Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Musings on New Year's Weekend at the Beach

Any lingering thoughts I had about leaving home before Christmas were blown away by the gale force winds that brought snow to my mountain home. Christmas Day on Tybee was 60 degrees and sunny, but the next couple of days were windy and chilly with temperatures in the 40’s. A friend from Celo joined me for Christmas and is flying home tomorrow, uncertain if she’ll be able to get up the driveway to her house.

This weekend my son Kevin is flying in from Indiana for New Year’s Weekend. The town will celebrate with fireworks from the fishing pier at midnight and a Polar Plunge on New Year’s Day. The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the 70’s, which may make jumping into the 48 degrees of the Atlantic Ocean a little less heroic.

I’ve never been able to figure out why we celebrate the start of a New Year. It never changes anything. You wake up to the same problems and the same joys and then you mess up the first few checks you write by forgetting to change the year. You have to listen to a rehash on NPR or the network news shows of all the major news events of the past twelve months. This year ends a decade so there will be endless discussions of what kind of ten years we just lived through. If you can be a Scrooge about New Year’s then I say “Bah Humbug.”

Yesterday my friend and I took a Trolley Tour of Old Savannah. There are fifteen stops and the ticket allows you to get on and off all day. At stop #5 the driver listed the historic buildings nearby including St. John’s Episcopal Church. We decided to go have a look. The wind was cold and it felt good to step inside the warm building where we immediately saw a descreet sign announcing a service in progress in the chapel. We slipped into the small room with facing benches, two on each side. It was decorated for Christmas, and a Eucharist (Communion service) was in progress Most of the seats were filled with worshipers who were somber and very nicely dressed. I briefly wondered why there was a service on a Monday morning.

Instead of attending a church service on Christmas Eve or the Sunday after, the two of us had devised some ceremonies of our own. But the habits of a lifetime left me ready for this moment of corporate worship. We went forward with the others and knelt at the communion rail and I felt blessed by the serendipitous occasion. When we returned to the pew I noticed a service leaflet. I opened it to check for closing prayers and saw that we were participating in a Requiem preceding the commendation of ashes. It was for a man who had died in 2008. I wondered if he had given his body to a medical school and they had just now gotten the ashes back. The Eucharist ended and the priest quietly announced that he would remove his vestments and when he returned, the cortege would leave for the commendation. I motioned to my friend that we should go and we left quickly before anyone else. As we opened the door to leave the church I saw the cars lined up and heard a man barking into a cell phone. “Where is Jack? He is supposed to be here! Get him here now.”

Once back on the bus, I mused about the trappings of death that mainly comfort the living. Bill had never said what sort of service and commendation he wanted, and I asked him as he lay dying. He said hoarsely, “Keep it simple.” And we did. I once told my daughter I would like a boy choir to sing at my funeral, but I’d settle for a penny whistle.

It just occurred to me that all that hoopla at midnight on December thirty-first is perhaps more about the commendation of the ashes of the year just past than a celebration of something that might be better. All those recaps of the events of the year are the obituaries. Farewell 2010, it was a difficult year and we’re glad it’s over. Ashes to ashes and old years to dusty history.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Greetings, Small Stuff, Sunshine and Dogs


I just got back from the dog park here on Tybee Island, where Nigel gets exercise and I pick up the local news and politics. This is a beach town, no doubt about that, but in the winter it feels a lot more like a small Southern community. I haven’t been here for Christmas and New Year’s before and I’m intrigued with all the activities going on. Decorations on the houses are modest, mostly fresh greens, red ribbons and white lights. I haven’t seen any giant inflated Santas or snowmen and not a single plastic reindeer on a roof. On Saturday a “Caroling Trolley” full of Tybee singers went to the two nursing homes and sang outside the houses of shut-ins. There was a parade earlier in the month and this week there was a party for the children.

At least a dozen dogs gathered to play at the park today, about half of them large and the others about Nigel’s size. At first they all tried to mix it up and there was a lot of snarling and snapping. Several owners stepped into the melee to make sure no dog got hurt. Then suddenly the little dogs were running about together and the large dogs were in another part of the park where some balls were being thrown.

I had picked up my mail at the post office on the way to the park, and it was quiet enough for me to sit and read the Christmas greetings. In one there was yet another sentence of deep concern about the problems our country faces in the immediate future, a theme of the notes on the cards this year. Too bad the political parties can’t sort themselves out as easily as the dogs did.

