This is a question that Jane Friedman threw out on her blog, Electronic Speed, two years ago. (email@example.com, Sat, Nov. 27, 2021) I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but knew I’d need to confront it before my memoir would ever make it into publication.
Some close friends have read brief parts of the memoir. They sometimes say I I ignore how totally overwhelmed I felt as I coped with the challenges presented by two children with complex disabilities.
I ask, do I leave that reality out of the memoir or did I ignore it at the time? If I had let those challenges overwhelm me, could I have coped? If I couldn’t have coped, what would have happened to my children? Sometimes every parent asks themselves some version of that question.
not talented enough?
A more nagging concern is the fear that I’m ignoring, that I can not really pull off a successful memoir. It’s hard not to suspect my beloved husband, who tells me over and over how beautiful my writing is. After all, he is prejudiced in my favor-unlike the readers in my critique groups who minutely question details such as sentence construction, overuse of adverbs, improper period spacing, etc. But then I tell myself, their job is not to tell me what work is great. It’s letting me know how to improve. That only results from constructive critique.
story is too sad!
There’s the nagging doubt about the deep tragedy of our story. As a friend said, “It’s all so sad. I’m not sure people want to read about that.” She makes a good point, but readers will take on a tough narrative if it’s interestingly written. Nothing is all sweetness and light. Nor is parenting children with challenges all doom and gloom. I include plenty of light moments, like this one:
One of the striking differences, I claim, between Kristy and Johnny is how much she loved to create works of art and how he refused to so much as pick up a crayon. Thus, one Friday afternoon upon entering Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia, I got the surprise of my life. There on the wall next to the TV hung a bright abstract, multi-colored, three-by-three framed painting, signed “John Ward.”
“Johnny couldn’t have painted that,” I challenged his caretaker.
“Oh, but he did.” She said, but giggled as she spoke.
“How did you possibly motivate him to paint anything, let alone such a complex piece?” I asked.
“Well, we wanted to hang a work of art by each guy in the apartment. All the other men were excited to take part, but every time we gave Johnny a paintbrush, he threw it on the ground. Then Sara got her brilliant idea. She spread an enormous piece of paper right where the brushes were landing. She handed him one brush after another, each with a different color. One by one they hit the floor, splashing colors in every direction. You can see the result is lively and almost looks purposeful.”
Staring at my son’s “creation,” I laughed so hard my sides were splitting. That was Johnny. Life was never dull with him around.
But other questions mount up. Is it too long? Are the chapters balanced enough? I’ve revised it nine times. How can that not be enough?
So, what is the awful TRUTH that I’m really trying to ignore?
Friedman writes that what we are trying to ignore is usually a problem that won’t go away until we do something about it.
For me, it’s acknowledging that I’m finished writing. It’s time to work on moving the manuscript toward publication. Just thinking about the process daunts me. There are many avenues to publication, but despite the many paths, few debut authors actually find their books on the bookstore shelves.
Dwelling on that reality makes me hesitate to try. Why put so much energy into something that is sure to fail? Yet truer yet is that if I never work toward publication, if I ignore even that slim chance, then failure is certain rather than possible.
“Resolving the problems I am most afraid to confront is where progress lies. It’s insanely hard psychologically, but worth it.”
Throughout most of our married life, Jay and I have lived a somewhat vagabond life. Until 2016, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, we always lived either in the city of City of Chicago or within an hour’s drive of the metro area. Within those boundaries, however, we switched abodes frequently. In fact, we have had 16 different residences. If I included all those moves in my memoir, they would run away with the story.
Because my special kids, Kristy and Johnny, are the heart of my memoir, and their sisters, Carrie and Betsy, are its pulse beat, I focused the memoir on them. All those little anecdotes I wrote about our various moves hit the cutting room floor-or, with a few exceptions, showed up in my blog. Today is one of those exceptions.
Chapter Two contains this one-sentence summary. “In the spring of 1975, we moved three blocks west into an enormous Victorian row house that needed tons of remodeling.” What an understatement in every way! We lived in that row house, 832 Belden, longer than anywhere else. Our children “grew up” there. It was home for 27 years, and in our family, we all still think of it as “HOME!”
How we came to live there is a most unusual tale.
finagling a break
In December 1974, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Jay and I planned a trip to New Orleans. I had spent a bohemian summer there during college and yearned to visit my old haunts. Jay, a jazz music buff, had always wanted to visit the clubs on Bourbon Street. We hoped for a second honeymoon experience. Bringing along three little girls didn’t fit the plan. I couldn’t, however, leave Betsy behind because she was still nursing. Could someone stay with Kristy and Carrie for a few days? Easier planned than executed. Neither of our moms was up to the task.
We appealed to Frances Johnson, an older woman who had sometimes stayed with the children while we slipped out for a “date night.” She and the girls were comfortable with each other. And Frances knew exactly what to do if Kristy had a seizure while we were gone. We also arranged asked Evie, the teenager next door, to come in the afternoons to help Frances out. That Evie’s mom, nurse Dee, was less than a minute away in an emergency gave us the final assurance we needed to make the break.
