To Be Continued

Aside: When last you tuned in, I was awaiting Brother while staring at the sublime shade of blue that perfectly complements my fake Monet painting. Here it is just for Melissa Scholes Young, who wants pictures:

Now, back to the metaphor: Writing groups can make or break a piece. Choose wisely.

Aside: I should be quoting some famous researcher here whom I studied during Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2002. Believe me, there is ample research, but I can’t drag my lazy ass down to my teaching files to look up names and quotes for these writing giants. Apologies to Bill McCabe, one of the instructors, and Pete Pazmino, esteemed editor for Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. They tried.

In truth, I learned just as much from my writing group at the summer institute. A woman in my cohort, whom I’ll call Bonita, latched onto my father issues and adopted them. For her, responding to my writing was less about craft and more about content.

Aside: I no longer feel the need to recount my power struggles with my father on the printed page. This has nothing to do with his recent inheritance. First, I exhausted that topic before I wrote anything saleable. Second, I became a parent with my own power struggles. Also, Bonita readily admitted to tripping on acid during much of her young adulthood, so cross that off your list of qualities to look for in writing group members.

Another group member, whom I’ll call Nick Maneno since that’s his name, taught me far more. I read aloud a piece that identified three classifications for married women: dual income no kids (D.I.N.K.s), minivan mamas, and cocktail hostesses. The piece elicited considerable laughter, yet Nick saw kernels of greater things to come: “I want you to focus on that moment when two minivan mamas lock eyes in the germ pit and explode that.” Potent advice. It’s what Jessica Rapisarda knew when she wrote that great piece about the runaway turd for LYTM DC 14 and suspended excrement mid-roll while she recounted a moment from her childhood that rendered me farklempt.

Aside: Yes, I did just shamelessly tag two different people in that paragraph in hopes that they’ll read. It’s called social media, people. For those of you reading the home improvement storyline, pay attention now and stop looking at the photo.

Brother and Brother’s Helper arrived early Thursday morning with tools and apologies. Brother pulled out his stain samples for the banister, matched the color, took notes, and then got to work on the details. I positioned myself at the kitchen table to write. Brother produced an unfinished oak spindle to match the missing one. Brother and Brother’s Helper took turns sawing portions off the top, attempting to wedge it into place, and returning to the swirling blade in my garage. Likewise with the bullnose tread for the top step and the piece of veneer they placed over the plywood on our landing. I lost count of their trips, but noted that they’d tracked in considerable debris.

Deputy and his posse arrived ready to prime and paint. While they set up, I inspected Brother’s carpentry efforts. The staircase’s appearance looked better, but the banister itself still twerked a bit like Miley Cyrus. Brother sighed and scratched his head. Sensing his dread, I went in for the kill: “Head Honcho said it’d be no problem,” I mentioned with a tone of sarcasm. Exploiting this sibling rivalry worked; when Brother was done nailing and screwing metal into that newel and volute (thanks, Wikipedia) that sucker didn’t budge.

Aside: I’m going to get literary now, so expect fewer references to pop culture and design terminology, but don’t bust out the MLA handbook.

We use the phrase “a fresh set of eyes” when referring to readers. It goes far beyond that. You need a fearless mechanic. I once disassembled my mother’s sewing machine, removed an errant thread, and reassembled the bad boy. Likewise, my memoir manuscript originally followed strict chronological order of events until I noted that the tone was inconsistent. There had to be some anchor story to explain the ambivalence I had about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah. Out came a pair of scissors that I used to cut 200 pages into 24 segments. A present-day story line emerged, a banister to secure all of those individual spindles.

The manuscript was as close to perfect as I could achieve alone when I handed it off to Melissa Scholes Young last summer. She got out her saw, along with Brother’s array of metal pieces, a nail gun, some caulk, and sandpaper, and went to work. The result is a much sturdier, elegant memoir. Nonetheless, I am ready to hand this most recent incarnation over to yet another reader for advice.

