Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Learning the Craft

I’m doing everything I can to learn the craft of memoir writing, short of going back to college. I may have only one book in me, and I want to get it right. A couple of months ago, I found the perfect opportunity.

Monica Wood is a beloved Maine author, writing instructor, and now playwright. She has published seven books, and her eighth will be released in April of 2016. I devoured her memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, and became a fan. After I saw her play, Papermaker, this summer in Portland, my admiration grew all the more. When I learned that Monica would be teaching a two-day seminar on memoir writing at the 2015 Harvest Writers Retreat, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.

Although I am in no way comparing myself to Monica, my memoir will have some similarities to hers.

Her memoir opens with a description of Mexico, Maine, the mill town where she was born and raised. Mine opens with a description of Lincoln, Maine, the mill town where I grew up. Her father worked at the Oxford Paper Company. My father worked at Lincoln Pulp and Paper. In her memoir, tragedy strikes the family during her childhood. In mine, yeah, tragedy strikes in childhood.

Another odd coincidence, which I don’t write about in my book, is that I worked for a time at the mill in Rumford, Maine, the same one Monica grew up near (I think it’s silly that Mexico and Rumford are considered two different towns). Of all the places in the country I could have interned at in 1984 and 1985 when I was a chemical engineering student at the University of Maine, I landed at the Rumford mill. So, for all of you card carrying members of the everything happens for a reason club, I was perhaps predestined to attend this seminar. I’m not a member of the club, yet I must admit these peculiar connections keep wriggling their way into my life.

The conference took place last weekend at a lovely old resort in Kennebunkport, Maine, called the Colony Hotel. It’s a lot of work for Kim and me to stay in a hotel. So, given that this was only a forty-five-minute drive from our house, Kim shuttled me down and back each day. Before the conference, I worked on accessibility issues with Josh Bodwell, Executive Director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, the organization that hosted the event. Because of Josh, Monica, the hotel staff, the other course participants, and most of all Kim, I didn’t encounter any significant access issues.

On Saturday morning, Monica taught us techniques for crafting prose that is unadorned yet compelling. I’m already in the process of combing through my manuscript, page by page, and applying these principles wherever I can.

On Saturday afternoon, I sat with Monica one-on-one and laid out the structure of my book for her: the basic story line, the order in which I present the material, the complicating event, the climax, etc. I wasn’t surprised when she suggested a change that would improve the readability of the manuscript. I made the modification that evening, and it worked beautifully. But we weren’t done.

On Sunday morning, we focused on structure, the same issue we had touched upon Saturday afternoon, but in more detail. Each of the twelve students identified twenty scenes from their book and wrote a name for the scene on a Post-it note. We then placed the Post-it notes on large sheets of paper in a way that identified the flow of our books, the structure. I was impressed with my classmates. Mine was not the only moving story in the group. One by one, Monica led us in a discussion and critique of each student’s memoir structure.

Yup, more changes for me, and I couldn’t be happier.

This conference provided just what I needed, just what my book needed. I can’t say enough about Monica’s teaching style. She possesses a rare combination of knowledge, enthusiasm, and the ability to connect with students. If I hadn’t attended this conference, I would have considered my book nearly complete. Now, because of what I’ve learned, I’ll be writing and revising for a bit longer. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.

Note: You can see by the cover sketch at the top of this post, I'm going with The Apple Didn't Fall… for now. I've changed up the subtitle, so it reads The True Story of a Mother and Son's Mutual Suffering and Shared Resilience, but I think there's still room for improvement. Please give me suggestions in the comments below or by emailing me here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I Know Things

I know I can become a better person.
I think I’m on the right track.

I know I can lead a contented life, given my current circumstances.
I don’t know if this will always hold true.

I know democracy is superior to every other form of governance so far conceived by mankind.
I hope we discover an even better form – a government based on thoughtful, intelligent discourse rather than mind-numbing political rhetoric.

I know one day we’ll cure MS.
I fear it will be too late for me.

I know Lance Armstrong cheated in a big way.
I’m pretty sure Tom Brady didn’t cheat in even a small way, because he said so, and he’s freaking Tom Brady.

I know that I if I write a little every day, I’ll finish my book.
I wonder, though, if I’ll ever consider myself a writer.

I know questions of a moral nature are best resolved by choosing the path that maximizes human well-being.
I believe, eventually, this concept will win the day.

I know I love my wife more than anything.
I hope she understands this, even if I don’t say it often enough.

I know that tomorrow the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.
I still believe each day has the potential to be amazing.

I know that, like everybody, one day I’ll die.
But I still have a lot of living left to do.

What do you know?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My Crystal Ball

How many times have you wished for a crystal ball? It's human nature. We long to know what the future holds.

But what if you already understood that your prospects were bleak? Would you want to know how bleak, or would that serve no useful purpose? Unfortunately, I'm not given a choice, because my crystal ball shows up once or twice a year, and when it does I am powerless to look away.

I don't get very ill, very often. But occasionally I come down with a fever that lasts twenty-four to forty-eight hours, and it knocks the crap out of me. That’s because when my body temperature rises, my already frayed nerves conduct electrical impulses even more poorly (talk to an electrician if you want to understand that), and my MS symptoms become aggravated. This is a temporary and reversible phenomenon. No damage is done.

I've learned that this short-term condition foreshadows what my everyday condition will be after another six months or year of disease progression. It’s my crystal ball. I'd rather not peer into it. The future is never rosy.

This past weekend, I dealt with a low-grade fever. I experienced how much more difficult routine tasks like playing cards, mouse clicking, eating, and drinking will be next year. I won’t lie; it was unsettling.

But a strange thing happened when my fever retreated yesterday, and the crystal ball disappeared. I stopped lamenting my uncertain future and regarded my current normal with renewed appreciation. Living in the moment.

I know most of you prefer the upbeat blog posts, but I think it’s important that I am honest with you. As a reward for your having read this solemn note, I'll give you an upbeat ending.

Maybe, one day, my crystal ball will be wrong. Maybe Biotin, Ocrelizumab, or something else will make a difference. I'm not counting on it, though.

Not upbeat enough for you? Okay, how about this ending?