My plan for today was to write a nostalgic memoir-type piece about Christmas, now that Hanukkah and the Solstice have passed. But as often happens another line of thinking has emerged from the mail. My brother and his wife are living with and often transcending her struggles with Alzheimer’s. Anne is not going gently into that particularly night, but is fighting to hold on to whatever she can of her personhood. David writes, “A dear friend of mine used to say, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. Alzheimer’s caregiving demands that one constantly ‘sweat the small stuff’ or risk going a bit crazy. Above all, the small stuff of life demands patience and a certain capacity to live with situations that repeat themselves endlessly. Living with small stuff can be a great teacher. It pushes and squeezes one to pay attention, often to things one prefers to ignore.”

On the flip side, I once asked my mother, who was in her nineties, if she still had moments of joy. “Oh yes,” she replied, “but the joy comes from smaller and smaller things like a very hot cup of coffee or a perfectly poached egg.”

An artist about my age wrote in his Christmas card, “As we get older we seem to become increasingly sensitive to the cold.” He wished for me a good deal of sun on my face and in my heart here on Tybee. I too am affected by the cold; one of my small joys is snuggling into bed under my down blanket. No doubt about it, your world begins to contract with age. Just about anybody who lives long enough has some short-term memory loss and finds that it is literally the small stuff that uses up time as we have to look for something. Most of my friends are post retirement and counting. We may sweat a bit as we search for glasses, keys, a wallet, a flashlight, a check that came in the mail and was put in a good safe place somewhere. But when it comes to largeness of spirit, to depth of understanding the big stuff, or to the wideness of recognizing small joys as worthy, you find all that in abundance among the old folks. We do sweat the small stuff more than we used to, but we are also pausing to turn our faces to the warmth of the sun with a full appreciation of the moment. We laugh when we find the check and remember the logic of its particular safe place. We keep up with the news of the day and can recognize patterns from the past, bringing a perspective that makes it bearable.

I’m not very big on consumption and piles of gifts, but I like Christmas. I like it that we write a note to longtime loved ones and share sorrows, blessings and wisdom. I like it that we pause and make time to sing carols and fix good food. I like it that we put up little lights in a season of early darkness. I like it that we are reminded there is still a vision that people can live together in peace and with good will, just like the little dogs did.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Respite: Same Life, Milder Weather, Sea Breezes and the Breakfast Club.


Here I am on the Georgia coast on a little island near Savannah where I’ve rented a house for three winter months. The day after I left, 4 inches of snow turned Celo white, and this morning the temperature was 9 degrees at home. I am glad to be here for many reasons in addition to the weather, not the least of which is my deep affinity for the sea.

On the way, I stopped in Charlotte where my daughter Melissa and her husband Ron were the hosts for a combination book party and farewell event. (They are in the process of moving to New Jersey.) Melissa and I both read from Decrescendo in a comfortable ambience given more depth by the presence of a half dozen people who had already read the book. It was an attentive and responsive audience and after the reading I had many good conversations. Those with books brought them for me to sign and there were others who purchased one at the party and went home with a signed book tucked in a jacket pocket or a handbag.

This time in Georgia is not a vacation for me, it is simply living my life in a warmer place: one that is better suited to the handful of aging issues I deal with. As the surviving spouse, I don’t have a built-in caregiver and try as much as I can to take good care of myself. Things that I cannot do are handled cheerfully by my children and sometimes by friends. At home, winter brings obstacles to my essential and very welcome daily walks. Often remnants of snow or ice hang on for a long time after a storm, and cold winds or low temperatures make it unwise for me to venture out. Here I walk on streets lined with live oaks that are draped with Spanish moss. I am at sea level and everything is flat with no grades or curves. Typically the afternoons warm up to 60 plus degrees even if the nights are cold. During the last four weeks of my stay I can expect days in the 70’s.

For social life I go to the dog park and chat with other dog owners while the canine assemblage sniff each other and run around in circles, sometimes with Nigel in the lead. Over the years I have made a few acquaintances so I can count on an enthusiastic welcome. This year friends from Celo are spending two months here, and both our households will entertain refugees from cold weather. That will mean lots of mornings at The Breakfast Club, a restaurant that makes breakfast the biggest and best meal of the day. There is the added bonus of food theater as the short order cooks work in plain sight.

I’ll miss my family and friends and the celebrations of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Epiphany, and Valentine’s Day. I’ll be sad to miss the Dreams Die Hard Diner, which is only open once a year on New Year’s Day and is something of a homecoming for Celo folk. I won’t take part in events scheduled for the Cabin Fever University, another Celo winter tradition. Two interesting book group discussions and many Mondays of knitting at Nancy’s with a bunch of delightful women will go on without me.

