’re intrigued and want to find out more, whether you’re a reader, an agent, a publisher. I love what I do. My heart is in it fully. And I’d love to find a team of people who want to be in it with me!

And, dear reader, know that such a team begins and ends with you. Without you, writers would just be weirdos who wander the streets aimlessly with something to say and no one to hear them.

 

 

 

Time: Our Most Precious Resource

 

Another poem. I love this one!

Time: Our Most Precious Resource

 

We’re told when we’re kids

To Remember,

For sure,

How time is our most precious resource,

Call it our resource de jour.

More precious than water,

More precious than food.

More precious than everything else that is good.

 

Some may call time an affliction,

Those who can hear

The ticking beat of time

Creeping closer each year.

But, If it is,

There is no cure.

Time will outlive us all.

 

If you can’t beat time, what can you do?

Connect with others

Doomed to the same fate

As you.

Find the people who love you

And spend

As much time as you can

With them.

For, once time is up,

It cannot be spent again.

 

 

 

 

 

The Future: A Poem

I love poetry. Somehow, it allows you to say just what you want to say and nothing more.

The Future

Would that you could see the future,

What would it be that you’d see?

A bright winter day half a year away,

Your unborn child,

Aged ten,

Up in a tree?

 

Would that you could see the future,

Would you cheer it or would it cause groans?

Would you feel the bliss of your betrothed’s impassioned  kiss

Or cry at the year’s-later scene

When  it was cancer’s choice,

Not hers,

To leave you alone?

 

Would that you could see the future,

Would your family be the one you dream of,

As if they were conjured from your mind one lonely night,

Brought to life in that moment by your very sight?

Or is family something we build piece by piece,

And the most important piece is love?

 

Would that you could see the future,

Your future self would say,

“Of course this is the future.

How could it have turned out any other way?”

 

Would that you could see the future,

Your wife and child smiling back.

“We’re waiting for you in the future, dear.

Confidence that you’ll get here?

Oh, honey, for such confidence we do not lack.

Timmy turns ten this Sunday.

He’s excited for the tree house you’ll build.

Meanwhile, your book just found a bestseller list.

Your publisher is absolutely thrilled.”

 

This last one is the future I see,

Beautiful yet incomplete.

The particulars and minutia have yet to set themselves.

But, as far as I’m concerned,

It can’t be beat.

 

I say that not knowing the truth

Of the future that will stand in its place;

Whether its hallmark will be

A warm southern breeze

Or an Alaskan night cold as ice.

No one can know the future.

Would that you could.

It comes down to chance and choice.

But I hope and pray that the true future day

Will somehow be

Just as nice.