A Small Thing to Want (in 23 Steps)

This is how it happens:

  1. July 2011: At the Antioch Writer’s Workshop in Ohio, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Press 53 gives a publishing talk to participants—yes, that includes me. I am just a face in the audience of over a hundred people in stadium seats in a building that sits next to a cornfield on the edge of the town I grew up in. The boonies, but a good kind of boonies. Later I will remember the publisher and editor-in-chief—Kevin Morgan Watson—as knowledgeable, easygoing, and willing to answer any questions. But I’m not ready for questions, as I don’t yet have a book. I hope one day I will.

  2. January 2014: I start my MFA graduate program in creative writing, focusing on memoir.

  3. June 2014: I get stuck—big-time writer’s block—while sitting at my desk that faces a window that frames trees and a birdhouse. I am trying to work on my memoir and getting nowhere while the birds flit around and peck and eat. I start writing short stories (fiction!) to get unstuck. Because these short stories are fiction, I don’t have to stick to the truth. I am free! This works. I am unstuck. I write whatever the hell I want, just for me. Eventually I get back to my memoir writing, fully unstuck.

  4. August 2014 (or so): I apply to study fiction in my MFA program. I am accepted.

  5. January 2015: I start studying fiction and realize how similar fiction writing is to memoir writing, but also how vastly different. I learn an incredible amount from a professor who is a badass. I want to be her, but since I have already reached mid-life and I am who I am, I give thanks that I know her and hope some of her badass-ness rubs off on me.

  6. September 2015: I get diagnosed with a disease. I have to rise to the occasion and be strong. I realize I do have some badass-ness in me after all. I do my best to complete my graduate school work and meet my deadlines. The days get shorter. The grey of winter nears.

  7. January 2016: I graduate from my MFA program with a completed memoir manuscript. I take the next few months to revise it and then start submitting it to publishers.

  8. April 2016: I am out weeding my garden when I get an email saying that I have been offered a book contract for the memoir (yay!). Twenty minutes later I realize I need some guidance on vetting this publisher. Who might be able to help me? I remember Kevin Morgan Watson from Press 53 and email him. He is kind enough to advise me, even though he doesn’t know me (I was just one face out of a hundred, after all), and I gobble up this advice.

  9. May 2016: I turn down the book contract. I decide to revise my memoir again (even though it has already been through the gristmill during my MFA program. I know, I know! But I can’t help it, and yes, the manuscript does improve).

  10. August 2016: I send my memoir out to one more publisher, Platypus Press. I am still waiting to hear from the others, but this publisher is the only that has my newly revised memoir manuscript.

  11. October 2016: Platypus Press offers me a contract for my memoir. I get the email while in the Charlotte airport, heading back to Ohio for a visit. Ohio is my lucky charm. I say yes, yes, yeeeeesssss! This will prove to be a wonderful decision. I write Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53 and thank him for his help on vetting publishers.

  12. June 2017: My memoir, The Going and Goodbye, is published.

  13. 2017 & 2018: I go on my book tour. I talk at bookstores, book clubs, whoever will have me. When I am not doing book events (and when I am not working at the funeral home) I am writing fiction. People ask me, “Are you going to write another memoir?” I tell them I have nothing more to say about my life at this moment—I put everything into the memoir. But that’s not exactly true. There are stories from my life I couldn’t remember in detail enough to render them adequately (and truthfully) in my memoir, so I left them out. I take the heart of these left-out stories and make them into fiction, where I am free to make up details and dialogue since fiction means describing imaginary events and people.

  14. September 2017: I attend a weekend writing workshop for fiction. My teacher kicks me in the butt. Figuratively. It hurts so much that I stop writing fiction for months. I just can’t look at it. The bruise will last longer than I think it will. But even as I am rubbing the sore spot, I know she has given me a gift, and that my writing will get better because of her. By spring, I will be writing again. By summer, I will see my writing is, indeed, better. That summer, I will write the best short story I have ever written.

  15. March 2018: I attend AWP (Association of Writing & Writing Programs) for the first time. It’s the biggest writing conference in the U.S., and I am overwhelmed. I walk the AWP Bookfair in search of potential publishers for my short story collection, which isn’t yet complete but on its way. I go to the booth of Press 53 and talk to Kevin Morgan Watson, remind him I’m that person he advised, and thank him again. We talk books. We talk writing. We talk literary stuff. He asks me what I am working on. I tell him a short story collection. He says to let him know when I finish it. I am happy about this and keep what he says tucked in the back of my mind.

  16. September 2018: I drive to Burnsville, North Carolina to give a couple of talks at a literary festival. Sweet mountain town, great weather, shops and restaurants. I know no one. I wander around solo, and then I run into Kevin Morgan Watson at the pop-up bookstore. He remembers who I am. We talk books. We talk writing. We talk literary stuff.

  17. January 2019: I send Kevin Morgan Watson my short story collection—well, I send him a query and the first story of the collection. He writes me back after a few days and says send the whole thing.

  18. February 2019: Crickets.

  19. March 2019: Crickets.

  20. Most of April 2019: Crickets.

  21. End of April 2019: Kevin Morgan Watson messages me and asks if he can call me. I say sure. This is going to be the pity call, the thanks-for-your-cute-little-book-but-I’m-going-to-have-to-pass phone call. He knows me, so I figure he is being polite enough to call and let me down rather than email me. Which is nice, don’t get me wrong. He calls. I am standing in an aisle at Lowe’s, my dog on a leash in one hand, my cell phone in the other, my husband near me searching for the right light switch to match our others. Kevin Morgan Watson tells me he wants to publish my book. He wants to publish my book. Because I do not know him well enough to whoop out loud, I do not, but I do say thank you and that I am excited about the prospect. Which I am.