Instead I will continue following leads to provide exposure for Decrescendo, and maybe I’ll find some book contests to enter. I will try to arrange some readings for the spring and search the Internet for caregiver organizations that might be interested in promoting the book. The Kindle version will soon be ready and the extended distribution is in place so that any bookstore can now order copies and I’ll need to get those messages disseminated through some emails. Of course, I’ll continue with weekly posts sharing whatever is on my mind about my book, its contents, the craft of writing or my life. I also brought my knitting and a book bag full of good reads.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sometimes Words Fail

 
My friend had to put her dog down last week. He was a chow with a large head, enormous paws, and honey-colored hair that made him look like a lion. He didn’t like to be touched and had an impressive growl if you got too close, but even so he was a gentle giant with a sweet disposition. I loved him almost as much as his owner did. For most of his life he was an outdoor dog, but in the last year or so he has wanted more comfort and liked to come in at night. As the end neared he stayed inside most of the time. One day he couldn’t get up off the floor. Other symptoms made it clear that his life was ebbing. The following afternoon two strapping young people came from the vet’s office to load him in an SUV. I went to the house to sit with my friend before, during and after the dog’s departure from home and his last ride.

When he was gone, my friend lit a candle and I suggested we sing some hymns, which we did. Then she said, “Could we sing, Let It Be?” So our two old voices blended together with great conviction as we sang, “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be” and the tears trickled down our faces.

I assume that let it be are the words of wisdom, but I started thinking about how often in common parlance we use the phrase “words of (something)” instead of saying those words. In Decrescendo, near the end, I refer to words of comfort and words of love. There are many other examples: words of praise, words of regret, words of hope, words of encouragement, words of sympathy.

I am excited by words well chosen and exactly conveying the author’s meaning. I just finished reading Olive Kittredge and what I appreciated most about the book was the exact rightness of the author’s use of language. I have a dictionary stand with a good light in my small house, and it is well used. My family and I often debate the meaning of this or that word to know if it has been used correctly. That’s the way it was when I was a child and the way it has been for my grandchildren as well. Ours is a family of writers and wordsmiths and yet I am sometimes ready to say “words fail me” or “I have no words to say what I feel.”

That’s how it was yesterday when an early morning call from Kansas brought the sad news that my nephew had died at the relatively young age of 45. Words of sympathy were in order, but I had none that could ease the pain of a mother and father who have lost their son. I said simply, “I love you.” Today I have been distracted by sadness.

Rest in peace, Eric.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Zen Marketing: One Mindful Step at a Time Without Attachment to Results


When I made the decision to self-publish and self-promote Decrescendo, I bought some do-it-yourself books and signed up for several relevant on-line newsletters. My list of feasible marketing ideas grew steadily. Launching the book and the initial publicity felt exactly like attracting an audience for one of my husband Bill's homegrown theatrical efforts, and I was comfortable with those details. My first priority, however was putting in place the building blocks of Internet marketing. All of that was new to me, but I had good help. I could then use those avenues to publicize the highly successful Book Launch.

Now I’m focused on doing the promotional work that would be done readily by an established publishing firm. In this current market all but the most famous authors are expected to be heavily involved in promoting their own work. However, the publicist assigned to them has the virtual Rolodex with current names, phone numbers and email addresses that can smooth the way. They know who does the booking for Ellen DeGeneres or Diane Rehm and which publications are most likely to review particular genres or subjects. I invest a little time each day in Internet searches trying to build my own A-list of contacts.  For the outreach I have done thus far, I prepared all the supportive materials, wrote the cover letter and, if called for, a press release. Then I wrapped the package and took it to the post office.

There are book publicists for hire but my limited budget will stretch further if I do the work myself. CreateSpace (the print-on-demand service we are using) sells promotion packages but I had the same kind of publicity materials printed locally at half the price. The other Rolodex-type services they offer are just too expensive. So for now at least, I’ll continue to be the one-person-band touting Decrescendo.

A happy and helpful surprise in this endeavor has been the steady stream of emails, letters, phone calls and Facebook messages that validate my belief in the worth of my story. It is clear that people are not just buying the book, they are reading it and then buying additional copies to give for Christmas gifts.

I do a lot of thinking at first light, especially if the room is cold and the down comforter is warm. I ponder how I can give Decrescendo national visibility from my mountain home, a long way from anywhere. Early on my daughter-in-law said, “You haven’t gone viral with your book until the (TV) networks call.” If that happens, fine, but I’m more focused on watering and fertilizing the grapevines I am finding. No matter how much I ponder, the answer is always the same: I say to myself, “You can only do one thing at a time, one day at a time.” Then I throw back the covers, sit up, ease my feet into warm wooly slippers and say as Bill did most mornings in his last few years, “It’s time to make the donuts.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Counting Blessings and New Ways to Fix Cranberries

 A note to regular visitors to the Decrescendo Memoir Blog: Preparation for and the celebration of Thanksgiving put me totally off schedule. Unrelated to that, I have decided to shift to Tuesday for New Posts after this special holiday posting.

