The Cheering Section

I was trying to think of a way to announce that I just signed with a literary agent this past week, who will represent me and my brand new memoir, The Queen of Everything, without sounding like I was bragging. That’s the weird thing about social media (for me, anyway): whenever I “announce” or “share” publication news, or news like this – that I have signed with an agent – I feel like I am “tooting my own horn.” The fact that I am using so many quotation marks, by the way, shows my ambivalence about this.

Most writers I know are pretty solitary creatures. We can socialize at cocktail parties just fine, and I think I even make a pretty good dinner partner; but I can also go for huge stretches of time alone with my laptop and books and notes. I normally take time every morning for walks with friends, and I spend dinner and evenings with my husband. But during the time when most people are either at work or golfing or playing tennis, I am happily alone. For hours.

At the end of all of those long hours, sometimes a book is born. Along the way, short stories and essays and poems also get birthed. The shorter pieces get sent out and published, submitted by the author herself, and today you can even publish a book on your own. But most professional writers I know dream the dream of having a book taken on by a literary agent, who will then sell the manuscript to a publisher. I myself have been dreaming this dream for many years. I myself have had several false starts on books that went nowhere.

But now I do have a book. And an agent. I have not met Liz Parker of Inkwell Management in person yet, but she sounds really nice on the phone, and she has a good sense of humor. She must, if she loves my book, because my book is pretty funny in parts. In other parts it’s pretty sad though, but that’s pretty much what a memoir is – like life, it has funny and sad parts.

When people ask me what my book is about, I say it’s about being a sister. The funny and the sad parts. Liz said, about my sister with a brain injury – who is the fulcrum of my story about being a sister – that my sister is a “rock star.” I never thought of my sister that way, but I am so happy that she just naturally came across like that in my book, and that Liz saw that she is a rock star. That made me want Liz to represent my book.

Because in life we all need a cheering section, whether we are writers or not. Or if not an entire cheering section, at least one or two or three people who wish you well and are cheering you on to do better.

The Art of Place

(Every story takes place somewhere… In my work I often go back to Golden, Colorado, where I spent most of my childhood.  Here is an excerpt about Golden from The Queen of Everything.)

The town of Golden still has a nicely kitschy sign arching boldly over the center of Washington Street, the main thoroughfare that runs north to south, paralleling the Coors brewery. It states Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden, Where the West Lives!

To our family, hailing all the way across the country from Plainfield, New Jersey in our cruise-ship-like Plymouth, this Howdy Folks! sign was exciting and exotic stuff. We had left the gritty, grimy, graffitied city life behind; left behind our Irish and Polish relatives, and arrived in the Wild West.

Lookout Mountain rises hugely and majestically out of the western plains that slope immediately upward out of Golden’s city limits. The Table Mountains – North and South – form flat, dusty sentinels on the town’s northeastern and southeastern edges, and the powerful fist of Castle Rock looms over the sprawling Coors plant. You can see the outline of its distinctive shape on cans and bottles of Coors beer.

Our family took a collective breath of the clear, piney Colorado air and noticed something else. Another smell. Something slightly yeasty and malty, cloying and sweet. This odor, the distinct odor of the brewery, belching out steam clouds of its processed hops and barley into the dizzyingly thin mile-high air, was a sense memory my sisters and I would forever associate with Golden, and with our childhood there.

That day though, that first day, the brewery – a few blocks east of downtown – was just part of the exciting sights, sounds, and smells of our new Golden life.

A River Runs Through It

I write a lot about being a sister, and I am always looking at sibling relationships in both real life and in literature. One of the most memorable portrayals of a sibling relationship is in Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. (It is also in my top ten of best movies ever made.) I learn something new about both writing and being a sibling every time I re-read this classic book. One of the great “lessons” of the book is the despair of never being able to “save” a beloved brother, but also, finally, acceptance that this was so.

One passage from the book that I particularly love: “Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as ‘our brothers’ keepers,’ possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.”

My brother’s keeper is one of the most familiar phrases in our civilized society. But what about my sister’s keeper? Is there a rule book for this stuff, or are we all just winging it? Maybe my family of six sisters is just standard-issue dysfunctional, and we are all walking around trying to figure out our lives, and putting on a good face. As the oldest of the six sisters, I have always felt the fierce obligation of sisterhood, or “the haunting instinct” that will also, like Maclean, not let me go…