  22. May 2019: Kevin Morgan Watson and I talk contract. We talk story choices. We talk title of the collection. He introduces me to Claire, assistant short fiction editor at Press 53, and she uses the term “maximum pronoun clarity,” and this tells me she and I are going to get along just fine.

  23. June 2019: Claire and Kevin and I talk story choices. We talk title. We agree on A Small Thing to Want. I sign the contract. This is how it happens.

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Photo of road by Michael Coury from Unsplash.com

Let Me Tell You About Gayle King

It all started when CBS This Morning did their re-do and became more serious news, and my husband and I started watching it every day while eating breakfast. There were the three anchors: Charlie, Norah, and the third one (but really the first one if I’m being honest): Gayle King. Sure, I had seen her before on Oprah once or twice, but she wasn’t really on my radar until I started my days with her, Gayle King and I drinking coffee and talking about the news together. Well, okay, sort of. I mean, it felt that way.

Gayle King is funny, personable, down-to-earth. She always says the thing I am thinking. For example, if there is a guy on the news who has had a terrible parachuting accident and barely survived but then in the interview says of course he wants to go parachuting again, Gayle King might say something like, “Maybe he ought to rethink that.” She makes comments like, “I don’t know: She didn’t look so happy to me” and “I wonder what his mom would say about that.” 

Exactly! I always think.

And somewhere along the line, as the years passed and Gayle King and I would talk about the news every morning together (I mean, kind of), and then when one day in 2016 I was back in my hometown for a visit and I looked across the street, and there, THERE was Gayle King, surrounded by a camera crew, walking along the street with Dave Chappelle (he lives in my hometown), doing an interview, I wanted to shout, “I LOVE YOU, GAYLE KING!” which is the moment I realized I did.

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And no, I did not shout that.

Some of you have heard that story already. But here’s what you don’t know: Back in January, I sent Gayle King a letter detailing how much I admired her. I wrote: “I love that you are smart and funny . . . that you don’t shy away from asking tough questions, and that you like who you are, exactly as you are (a hard thing for many women to accomplish) . . . I want to thank you for being a role model to me and many.” I sent that letter with a copy of my latest book, 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, because it took guts for me to publish this book, and Gayle King is the Queen of Bravery, aka Guts. 

And guess what. GUESS WHAT? She wrote me back. Well, okay, sort of. I got this, the photo you see in this blog.

“Wish I had your book at 17!!!” it says.

I think the subtext is: she and I are best friends now. Right? I mean, it’s obvious, right?

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My Cell Phone and I Need to Start Seeing Other People

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My mother doesn’t have a cell phone. Okay, that’s not true: she technically has a smart phone, but she never turns it on. I used to urge her to use it more, to become better at texting and using the internet on it, or even just making calls, but she never puts time into it. Whenever any of the rest of our family is on their phone—searching for a word’s definition, checking the weather, reading up on the news, figuring out where in the world we saw that actor before—she says, “I just don’t understand why people are so interested in their phones.”

I do understand, but I wish I didn’t.

Lately, I have stopped urging her to use her phone. It’s not that I’ve given up on her—she’s sharp enough to learn it if she wants to. It’s that I am grappling with my own phone use. About a year ago, I uninstalled the Twitter and Facebook apps, although I still sometimes check Facebook on my phone via the internet. Failure #1. I stopped all sound alerts so that when a text or email comes, I don’t get a bing and check my phone to read it, but still I find myself constantly looking at my phone. Failure #2. I have some sort of screen time information source on my phone that a few months ago I somehow turned on (it must have popped up and asked if I wanted to use it, like so many other things that pop up). It measures my daily phone usage and sends me a total at the end of every week. I average two hours a day on my phone. TWO HOURS. Failure #3.

This number frightened me enough that I tried to cut back on that amount of time, but some weeks the average has gone up to over two hours a day. What number failure am I on now? Four? I should stop counting.

Don’t get me wrong: there are things I love about my phone. It keeps me better connected to my family because I can call more easily when out on a walk or traveling. I like that I can text someone when I have a quick question versus making a call. But my phone scares me a little, and this is why: my brain and its focus have been changing the last few years. I am way more prone to interrupt a train of thought or conversation or task to look at my phone, feeling a need to check it. Why? What am I checking for? Do I think I’m going to get some text that is so urgent I need to interrupt what I’m doing? Is Gayle King really going to text me?

Last Sunday I did not turn on my phone at all. I could feel myself wanting to, sensing that pull to check texts and whatever else, but I refused. It felt strange all day to not have it on, and what bothered me most was that it felt strange when in fact ten years ago I barely looked at my phone and twenty years ago I did not have one. I have decided to try and do this—keep it off—as much as possible, especially on weekends. I want to get used to life without the constant pull to let myself get distracted.

In the meantime, I think I’ll sit down and talk with my mom on the back porch and look out at the garden transforming into summer and not think about taking a picture with my phone and posting it on Instagram and not check my texts for one from Gayle King. She can call my home line if she really wants to reach me, which I am absolutely sure she will.

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Photo by Juja Han from Unsplash.com