I knew it was a risky decision, but deep inside the core of my being yearned for a chance to step away from the twenty-four/seven vigilance of my everyday life. What I must cope with every single day regularly depleted my emotional strength. To maintain my sanity, I needed to replenish my resources.
Thus, on Wednesday evening, December 18, 1974, we settled into the Commodore Hotel, a grand, old hotel with a three-story lobby blinking with crystal chandeliers. New Orleans favored us with pleasant weather, a little above average temperature for that time of year. We explored blocks and blocks of the French Quarter and the Garden District on foot. We had a list of galleries to visit and restaurants to try. I also wanted to show Jay the places I hung out in when I spent my nineteenth summer in this fascinating city, my very first solo adventure.
Betsy’s sleep patterns set our mealtimes. An energetic, restless child, she found remaining still and quiet in a restaurant highchair for over ten minutes past her limit. Instead, we fed her little picnics in quiet corners of the city. Then we nestled her in her umbrella stroller and took in the sights until she fell asleep. At that point, we ducked into the nearest restaurant for a quiet, gastric feast. On the evening of our anniversary, we entrusted her to the hotel’s certified childcare worker. Betsy and this competent, kind woman meshed so well together, I wished I could take the caretaker home with us.
unexpected welcome home
Returning to Chicago after midnight on Sunday, we crept silently into the house. We intended to drop everything and slip into bed, but Jay noticed a vast pile of mail on the dining room table. Some unexplainable urge impelled him to check through it. One envelope stopped him. A former law partner had sent a letter from his home address. Curious, Jay ripped it open. The note inside read, “This dropped in our mailbox. We’re happily settled in our place, but thought you might be looking for a bigger house. Best, Jack.”
A flyer slipped out of the envelope. The McCormick Theological Seminary, it announced, was leaving its Lincoln Park campus and moving to a new site on the Southside of the city. The seminary was about to sell the whole campus. This included the administration and classroom buildings, the dormitories, the chapel, and the library. Most significant to us, they were also selling the fifty-two Victorian row houses that surrounded the campus.
Each morning on his way to the Fullerton “L” stop, Jay had often walked past these stately redbrick homes. He had not understood they were owned by an institution, let alone a seminary. Could one become ours? It seemed impossible.
dream the impossible dream
Betsy stirred in my arms. If she woke, it would be hours before I could get her back to sleep. So tiptoeing precariously up the winding staircase, I held my breath and winced when the door to the girls’ room creaked as I shoved it with my shoulder. I stopped. No one woke. I snuggled her next to Carrie in their double bed without bothering about pajamas. Despite the late hour, the flyer Jay had unearthed from the pile of mail had startled me into a fully alert state. Was there a chance that we might purchase one of those elegant row houses? I had to find out.
As much as our snug little house at 515 Belden had worked as a safe cocoon for three years, by 1976 we had outgrown it. We had to move, but prices in Lincoln Park had been rising steadily. We worried we’d have to go back to the suburbs. This could be our chance to stay in the city, to live where we felt most at home. When I got to the bottom step, Jay was rummaging through a small chest in the front hall. “Where’s the checkbook?” he asked.
I could feel my eyes widen into saucers, “You’re not buying a house, site unseen in the middle of the night!”
He laughed, and the freckles danced on his cheeks. “Maybe I would if I could. But no. These houses are going to be sold by lottery. To be part of the lottery, we have to register by noon tomorrow and twenty-five dollars is the registration fee. If we had waited until tomorrow night to open Jack’s letter, we would have missed our chance.”
lucky lottery house
The lottery was the seminary’s plan to keep the houses affordable for families with moderate incomes. The assignment of the houses by the lottery system was complex and took several weeks. When our turn came, we chose 832 Belden without seeing the interior (the renters would not open their home to perspective owners). But we felt certain it was a magnificent house because it was on a corner, which meant it would be brighter inside than many row houses. It was also somewhat wider than the other homes in its row, and jeweled, intricately designed lead-glass windows graced almost every window. We took our chances and never regretted it.
Our first year in the new house was an adventure of discovery- of all that needed to be repaired. Twenty years passed before we finished remodeling the house, but it was one long labor of love. When we finally moved, we did so only because Kristy’s health made it necessary.
If you live in the Chicago Metropolitan area, this weekend you cannot miss a major fundraising drive. This coming Friday and Saturday, over 10,000 volunteers head out to the street corners, bus stations, train stations, and groceries stores of this bustling city and suburbs to beg. Wearing bright white and red aprons, they approach everyone they meet with a friendly smile and the request, “Help Misericordia.” As they do so, they offer the recipient a delicious packet of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans and a small card explaining the work of a magical place that is the home for over 600 persons with physical and developmental disabilities.