Thanksgiving weekend was the most celebrated time of the year for Bill and me. At our wedding on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1953, Bill suggested that we forget about the date (November 28) and always celebrate on the Saturday after the holiday. His rationale was that Saturday was a better celebrating day than other days in the week and it was also easier to remember. That was very typical Bill Dreyer logic and it was OK with me. During the family years it was something of a reward for all the work of preparing a feast on Thursday. In later years we often packaged the two things together into a trip.

Since his death, this particular weekend has been the nadir of grief for me. Even last year I still had those strange grief stalks (I picked up that term from a poem on the subject): those moments when out of the blue the loneliness of forever wells up in sobs or tears down the cheek or the feeling of emptiness in the solar plexus. I don’t think it will happen this year. Thanksgiving was a lovely day with seven of the family together in my little house. Before, during and after a splendid meal and there was equally splendid conversation: serious, silly, philosophical, and a good dollop of storytelling. We had all the traditional things plus goat Brie with cranberry and shallot jam in a gluten-free puff pastry and dried cranberries marinated for a long time in port.

The weekend ahead is free of obligation and outside it is blustery and raining with more of the same in the forecast. There is no lure for me in “Black Friday” sales and both a new crossword puzzle and a good book await. Nigel, my dog friend, is obviously worn out from all the company and the long walk that he shared with some younger members of the family. So I will abide in this glow of gratitude and trust that this anniversary will be a happy one. Maybe I’ll skip “All Things Considered” and other news outlets over the weekend, just to stretch the mellowness a while longer.

I have a sense of accomplishment that came from the decision to go ahead and publish Decrescendo. The feedback I have been getting indicates that readers are enjoying the book and many have sent notes of thanks indicating that they had been thinking about, or discussing with their life companions, the subject of caregiving. I am delighted about the conversations but equally pleased that people are finding it a “good read.”  It is an unexpected blessing to hear from people (some I know; some I don’t) thanking me for writing the book.

A child of the Depression, I was raised with regular admonitions from my mother to “count your blessings.” I thank her for having developed that habit in me. I generally use it to get myself out of moments of frustration or low spirits. But Thanksgiving bids us to count our blessings right in the middle of moments of joy. My list this year was longer than usual.

In the middle of December, I’ll be going south for three months, but it won’t affect the postings. My Mac-mini goes with me. So I’m ordering priorities for my on-going book marketing and making the list for things to do while I am, as the British say, out of station. In the small town where we’ll spend the winter, there is a fine dog park. There are comfortable chairs and benches for the dog owners, who are known by the names of their dogs. People greet me by saying, “Here comes Nigel.” I’m thinking about doing a book reading at the dog park one warm, sunny day. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Up, Up and Away in Its Beautiful Balloon


Decrescendo has been officially launched and celebrated. About 85 people gathered for the occasion at the Celo Inn, just a mile from my North Carolina mountain home on November 14. For the past 25 years the Inn dining room has been the venue for plays Bill directed, music events sponsored by my son Robin and Dreyer family events such as birthdays and weddings. The bedrooms have housed dozen of Dreyer guests. It was the perfect place to give my book its wings.

Book launches are usually held in bookstores, but this do-it-yourself project doesn’t have any rules and I’m making it up as I go along. Usually it is just the author that reads from the book, but I’m definitely old and have limited energy and a propensity to cough if I push my voice. So I enlisted my son (who often performed in shows directed by his father) and a friend who is an actress to join me. We read a sampling of stories from various parts of the book that together gave a picture of what people can expect when they read it.

Looking out at the sea of dear faces as I perched on a stool and listened to the others read my words, I felt content that my memoir was getting the perfect launch. Now it is my task to figure out how to spread the word beyond Yancey and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and help Decrescendo find readers everywhere.

After the readings were finished, I told the room full of friends and acquaintances and even a few strangers that if they liked my book, I hoped they’d be my grapevine and help me spread the word by writing a reader review on Amazon or putting a note on Facebook.  I also suggested there might be other places where they could spread the word: if they are using other blogs or websites of groups that might have some affinity for the book, they could post a notice there.

Then a few of my close friends served hot cider and ginger snaps and I signed books accompanied by the happy rumble of conversations all around the room.