I am hopeful that the scissors are safe in the drawer for this round. As for my home project, Deputy painted the stair treads and risers Navajo White as I had instructed, and left Thursday evening. Friday morning, he covered the Navajo White with a coat of White 914 because I changed my mind about the color. That afternoon, he packed up his drop clothes, painter’s tape, and brushes, and left with his posse making vague promises to return after our carpet runner is installed.

Aside: Dust will irritate your eyes and fumes from the stain striper will scar your lung tissue even with all of the windows open. If you are like me, you will subject yourself to this for ten days because you really can’t visualize the outcome and must stumble along blindly keeping your options open.

Aside to the Aside: Say tuned. The carpet is ordered, but the installation is not yet scheduled. It could be a few weeks. In the meantime, feel free to tune back in next Friday for something Off the Page. I’ll try to keep it under 1,000 words.

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Post Which Requires You to Read to the End

So I did this brave thing on May 4, 2014. I know you’re tired of hearing about how marvelous Listen to Your Mother DC was. You’ve seen the photos on Facebook and are right on the verge of blocking me from your friend list. I swear I won’t once gush about how marvelous the women in the cast are (at least, not after this sentence). Instead, I’d like to tell you about backstage (B.S.) and the days that led up to the two hour period, a.k.a. before backstage (B.B.S.).

To bring you up to speed, I wrote this essay called “Sick Mama” back in January when audition calls were posted. It began as a letter of apology to my daughter for having rheumatoid arthritis because chronic illness doesn’t really allow you to be 100% most days. During the audition, director Stephanie Stearns Dulli smiled and asked, “If you are cast in the show, would you be willing to edit your piece?” I nodded, desperate for approval. “Letter format works in many instances, but not here.” She also said some nice things and reassured me that I’d hear back within a week. I left unsure about the whole thing. I’d “read” the faces of the director and the producer, Kate Coveny Hood, during my five-minute monologue. I’d noted the “IF” qualifier in Stephanie’s statement. All positive signs, and yet I braced for yet another rejection.

Aside: When you write and submit your work to literary journals, you develop a thick skin. Over the past six years, I’ve sent a total of 16 pieces to nearly 100 different journals, racking up exactly 333 rejections and 3 acceptances. The most elite magazines accept less than 1% of unsolicited manuscripts. I have greater odds of dying due to accidental poisoning by exposure to noxious substances than getting published in some of these bad boys.

But, Kate and Stephanie said, “yes” to me and to my piece. At that phase in the writing process, “Sick Mama” was a mere tadpole. Over the next two months, that sucker morphed into a frog. First, it lost all of the “you” references to my daughter along with the formal salutations. Each time I rehearsed reading it aloud, I cut unnecessary words. Next, the thing grew freaking legs: I worked on my inflection; I listened to Stephanie’s coaching tips. By deadline time for the cast reading book, that essay was a giant bullfrog!

Meanwhile, off the page, I anticipated the big show by obsessing over how I weigh 20 lbs. more than I did before having kids (B.K.). Shopping and fashion are not really my thing. I’m not so bad that friends might one day target me for a fashion intervention on What Not To Wear (Is that show even still on?). I know enough to realize that it is difficult to “hide” twenty extra pounds, especially when jowls are involved. (Jessica Rapisarda, you can’t Spanx those.) Anxiety over body image + aversion to shopping = a great deal of existential angst.

Packages arrived in the mail; packages were taken to UPS to return. Five day B.B.S., I found myself sharing a handicapped-accessible changing room at the Nordstrom’s Rack in Gaithersburg, MD with fellow cast member Melissa Scholes Young and nearly 20 dresses.

Aside: Melissa not only has a bazillion writing credits and is under 40 years old, but she also wears a size -12. Melissa runs to manage her stress; I nap to improve my disposition when I’m in pain. Melissa could be a Victoria’s Secret model; I could be a body double for Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’d hate her if she wasn’t such a great friend. And if I didn’t believe that someday I might ride her coattails to literary greatness.