As you’ve learned from other blog posts, two of my children, Kristy and Johnny, once were lucky enough to live at Misericordia. The good work goes on and parents continue to be grateful. Here’s one mom’s story. I’ll let her tell it in her own words.
one mother’s story
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 40 years since that day when two of my best friends and I drove my son Jon to move into Misericordia South. He was only four and a half years old. I knew he needed the care they could offer him, but it still was one of the toughest days of my life.
tears into triumph
“I could not know then that it was also the beginning of what would become a rich, fulfilling life for my son! For the first six years, even though I saw how he thrived at Misericordia, I felt guilty and sad whenever we took him back after his frequent home visits. I would cry on the way to our house. But as the years rolled by, I slowly realized that Jon was not only happy at Misericordia, he prospered there! Every member of the staff adored him. Endearingly, they called him “Chocolate Eyes,” offered him the special attention, loving care, and stimulation that he needed. Then, when he came home each weekend, his brother and sister and all their friends outdid themselves, constantly entertaining him. His was a ‘good life.’
“When Jon was ready for school, he took the bus from Misericordia to Oak Park for elementary, middle, and finally high school. I had the privilege of serving as ‘honorary room mother’ throughout his school years.
exciting new challenges
“Midway through high school, Jon moved to Misericordia North and became the first resident there to have a g-tube! Pam Dreyer, the Head Nurse, told Jon it was his job to teach all the other Mis nurses about g-tubes, and he loved this great new challenge!
“Moving to Mis North meant Jon transferred to Park School in Evanston. He loved his new school environment, but was especially excited about the many new opportunities, like the art studio and the bakery, that he found at the North campus. His good life had become even better.
“His life got better yet when the McGowan Home opened its doors. One of its original sixteen residents, Jon moved into this beautiful home designed especially for residents who depended on wheelchairs. Windows and tables sat at wheelchair height. Rooms featured wide open spaces. Hallways were also double wide. An extra big elevator served its two levels. With its open-plan living-dining-kitchen, it had a true family style of living. And true to the Misericordia form, the staff were exceptionally caring and competent.
good, better, best
“Jon’s life continues to be rich and full, and over the years, he has grown in ways I never dreamed possible. He’s busy every single day, and he has the advantages of art and music therapy; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; as well as recreation and leisure activities, such as opportunities to go bowling or take part in Bob & Madge’s sing-alongs. He also regularly spends time in the fitness Center, gym, and pool areas. And somehow, despite his busy life, Jon ‘finds time’ to come home to visit regularly!
a second family
“Misericordia long ago ‘adopted’ both Jon and me into what I consider to be our second family. I love volunteering, spending time with Jon both on campus and at home, and interacting with the amazing staff and the other residents and their families. And as I age, I sleep better at night knowing that Jon has a real ‘home away from home’ where his caretakers genuinely love him and where he is safe and happy. Blessings and my heartfelt thanks to Sister Rosemary, Fr. Jack, Mary Pat O’Brien, and the entire Misericordia staff who work tirelessly to make Jon’s life so happy and healthy!”
That is Cynthia and Jon’s story.
one of many good life stories
What is almost unbelievable, but true, is that Jon’s story is a typical Misericordia story. So, please, if you live in the Chicago area and pass a Candy Days volunteer, drop a donation in their can and enjoy a packet of Jelly Bellies.
You don’t have to live in Chicago to help. Thanks to the internet, Candy Days now has a virtual presence as well. Check out the link below.
Our Virtual Candys Days fundraiser is underway. No need to wait until the last weekend in April to donate!! You can donate now or create your own fundraising page! It’s quick and easy, just visit:
Those stories inspired other to write to me with permission to share their own stories of their equally wonderful “Mis” experiences.
Many of the people who love Misericordia are those who volunteer there. Today one of them, Terry Baugh, tells you his story.
hearts and flour
“Misericordia held a warm place in my heart even before I heard about the Hearts and Flour Bakery. My friends, Barb and Dave, had undertaken a long and nearly impossible search to find a nurturing place for their son, Seth, to live. When he was accepted at “Les Mis” as they fondly refer to it, the search ended, and Barb moved to Chicago to be close to Seth. Visiting Barb in Chicago and volunteering at the bakery was a great opportunity for me to catch up with my friend and spend a week working hard and feeling great about every day.”
hairnet? apron? gloves? go!
Volunteering for the bakery at Misericordia was a satisfying experience in giving back for Terry. The bakery is a hub of activity, with experienced bakers and novices, like him. He volunteered in 2019 just before the holidays. Christmas music played in the background and staff and volunteers and residents cheerily greeted each other as new people arrived for their shifts. Got a hairnet or hat? Apron? Gloves? You are ready to go.
just like downtown
The organization of the bakery was–and is — amazing. Every step for baking, cutting, and packaging is well thought out. It was fun to package soda bread, operating a packaging machine just like the bakery downtown. Over the days, Terry was there, he worked on a lot of different stations, but he loved the brownies the most. Bakers mixed large batches of brownies, baked sheets of brownies, and finally flipped them to prepare for cutting into heart shapes. There is a proper technique to getting all the hearts you can out of a sheet and then evenly powdering them with a gentle tap on the sifter. Packaging is always part of the production cycle — stacking the brownies in boxes and sending them on their way to treat a lucky recipient. They are such a delicious and simple treat!