Here’s the thing that sustains me as I follow this unorthodox marketing plan, I believe in this book. For starters, Bill and I lived an unusual life and it made a good story. But there’s more.

The year we were married, we read a book called “Consent”. I don’t remember the author or even much about it, except that it was a gift from my mother. The title referred to consenting to life. In another generation or so it would be called “going with the flow”. But that little book was really more directed at the life of the spirit. It said the words Bill was ready to hear and for years he made reference to it when we made decisions.

As Bill attempted to consent to life, to accept what came along, our four parents wondered where our security would come from and when we would settle down. Actually I wondered that as well, but it didn’t matter much because I was happy most of the time. For Bill there was this funny mix of wanting to control all the micro decisions and being willing to consent to life on the macro side. Things worked out for us in part because Bill could not stand to be in debt, was a hardcore saver, and was willing to take lots of extra part time jobs to make ends meet. Fortunately, he had a wide range of marketable, although eccentric, skills.

The day in 1979 when Bill was diagnosed with aortic insufficiency he knew the circumstances of his life were changing radically. He approached the news with a mixture of incredulity and the (by then) reflexive response of consent and acceptance. Now self-publishing with homegrown marketing is the way that has opened for me, and I have consented to it. Bill would be pleased.

The other part of believing in my book is that while I don’t have all the answers, through stories and ruminations I have raised some questions that follow as the vitality of a partner wanes and the relationship is tested. If both partners can reaffirm their relationship I believe that those bonds will be strengthened. I hope Decrescendo will be a conversation starter for those who read it. Maybe some of that conversation might happen right here.

Meanwhile, the balloon carrying my book out into the world is aloft.

Monday, November 8, 2010

To Market, To Market: To Find the Right Grapevines


Before you begin to market a book you need to know who your potential reader is. That’s also a basic principle of communication theory, knowing your audience or your individual listener. The next task is to clear away anything that leads to a loss of information in your transmitted message (called entropy).

I have been trying to figure out a way to deal with the enormous amount of entropy in the Facebook model, as I’ve been using it as a vehicle for fostering an interest in Decrescendo. I am not sure it is the right medium to reach the readers for this particular memoir. I find Facebook so ephemeral and truncated that it’s an unsatisfying form of communication. I’m devoted to conversation and the ideal setting is two or more people speaking and listening to each other, probing for clarity and different perspectives.

Facebook is certainly a medium for the young and young-at-heart, although I have found some peers there and have asked them to be my friends. I do understand that it is recreational and fun and can be an organizing tool, but it seems an unlikely place for the exploration of ideas.

I think of my book as a conversation with the readers as I am telling my story. They were with me as I wrote and I hope I am with them as they read. I believe that the potential readers of this book fall into two main categories: those who know me or knew Bill and are disposed to be interested in our life, and people who have already been caregivers or realize that caregiving may part of their future. They know there are lessons to be learned; ideas to be challenged; or understanding that can be achieved long before the need clearly arises. They may even be looking for a book like mine, just as I looked in the years when I was trying to figure out the conundrums of caring for a beloved. In addition, I wanted Decrescendo to be a good read for anyone and to that end filled it with stories along with my thoughts and commentary. I am happy to report that younger people tell me they like it because it is a love story. Others have liked a glimpse of working in the theater, living in Guatemala or traveling to India.

So my task as I go to the marketplace in search of likely readers is to engage grapevines wherever I find them so that word of mouth will reach the ears or the eyes of those who want to or need to join this conversation. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on Facebook. Afterall, I started my journey with self-publishing using the image of a message tied to a helium balloon; I’m not going to turn my back on the ultimate launch site for airborne messages.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On Being Edited: Not for the Faint of Heart.



Adrienne celebrated a significant birthday at the helm of a boat; that’s not surprising, she is a take-charge kind of person. She’s a writer, editor, gardener and a member of her county planning commission. For many years, she worked at The Washington Post and, among other things, wrote a column on gardening. She is married to author Joel Garreau and is Executive Director of The Garreau Group. Adrienne is also the third child of my oldest brother Don and kept me on course for two years as my editor.

Just after I started work on my book, I had dinner with her in Washington and told her about the project. With considerable enthusiasm she offered to take a look at it when I was finished. I sent her my first fledgling effort to read before I visited on Mother’s Day weekend in 2006. By then I had asked a number of my friends to read the draft and already had a sense that I was way off the mark. Adrienne confirmed their opinions with some excellent specific suggestions about changing my approach, and I went to work.

Everything I had read or been told in workshops supported hiring your own editor. I trusted Adrienne and asked her to work with me, even though I was concerned about whether she could be objective, given that I’m her aunt. I also wondered if she would be just as tough with me as she would be with anyone else. I needn’t have worried. 