Two days B.B.S., I resorted to taking selfies in dressing room mirrors to assess how I would look on stage. With just over 24 hours B.B.S., I began taking selfies and sending them to Melissa for advice. My husband still doesn’t know how many store credit cards I opened in search of the perfect outfit. The OUTFIT ended up being a turquoise blouse to go along with the Easter-egg theme our cast had going (Kate and Stephanie, I’m really not still bitter about the set being something other than a black curtain.) AND a pair of Capri pants and shoes from my own closet.

Aside: I’m an English teacher, for fuck’s sake. I know when I’ve illegally wedged a huge parenthetical sentence inside an already grammatically challenging sentence. It’s for dramatic effect, so just try to diagram that one. When Oprah asked Toni Morrison about the difficulty in reading her books, Morrison replied, “It’s called READING.”

The big morning came. I shoved my family out the door to pray for me in church since I’d taken the Lord’s name in vain at least a dozen times while getting them ready to go. An empty house with two hours to prepare for B.B.S.! I tweezed, waxed, shaved, bleached, powdered, straightened, buffed, yodeled, and packed my wardrobe options.

In the car en route to the theater, I occurred to me that I had not once in the last few days rehearsed my piece. Multi-tasking is not my strong suit. I prefer to obsess over one thing at a time. Furthermore, my concentration skills were already strained by driving while listening to my GPS. Nonetheless, the first few paragraphs of my essay leaped out of my mouth, give or take a few minor omissions.

For two hours B.S., I joked with cast members, modeled two different clothing options for Melissa, limited myself to one glass of champagne instead of the bottle I wanted to consume because Stephanie insisted that we not get stumbling drunk before going on, and did whatever Kate told me to do.

Aside: If you have been reading this post carefully, you should remember that I started by saying that I did something brave. You probably assumed that reading my essay on stage was the brave thing to which I alluded. You’d be only partially correct. Read on. (Yes, I did just end a sentence with a preposition.)

At one point, I stood half-naked in a dressing room and decided to wear flats instead of heels.

Aside: This might not seem significant, but flats are far less painful for my joints than heels. I wear heels when I want to kick ass and take hostages, like when an entire room of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition students threatens to mutiny against my research assignment that we didn’t start until AFTER the AP exams in May.

Waiting in line to walk on stage, I only recognized the first two layers of brave: 1) disclosing my medical condition and resulting parenting inadequacies and 2) taking the stage to read about them in front of friends and strangers. The third layer, the most profound, took time to unfold. In the days and weeks following the performance, I came to understand that by choosing flats I trusted my words; I didn’t need heels to stand tall.

Aside: If you’ve made it this far, Dear Reader, you are waiting for my big conclusion. If you are an English teacher, you are reading to pounce on it, circle it with a red pen, and write: “thesis statements should come in the introductory paragraph.” Chill. I’ve nicely enumerated my points in the previous paragraph. Consider that my outline.

The thing about writing is that the reader (the audience) doesn’t get to see what happens off the page, behind the curtains, back in the bowels of dressing rooms with flat irons, discarded hangers, way too much perfume wafting around, and a pair of black heels left in a white shopping bag.

I accidentally started a blog last week when I couldn’t remember the difference between posts and pages on my author website. Now, I’ve written my way into a title for this bastard: “Off the Page” is about the writing process and my sincere search for a literary agent to represent my memoir manuscript in the hopes that someday I might stand on stages wearing flats while reading my own words.

Aside: I refuse to start my post with this last sentence because it’s about the process of getting here.

Aside to the Aside: If you missed my previous post in which I pay homage to Katie Couric and compare my writing process to whacking at a piñata, scroll down. If you missed Lauren Boston’s literary blog hop in which she discloses that her secret writing process involves hitting on married men in coffee shops, click here