Beyond all the baking tasks, Terry loved being at Misericordia and seeing the operation. “Sister Rosemary has rock-star status in my book.,” he claims. “The caring staff, the amazing facilities, and the meaningful ways of raising money that Sister Rosemary created to support this amazing facility is something to admire.”
working the line
Besides the unique operations of the bakery, Terry met some lovely people while “working the line”. Weekly regular volunteers, school groups, families whose children were at “Les Mis”, or had passed on, were there helping and sharing wonderful stories. And he loved visiting Seth’s house, his classroom, and meeting his friends and the residents who helped the bakery.
make giving easy
Take a hint from Terry, “if you are looking for a way to give back, a way to spend an extra afternoon or day a week, or a way to open your heart — consider volunteering at the “Les Mis” Hearts and Flour Bakery. They also make gift giving easy. Shop here! ”
For thirty years, our family shared the care of our two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, with Misericordia Home, a residential and learning center for persons with multiple developmental disabilities. Many treasured memories of our family’s time at Misericordia live in my heart, but the ones I remember best are times when its generosity of spirit lit up like a giant Christmas tree.
a giving heart
In 1985, when we took our son John for his first visit to the school, we shared a dinner with a friendly group of fellows in one of the Village Homes. At the end of dinner, one resident pushed back his chair. “I’d like to stay and have desert with you,” he said, “but it’s my night to volunteer at the homeless shelter.” His words solidified my trust that Johnny would find love and empathy among his new housemates.
heart big enough for the entire world
Some years later, the students at the Learning Center engaged in a geography program which focused deeply on one nation each year. Through their studies, they became aware of hunger in the world. This realization heightened the gratitude they felt for the abundance of care they received at Misericordia and motivated them to help those less favored. With their teachers’ help, they organized an on-campus “Walk for Hunger.” Family and friends pledged funds to support the walk.
please, stay off the grass
Johnny’s dad remembers that bright October day as though it happened last week. The residents, staff, and some parents gathered outside the Learning Center. Sister Rosemary gave a rousing opening talk–and then asked the participants to stay off the grass because landscapers had recently seeded the lawns.
the last shall be first
Johnny’s pace was a slow slouch in the best of times. So, his dad had stationed them at what he believed to be the end of the line. But no, at the end of her speech, Sister pointed out the direction of the walk. It put Jay and Johnny at the front! For a while Johnny set the pace, but then Sister broke ranks and walked on the grass to get around him! Soon, everyone followed suit. By the time father and son arrived back at the school’s gym, the organizers were putting away the refreshments. That didn’t matter, the spirit of joy and generosity of the day still lives in my husband’s stories, which he is willing to share with anyone who will listen.
Neither of us ever tires of telling the world how blessed we are to be a part of the Misericordia family.
This won’t be in the memoir even though it completely changed my life.
baby number three
On an unusually mild January morning in 1973, I awoke to the powerful tug of a contraction across my belly. Our third child would be born that day. Jay and I determined we didn’t want to spend the entire day in a hospital. We calmly woke Kristy, age three and a half, and Carrie, age two, and fed them their breakfast. By the time we called Jay’s mother, the contractions were coming closer together. While we waited for their grandmother to arrive and watch the girls for us, I sat in our big oak rocking. Kristy and Carrie nestled around my belly, and I gently sang and rocked to soothe them and myself.
labor at the movies
“Gramma Mary,” as they called her, arrived in a half hour. Jay and I hurried out and went – to the movies. (We didn’t, of course, tell his mom where we were going.) The film Sleuth, with Michael Caine, was playing at the Hinsdale Cinema. Its suspenseful plot let my mind ride above the increasingly intense and rapid contractions. When a contraction started, I’d grip Jay’s hand, he’d look at his watch, time it and whisper the duration to me. The solution to the mystery eluded me, and I was determined to remain until the movie ended. We heard loud whispers in the row behind us. One of which was a shocked, “I think she’s having a baby.”
off to the hospital
Movie over, we sped to the hospital. When the emergency room nurses realized the intensity of the contractions, they summoned the obstetrician. They sent Jay straight to registration and me right into Labor and Delivery.
There, a resident doctor examined me. “She’s nine centimeters and dilating rapidly. Have you called her obstetrician?” he demanded.
“Yes.” a nurse replied. “As soon as emergency informed us they thought she was pretty far along.”
“Good, well, get her husband up here. He can do the paperwork later. This baby is coming now.”
Two interns slid me onto a gurney for the hurried ride to the delivery room. Jay in his heavy khaki overcoat and Dr. Halama, my obstetrician, rushed through doors at opposite ends of the room like a choreographed scene in a stage play. My doctor wore a tuxedo, which the nurses helped him cover with a surgical gown. I laughed, “Where were you?”
And then I gasped in pain. I panted through the contraction, trying my best to keep my breathes even. Jay stood at my side, holding my hand and gripping it so hard it hurt. Hospital regulations had prevented him from being present for Kristy or Carrie’s births, so we had changed doctors and hospitals so that he could witness this one. The enormous pressure in back and lower belly subsided a little. I repeated my question to the doctor.
birth of our party girl
He laughed. “I was at the cocktail hour before a friend’s dinner party. This baby is making me miss out on fresh lobster.”
“In January, that’s ridiculous.” I retorted, and then gasped again. “Count,” I shouted to Jay and tried to pant in rhythm with his slow, “1…2… 3.”