Once the second draft was finished, she invited me to spend time with her in Rhode Island, where she and Joel have a summer home. There we could soften the impact of her opinions with walks on the beach. After assuring me that I had a book, she proceeded to confuse me by rattling off, in rapid, punchy sentences, a catalog of items to reconsider. When I asked her how she could say it was a book when she found so much to criticize, she answered that she liked the way I write and knew that I had a good story. I took notes as she went through my woeful manuscript and ranted about showing, not telling. She peppered me with questions I needed to ask myself and answer for the reader.

For the next year, I worked away on another total revision, one chapter at a time. I emailed my work to Adrienne and she edited it, using the Track Changes feature of Word. Periodically we had an hour-long phone conversation digging deeply into the substance of a chapter or picking apart a little section that was troubling me. In those consultations, she probed with her questions and then told me I had good stuff to work with and reminded me that I had five senses I could call on for descriptions.

We talked often about structure. I never really deviated from the original plan that I had for the second part of the book, but the first half went through several revisions before it began to work the way I wanted it to. As editor, Adrienne did not suggest any of those iterations, but she did nudge me in the general direction by the questions she asked. For example, one phone conversation was entirely about why Bill and I had moved to Celo, none of which was in the book. At the end of the hour, she said that she thought the readers would need that story. I decided to write a new chapter. It was a good way of working for me, because this is a very personal book and I needed to feel that I was always in control of both the tone and the narrative. I didn’t want a ghostwriter; I wanted a coach to help me move from a lifetime of journalistic writing to this very different style.

I would ship off a revised chapter by email and wait eagerly for her comments, which appeared in blue or green or red. When it came, I printed it out on recycled manuscript pages. Here are some samples of what awaited me in those Crayola-colored comments.
“Sure you want to stick with this cliché?”
 “This passage needs rewriting to make it more lively, less didactic.”
“Very flat, dry writing—can you put some life into it?”
“Jargon”
 “This begs explanation. Are you sure you want to go there?”
 “Totally extraneous and obvious statement.”
“Explain why you put up with this behavior.”
And my favorite, “…so he could hold two church organist jobs at the same time; wow, living on the edge.” (That story did not survive.)

Adrienne was also quick to praise passages she thought were working well or rewrites that brought the material to life. As time went on, there was more and more plain old black and white and less Technicolor, fewer sentences to clarify or narrative knots to untie.

In 2008 I made one more trip to her Virginia home. My daughter-in-law Tammy went along to drive me and helped Adrienne in her garden while I made notes about our discussions of what was now called Decrescendo. I felt I was ready to work on my own, but I wanted to know that we were in agreement. At the conclusion of the visit, Adrienne gave me a daunting task. “Now, it’s time for you to go through the book line by line and make sure that every sentence sings.” It was another year before I felt I was done. I was my own copy editor, checking all sorts of things (punctuation, accuracy, spelling, syntax, flow) all the while listening for the music.

I sent an occasional email to Adrienne with perhaps a paragraph or a sentence I wanted her to see, and we had a few more phone conversations. Meanwhile I had rewritten some parts of the book, rearranged others and cut things that slowed the pace. It wasn’t hard to keep both Adrienne’s voice and her laugh in my ear. When I emailed her that Decrescendo was completed, she responded with a message of praise and congratulations, which ended with this thought. “Would it be more complete with polishing? Well, you be the judge—complete is finite, isn’t it? It would be, simply, more polished. But even that is not something that should delay its publication nor weigh you down—I doubt there’s a writer living or dead who did not feel that his or her work could use greater luster.”

And did I mention that she is a fabulous cook, and promptly at 5:00 PM everything else stops and meal preparation begins. Local food, some of it as local as her backyard beds and well polished family recipes make for nightly feasts.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Die Is Cast: We Are Publishers


Decrescendo has gone through the countdown faster than I expected and achieved lift off in what seemed like the proverbial twinkling of an eye. Publishing and marketing this book involves a team that seems to be working well, even though we never have a pep rally or a staff meeting. I, of course, am the author, but I’m also in charge of marketing. Robin set up the style sheet and turned my manuscript into a book. Four proof readings later, he converted the book to a Portable Document Format (PDF) file and sent it to CreateSpace, the company that will be printing the books on demand, as they are ordered. (We have found that part to be very swift.) Amazon is receiving and processing the book orders.

As you will discover when you read Decrescendo, everything with the Dreyers becomes a family affair. Robin’s wife Tammy was one of the proofreaders and has been part of all the decisions along the way. My daughter Melissa, who works in communications and marketing, has prepared press releases and other outreach materials and has been available for any kind of consulting. Some grandchildren or their spouses have been helping with mailing lists and mailings and outreach. I get marketing suggestions from everybody.