Dr. Halama wheeled his stool over to the bottom of the delivery table. “The baby is crowning,” he said. A nurse stepped to either side of him, instruments I couldn’t see in their hands.
“There’s the head,” he announced. Excitement blocked my sense of pain, but my body contracted and shoved.
“Slow down. Try not to push. I’m easing a shoulder out,” the doctor said.
A nurse turned to me. “I’m sure it’s a girl. She has such a beautiful face.”
Across from her, the other nurse shook her head. “No, look at those broad shoulders. It’s going to be a boy.”
“Just let me push,” I begged. “Then we can settle this.”
“Just a minute. There, got the other shoulder. Good work. Okay, one last push.”
I bore down with all my strength, felt the pressure of the little body sliding down the birth canal, and seconds later, a high-pitched cry filled the room. “You have a girl,” the doctor told us, holding up the screaming, failing little human being.
“Give her to me,” I demanded. I couldn’t stand to see her cry. They cut the cord, wrapped her in a soft blanket, and laid her next to me. “Hello, Betsy,” I whispered.
Betsy’s birth was the catalyst for an unanticipated upheaval. She and I remained at the hospital for three days. She had been born on Saturday evening at 6 o’clock. On Sunday, Jay brought Kristy and Carrie to the hospital to visit their new sister. They couldn’t visit the maternity floor, but the baby room had windows along a corridor outside the ward. I stood on the other side of the nursery and watched as the nurse rolled Betsy’s bassinet up to the window, lifted her out, and showed her to the toddlers on the other side. The tiny bundle instantly fascinated Kristy, but Carrie caught sight of me. She lifted her arms and wailed, “Mommy.”
a trip to the zoo
To distract Carrie, Jay took the girls on an excursion to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was unusually mild for a Chicago January that week. Going to the zoo was a logical choice of diversion. The Brookfield Zoo, however, was much closer to our home in Western Springs. Still, Jay drove to the Chicago Loop and then north to Lincoln Park. He wanted to take his children to the city zoo, the one that held many fond memories of our pre-suburban days.
As far as I know, they had a wonderful time, but I never really heard about the zoo at all because what followed was much more momentous. On the way back to where he had parked our car, Jay passed a “For Rent” sign in the window of a building that sat on the south edge of Lincoln Park. It stopped him cold.
When he and I had frequented the Zoo in the early years of our marriage, we always admired these stately buildings that lined the south end of Lincoln Park. He couldn’t resist taking a peek. He fell in love with the apartment and discovered, much to his surprise, that the rent was in our price range. Wheels started turning in his head.
Jay has questions
That evening, he left the girls with his mom and rushed to the hospital, full of his discovery. Betsy and I had spent a quiet day. She was a champion nurser, and I knew enough about breastfeeding by then to let her nurse at will. Well rested and feeling at ease with the world when he arrived, I listened calmly as his story burst forth. He finished with, “I want you to see this place. It is unbelievable!”
By the following Saturday, one week later, I was exhausted. Jay’s mom had returned home. He was back at work. Juggling the needs of three small girls was exponentially harder than caring for two little ones.
Jay had made an appointment for us to view the city apartment that afternoon. Tired as I was and as crazy as it seemed to take three small children, one merely a week old, out into the rapidly dropping temperatures of a Chicago winter, I needed to get out of the house. Any excuse would do. The ride would entertain the girls, and I could nurse the baby on the way to the city. As we sped east on the Eisenhower Expressway, it was with growing excitement that I watched the skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop fill the horizon. We swung around Buckingham Fountain. Its ornate sculpture encased in ice delighted Kristy and Carrie. While we drove north along Lake Shore Drive, they both pressed their little noses against the window to watch the crashing waves of the winter lake.
The rental agent waited for us at the central door of the apartment complex. There was no elevator, but the apartment was on the first floor. Its spaciousness overwhelmed me. Twice as large as our home in Western Springs, it had twelve-foot high ceilings in every room but the kitchen. The rooms included a formal library with its own fireplace. Painted buckled on walls. The kitchen appliances were decisively vintage. Doors squeaked on their hinges. The bathroom floors had cracked tiles–but there were three bathrooms!
But I questioned. Why are we here? We have a home. We’re settled, right? Betsy had been whimpering throughout the tour. Kristy and Carrie ran from one empty room to the next as though in a gymnasium. Without warning, the noise, or maybe my increasing uneasiness, got to Betsy. She let out a loud, piercing wail.
“We have to go,” I told Jay.
“We’ll get back to you,” he promised the agent.
the choice we didn’t see coming
We rode back to Western Springs in silence. After dinner, Jay walked across the living room floor singing to Betsy while I gave the girls their bath and got them to bed.
Once I returned to the living room, I settled in a huge armchair, a Salvation Army find, so comfortable that we still have it today. I nursed Betsy off and on over the next two hours. Jay made us cocoa. And we talked. We relived every detail of the apartment and imagined how we would live there, how each room would function for us, how we could decorate it. Our imagination pictured living in the city again, close to the zoo, the park and the lake. Jay spoke of how easy it would be to get to work.