Just what is the marketing, you may be asking. Well, I have sent an email to everyone I know whose email address was available to me. It had a blurb about the book and links to Amazon and this blog. Then I have sent a lovely postcard featuring the book cover to everyone I know whose mailing address was available to me. Many of my friends will get both. I’ll be having a book launch in the community where I live in November and another one in Charlotte, NC in December. I’m available for more book parties.

Living in a rural community in the mountains, I don’t have ready access to a lot of media, but I am doing what I can. My marketing plan is to do at least one thing everyday and basically to try everything I can think of. Your ideas are welcome. I realize that I can’t charge into this project like I did when I was 50, so the trick will be to pace myself. I’m trading “I’ll do it now” for “Maybe tomorrow.”

Here at the Decrescendo Memoir Blog, it is my intention to chronicle the process of self-publishing and marketing my book for whatever value it might be to other potential authors. I also plan to explore what’s in the book and expand on some of the topics, going beyond what is covered within its pages. This is, of course, also a part of marketing. But I hope it can be more than that. Relationships and the impact of chronic illness on them is a subject of depth and importance. In addition Bill’s interests included family, theater, opera, church music, travel, community development, civil rights, and friendships. His curiosity about most things led him to discover all he could about his own illness, which introduces such topics as congestive heart failure and anti-coagulation therapy. The end of the book takes us to hospice, death and grieving, and the epilogue to yet another health issue. My own interests expand the list to include the organizations I worked for (American Friends Service Committee, Penland School of Crafts and the North Carolina School of the Arts), writing, books, knitting and gardening. There’s a lot for us to choose from for further consideration. So keep on dropping by.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Questions at Dawn: Second-guessing myself.


I’ve always wakened early; fortunately so did my husband Bill. He often made an occasion out of it, brewing a pot of tea and bringing two steaming cups on a tray to the bed. We had fine conversations as the sun rose and the light of day slowly filled the room. In the seven years since he died, I have had those pre-dawn conversations with myself, only rarely making tea. Of course it’s harder to reach a conclusion or mine a nugget of gold in a discussion with yourself. I know so many widows who say the hardest part of being suddenly thrust into the single life is the absence of a partner to help process questions and dilemmas or to share happy moments.

Lately I have been gnawing away like a dog with a bone on the decisions surrounding Decrescendo, shaping the subject of self-publishing into some why questions. When one of my early readers asked if I had written the book for my family, it was easy for me to answer that I never would have gone to that much effort just for my family. But the question has stayed with me. Was I being honest with myself about why I wrote the book?

Along the way I added a corollary. “Why do you want to get it published?” It seemed important to me to understand that. My answer to the first question has not changed. I wrote the book because I had this idea that an honest memoir about caregiving and our mutual effort to maintain the relationship we valued so highly might be helpful to others. I also thought that if doctors and other health professionals read it, they might get an intimate look at how these drawn-out chronic diseases affect a marriage. That doesn’t necessarily explain why I have kept working: fine-tuning and revising, making small changes for clarity or a better flow.

The simplistic answer as to why I want to publish is that I have worked hard and want to see it through to the finished product. My son Robin offered early on to help me with publishing by doing (or organizing) all the graphic work. The tenor of my early morning conversations with myself changed dramatically when the question became, “Is getting published important enough to do it yourself?" I am rather modest and, believe it or not, a private person; the whole idea of self-promotion is unattractive. There used to be a stigma about what was called “vanity publishing”. It was a sure indication that a book wasn’t worth it. Times have changed on that one: Print on Demand makes ecological sense and it is not an automatic signal about the worth of the project. Using CreateSpace costs a mere pittance up front and marketing is more impersonal when much of it is through Amazon.

I believe Decrescendo is a good read for anyone. In fact, one of the experts I took it to for an opinion said, “This is a compelling book, which could easily be a mainstream memoir. In the process of exploring your relationship with Bill, you establish a relationship with the reader as well. Not only is your book about caregiving and grieving, it is truly a love story.”

As I have these questions at dawn, I have articulated lots of reasons for self-publishing but they didn’t quite do it, until one morning when I woke up thinking, “Decrescendo is my hand-blown glass vase or my clay pot.” So I examined that thought and realized that for me to publish and market my book is no different than when craft artists set up a booth at an American Craft Council (ACC) or Smithsonian Craft Fair to market their work.