What was holding us in Western Springs? We definitely didn’t plan to stay for the rest of our lives. But didn’t we need to stay in the suburbs for the sake of the excellent schools? Maybe. We had just assumed that, hadn’t we? Kristy was only three, two years away from kindergarten. That gave us plenty of time to explore the city school situation.
By ten o’clock, we were ready to move. “I’ll call the agent in the morning,” Jay said. But when he called the next morning, the rental agent told us another family had rented the apartment late Saturday evening. That stunned us both. I fixed breakfast in silence. He hunched over his scrambled eggs and bacon. I held Betsy in the crock of one arm so I could nurse while I encouraged Carrie to eat some eggs from a spoon. Kristy pushed her eggs around in patterns on her plate.
When he finished, Jay sat straight up in his chair. “It wasn’t about the apartment–not really. We’re still moving back to the city, right?”
If one imagines a hero’s journey for authors, then your dark night of the soul is probably when no one believes in your work except yourself.
Jane Friedman <firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming to the end of a first full edit of the memoir I’ve been writing for two years, I spiraled down into a dark night of despair. Who but me believed in my projected book? Was I my only audience?
In her blog, Electric Speed, Jane notes writers can fall prey to the temptation to internalize the “NO” they receive from editors or publishers. (Jane Friedman, August 5, 2022)
I have found one can also internalize the critiques that one receives from fellow writers, those colleagues you ask to access your work.
a sign from the universe?
If we treat that “NO” like a “sign from the universe” that our work doesn’t make the grade, our life as a writer can end right there. A chance encounter or an unexpected opportunity could reverse your fortune, but that’s not the likely outcome. What we need is the more straightforward solution—turn up the volume of your dedication to your work.
Straight forward, yes. Easy, no.
For that reason, Friedman suggests authors think of this task in terms of a “Hero’s Journey.” What is a “Hero’s Journey?” It’s a literary device that breaks a character’s story arc into discernable steps with a probable outcome. The journey typically has twelve steps in three acts. (Thirteen Step Guide to the Hero’s Journey)
If my writing struggle follows this arc, what would that look like? Here’s how I imagine it.
Act I—The Departure
Step 1– The Ordinary World in which the hero is living their everyday life oblivious that they are called to something bigger. For me, I was retired and finally had the time to write I had dreamed about for years. I crafted two novels, several short stories and started a blog.
Step 2–The Call to Adventure: An incident transforms the hero’s life with a sudden jolt. As a member of several writing workshops, I read and edited memoirs for colleagues. The more I worked with these manuscripts, the more I knew I had to put down my other writing. I had to memorialize the lives of my two extraordinary children.
Step 3–The Refusal of the Call is where the hero doubts her abilities to accomplish the task. There seemed to be so many reasons this story couldn’t be told. It covered too many years. It was too complex. The mystery that shrouded it would be difficult to unveil.
Step 4–Meeting with the Mentor: There were multiple mentors in my life. Friends and writing colleagues, as well as family members, all urged me to write this book. My Wanderer’s Writing Workshop colleagues promised to read and give advice through every step of the process.
Step 5–Crossing the Threshold: Ready to head the call. The hero sets out on the journey. As best I could recall, I wrote a chronological record of what had transpired during Kristy and Johnny’s lives. Then I constructed an outline on which to base my writing.
Act II – Initiation
Step 6–Tests; allies; enemies: This is a long beginning of the adventure when the protagonist finds all their abilities stretched, discovers some new allies, and encounters expected enemies. I started the memoir in many places and gave it different emphases. Nothing seemed to work. New colleagues agreed to read the work. I took two memoir-writing classes, which both taught me techniques and bolstered my confidence. My memory and my self-confidence were constant enemies, begging me to give up this arduous task.
Step 7–Approach to the inmost cave: Here, the hero faces the genuine challenge. It’s the call to the ultimate battle. In December, 2021, I finished a complete draft, seventeen chapters! It felt like such an accomplishment. But it was only a “vomit draft,” that is everything I had in me about our story. With the new year, I faced turning those thousands of words into a well-paced, page-turner that someone would want to read.
Step 8–The Ordeal: This is the moment of truth where the hero dies, even if metaphorically, and must be reborn. For the last eight months I’ve “killed my darlings” as the jargon goes in the publishing world. With each part of the memoir that I chop from the final draft, a part of me goes with it. My hope is the final product will be a true rebirth.
Step 9–The Reward: The hero has achieved a major success. When I finally believe that I have edited my manuscript to where it can be offered for publication, I’ll have reached this step. But I’m not there yet.
Act III –Return
Step 10–The Road Back: The Hero returns home with the reward. Once I have what I am convinced is a publishable work, my journey will be to decide whether to self-publish or offer the memoir to a traditional publisher. Either of these will be a long, painstaking trek, but I’ll be buoyed up by having finished the manuscript.
Step 11–The Resurrection: The hero faces a major threat, often the threat of death itself. For me, this would be if they published my book, and no one buys it. I know absolutely that getting it out there will not be enough for me. I’ll need the affirmation that someone values it enough to pay for it.
Step 12–The return with the Elixir: After this, the hero is no longer the same. The challenge has been successful. Death is beaten. If my narrative fulfills its intent, others will understand what rich and meaningful lives Kristin and Johnny led. The meaning of their lives and mine will endure even when I die.
No one publishes the first draft of any piece of writing. At least, they shouldn’t. Not if the writer wants to be read.
Rewriting makes their work better. Important truths get honed. Images brighten and sharpen. Your ideas begin to POP off the page. Rewriting is also the author’s hell!
if only this was it!
That first draft – the vomit draft – it just spills out. Sure, it’s challenging work sitting down at the computer day after day, mining your memory and your research for the information you need. Then constructing those thoughts and facts into a literate narrative. But it’s honest work – like solving math problems. Simple. You put in the effort. You spend the time. You get results. But for the solution of the problem to mean anything, people need to be able to use the answer to solve concrete problems, not just abstract mathematical ones.
there’s a problem?
Even before we come to the solution, in fact, we need to identify the problem. That’s where a memoir must begin, and it is most likely not where the vomit draft begins. As an example, my draft begins with s school director calling Jay and me home from a Florida vacation to manage a family emergency. Nowhere in that first chapter do I identify the seriousness of the challenges facing our family. Nor do I let the reader know what a rare thing it was that we were on a vacation on our own. I simply started with an interesting scene (at least to me), but I don’t really name the problem. I don’t identify what is at stake.
In the final stages of editing my memoir, I need to become relentless. That will require four to five rewrites. Each time the argument will be stronger and the universal appeal more engrossing. By the end, useless adjectives and adverbs, overly long sentences, and awkward phrasing should be gone.
Those are, however, the last parts of this memoir-writing journey. Long before I arrive at that point, I must reconstruct the overall project, break down the “vomit draft,” mine it for its best parts, lay them out like a deck of cards, choose the best, and rearrange them for the best impact. One card must be a dazzling opening scene that leads immediately to the next one, but also ultimately to the final scene of the book.
a cosmic graft
Close on the heels of this opener needs to come, what Marian Roach Smith calls my “Cosmic Graph.” This is the moment where I, as a writer, pan back from the moment like a camera pulling off into the sky. This must show up by the fourth paragraph of the first chapter. It contains four elements: what the memoir is about, what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, and what values I need to learn or acquire.
I try and try to do this, but conciseness eludes. Wordiness dogs me. But without a Cosmic Graph, I cannot chart my way through the morass of material I have accumulated. Still, my star vision blurs.
adjusting the telescope
Help, however, is on the horizon. I signed up for and took Roach-Smith’s “Constructing Your Memoir” class. What I learned there helped blow away the clouds that obscured my vision. It turned out I had used the wrong lens. My focus was out of kilter, but I didn’t yet know how to use the telescope. The class gave me more of the skills I needed. A new beginning and a new ending for my story emerged. I began to lay the cards out in patterns that worked together.
it’s only just begun
Piles of cards remain in the unshuffled deck, but increasingly of them are making their way either to the recycle bin or their deserved place in the structure of the memoir. The next blog post should be able to let you know if I’ve discovered my Cosmic Graph. But I’m paying attention to Roach-Smith’s warning that I may have to rewrite the introduction over and over as the ending unfolds itself. In the words of my dear friends the VanderVoorts, “We’ll know more later.”
Last month, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, I bragged (and there’s no way to put a kinder word there) about having completed a draft of my memoir. I felt darn right proud of that “accomplishment” because I had attempted to complete a memoir four other times and never got to “The End.”
Then I read Marian Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project in which she firmly states, “self-congratulatory is very bad.” She would add that this is especially true than when one is talking about a “vomit draft.”
My husband gagged when I used that term. “That’s a terrible thing to call your demanding work,” he told me. But I really get what Marian is saying when she writes, “It’s called the vomit draft because it will both sink and be pretty much everything you’ve got in you.” (p. 86)
Writing a memoir, I’ve discovered is like mining for diamonds. Before any actual mining even takes place, prospectors need to locate the diamond sources first. If I choose to write a memoir, I hope will be worth reading, my first step is exploring my life experience to determine whether there may be sharable value there. Do I have something to offer readers that will enhance their lives?
Anything and everything are mine to explore. But just as diamond seekers often follow second sources that never lead to “pipes,” or deposits where the diamonds will prove true and profitable, not everything I dig up from my life belongs in a memoir. I need to locate a primary source.
When prospectors are certain they have found diamonds, shanks are inserted into the ground at the ore-bearing “pipes” and vast amounts of soil are extracted. I knew I wanted to write about parenting my children, especially my two children with an extraordinary neurological disorder. That, however, covered forty-five years of my life. As I dug into my memories I retrieved copious numbers of incidents, funny, sad, delightful, challenging, discouraging – piles of memories.
the wheat from the shaft
Diamond miners typically do not examine the raw rock and soil on-site. Instead, conveyor trucks transport the composite to special plants which process the ore and extract the rough diamonds. This is where I stand in the memoir-writing process. My “vomit draft” is the huge pile of rock and soil from which I need to extract the “rough” diamonds. What pieces of the narrative I’ve captured on the page can I dole out in the final story? What have I learned that I can share in a meaningful way? Which of the “rough” diamonds, I sort out of this pile now, will work to build an argument for me, one built upon what I now know about the human condition because I lived this life? Which of these scenes best illustrate what I learned?