I may have written Decrescendo for a particular purpose, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is my creative work. I have poured into it my love, my energy and my understanding of the craft of writing. It is the work of my heart and now it is time to share it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Jump in the Deep End and Start Swimming


I’ve just finished reading the proof copy of my book, Decrescendo. Wow. My son Robin did the book production and Leslie Noell, the graphic designer, who works with him at Penland School of Crafts, designed the beautiful cover using Robin’s photograph of the hemlock grove behind my house. There’s a little story in the book about that grove.

(You can see a thumbnail picture if you click on “About Decrescendo” above this blog.)

Last spring after three publishers suggested I self-publish, I began to educate myself on the process. First I noticed an ad for a little book called Aiming at Amazon, by Aaron Shepard, which purported to tell everything you needed to know about marketing through Amazon. I ordered it right away. That was my first step; it introduced me to CreateSpace.com, a subsidiary of Amazon, which offers Print on Demand. I was a bit turned off by the company’s name, because it didn’t tell me anything. However, I found out they chose it because you don’t have to buy 500 or 1,000 books and store them in your garage while you try to sell them. Instead you use Amazon for sales and CreateSpace prints the books as they are ordered. I’ve been told it only takes a minute to print a book, but I’m skeptical.

I discovered there’s also a little book called Self-Publishing with Amazon’s CreateSpace by Kevin Sivils that I then ordered. I studied the bibliographies in those little books and chose The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine, which I enthusiastically recommend to anyone considering this route to the marketplace. Mr. Levine analyzes and ranks 45 self-publishing companies. I read it cover to cover and chose five of them for further investigation. I visited their websites and found that CreateSpace best suited my particular situation.

While I was educating myself, I was chatting about my discoveries with several of my friends. They in turn started clipping articles and sending them to me. All were about various writers who had self-published, sold a thousand or more books and then gotten an offer from a mainstream publisher: Horatio Alger stories that gave me a glimmer of hope.

Before Robin began his work, I read Decrescendo again and did some more editing and revising. Then he started the transition from manuscript to book. That was in mid-August. His job as Communications Manager at Penland is demanding and he is boxed in by constant deadlines. He is also the school’s photographer and if he hears about something that will make a good picture in one of the studios, he drops everything to get it. I have no idea how long the process would take if someone were just working on that. In my case, he uploaded the PDF to CreateSpace about six weeks after he started. He mostly worked on weekends and sometimes at night. Four of us did the proofreading. He and I chose the photographs, and he scanned them, placed them and adjusted the contrast.

Robin reported that there was some contradictory technical information on the CreateSpace site, having to do with how to save the PDF and how to make the cover file. “The support people were great,” he told me. “You click on a button and they call back immediately. I checked all the technical information with them to be sure it was how they wanted it. They answered my questions and solved the problem.”

We have made some changes in the proof copy so now Robin will send a new PDF and we have to check another proof. But after that it should just take a couple of weeks until the book is available on Amazon and another week until we have copies in hand. Then we’ll have a party.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Little red hen publishing--or, I'll just do it myself

It took me longer to produce a book than the combined gestation of my three children. After many rewrites, revisions, and fine-tuning, I came up for air and discovered that while I was buried in drafts, the financial world had imploded. In the wake of the meltdown, small presses folded, and major publishing houses downsized and posted website notices announcing manuscripts from first-time authors would not be accepted.

Believing there was still a tiny possibility that my memoir might find a publisher, I spent a year looking for an agent, sending out book proposals and/or manuscripts to selected publishers, and entering contests where the prize was publication. I received a mix of no replies, form turn-downs and thoughtful, encouraging rejection letters suggesting that I self-publish. One of the most frequent comments I heard was there is such a glut of memoirs that publishers are only interested if the author is famous or related to someone famous.

Several readers in the trade asked, “Did you write your book for your family and friends?” The answer to that is a definite No. My friends and my family are well acquainted with my stories, and while I hope they will all read the book, I wrote it for a very different reason. More on that in a future post.

It seemed to me that I had three choices for giving my manuscript a chance to see if it had any traction. I could copy it on a tiny flash disk, seal it in a bottle and toss it in the French Broad River; copy it on a CD, fasten it to a helium balloon and send it aloft; or publish it myself and market it on Amazon.

I have some assets that not everyone who writes a book can claim. Specifically I have a son and a daughter who work in the communication field and another son who is a lighting designer with a great aesthetic and a pragmatic sense of what works. Taken together they have the technical skill sets I don’t have as well as a network of friends and colleagues who can design book covers and websites or offer advice on marketing.

So off we go and Decrescendo: A Memoir of Love and Caregiving will be turning up on Amazon in the next few weeks.