In diamond mining, there is no assurance of fortune. Three hundred tons of ore might be sieved just to produce a single carat of gem quality rough diamonds. I may have written 100,000 words. It would be fortunate if a third of them are still standing when I finish my work.
not there yet
Even after extraction, the rough gems are a long way from the jewelry store. In heavily secured facilities, workers sort rough stones into various gem-quality categories and industrial-specific grades. To get from here (staring at my “vomit draft”) to there (the finished manuscript) is mind-boggling arduous work. Each paragraph even of the “rough diamonds” needs to be reevaluated. Is it necessary? Does it help the argument? Did I make the same point elsewhere? Am I falling asleep? If I am, so would my reader would be. Does this sentence help to show that I moved forward? If not, either it shouldn’t be there or it needs to explain the stagnation. Not until I’ve evaluated the “gem-quality” of each scene can I feel free to move toward the next draft.
In the ultimate step of its violent transformation from rough stone to exquisite gem, the roughs are sold, cut, polished, and commercialized. As I work toward a final draft, I’ll be doing four or more cuts. Are my sentences overly long? Break them up. Have I used a phrase where a single apt word would work much better? Did I just skim over that sentence? Get rid of it. To shine as brightly as an engagement diamond, this memoir needs to be perfectly cut and polished. It’s a long and violent transformation process for “gem,” but you wouldn’t give your beloved a diamond straight out of the ground. And I don’t dare offer you my vomit draft.
“Parents would be much better off if, like defense attorneys, we knew the answer to the question before we asked it. Except we never do, which makes a very nice place to write from.” Marian Roach Smith, The Memoir Project.
A holiday-themed blog post was the last thing on my mind when I planned my post for this week.
In keeping with my blogging premise for this year, I had intended this week’s post to continue chronicling my journey toward writing a memoir. In fact, this would have been the triumphal post in which I announced that I had finished a complete draft of the memoir after five separate attempts.
Versions one through four next got past ten chapters, but now I had finally pushed through to the end of the narrative. Yes, I would admit, the really challenging work came next – “Killing my darlings,” the dread of every writer, but a particular horror for memoirists. Her “darlings” are real people and the way things “truly happened.” Unfortunately, that by itself does not justify putting them in a memoir. Time to edit. Now, however, I had an actual document to edit.
This time, last year
Before I could begin that worthwhile endeavor, however, our family Christmas fell apart. It feels so much worse than last year. For months before it arrived, we knew that Christmas, 2020, would be a “no show.” As elders, isolated from the world at large and our family, in particular, my husband and I convinced ourselves that Christmas for just the two of us could be “romantic.” We lit the fireplace, dimmed the lights, and exchanged gifts (okay, I gave him a gift; Jay is not that good at gift-giving and usually relies on the kids to fill up my stocking.).
At mid-morning, we tuned in to the Portal and had an “online” Christmas exchange with our children and grandchildren. We felt grateful for the technology that brought their faces and voices to us – if not their presence. We then settled down to watch “Mary Poppins (the original one) on television, a movie we had first viewed on our honeymoon. As we turned out the lights that night, we congratulated ourselves on making the best we could of an unbelievably tough situation and went to bed convinced that Christmas, 2021 would be a much better and more traditional experience.
deja vu, all over again
It should have been, but it was not. Our daughter Betsy and her family arrived in Portland from Boston a week ago Monday to join her sister Carrie’s family as well as my husband and me for a week of Christmas celebrating. A small cloud hung over them as they arrived. Our grandson Bryce had only just found out he had been exposed to Covid-19 the night before.
Our daughters immediately canceled plans for a full family gathering until Bryce could be tested three days after exposure. We all were sure he would be negative, but the theme of “keep the elders safe” prevailed. Our certainty was ill-founded. Bryce did, indeed, contract Covid. He had to isolate himself from the entire family. Even worse, because they had all been with him until his test, our daughters, sons-in-law, and granddaughter now felt compelled to avoid contact with us.
the breaking point
To add a cherry to this unsavory sundae, they also begged us not to go to church. Being able, this Advent to celebrate the sacred season once again with the community of faith had been a boundless joy. Now, once again, we must remain at home even though our parish would be celebrating three Christmas Eve masses. Isolation is a terrible scourge for seniors in our society during the best of times. During this pandemic, it has wracked havoc with our mental and emotional well-being to the breaking point.
In August, Jay and I lost his brother to the pandemic and could not at that time have a memorial service. Now once again we were losing the rituals and traditions that sustained us. It was hard to find a reason for rejoicing. But God did not abandon us. When I sat down to write this post, Misericordia, the home that cared so well for our disabled children for years, sent us a message.
o come, o come, emmanuel!
Father Jack’s would have Christmas Eve Mass at the Home broadcast that evening. Jay and I could join an important part of our family, the folks at Misericordia, to celebrate the essence of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of light and hope into darkness, a light that shines as brightly tonight as it did over 2,000 years ago.
“Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”